An Englishman Abroad – Part 1

In a change from our usual bloggery i’m typing this while currently sitting on a plane awaiting French air traffic control to allow us safe passage over their land. While the wonders of travel are often vaunted as a way to increase the mind, my more immediate concern is that of decreasing the amount of time it is going to take me to reach my intended destination.

This, I fear, is hardly the attitude a gentleman traveller such as myself should be adopting. For centuries now the English have been regarded as a travelling breed. Be it in the form of explorers such as Captain Cook, Charles Darwin, or Ranulph Fiennes, or the more aggressive form of colonization that we were once famous for. Our island home necessitated the use of the sea to reach our neighbours, and once the navy had set sail it saw little point in stopping at the shores of France (which was probably closed due to a harbourmasters strike anyway), instead heading out into the great ocean expanses in search of adventure and an indentured workforce.

The English aristocracy invented the Grand Tour, which saw them take trains across Europe while hoping not to find themselves in a carriage with a small Belgium detective and a collection of upper class cultural stereotypes, in order to overcome the boredom of privileged life and to see the world. In the sixties the package holiday became a way for the great unwashed to also sample the pleasures of the continent, while generally searching for somewhere to have a proper cup of tea.

Now, in our globetrotting, carbon footprinting age, we take to the skies on airlines such as Easyjet (whose hospitality I am currently enjoying from 33,0000 feet, France having temporarily sorted it’s life out) which pack us in like cattle and invent ingenious surcharges with which to lighten our burden of personal wealth.

Gone are the days of dressing for dinner on the Orient Express while we discuss rumours of new scientific discoveries we heard about on the wireless. Now travel is a chore, best ended, rather than part of the adventure itself. Would Dr Livingstone have taken to the wilds of Africa if he’d had the Discovery channel? Could Scott’s ill-fated expedition been avoided if he’d saved up enough air miles? Who knows…or indeed dares to dream?

Instead, iPad to hand, I hurtle through the clouds towards a country I know little of, with events to transpire that I cannot predict. But I like to think that a little of the British spirit of adventure goes with me, that coursing in my blood is a measure of the wonder that drove my countrymen to seek out brave new worlds, new civilisations, who boldy….oh wait, that was Star Trek. Well, to use a phrase made popular by one of the illustrious Captains of the Enterprise (himself a Brit) – let’s see what’s out there…

An Englishman Abroad – Part 1

So the world cup is now over. England once again returned home a humiliated nation (more so for our crazy level of optimism for a team that has continually failed to reach it’s supposed potential), while the perennial underachievers Holland and Spain contested a nasty and spiteful final.

It was fascinating though to notice that as a neutral the game brought into conflict two of the pillars that British society is founded on – supporting the underdog and fair play. Before the game I was sitting in the Holland camp, wanting a team that had worked hard to reach the final to succeed against the might of European champions Spain. Maybe it’s the island nation thing but the British love to see the smaller guy do well. It’s probably why we aren’t particularly good at winning things and I’m sure that at times we’d rather be the plucky, brave losers that rose above their humble origins to overcome the might of a superior adversary then the actual champions themselves. The problem that this brings is that you don’t really want to win because then you couldn’t cheer for your team, instead we’d all be researching our roots to see if we have ancestry that would allow us to support the Faro Isles or New Zealand. Yep, we’re pretty screwed up.

As the game began it became glaringly obvious within minutes that the Dutch had a strategy to defeat the free-passing Spanish, and that was simply to ignore the ball and kick the players instead. Now, as a proud Englishman it should be noted that I’m all up for a hard, physical game of football. I’m no fan of players rolling around on the floor 50 times after a member of the opposing team has looked at them in a rakish manner, but if there is one thing that will overcome the support of the underdog in the Top Trumps of British culture then that is the fact that we will brook no cheats.

A sense of fair play, honour, and adherence to the agreed rules is the very cornerstone of the British psyche. I know in the past that I’ve been involved in situations were it was clear that someone I was dealing with had decided to try and pull a fast one (colloquialism ahoy!) and the sense of personal injury was immense. The fact that the situation in question was something of absolutely no importance and that the offending fop was actually having a laugh shows how deeply entrenched and possibly weird the fair play gene is.

For example, I support Chelsea football club and a few years ago we signed an excellent player called Didier Drogba who is a mountain of a man. Midway through his first season at the club he found himself being booed by his own supporters. What was his crime? Was he not putting the effort in? Not a chance, Didier is an absolute workhorse. Was he well off form? On the contrary, he was banging in the goals and terrorising the opposition. So what was our problem? He was cheating. To be more specific he was collapsing to the floor after innocuous challenges and then acting as if someone was trying to amputate his legs without the aid of anaesthetic. It was a pitiful sight. So we booed him, much to his surprise and consternation. We booed our own player who was having a great season but not playing in the manner which we wanted and expected. Thankfully he adjusted his behaviour, well to an extent, and helped lead us to two league titles.

The problem we had was that we didn’t want to win if it meant having to put up with any form of apparent dishonesty. Now some may decry this as symptomatic of a nation that is now unlikely to win things and therefore resorts to taking a moral high ground, and they may be right, but I prefer to think that at the heart of the British still pulses a nobility that demands integrity, hard work, and a belief in honour – maybe the Protestant work ethic stills runs in our veins?

So, as the world cup final progressed and the Dutch set about their dastardly plan, I felt a stirring in my heart and before long I could think of no greater injustice in the world than these cynical assassins winning the final. By the end I was desperate to see them win and when the goal flew in with only a handful of minutes of extra time remaining I cheered as if my own country had bagged the winner. Oddly enough the Dutch complained about a foul that had occurred in the build up to the goal, but that only made the whole thing sweeter – they had drawn their swords and then been destroyed by their own weapons. Beautiful.

So, although the England team were already on their summer holidays when this struggle for justice was unfolding, at least we were there in a more ethereal sense. I’ll claim a moral victory, in lieu of an actual one happening anytime in the next 20 years…