We British are not suddenly such a lovely people on account of all our medals

Yes the victories of our wonderful athletes were thrilling and emotional - but this country, like all others, is still capable of monstrous cruelty


Two cruel examples, this week, of the inevitability of disappointment. I don’t just mean the Wordsworthian sinking of spirits, dropping from delight to dejection for no other reason than that we are framed that way, hourglasses whose vital energies run out like sand the minute we are full and have to be turned over. I am thinking more of the way the facts of our nature return to mock us – whether in Hillsborough or Benghazi – every time we believe we’ve glimpsed a brand new dawn.

No sooner, anyway, had we poured into the streets for yet another orgy of national self-congratulation – not just on the abundance of Olympic medals we’d sweated for and won, and the crowning glory of Andy Murray’s marvellous victory at Flushing Meadows, but on our organisational genius, our flair for throwing parties, our warmth, our hospitality, our indomitable good humour – than the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were released: a harsh reminder of how differently we behave when things go wrong and we have something to hide.

I use the present tense because it would be folly to believe we are a different country now and that what happened a mere 23 years ago could not happen again. We thought we were a different country in 1989. The Dark Ages, we believed, were long behind us. True, Mrs Thatcher was still in power but we thought we could feel a wind of change blowing through her government, and even in her most rampantly unimaginative years we hadn’t considered ourselves a nation of rogues, incompetents and liars. It’s to our credit that nothing did go wrong at the 2012 Olympics, but who’s to say how our civic officials would have comported themselves, or what falsehoods our gutter newspapers would have enthusiastically embraced and disseminated, had a stadium collapsed?

Not every member of the South Yorkshire police force in 1989 would have been a liar born. Miscreancy is as often as not the product of tragic circumstance; people panic, fib their way out of trouble, lay blame on others because they cannot bear to shoulder it themselves, and maybe even believe what they fabricate. We are not suddenly so exceptionally lovely a people, on account of all our medals, that this law of our being will rescind itself. Nor are we suddenly so enlightened that we don’t have a rabble-rousing newspaper called The Sun.

The murder of the American ambassador to Libya does not lie so close to our consciences. But it too serves notice against naive expectation. Power can change hands a hundred times, and the will of the people can seem to prevail over the will of autocrats, without winter truly giving way to spring.

Myself, I think it would serve us better to be more sparing with “spring” analogies altogether. How about settling for a mellow autumn? Not as second best but as a good in itself. It’s been a lovely September so far. A gentle fading light, the air soft and kindly, fragranced with the first falling leaves, the prospect of companionable evenings by the fire, the chance to get out of short-sleeved shirts: autumn – as a metaphor for a fractionally ameliorated society it beats heartless adolescent spring, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, fuelling hopes so lurid they are bound to end in bloodshed.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. It has been, without any doubt, a thrilling and emotional few months in this country. Whichever way you look at them, the Olympics have been a triumph. Never has the benefit of sport – I would even go so far to say the necessity for sport – been better illustrated.

Watching American spectators cheering Murray the other night, let alone noting my own extravagantly tearful response to his win, it occurred to me that sport can do some of the things literature does. What’s Murray to me or I to Murray that I should weep for him? What was Murray to those Americans who tore their hair and cheered him on as though their lives would have fallen into ruin had he lost?

Leaving aside people who, with grave erroneousness, read to have their prejudices confirmed and their own likenesses returned to them, we go to literature to experience life as it feels to someone else, not just to observe the sorrows and triumphs of strangers, but to enter them as an act of sympathetic imagination whose chief benefit is that we become twice the person in the process. Murray isn’t Macbeth, but both make it possible for us to transcend ourselves.

The tribal aspect of team sport is something else. It was because we knew how ugly sporting tribalism could be that the lies of Hillsborough stuck for so long. And no doubt will go on sticking in the jeers of opposing fans – Manchester United supporters mocking Hillsborough and Liverpool supporters, whom we should not now sacralise, mocking the Munich disaster of even longer ago. If sport does indeed do what I have just said it does then tribalism is its antithesis.

And yet we’ve been tribal, too, these past few months. Not ungenerously so, I grant you. We applauded great athletes from other countries. We begrudged no one. But there was no concealing our pride when the national anthem was played for the umpteenth time, and every newspaper has celebrated these Olympics as proof, one way or another, of our national greatness.

I absolutely concur with those who say we have seen off the scoffers and the naysayers. We are, after all, an efficient, creative, magnanimous nation. It would seem that, football apart, we are even good at sport. But it behoves us to remember that we are people like every other – capable of monstrous individual cruelty and unforgivable institutional deceit. “Spring” is for lambs. And we know where they end up. Hopes tempered with realism are less cruelly dashed.

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