Sporting Nations

Chris Bertram is spending some of his time writing friendly criticisms of my various personal preferences over at Crooked Timber here and here. I’m now spending more of my time justifying my choices back on this blog. Yesterday I dealt with the Marxists (though read on for some second thoughts on the matter), and today I’m turning to the altogether more complicated Question of Sport.

So, beginning towards the end of his post with his double misplacements, I’m entertained to learn that when he cheers for England against Scotland in football or rugby he feels himself able to play (if necessary) the postcolonial card against the memory of Colley’s beastly Scottish imperialists… On the second misplacement, I’m not at all sure that I agree that “the displacement of the Union Jack by the Cross of St George in the hands of English sporting fans represents if not an explicit rejection of Great British colonial nationalism, at least an adaptation to something less jingoistic and aggressive”. But that may in part be because the only time I’ve experienced my own College bar as a less than fully welcoming place was the time there was a group of usually intelligent male (did I have to say that?) undergraduates with the Cross of St George painted on their faces singing, um, jingoistic and aggressive songs about how the Argentinian football team’s fondness for gay sex was grounds for asserting the superiority of the English. (Somehow I don’t think that this particular poisonous triangle of English nationalism, homophobia and football is unique to Oxford University.) One anecdote certainly does not a theoretical argument make — and I’m not going to pretend for a moment that the older Union Jackshirts never expressed similar attitudes — but I hope Chris will forgive me if my inclination is to respond to these expressions of this Cross of St George English nationalism by wanting to have nothing to do with it, rather than by launching a campaign of my own to try and contest and resignify the meanings of national symbols in sport. There’s certainly a disidentification here (though it’s a far stronger disidentification with nationalist expressions of support than with the object of support, the English football team, which I sometimes do support, as I did in that England v Argentina game), but as I’ve described it so far this disidentification has nothing straightforwardly to do with either postcolonial guilt or the romance of the Celtic nations, the two explanatory factors to which Chris draws attention.

Some people do have a policy of not supporting England. Dennis Skinner is one, and it was his use of the phrase, “Anyone but England” which provided the title for Mike Marqusee’s fine cricket book, which I was glancing through again last night. (C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary also reminds us that the complex relationship of cricket, social class and national politics is a spur to the very best writing on the game: I’m half regretting not voting for James and Fred Engels in Josh Cherniss’s poll, replacing Benjamin and Habermas on my list, but I don’t know whether he’ll let me submit a replacement ballot.) I don’t hold to “Anyone but England” as a policy or principle, and often I do find myself wanting England teams to win the matches they play, in football or in cricket — though quite often in cricket it’s obvious to me that my desire for the English cricket team to do well in part stems from my desire to have a competitive match: good Test cricket is one of life’s great pleasures, but when the English middle order collapses and the bowlers are crap, as has been known to happen, that’s very unlikely to take place. Cricket really is the sport where postimperial questions are quite inescapable, since the international game is entirely a product of the British Empire and matters of immigration and apartheid have done so much to shape the game, but I’m not going to try to talk about them here (go and read James and Marqusee if you’re interested) — except to say that when I experience feelings of postimperial guilt with respect to Test cricket I think that it doesn’t so much concern my feelings about the England team in particular, so much as the pleasure I derive from the entire spectacle (which we should understand here to include the Test Match Special radio commentary).

So, what of the rugby World Cup?

The two World Cup games I’ve enjoyed most were Wales vs New Zealand and Ireland vs Australia, in both cases because spirited performances by the Northern sides showed that the gap between (most) Northern and (most) Southern hemisphere rugby was narrower than it’s often taken to be. And watching the first game made it very easy to support Wales wholeheartedly against a dull and in some respects disappointing England the following week. It was a thoroughly good choice: Wales were the firm underdogs before the tournament began, in a sport where underdogs rarely win (look at both the quarter-final and semi-final lineups); and in their quarter-final they scored three tries to England’s one, played some great attacking rugby, led at half-time, and would have remained competitive right to the end if only that penalty kick had gone over in the 74th minute (or whenever it was). England won because Wales conceded way too many penalties, Jonny Wilkinson’s a good kicker, and their levels of personal fitness and discipline remained quite a bit higher. But those aren’t reasons for feeling terribly excited about their performance or their team. A dozen years ago I used to enjoy England’s ten-man rugby, but that was when I was a back-row forward myself, and I enjoyed watching England’s pack play well. Now it’s almost exactly ten years since the last game I ever played, and I find that I much prefer watching the open running game which I’ve seen Wales and France play in this World Cup better than England have managed to do — and that makes me want sides like that to do well. (I’ll certainly cheer for England if it’s an Australia vs England final, though, and that fact does say something about the ineliminably agonistic construction of national sporting identities.)

Chris writes critically of the “people who are plainly acculturated as English” who “seek to identify as �really� something else (on the grounds that this or that ancestor was Irish, Scottish or Welsh)”, but he seems to me to get things only half right here (at least in my case — though I have reason to think he was thinking of my case when he wrote those words). I’m “plainly acculturated as English”, but the point of cultivating a memory of where my ancestors came from in the context of sporting contests (in my case Ireland, Wales, England, New Zealand and Denmark) isn’t to stake an implausible claim to an authentic national identity that overrides my thoroughgoing Englishness. (What could that possibly be?) The fact of my grandmother’s Welshness, for example, and the fact that her father played rugby for Wales around a century ago doesn’t make me Welsh, but it does provide the right kind of elective affinity or affective attachment which makes it easier for me to cheer for Wales (or Ireland, or New Zealand, with reference to slightly different facts) than it would be to rustle up any real enthusiasm for, say, Australia, Scotland, Canada or Uruguay. (I’ll stop there before I start talking about interpellation and the way in which the universal does not hail. Don’t worry.)

Chris raises the further question of whether this “displaced allegiance [is] welcome or irritating to the recipients”. I don’t know. I imagine that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, and that that depends on the context: there’s more than one public for sport, that’s usually a very good thing, and the problem he raises is not unique to matters of national identifications: what do local supporters of Liverpool and Manchester United make of the southern middle-class kids who fetishise those teams? Or, closer to my home at least, what do the supporters of Oxford United make of the small number of university students who go to the games, and would they like there to be a lot more of them, such that the overall character of the fan base were to change significantly in its social composition? I’m sure many Irish and Welsh fans would find my occasional support for their rugby teams ridiculous and not especially welcome. But I also suspect that if I were to go to Lansdowne Road with my Irish uncles-by-marriage for Ireland v England (not an implausible possibility), they would both want me to cheer for Ireland and reserve the right to take the piss out of me as a representative Englishman where appropriate — and that seems entirely reasonable on their part.

There’s only one sports team about which I feel thoroughly and uncomplicatedly partisan, and that’s the Boston Red Sox. I was very surprised that I became interested in baseball at all, and after first going to a game at Fenway Park in 1996 my interest has continued to grow, and has (so far) survived a migration back from New to Old England three years ago. It’s not always easy to be a Sox fan on this side of the Atlantic (the internet — which, among other things, streams the WEEI Red Sox Radio Network — is invaluable), and I don’t quite know how I’ll feel about the Sox when all of the players I used to go and see or watch on television — Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and a handful of others — are no longer playing for the club. But I do enjoy being a Red Sox fan, enjoy hating the Yankees, and right now all I’m thinking is, Wait till next year!

… Except that before next year, there’s next week-end, and the matter of who to support in France vs England. Well, I have an aunt who lives in Normandy…

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