Sunday, 29 July 2012

In which I examine my patriotic pride for bugs, and cheer on the great British riders

The Dear Readers take a stand against patriotism, and in a way they are quite right. It is, after all, the last refuge of the scoundrel. It is such a random thing, which country you are born in; really, we are all citizens of the world.

In some ways, though, I think patriotism gets a bad name. It need not be a narrow, competitive thing. One can feel fondness for one’s country without thinking it is the best. There is a great difference between narrow chauvinism and generous national pride.

I feel about my country the same way I feel about my family. One may feel pride in one’s mother’s or father’s achievements, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with one, and the people to whom one is born is just as random as is one’s home city.

I feel insanely proud that I had a dad who rode in the Grand National, even though he did it before I ever existed. When I think of him and miss him, I look at a picture of him booting some dear old steeplechaser over a fence, his teeth gritted, a look of manic determination and wild joy in his eyes, and I feel happy again. I do not think my family or my country is the finest that ever existed; quite the opposite. I love them because of their flaws, not in spite of them. (Someone, I think it may have been Balzac, said that is the truest kind of love.)

My fondness for Britons stems not from the hope that they might be world-beaters, but because of the family connection: the shared references, the in-jokes, the cultural shorthands. It is familiarity, as much as anything. It is understanding about Marmite and Monty Python and Mrs Slocombe’s pussy and Pride and Prejudice and Dad’s Army and Dr Who and we few, we happy few. (Even these shorthands may fracture; many of my cultural markers will be strange to those of my compatriots under forty.)

In these games, it shall be lovely to see fine competitors of whatever nationality fulfil their potential, be rewarded for all that work and striving. But if Rebecca Adlington or Mary King or Ben Ainslie or William Fox-Pitt win something, there shall be an extra frisson of delight, because we are related by all the national icons, stitched together by the NHS, and the weather, and self-deprecation, and Shakespeare, and all those other things of which Britain's identity is made.

It is a bit nuts to love one country more than another, but human emotions are not always neatly explicable. Danny Boyle’s great and glorious opening ceremony reminded a lot of Britons what it is that makes us fond and proud: the eccentric, the historic, the exuberant, the very slightly odd. I doubt that any other country on earth would have put dancing nurses into a sporting extravaganza. Or suffragettes and shire horses and Chelsea Pensioners and sheep, for that matter. It had nothing to do with me, yet I did feel proud. I even quite liked the very British fact that, beside all the delight and amazement and applause, there was the statutory curmudgeonly grumbling. We do curmudgeonly better than anyone.

I think you can wave your own flag without wanting to lower anyone else’s. Poor old Blighty is a bit battered and bashed at the moment, what with the crappy economy and industrial decline and the embarrassment of the football. It would cheer one up to win something.

But if we don’t, the crowds will still cheer for those of other nations who do. They will cheer effort as much as victory. This generous spirit was on display on the water this morning, when a capacity crowd saved its biggest roar of the day for a rower from Niger, who was so far behind the rest that he was practically in another county. Hamadou Djibo Issaka has, I very much doubt, a drop of British blood, but he showed the glorious underdog spirit which Britons love the most, and was taken instantly to the spectators’ hearts. I don’t think anyone on the water got more sincere applause.

My Team GB cockles were warmed today by the lovely performances from Zara Phillips and William Fox-Pitt in the dressage stage of the three-day-event. Most of all, I was thrilled by the extraordinary composure of Tina Cook, who had to ride the most delicate of equestrian disciplines in a torrential rain storm. She and her lovely horse, Miners Frolic, rose mightily to the occasion, and, despite thunder and lightning, made a brilliant score of 42.00. Cook’s father, Josh Gifford was a racing compadre of my father’s. He most famously trained Aldaniti to win the Grand National, and, even more memorably, refused to jock off the cancer-stricken Bob Champion when some of his owners complained. So he was a great gentleman, and he died in February, and I thought of that as I watched Cook. I wondered if she were remembering her dad and wishing he were there to see her. He would have been fiercely proud.

Taking my Blighty hat off, I was incredibly happy to see the majestic horseman Mark Todd of New Zealand, still at the top of the world at the age of 56, ride a perfect, balletic test on his delightful Campino. The knowledgeable crowd also took their own nationalist hats off to give the tremendous Kiwi a rousing cheer, recognising true excellence when they saw it. The commentators were beside themselves. ‘Toddy,’ they said, with joy and admiration, ‘very, very good.’

Tomorrow, I shall be shouting for the British riders as they face the daunting cross country fences. Team GB lies in third place, just behind Germany and Australia. In a way, none of this matters. It is just a sporting competition; national glory is only a human construct, and a fairly peculiar one. But for all that, I do feel proud, and I do feel hopeful, and I shall be waving my metaphorical flag. They are all such great competitors, and the horses are so brave and fine. Let them go for gold.


I did not have a moment to take out the camera today. What with working with the horses and watching the dressage and I don’t know what else, the day got away from me. Just time for my girls, in elegant black and white:


29 July 10

29 July 11


  1. Being partisan is admittedly tapping in to the primitive tribal instinct, but that doesn't mean we should scorn it. Primitive instincts are behind a lot of really pleasurable things: the nurturing of small, helpless creatures; sex ; home-building; to name just a few. As long as we recognise the origin of our emotion I see nothing wrong at all in screaming for Team GB. I'll be doing that tomorrow. Only wish I could have found myself a ticket.

  2. As one of the Readers who may have come across as scorning patriotism yesterday, I would like to clarify that I absolutely agree with you that patriotism at its best is a positive force to be encouraged-- I am sorry that I seemed to say otherwise! I think that what I wanted to convey has more to do with the particular nature of specifically American patriotism as it seems to a leftist in the US, where it has been almost entirely coopted by the right wing, and takes such a contemptible and stupid form ("Mr. Obama, why aren't you wearing a flag pin?") that, over the years, those of us on the left have gradually come to the conclusion that we want nothing to do with it. Certain people have made US patriotism exactly that exclusive, negative emotion that you revile: My country, right or wrong, because dammit, we are better than you. The Left is aware that the world sees "us" saying this, and we are ashamed, and it has become with us a very hard thing to say that we are proud to be Americans, though we might be (I was yesterday, when I went to a Mexican grocery store and got a bag of chickpea flour on sale as a "Ramadan special"-- multiculturalism is not exclusive to us, but I love it about us). I am given to understand, though I may be wrong, that a similar problem exists for some Germans-- "I am proud to be German" is a slogan adopted by the far-far-right, and so one must exercise caution in saying it. I hope this clarifies.

    There is the additional irony (?) that your cultural references mean more to me than my own do; I'm not entirely sure what my own are. I think that the Left handles patriotism by becoming patriotic about our home regions, or cities, or even neighborhoods-- but our nation as a whole is often too large and too problematic, and we must shade it with grey.

    1. Very well said, Ellie.


  3. I was really chuffed to see four young Belgian men stride into the Olympic pool area tonight to compete in the Men's 400 meter relay FINALS...and I'm not even Belgian! (They finished eighth out of eight.)
    Sometimes it really isn't about winning or losing. Getting there at all is a major and most remarkable achievement.

  4. I want the best at each sport to win, and I hope that sometimes that means an American. If it doesn't, then it is not the end of the world.

    That said, a friend I have known since she was 14 is married to one of the US's dressage riders. So for purely personal reasons, knowing what fine people they are, I hope he wins. But really, that is saying, "I hope this year is his year"--not that the outcome of the competition makes him any better or worse.

    I love that the Brits cheer for the underdogs. Can you even imagine what it takes for those lone athletes from remote, poor countries to even get to the Olympics? I want them to hear the roar of the crowd for them, to have great memories that no one can ever take away from them--to know that all the effort they put in and the sacrifices they made were, ultimately, recognized.


  5. I was the one to kick off this debate (if that's what it is) by my comment which was only meant to be a musing about partisanship, not an attack on all aspects of patriotism. I love my countries (England and now Wales) and cannot imagine living outside the UK, but I don't seem to have the patriotic gene, like some people don't have the religious gene.

    It's all a matter of degree, I suppose. And Elle has hit a chord with me when she observes that in the USA the right wing has annexed the expression of deep feeling for one's country and turned it into something much less charming than just loving where one lives. It is, in their hands, not anything that others can easily sign up because of the sense of superiority over the rest of the world.

    The UK press coverage has not been spread evenly over all our 500+ Olympians, but focused obsessively on those it is imagined are most likely to win a medal, preferably a gold medal. I am pretty sure that's not how things should be done. It's focusing on hoped-for superiority, not the immensely impressive human endeavour that gets a person to the level in their chosen sport where they have the chance to appear at the Olympics.

    Now the Team GB cycling hype has taken a kick in the pants perhaps the coverage will just calm down and let us enjoy these games as a sporting event, not an orgy of nationalism.

  6. Such interesting comments; thank you. Hurrah for excellent blog debate!


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin