November 27th, 2007

To understand Brits, watch the rugby

Spectator sports leave me cold, especially on television. Perhaps, in my case, it is because I am one of those egomaniacs who enjoy only the things they can do themselves. I positively resent the 2012 Olympics being held in London. So at the beginning of this period of rugbymania I had been hoping to ignore it altogether.

I did manage to know nothing whatsoever about the group matches, as I am told they are called. But then my husband accepted an invitation to dinner with close friends who have a state-of-the-art television set, to watch the France v England match eight days ago. Even then I thought that I could probably take a book or read the newspaper during the game itself. But my family told me that would be the height of bad manners and I would have to see the whole thing through.

It wasn’t too much of a hardship among good friends, with good wine. But I hardly know the rules of rugby, or of football either, so it was rather mysterious at first. However, I quickly found, against my habits and my prejudices, that I was beginning to take a faint interest. I did once have a very handsome blue-eyed boyfriend who was a rugby blue, so perhaps some blasts from the past were fanning the flickers of my attention. It was thrilling to see how those enormous über-masculine young men could be so savage with each other and yet so docile with the referee.

Rugby certainly does not look as beautiful as football and the France-England game was strikingly rough and tough – as one of the commentators said later, “it was not a pretty game” – but the energy and determination of our boys – yes, our boys – was really touching. Even before it started, my heart really did pound when our side – yes, our side – sang the national anthem and I realised I really wanted them to win, although I was told the French were the much better side and ought to succeed.

Even I could see that was true. The French were faster, neater and more elegant. But the English won through dogged, unyielding courage – through what we call bottle and think of as a great national virtue.

That’s how it seemed to me and I realised I was extremely proud of them and proud of England. I had been drawn by pure social convention into something that was actually a shared national event and if it reawakened a sense of national solidarity in me, presumably that is what it is doing for every other Englishman and woman, of all descriptions, who watched it. I also felt very sorry for the French and thought for a bit of all the things I admire about France. I realised I was actually very much looking forward to the final last night.

This has all been quite confusing. Not only have I been bored, previously, by spectator sport; I have also been very suspicious of the mass mania that surrounds it, particularly football.

At the time of the football frenzy in 2002, I happened to read a newly published book called Defying Hitler, written in 1939 by Sebastian Haffner, a young German intellectual. He was, with extraordinary foresight, trying to describe the cultural history and cultural conditions that made Hitler possible, so to speak.

Apart from a cultured minority class, Haffner wrote, the Germans’ capacity for individual life and private happiness was somehow limited and underdeveloped. “The great danger of German life,” he wrote, “has always been emptiness and boredom . . . with it comes a yearning through ‘salvation’ through alcohol, superstition or, best of all, through a vast overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.” This longing for mass intoxication, he wrote, soon expressed itself in an obsession with sport that overtook Germany.

The parallels with Britain today, I thought when I read Haffner, are striking. British – and English – youth today is notoriously easily bored, easily distracted and unable to entertain itself – easy prey for the forces of mass commercial entertainment and its bogus excitements. The drunken hooliganism that surrounds England football fans is notorious around the world.

Rugby is, after all, another form of football and I have always vaguely assumed that the rabble-rousing call of one must be much the same as the other. So far from being a unifying force for national solidarity and national pride, I assumed that the national obsessions with both association football and rugby football were potentially very dangerous. The drunken hooliganism and casual violence of football fans bring to mind the marauding gangs of the brownshirts in the early Nazi period.

So I felt rather ambivalent about the waves of patriotism sweeping over me while watching a game that I can barely understand. It’s a game that is hugely more violent than football – surely it is hardly less likely than football to inspire drunken hooliganism. But so it seems. People say it’s a class matter; for historical reasons there is something essentially middle class and respectable about rugby, about the players and about the fans. There’s an odd contradiction about the way the more violent game can produce the less violent supporters and vice versa.

Whatever the reasons, it seems to me now, after watching last night, that rugby, oddly enough, is a force for national solidarity. At a time when we complain about the fissiparation of society, the tragic mistakes of multiculturalism and the breaking of the subtle ties that bind us, when there are few heroes around to unite us, there are few truly national events that draw us together, in millions, in real time, around a television set in a spirit of what one can only call patriotism.

This is not something you can teach in municipal Britishness lessons or examine in immigration tests. It’s not something that the cynical Gordon Brown can impose on us in his determination to stay in power; if anything it will strengthen us against the blandishments and manipulations of politicians. It is something spontaneous that brings us – even me and others who may be resistant at first – together with our friends and neighbours, and people of all generations, and reminds us of what we have in common.

And so long as it doesn’t draw us out into the streets, looking for a policeman to glass, it is, win or lose, a force for good.