Of myth and the Englishman

Disclaimer: This is a piece of cobbled together guff I thought might be wrestled into some kind of vaguely coherent whole in advance of the England-Germany match today. Points for effort, perhaps.

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“The romantic Englishman is in a bad way.”
(T.S. Eliot, ‘The Romantic Englishman, The Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism’, 1921)

So said T.S. Eliot, the Missouri born expat of New England roots, then settling into his seventh year of London living. Eliot, with his pin-striped penchant for high art and the music hall, had a thing for myths and tradition, and according to this short essay of his, the post-war 1920s was a lacking age, “barren of myths.” Classics of the type, the “broad-shouldered genial Englishman” of Tennyson or Fielding’s Tom Jones, who had served the purpose well for previous generations, were beginning to look rather isolated storybook figures of a bygone age, not to be joined or refreshed by any modern-day equivalents. In their place was a different breed of Englishman, “that degenerate descendent, the modern John Bull.” John Bull, the stridently patriotic and popular war-time rag started by one Horatio Bottomley, whose fanning of the romantic Englishman’s flame brought him first wealth and then notoriety, when it eventually transpired that he and his paper were not going to be able to repay most of their readership for the Victory Bonds they were meant to have bought up with money leant to them for England’s cause.

John Bull

Nevertheless, this “chief myth which the Englishman has built about himself,” though at a low point in Eliot’s eyes, would eventually reassert itself again confidently in two of its now ideal types: Sir Winston Churchill and that collective entity known as the “spirit of the Blitz.” Perhaps there is a natural cycle of peaks and troughs to the popularity and propensity of these romantic, nationalist myths, and one arena in which we can see this cycle enacted over and again is undoubtedly the World Cup. Those modern John Bull’s, the tabloids, still seem unable not to pander to this particular siren call. Every couple of years the clichéd type rears its weary head, the hymn sheet is instinctively reprinted and good old St. George is brought out from the cupboards to ride again. All the well-worn tropes (while in some cases perhaps “pitiably diminished” and assaulted by various, shall we say, contemporary equivalents of what Eliot terms “mythopoeic nihilism”) nevertheless still seem to kindle some distant relic of popular imagination within the country. The romantic concept of a mythic type of Englishman, for all the talk of him being beset on all sides by various outside influences, still exists to some degree, driven on by a regularly replenished craving for the ideal. And, if you are going to take England’s latest World Cup campaign as case study, he is once again in a very bad way.

No one in this England team it seems can quite take up the mythic mantle that the romantics so hanker for. There is in one sense a kind of dual pressure being enacted here. On the one hand (and to put it in Eliot speak), we might say that the Individual Talents within the squad are either unable to or not prepared to accede to this particular Tradition that the press and public demand of them. At the same time, and in equal measure, the players also seem to be suffering from the very anxiety of influence that this appeal to an idealistic type exerts upon them. And there, in a sense, you have it, a tautological like bind that twists the life out of its squirming subjects. What’s an Englishman to do?

Take John Terry, for example. The ex-captain fallen fantastically from what little grace he had. In earlier times, he had seemed in many ways destined for the part. His fearless style of play stands him in good stead, and that determined but slightly tragic John Wayne-like glint to his expression also has something of the mythic aspect to it. Terry is also the one who, perhaps more than any others in the squad, most wants to live up to and embrace the myth. But that of course becomes one of his greatest flaws, for, “Only unconsciously, however, is the Englishman willing to accept his own ideal.” John Terry doth protest too much, makes too much of a show of his “bulldog spirit.” And thus the ‘Brave’ John Terry moniker is now for most nothing more than an ironic reference to the man’s self-aggrandized, tub-thumping attempts to cast himself as the ideal type and mythic heart of the team.

And what of the current captain of the team, Steven Gerrard? ‘Stevie G,’ like Terry, walks the walk with his all-action efforts on the pitch, and yet, he too seems unable to fit readily into the mythic mould. A man of few words, Gerrard seems almost to spite the more theatrical elements that the role requires. He seems a reluctant captain of this team, someone who would happily duck out of the regular media appearances that are there to help inflate and further the myth. Must try harder.

Then there is Frank Lampard, the team’s current vice captain. Lampard, according to a variety of articles, completed anywhere in the range of nine to twelve GCSEs in his youth (including an A star in Latin), is genial, well-spoken, well-groomed – and well aware of it. Let’s just admit it, he’s too clever by half. A Damon Albarn to the mythic Englishman’s Gallagher brother.

All pre-tournament hopes rested on the “broad shouldered” Wayne Rooney. He also seems, at times, just about right for the part. A “heart on the sleave type” in a more raw and unbridled manner than Terry, he is also the one player in the team with that genuine spark of unpredictability and potential genius to his game. He was a fan favourite already in his teenage years , and despite turning to the camera to give these same fans a barrel full after the Algeria match, ‘Roo’s’ name still rung out from the terraces in the very next match. And yet there is a sense that Rooney, for the moment anyway, still resents this path being laid out for him. Like with Gerrard, perhaps this could be linked to both men’s Liverpool roots. After all, the mythic Liverpudlian is a more independent soul, one who learns to disdain the sneering stereotype that is laid upon their doorstep by much of the rest of the country. But the mantle is there and waiting to be claimed by Rooney and he is still young and improving. Then again there is nothing like an England shirt to put an end to mythic expectations.

In the background we have a rather varied collection of lesser suited figures. There is Ashley Cole, by far the most consistently excellent performer in a team that perenially underperforms, but someone who will seemingly never live down the supposed bad boy image that has stuck to him throughout his career. David ‘Calamity’ James in goal is already content in an outsider’s role, the lone English eccentric in a squad that could perhaps do with one or two more of them. Then of course we have the injured David Beckham, who cheerleads from the bench in his immaculately tailored suits. Let’s just say that this retired St. George’s relation to the myth of the romantic Englishman requires more space than we have here.

Next to the manager, cross-armed and emoting intent, stands that relic of the generation prior to Beckham’s, assistant coach Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce. A man of few airs, Pearce was beloved by many at the time for his no-nonsense approach to the game. But the mythic Englishman shouldn’t be quite so one-dimensional and, like so many others before him, Pearce was eventually felled by the fabled curse of the penalty.

The Rooney-like unrefined genius of Pearce’s generation, Paul Gascoigne, came much closer to fulfilling the role. Here was someone who could combine passion and flair with what seemed like a carefree, happy nature. As Eliot sensed in the theatres and music halls of his time, the comic figure has the potential to “provide fragments of a possible English myth.” ‘Gazza’ also had what Eliot singled out as the unconscious “defect,” a particular chink in the character that makes the personality all the more beloved. For the romantic Englishman is not meant to be a picture of pure perfection. His flaw will be the thing that keeps him grounded while he soars to greater heights. Such a defect can even include certain elements of “vulgarity” as Eliot identified it, a vulgarity which in its idealised form becomes “therefore one thing that has not been vulgarised.” Gascoigne was regularly forgiven his misdemeanour’s, a forgiveness on the part of the fans and press that does not extend to just anyone (see, for example, the cases of Terry or Cole). But in the end, Gascoigne’s ascendancy to the level of the mythic was cut off short, his reign all too brief and the dual burdens of talent and expectation perhaps further weighing down the sad aftermath of his time since.

From a starting point of stereotypical musings, we have quickly slid into a fanciful realm of rambling speculation and it really is time to put an end to this post. There was also going to be a contrasting of this English sporting ideal with its American counterpart, a culture which in many ways seems much less specific (democratic even) about the contours that should define its mythic heroes. It is also worth mentioning just how strong the romantic English ideal is in the Scandinavia that I live in today. Here English football is closely followed in mock English pubs by sets of foreign fans with an extensive knowledge not only of the English game, but of the whole culture that surrounds it. There is a very real sense in which these Nordic punters want to emulate the passion and romance that they see in the English myth. In an irony of sorts, they embrace it more fully than the vast majority of the now typically jaded English supporters, and there is an apparently deeper reservoir of goodwill towards the myth than your typical England fan is ready to grant. If there were a footballing equivalent of Victory Bonds for these distant admirers to buy into they would no doubt pay good money for them.

Write the future

Kickoff is now 15 minutes away. After a dismal first round of matches, suddenly everything seems to have taken a tentative step back towards the mythic dimension. Not only do England now face the romantic prospect of finally putting their Teutonic tormentors to the sword, perhaps even more enticing than that would be a chance to meet Maradona’s Argentina after that. These are legendary dragons in the Englishman’s mythos. But let us not get swept up by the romance of the Cup. As Eliot concluded so succinctly, successful representations of the myth “would not transform the retired colonel from Maida Vale into a Miles Gloriosus. The myth is based upon reality, but does not alter it.” In Nike’s latest ‘Write the Future’ advertising campaign for the tournament we are treated to the sight of Rooney blowing his chance to lead England to victory, his career then taking a rapid downward descent as a result of his fluffed chance, finishing with a closing shot of him waking up to a greyed out reality of life in a caravan park. But this is in fact a romantic projection on the part of Nike’s myth factories. Succeed or fail, each one of these England players will nonetheless be returning to the more pedestrian surrounds of their “illimitable,” multi-million pound, castle-like suburban piles. Many see this as the ultimate affront to the myth, the fairytale prize achieved without treading the proper path to glory as proscribed by its romantic readership. Here then the cycle comes once again to a close as illusion meets with disillusion. An unsurprising dénouement. With its script carved out in stone, the writing was always on the wall for the myth of the romantic Englishman.

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