Stop Moaning: The English Response to Years of Defeat
May 6, 2005 2 Comments
To keep up with the British theme now that their elections have come and gone with nary a ripple anywhere outside Westminster, I am going to re-run an article that I wrote in 2003 after a particularly frustrating day in London. Truth be told, I am trying to find a clear way to describe the English and have in mind a story about the little accountant with his triplicate forms who lives at the centre of the Englishman’s soul. I have been promising myself to get it down, but alas.
Stop Moaning: The English Response to Years of Defeat
How did the English ever manage to conquer such a large swath of the world? London can barely run itself much less entire continents, I should know because I live here.
Train tracks are held in place by blocks of wood, rusty nails and a brick. The train system, like virtually every other public service is in a state of acute crisis. Thankfully the operator apologises with reasonable sounding phrases that would have you imagine delays are a rarity.
The time on the tube is mostly spent wondering how you will afford David Beckham’s life, which is splashed on every headline and that you are a loser for not emulating. By the time you extricate yourself from your fellow, habitually unsmiling passengers, you slouch outside to cold, grey skies, and incessant rain.
Thank God you have lunch to look forward to. Will it be the fried candy, fried chicken, soggy vegetables or the fried tomatoes? Whatever you choose to eat, be prepared to pay dearly for it – if not financially, then surely with blocked arteries. And remember you only have an hour to wolf it down before you return to your badly paid job.
You might be lucky enough to survive without depression therapy into the evening. Then you can anticipate a few hours at your local pub, surrounded by the same unsmiling train passengers you thought you had left behind forever. If this is not good enough for you, try one of the three TV documentaries on the First World War playing on any given night.
Actually don’t bother, they all say pretty much the same thing: “We are a plucky lot blessed with a good moral compass and able to sacrifice for jolly old England,” all correct sentiments, I suppose, with the exception of the ‘jolly’. When it comes to you poor devils who were colonised, there is a grudging admission that it was wrong to oppress you. But hurry, it’s time to move back to happily reminiscing about the greatness of old England.
There are few people whose self-perception is so painfully contorted to ignore reality as the British. The famous stiff upper lip for instance, disguises a complete inability to connect with others and a shyness that borders on phobia – it’s a case of the shy guy who pretends to hate women.
It also helps when you are being screwed by painfully high taxes, late trains, bad food, high rents, traffic jams and trying to digest the cultural significance of the latest story on the thong Kylie was spotted wearing at Lord Elton’s party.
The importance of sacrifice keeps cropping up, but much of it amounts to putting up with privations brought on by mediocre government and enduring yet another Royal scandal (“I wish I was your tampon Camilla,” Prince Charles once muttered thickly on the phone) The obsession with a glorious past gives testimony to this being an age of British decline and it’s not a pretty thing.
Living with such a storied history has made many here insecure. A widespread dislike of foreigners might once have resulted from imagining that they were all a sorry bunch, but now it springs from the fear that associating with them will expose one’s inadequacy.
You see, for the British, identity is competitive: “I am better than you because I once ruled you. But since I don’t any more, I am better because, ah, well, my great grandfather was mowed down as he walked slowly towards a German machine gun nest at the Somme after his officers thought him too stupid to run in correct formation.”
In case this is sounding like the rant of some disaffected ex-colonial subject, it is. The fact that I am from Kenya, a country that was ruled for more than half a century by people so dentally challenged, rankles.
The British are many things and most of them, if not really wrong or evil, are boring and slightly pathetic. One example suffices to tell you everything you need to know about the country: Tim Henman.
Here is the great hope of British tennis who in his own words states that “winning is everything,” a sentiment that is widely accepted across Britain.
However, like the rest of this country’s athletes, businesses, dentists, train operators and health service administrators, he has not had much actual practice winning. There are those 11 titles won in a decade of professional tennis in places like Tashkent, Brighton and Reunion.
Now, this would be fine if he were just some minor talent, but remember this is a man who has made fans weep when he was bundled out of yet another Wimbledon (reaching the semi-finals on four occasions amounts to cruelly teasing the British public’s fevered expectations.)
As he sportingly accepts defeat after defeat he is frequently referred to as a gentleman, a status many Britons aspire to as they surreptitiously take in the naked breasts of the page three girl.
For the British, defeat has come to define the past 50 years of their national life to such a large extent that putting up a fight as you get gutted is now the only recourse. Henman’s game reflects his country’s approach to everything.
It is careful, yet mediocre, and shows few flashes of creativity. I must admit though that his pronouncements of future victory do bear bleak testimony to his possession of a vivid imagination disconnected from reality.
Above all, his demeanour on the court is dignified. There is little panic in evidence as he gets blasted away and treated with obvious disrespect by his opponents. You might deal with him like a calf in a slaughterhouse, but don’t expect him to beg for mercy. Here I have to stop and acknowledge that there is something perversely admirable about this attitude.
If the British have anything to show the poor Asians or poorer Africans they once ruled it is this: stop moaning so much about your problems, show some pluck, for God’s sake, and never let them see you sweat.