England's dreaming

The flag-waving patriotism that's been sweeping across England is touching, if unexpected. It's as if a section of us has suddenly abandoned our usual reserve, for collective displays of emotion. John Walsh, an adoptive Englishman, wonders what it all means
Click to follow

On Friday morning at 9.30, I watched the final knockings of England's World Cup coverage on television: the now-traditional, slow-motion reprise of key moments from the tournament – the goals, the near-misses, the scenes of jubilation – and the now-traditional final close-ups of faces in defeated despair as England plunge once more out of the contest for Top Sporting Nation.

On Friday morning at 9.30, I watched the final knockings of England's World Cup coverage on television: the now-traditional, slow-motion reprise of key moments from the tournament – the goals, the near-misses, the scenes of jubilation – and the now-traditional final close-ups of faces in defeated despair as England plunge once more out of the contest for Top Sporting Nation.

In the background, Oasis wailed through "Stop Crying Your Heart Out", and it occurred to you that, of course, this little package of images and mournful music had, Blue Peter-style, been prepared earlier.

Because, though we told ourselves differently, defeat had been expected. Failure was always on the cards. All the expectations were that England were going to go down in flames, for all the inspired, flukey, out-of-nowhere attacks on goal by Owen and Heskey, for all the ils ne passeront pas stolidity of our defence.

Who had we been kidding? How had we managed to fool ourselves for weeks, good God, for months, that we could get to the Final?

I went out to the car, and undid the long red-and-white streamers that have been tied to my radio aerial since the beginning of June, that have fluttered past the passenger window like the long pennants of a knight going into battle. As I dumped them into the bin, I realised that I'd fallen into a slow-motion plod just like Sven Goran Eriksson's on the television. The weird thing was, I didn't feel melancholy at all about the team losing. I'd half-expected it, like everyone else. I didn't feel that crushing sense of despair that you assume will overwhelm you. I realised that, like (I suspect) most of the nation, I was just sad that this extraordinary three weeks of crazed patriotism had come to an end.

Three weeks of unbridled silliness in the great stadiums of Japan and the tiny studios of the nation's radio and television. How we chuckled when we saw the first chainmail-wearing knight in the stands, a logical extension of the flag of St George; and how soon were radio DJs asking their listeners to tick off crusader knights on their list of Predictable Sights. How sweet, the doltish fan who painted a St George flag on his cheeks with gloss paint, and will need a blowtorch to get it off. How piquant to realise that the crowd of supporters, after chanting "Rule Britannia" and "We're on the Ball", are now singing "The Self-Preservation Society" from the film The Italian Job, presumably because the three cars that are used to rob the jewel vaults at the climax of the movie are painted red, white and blue. How amazed I was to hear that the millions of St George flags attached to millions of car windows as stickers, were being sold by a single flag-impresario working from a dozen lorries all over London. How we told off the children for rabbiting away over the commentary, then how we laughed at John Motson saying, "Only the goalpost stopped Michael Owen making it two-nil", which means roughly the same as, "Only the Russian cannons stopped the charge of the Light Brigade from being a complete success".

If you'd driven past Trafalgar Square at 7.10am on Friday morning, you'd have seen a churning sea of red-white flags. What unearthly time did their owners get up to make sure of a good seat in front of the screen? It was the same when England played Argentina. Paul Gascoigne, whose informed half-time analyses in the TV studio bring a new depth of meaning to the words "gibbering inarticulacy", was in the square and got so elated when Beckham whacked in the penalty, he reportedly mounted one of Landseer's bronze lions. ("Did you mean to write 'mounted'?" asked a reader of the national paper that reported the incident. "That must have brought tears to his eyes. And to Gazza's, too.")

I watched the England-Argentina game in a tent on the Welsh borders, with a crowd of 600 extremely vocal youths and kids, who yelled and sighed and groaned theatrically ("Uuuuggghhh") as though winded in the solar plexus, just as they would have behaved if they'd been in the actual stadium. Horns honked (until confiscated), flags flew, everyone cheered David Seaman just for, you know, just standing there, looking confident. It was simply fantastic.

And it was a scene repeated in almost every pub in England.

Pubs have been suffering a reversal in fortunes lately, as wine bars and fancy-foreign-beer joints have invaded their territory. But since 1 June, England's pubs have come roaring back into favour. Every three-ale bar in London found itself opening at 7am on match days, offering "Beckham'n'Eggs" breakfasts and foaming, unaccustomed pints of Directors. They were the perfect place to watch England teetering on the brink of disaster and somehow managing to win through.

On the Saturday of the Denmark game, I drove from Dulwich to Chelsea in the middle of the afternoon. Every pub in between was packed, the new intake of patrons spilling deliriously out on to the street, sitting on chairs under the "London in Bloom" floral displays in hanging baskets, as if they behaved like this all the time, every Saturday, as if this kind of delirious, reckless, time-ignoring leisured bibulousness were the natural – indeed the national – way of doing things. London (and, by extension, England) was en fête, hectic with celebration, its people caught between the rapture of second-round victory and the ecstacy of not knowing what the future held. Visiting aliens would have looked at the jolly scenes outside the Prince of Wales in SE22 and concluded that the English were a cheery, carefree, motherland-loving crew of sentimental old soaks without a care in the world.

It's a slippery customer, patriotism. Opinion has always been divided about its good and bad effects. Bernard Shaw thought it was a recipe for international conflict. Mrs Gaskell warned against "that kind of patriotism which consists in hating all other nations". Doctor Johnson famously declared it "the last refuge of a scoundrel". We know that patriotism, if it celebrates the superiority of one's native land, can turn septic, and then you get processions of National Front supporters carrying Union flags down east London streets. But I'm with Richard Aldington on this one. The 1930s poet (and biographer of T E Lawrence) said, "Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility. Nationalism is a silly cock, crowing on its own dunghill".

That seems dead right. It wasn't just Beckham, Owen, Seaman and the others out there on the pitches of Japan and South Korea. It was all of us – especially those in the south London boozers – that were collectively responsible for sending the opposition flying. If they failed, it would be our fault, too. If there were a flaw in the English national character, it would still be our flaw.

I say "the English" deliberately. At the heart of all this patriotism is a single fundamental truth: we who inhabit England have suddenly woken up to the idea of being terribly proud of being English. It's nothing to do with Britishness, that boring, misunderstood, all-in-together title. In the past four years – perhaps in the life of this government – "the English" have become a key subject of modern culture. Once the Union started to break up under New Labour, the identity of England came into question. Once Scotland had a devolved government that could make its own laws, Wales had its Assembly, and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement seemed to provide for agreed rule away from the clutches of Westminster, the future of something called England stayed weirdly unresolved.

Think of a king prawn, from which the head is pulled away (Scotland), then the tail (Wales), and the wiggly legs and carapace are removed. What you have left resembles a nervous, slightly pathetic, naked, pink, foetal object without much obvious character, something that needs to be clothed or at least covered in a rich sauce of identity as soon as possible. A rash of books broke out, examining the English character (Jeremy Paxman), English history (David Starkey), English mores ( passim). We have been wondering who and what we are for the past four or five years – just as much as any emergent nation who got through the knockout stages of the football tournament and told themselves, "So that's who we are – we're the kind of nation that could win the World Cup". And football offers a handy digest of types, 11 epitomes of style and behaviour with whom to empathise. It's not that we kid ourselves we're like Beckham. Not at all. But we congratulate ourselves on having the good taste to have him for a hero. It's not that we could ever score a goal like Owen. But we collectively agree to worry and fuss over him – his youth! his funny haircuts! his groin strain! – as if we were his mum.

England, of course, has had other things to feel patriotic about. The Queen, for instance. Many people predicted that Her Madge's 50th anniversary would be a washout because no sane subject would want to celebrate half a century of watching the grumpy old bat opening civic centres in terrible frocks. They were, or course, wrong. The jubilee summer royal progress appears to be passing off rather well, amid scenes of exultation from Cornwall to Cockfosters. You'd think that HM was exclusively the Queen of England, rather than monarch of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth and Dominions, too. Only weeks ago, thousands flocked to the Embankment to pay their respects to the Queen Mother and sign books of remembrance. We had not seen such a flood of public support for a royal figure since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. That bizarre and unprecedented torrent of flowers and messages and teddy bears was all about grief. The Queen Mum queues were about respect. And the thousands of people cramming the Mall for the monarch's big day – that seemed to be something alarmingly close to love.

The English, as a rule, are not keen on public demonstrations of affection. They've always shied away from emotional extremism. But in a very few years, they – we – have started to behave collectively, like Ruritanian peasants when the king's coach rolls into view. We're on a learning curve, in which the fundamentalist hysteria of grief about Diana is starting to appear again, only this time it's a fundamentalist joy about who we are and what we collectively admire.

None of us (with the possible exception of those who were around on VE Day) has ever known such flag-waving, such fawning to Royalty, such massed crowds all doing the same thing, all heading the same way. The several million St George flags clamped to car windows all over the metropolis are like so many red-and-white bits of a gigantic national mosaic, and we've only gradually realised, in the past three weeks, that we're all in it together. Perhaps it's because we've been told it is our duty to celebrate the Queen's jubilee, that we are doing as we're told, like obedient children. Perhaps it's because we've been told we're terribly good at pageantry that we respond by being terribly keen on seeing the golden coach gliding by.

Or perhaps we have simply looked at other countries (especially Japan) weeping with delight, hugging strangers and embracing English fans like natural allies, all because their team did well at the beautiful game, and we've concluded that enthusiasm, and laughter, and optimism, and a sense of national glory are good for you. Love of country is, in a sense, self-love.

The patriotism that we've recently discovered (and I speak as a London-Irish hybrid) is all about pride. Not just pride in your country and her national icons, but a pride in yourself, blown up, through events, on a huge, sentimental, national scale.

Now that England are out of the World Cup, now that the jubilee celebrations are past their climax, does that mean all this patriotism is over and done with? Do we put it back in the drawer, with the flags of St George, and forget about it for four years, or until the next royal funeral? Not at all. There are still many things of which to be proud precisely because they're English. The way that the England squad crowded round Seaman, as he wept at the end of his last-ever World Cup match, was one. The way we convince ourselves, year after year, that somebody will be a Great White Hope of English tennis: it was Lloyd, then Bates, now it's Henman, and no amount of disappointment can shake our faith in them.

The way the British Press surpasses itself on days when national pride is at stake, but there's no actual news about the event – like Friday morning, when the Daily Mirror splash was a page left blank except for a small St George flag and the words: "This page is cancelled. Nothing else matters." For once, the tabloids got it spot on. We shall miss that sense of collective urging and striving and motivation, that passionate engaging of hearts and minds in one single direction, and the odd realisation that it was less to do with a game of football than with the discovery of an old-fashioned, unguessed-at, un-ironic, unforced patriotism in our modern, cynical, seen-it-all English souls.

By George: the unofficial guide to being English

Fish'n'chips on the pier

The sound of ball on bat at a cricket match on the village green

The graceful 6mph 'speed' limit of a Norfolk Broads canal boat

Beer-bellied men stripped to the waist; women sunbathing in parks in their bras

Bangers'n'mash

Fly-fishing

Caravanning

Mushy peas

Being plucky and doing jolly well

Country fayres and music festivals

Cardigans

Burning the May Queen

The village tombola

The Archers

Laura Ashley frocks

Cider in a pub garden

Strawberries and cream

Bank-holiday traffic jams and deferential visits to National Trust properties

Gardening (and a love of gnomes, windmills and water features)

Queueing

Eccentric pastimes (model aeroplane makers and fliers, restorers of steam railways)

Pickled eggs

Red post boxes

Picnics

Chip butties

Tea and scones

Pipe smoking

Hedgerows

The village fête

Sandals with socks

The smell of wet pavements when a thunderstorm punctuates a heatwave

Giving American tourists the wrong directions

Wimbledon

Pimm's No 1 (with fruit salad)

The smell of mown grass

School sports day

The Pennine Way

The stiff upper lip

Talking about the weather

Steak-and-kidney pie

Henley regatta

The Last Night of the Proms

Comments