Like most English people I am used to laughing at England. No country does national self-denigration better, or at least more often. So it was disorienting to visit England this week after a long time away and find the place more successful than I had ever seen it.
It can’t last.
Over the past few years I had got used to London’s wealth. The other morning I went back to the slum I used to inhabit in Marylebone, which has been converted into luxury flats with an Italian café underneath. The only reminder of old times was the empty cigarette packet and beer can left on the doorstep by a tramp. Even the fact that the English choose to spend most of their additional wealth on getting drunk is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, freedom.
Sitting in the café in the sunshine, you read the British newspapers. These consist of property supplements, travel supplements, food and drink supplements and whinges about the state of the nation, which according to the papers is Sodom and Gomorrah on the verge of Armageddon.
Then you go and watch sport and realise that here, too, England is now pre-eminent. Last Sunday I went to see Arsenal-Newcastle. I have been going to Arsenal on and off for 20 years, and remember the old days crushed in the Clock End watching people like Perry Groves and Martin Hayes become champions of England playing a brand of football that entailed kicking the ball and/or opponent as high into the air as possible while the crowd grumbled.
Now Arsenal plays brilliant football while the crowd – mostly the same people as 20 years ago – still grumbles. It’s not just the football that has improved. In the 1980s England was the only serious exporter of hooligans, but Arsenal matches are now so placid that when a streaker ran on to the field on Sunday, he was allowed to cavort for two minutes without anyone arresting him. Finally he got bored and wandered off.
It’s not only Arsenal. This spring Liverpool, England’s fourth best team, dismissed Italy’s two best teams to become champions of Europe. Even Middlesbrough and Bolton employ some of the finest footballers on earth. For the past two seasons English clubs have done better in European competition than anyone else. It can’t last.
On the Monday I watched a television programme that purported to show the England cricket team humbling the Australians, who scraped a draw thanks only to the rain. It turns out that England, already the rugby world champions, now has the world’s best cricket team. The function of past heroes in England has traditionally been to humiliate the present lot through comparison, but last week Andrew Flintoff eclipsed Ian Botham. Meanwhile in tennis the emergence of a plausible 18-year-old in Andrew Murray is feeding the old fantasies of winning Wimbledon.
This weird concatenation of sporting excellence is not entirely fluky. The new wealth helps: the English Premiership earns more from television than any other football league bar the French. Punters at Arsenal now pay £885 and upwards for season tickets, nearly five times more than Barcelona fans and 10 times more than at AC Milan.
Sport has also benefited from the replacement of the British establishment. The country’s key institutions were traditionally run by a Brahmin-style caste of dilettantes who were defined by extreme height and not having lived at home as children. These people have been superseded by foreign experts, who turn out to do better. The foreigners manage England’s leading football clubs, its national cricket and football teams, and many of its biggest companies.
Though England’s cricket team still relies on its traditional method of handing British passports to Aussie and southern African players, it recently went further by letting Australians run the entire national game. England’s “Cricket Academy”, an idea ripped off from Australia and administered by the prototype moustached Australian ocker, Rod Marsh, nurtured most of the current team. A Tasmanian named Troy Cooley teaches the bowlers.
The other night I tried to tell some English friends that they had never
had it so good. They were outraged. They pointed out that they worked
too hard, that the trains were bad,
that the government had lied about
the war in Iraq, that loonies were taking turns to blow up London, etc. Things were terrible. But when my host let me use his computer to check supposed train times, I saw that his screensaver showed England’s cricketers beating Australia.
It won’t last. Trooping out of the Arsenal ground last Sunday, we passed the Finsbury Park mosque, recently famous for its one-eyed, hook-armed imam who preached against the west. The mosque is now festooned with banners proclaiming peace, but the terrorists might choose to ignore them. Even if the attacks do cease, Britain’s longest economic expansion in 200 years must surely end one day. (Or perhaps not? Perhaps the government has discovered the secret of perpetual wealth?)
The sporting pre-eminence is even more doomed. Already England is poor at rugby. In tennis, it will become apparent that Murray – now ranked 132nd in the world – isn’t going to win Wimbledon. In football, it is simply not natural that English clubs receive twice as much TV money as German clubs. It is not natural that Russian oligarchs are the world’s richest inhabitants, and that they choose to spend their money on English football clubs: first Chelsea, soon West Ham. It’s not natural that a country with fewer active cricketers than New Zealand can beat Australia. It’s not natural that an economy with mediocre productivity and infrastructure outperforms Germany, that ordinary British people own much of the French and Spanish countryside. It probably won’t happen again in our lifetimes that a British city is awarded the Olympics.
One day we will remember this summer as the end of a golden age, like the summer of 1914 or Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee of 1897.
Then the English will again be free to whinge about losing. For the moment, however, they will have to try to
cope with winning.