England’s motto should be “Sorry.” We have so many ways of saying it. And so many reasons. It ought to be printed on the currency.
The other thing we say to one another a lot is, “It’s not the disappointment, it’s the hope we can’t bear.” And then we laugh. In that brittle English way.
We’ve been saying it a lot recently. Now here is Wimbledon. And the first Brit (and Scot) to reach a final since before memory. They’ve been fishing around to find someone from back then to comment. The best they can manage is the child or grandchild of someone who might have played in a final wearing long trousers or a bonnet, or both.
Andy Murray is playing at the moment upstairs. Obviously he is playing in Wimbledon, which is not upstairs. But the rest of the family is watching television upstairs. And it is ominously quiet.
I can’t watch. It’s not that I don’t like tennis. I’ve never played. I just like the sort of people who ask you to play. It’s a middle-age-crisis game. And Wimbledon is more than faintly absurd. With its blazered and trimmed snobbery. All the royal-box seating and the corporate hospitality. The cameras picking out celebrities in the crowd. Mostly people we thought were dead.
It’s not all that. Like I said, it’s the hope I can’t bear. Not the fear of what it will feel like when Murray loses. It’s the terror of what this will do to the nation if he wins.
Americans have never really got the point of competitive sports. We know what it is really for. We invented almost every game that’s worth playing. And a whole lot that aren’t. Including baseball.
The great age for organizing the rules of sport and setting up governing bodies was the 19th century. The engines for fairness and uniformity were English public schools. Games were character-building. Paul Newman is said to have summed up the American attitude to sport when he said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Well, we know that if you show us a winner, you show us someone who has learned nothing useful apart from doing something repetitive with a ball.
A good winner and a bad winner look just the same. A good loser and a bad loser are very different. A point of all games is not to teach you how to cope with winning. Any Neanderthal can do that. It’s how you lose with aplomb, with flair, with humility and optimism, that’s the trick. That’s the point of sport.
A good loser should look like an Oscar acceptance speech. If sport were simply about faster, higher, harder and longer, then it’s a shallow cul-de-sac, only fit for Kipling’s flannelled fools and muddied oafs. If, however, it teaches young men and women character in the face of public disappointment, then it’s a boon.
It’s the loser’s hand you should shake. He is taking home something far more important than a hideous mantel ornament.
So the English have become supremely good at failing to win. We joke about it. We are comfortable with it. We have the weather for it.
We are so good at coming in second we can toy with it. We can almost win. Unlike Samoa or Kuwait, who are never in contention, we could, we might, we just don’t. But if Murray, by some kismet, some destiny-swerving fluke, grabs this one, well, who knows what will happen. It could do critical damage to the national psyche. We might imagine it marks a change in the natural order of things. We could start believing that the toast will fall butter side up. There will be horrible exhibitions of self-belief, too ghastly and un-British to contemplate.
I can just remember the last time we won. The 1966 World Cup. It was like the Blitz. Due to home-field advantage and bad refereeing, we fluked the final from the Germans. It was a nightmare. I was only a small boy, but I can still remember the cloying, sickly taste of victory. We’ve only just got over it.
I’m going to take a break here to watch the end of the match and compose my face.
* * *
It’s all over. That was a damn-close-run thing. But the inexorable truth -- that Murray would take away the character-building second-place -- won through in the end. The crowd worked its Britannic magic, and slouched into the default setting of pretending it was there for the tennis. And then it got to cheer a Swiss man who had beaten the home boy.
So we can rest for another generation, being modestly proud about not winning. Making jokes about gentlemen coming in second. And smiling with an amateur humility, whilst looking the other guy in the eye and saying that, on the day, the better man won.
But knowing, secretly, amongst ourselves, as on every other day, we have the best of it. You judge a man, a child, a nation, on how it loses.
(A.A. Gill, the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times of London, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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