There is something peculiarly dispiriting about the sight of people wearing those plastic Union Jack hats which now seem be part of the English summer. Worn by tourists as they gawp through the railings at Buckingham Palace, they are naff but excusable. On the heads of goofy enthusiasts, bobbing up and down to the strains of "The Sailor's Hornpipe" at the last night of the Proms, they are embarrassing.
But it is when they are seen around the Centre Court at Wimbledon, as that great sporting icon Tim Henman raises the nation's hopes - usually before dashing them a couple of days later in one of his famous heroic defeats - that one begins to despair for one's fellow-countrymen.
"Come on, Tim." Is there any more depressing sound to heard in June and July in England? The voice is invariably well-bred and slightly tentative, as if its owner knows that one really should not shout in public unless one happens to be playing a game of beach cricket with the family on the sands of Cromer. It contains a note of uncertainty, the desperate, unmistakeable timbre of anticipated defeat.
The sound of the crowd at Wimbledon has none of the bullying swagger of a decent football chant or the reedy enthusiasm of schoolchildren cheering on athletes at Crystal Palace. Here it is individual, ill-timed and despairing.
You can tell a lot about a country by its choice of sporting heroes. The Germans like theirs to be truculent but effective (Beckenbauer, Schumacher, Becker), the French prefer a zany individualism (Zidane, Perec, Leconte) while the Americans (Ali, Jordan, McEnroe) tend towards characters who are complex and controversial.
We seem to go for nicely brought-up bores - dead-eyed, even-tempered men who can be depended upon to say nothing remotely interesting when interviewed. Nigel Mansell was a quintessentially English hero, as were Gary Lineker, Tony Jacklin, Damon Hill, Sebastian Coe and the hop-skip-and-jumper Jonathan Edwards.
Those who, in spite of their achievements, fail to reach the required level of blandness - Lester Piggott, Paul Gascoigne, Linford Christie, Lennox Lewis - never achieve the status of heroes, and are regarded as suspect by our relentlessly sanctimonious sports journalists.
So when that great Englishman Greg Rusedski reacted with understandable rage to an asinine decision by an umpire last week, his behaviour was seen as a national scandal. But if Rusedski's deployment of a few common-or-garden swear words was an appalling example to the younger generation, Henman has hardly fared better. Asked this week about whether he read a book to relax when it rained at Wimbledon, England's favourite tennis-player replied briskly, "Nah, I don't like reading, it's boring", thereby confirming the favourite prejudice of thousands of young male fans.
No one, of course, has worried for a moment at this honest but ill-judged remark, and doubtless by the time he is officially canonised by an appearance on Desert Island Discs, Tim will have found a suitably improving volume to mention at the end of the programme.
Imagine the reaction had it not been Tiger Tim but David Beckham. One of the great jokes of celebrity-obsessed Britain, the profound stupidity of Becks, would have been confirmed. The fact that the footballer has completed an impressive assault course in his public life - vilification in the press, problems with managers, marriage to a famous woman, an interview with Ali G - has failed to deter cliché-happy journalists and lazy comedians from making jokes about his stupidity.
Under these circumstances, it is a small miracle that Beckham and his intelligent, amusing wife Victoria have become role models. Somehow one doubts that they will be allowed to hold that position for long. One public tantrum, failure in Spain, a sending-off in a key game and Beckham will lose his place among our acceptable sporting icons.
So what is going on here? How is it that one sportsman can be characterised as thick while another can reveal genuine stupidity, or at least lack of imagination, and still be held up an example to young fans? The answer, of course, is our old friend class. Just as the cheery, articulate enthusiasts at Wimbledon, with their polite accents and picnic baskets, are seen to represent the smiling face of British sport, unlike those nasty football crowds. So their hero with his dreary sincerity and perfect teeth will remain the sort of boy that is a credit to his country.
More than Royal Ascot or Cowes Week, Wimbledon reminds us that a smug and comfortable class-consciousness, one that likes to see its high-achieving yet decorous suburban standards expressed on court, is as much a part of English life as strawberries and cream and cries of "Come on, Tim" on Henman Hill.Reuse content