I had never felt more relaxed while watching England play football.
Born just two days after its one and only global triumph, 55 years have taught me to expect the worst. It has become a kind of self-preservation technique.
However great the anticipation, there was always a Polish goalkeeper, a divine hand, or any number of penalty spots available to turn relentless expectation into inevitable disappointment.
Yet, standing outside a bar in Charlotte, North Carolina in June 2021 was oddly different. The big screens in the courtyard confirmed that my country’s team was coasting to a quarter final victory with a competence and nonchalance so unusual that it felt vaguely dishonest. I scarcely knew how to react.
There was no need to avert my eyes or dive behind the nearest piece of furniture as the other team crossed the halfway line. The palms of my hands were drier than the Mojave Desert. The edge of my seat, abandoned for the first time in decades, seemed to look at me with the suspicious eye of recent betrayal.
As the game drew to a close and my pint intake once again drew level with the scarcely believable score line, I relaxed into the company of temporary friends – some English, most not – with whom the last 90 minutes had been shared. The atmosphere was happy and convivial. And I briefly allowed myself to believe that, this time, finally, glory was at hand.
And then the mood changed.
A man, probably in his early thirties, took up a position away from the gathered crowd. With an accent betraying an origin that made me suspect (with an involuntary shudder) we shared the same home town, he attempted to start a chant.
I shall not repeat his words here. Suffice to say that it was a “10-to-1” xenophobic countdown that conflated a tune most famous for charting a woman’s equine-supported path around a mountain with an air conflict that had occurred over 80 years before in the skies above a county I had once called home.
He didn’t get very far.
While I presume that on the cold Saturday afternoon terraces dotted around England, the chant regularly gets belted out with an enthusiasm that ensures its progress from ten aircraft to one (probably ending with a rousing rendition of that old classic, “Eng-A-Land”) today, finding no takers, he abandoned his quest while he was still on nine.
While I was pleased that he stopped, the scene is now my abiding memory of the day. I felt, in that moment, my euphoria – resulting, admittedly, from the insignificance of a favorable outcome for my preferred team in a sporting contest – had been ripped from me.
I resented him for that.
Almost a year has passed since that day, but I still think about it. Not because, a week later, yet another dream died on a penalty spot, but because I keep returning to the would-be chant leader and to one question.
Was that patriotism?
It is 26 years since I last lived in England; a circuitous route eventually leading me to Charlotte. During my absence, with the notable exception of the last six of those years, I have remained stoically proud of my country. In fact, I have always considered an expatriate to be among the most patriotic of a country’s citizens – mainly because their opinion of their homeland is not tarnished by the daily experience of actually living there. An expatriate is not an ex-patriot.
But this is difficult territory, made more treacherous by an increasingly toxic political environment.
In its fawning fealty, today’s patriotism allows no room for doubt, dissent, or criticism. It demands an unwavering belief that the country is, has been, and always will be superior to all others; with its only required investments being a lapel badge or a conspicuously large flag in the corner of a zoom screen.
But patriotism has to be more than a symbol or an antagonistic song, doesn’t it?
Searching for answers, I turned to my own experiences.
As a young child, I remember being fascinated by stories of my country’s long and glorious history.
Displaying the first signs of an obsession with trivial facts that haunts me still, I was overjoyed to discover that we had invented the postage stamp. I was excessively proud that the line marking 0° longitude (against which all global time is set) passed within a few miles of my home and, even more so, that English was spoken in every corner of the world.
Inevitably, however, any discussion of the past quickly turned to tales of military triumph; achieved in inordinate quantities for a country so geographically inconsequential. Two world wars had been won in living memory. Victory in many other battles, centuries earlier, reinforced the message of long-lived global supremacy. Any child would have been excused for thinking that, yes, Britannia does indeed rule the waves.
But the bottom line, to a young and impressionable mind, was that I lived on an island that had “Great” in its name. Could there be a stronger confirmation of our superiority?
And then I grew up.
I developed a thirst for history, and specifically for England’s contributions to it. Outside of the classroom – and an occasional dalliance with Roy of the Rovers annuals – the only books I read were history books. And I read with the expectation that my knowledge of my country’s greatness would be confirmed. That didn’t happen.
I discovered that English is spoken in all corners of the world as a result of a colonialism that was generally violent, oppressive, subjugating, and racist. While there is no doubt that, in the late summer of 1940, a brave few heroically defended a small country that stood alone in the world against the relentless march of vicious tyranny, England would not have been on the winning side in the 20th century’s two world wars had it not been for the military strength of the United States and (in the case of the second) the Soviet Union. Many of our monarchs were either not English or didn’t speak English – often both. The title “Great” had not been bestowed upon our island by awed and envious foreigners; we had given the title to ourselves.
Oh, and those three lions on the shirt of the national football team are Plantagenet lions. They are French.
The thing about the stamps was true, though.
Strangely enough, although they represented a watershed moment in my relationship with my country, these unanticipated discoveries did not make me feel any less patriotic. Actually, I found the opposite to be true.
Because it is easier to relate to something, to build an affinity with it, when its aura of invincibility has been removed; when you discover that it is not perfect after all.
For patriotism is an evolving relationship; similar to the growing child beginning to see through the early veil of parental flawlessness and realizing that the parent doesn’t know everything, isn’t always right. And seeing – alongside still happy memories – that mistakes were made, lies were told, harm was caused.
We learn that, in order to thrive, the relationship requires curiosity over blind acceptance, truth over subterfuge, substance over symbolism. But, above all, it requires us to look to the future, in the tireless belief that – even when measured against past glory – there is a finest hour yet to come.
When I recall that summer’s day in Charlotte, I think about two men 4,000 miles away from the country of their birth. I know that at least one of those men wants his country to be a strong voice of reason, inspiration, and hope in an increasingly polarized world.
That sounds like patriotism.
Instead, he sees a country whose current leaders have sacrificed the country’s reputation as a bastion of integrity and decency on the pyre of their own privilege. Combined with their pervasive dishonesty, their flagrant disregard for international norms, and their blatant distain of people who are “not us”, they have, in a few short years, ensured the country has become more ridiculed than respected, more doubted than trusted. And, while they wrap themselves in a flag that stands for values they are systematically dismantling, they persist in clinging interminably to rose-tinted (and often simply false) remembrances of the past for the country’s entire raison d’etre.
Whatever that is, it’s not patriotism.
Willing it to be better, one man, an ocean away, lives in the fervent hope that this current, self-destructive cycle is merely a temporary aberration in the country’s rich history. But he also knows that, unless it plots a new course, it is a country destined to remain in that history – confined to watching from the abyss of its own self-inflicted irrelevance as others move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
Nick Orchard | 31st May 2022
“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” – John F. Kennedy, June 1962