Philip Hensher: Forget sport, it's in the arts that Britain excels

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You may have noticed that England played a rugby match over the weekend. They came second. A young Englishman who drives a very fast motorcar competed for the world title. He also came second. Last week, the England football team had to accept that they are probably not good enough to compete in the next European championship. All very disappointing, but perhaps not very unexpected. If there is a news story which comes closer to the classic definition of non-news, "dog bites man" than "England sports team comes second", I can't for the moment think of it.

Currently, England are holders of a world cup in two sports. The first is the world team squash championship. The second is the world cup in team ten-pin bowling. That second was won in 2004. The championship, or perhaps merely the trophy, is reported now to be defunct. In nearly 70 years of participation in the football World Cup, England have won it exactly once. In 20 years of the rugby union equivalent, once. No Englishman has won the Wimbledon singles title since 1936. Only six British people have ever won more than two gold medals at the Olympics, usually for rowing, and only two of those have competed since 1936. Shall I go on?

Clearly, there is some degree of masochism involved here which dictated, despite the highly predictable outcome, that all these near-successes, if you prefer, dominated hours of radio and television coverage and acres of newsprint. It was coverage not merely of the sporting encounters themselves, but also anticipation, analysis in advance, and pained post-mortems. Not forgetting discussion and reportage of the behaviour of those who had gone to see the events and those who had merely watched it on television.

I quite enjoy all this, but it does seem odd to me that so much energy and excitement is expended in an area where opportunities to express national triumph are so rare. I wonder why national pride is not expressed more expansively over things we are obviously very good at.

In the past 25 years, for instance, British nationals have won the Nobel Prize for literature five times. Five more have won who write in the English language, for which, I guess, we can take some remote responsibility. The last of these, Doris Lessing, won two weeks ago. What was the outcome? Newspapers covered it, often with a respectful feature or interview attached. Channel 4 television news ran a short piece at the end of their evening bulletin; if the other channels ran anything, I missed it.

Sports teams have been bombarded with faxes and personal messages from Downing Street and the Palace, but, as far as I can see, Ms Lessing's triumph was marked with a sentence on the Downing Street website. I look forward to the BBC broadcasting the sort of hour upon hour of personal tribute and analysis to Ms Lessing it deemed appropriate when Mr Stephen Fry recently attained the gigantic age of 50, but without a great deal of optimism.

It seems absolutely extraordinary, and the behaviour must be unique to this country. It isn't as if reading and literature are the pastimes of a tiny minority, like basket-weaving or curling. Millions of people in this country read novels, and some of Ms Lessing's have, over the years, been read by gigantic audiences, in every literate country. Some living British writers are among our most successful exports, in both financial and cultural terms. Our back-list, from Shakespeare through Jane Austen and Dickens and so on, goes on earning capital, centuries on. Public expression of pride in all of this comes grudgingly and rarely, and it is hard to see why.

The subtle answer is, perhaps, that it is difficult, despite the authority of such things as the Nobel Prize, to see when an author has "won" anything, in the easy sense of being fastest, or scoring the most goals. The prize here is of being read in centuries to come, and no championship marks that.

The blunter and more apparent answer is, of course, that only the most peculiar sort of author thinks of him or herself as "representing" their country. Sports associations clamour for that, associating their teams with national, public status with some fervour. Ms Lessing, it has been reported, turned down one major public honour, and another Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, has an awkward relationship with the idea of his "Britishness".

Could such people be relied upon to give a grateful, humble speech at a reception at Downing Street? Or might they take the opportunity to drink the government champagne before telling the hosts what they thought of their recent record? Might they even start saying that they don't consider that they represent the nation, or anything much except themselves and what nobody can take credit for, the English language?

It is altogether too embarrassing a prospect to contemplate, and, anyway, great writers have their reward. One of those rewards, which is too paradoxical for many people to regard as something to be celebrated in public, newsworthy terms, is the right of noisy dissent and even outrage. And yet that, surely, is a national trait which we can be proud of.

Let the eminently forgettable prospects, failures and very occasional successes of England teams go on filling the news bulletins. The activities which we, as a nation, are actually good at hardly need the support of these energetically constructed accolades.