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Red Crosses and the Green Stuff (June 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

While painted English faces are turned towards Germany, the politicians are cheering on the sale of the UK's assets.

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Too much has been happening. Two books have to be prepared for publishers, the future of my Tübingen department after I retire has to be assured, and a political situation has developed where I will be fighting for a seat in the Scottish parliament, as a Scottish Nationalist in the Kirkcaldy constituency. The Westminster MP is my ci-devant ally, now opponent, Gordon Brown.

So, to get back at Whitsun to Wales, even if only for a couple of days, was to gain reflective time. I could combine cultivating my garden (or at least stop the lawn becoming a hayfield) with checking footnotes in the National Library of Wales, surely the most efficient research library in western Europe, 10 minutes' walk up the hill.

Leaving for Scotland, I found, when I got to Aberystwyth station, that the new summer timetable was out: important information for the Cambrian coast's tourist trade and the thousands of students who use our branch line. The weekday schedules were OK, but at the weekends the trains apparently only got as far as Shrewsbury. Connections between Wales and England had simply disappeared, without explanation.

The trains of course would be there, but what a mess! Was this down to the incompetence of private rail and the ministry of transport: under yet another of Gordon's Scots munchkins? Almost certainly. But the mistake also seemed symbolic. Never have we been more conscious of the fissures opening up within the United Kingdom than in the last few weeks. Football bores me stiff, and the antics of the Tartan Army, the comic supporters of Scotland's comic football team, have never compensated. But the spectacle of beer-gutted, blowlamp-tanned George-crossed blokedom on every station platform or swirling around the streets in their ubiquitous, beflagged white vans, not to mention Suave Dave on his patriotic bike, seemed to be happening in a parallel universe.

The World Cup weeks have been when (leave aside crumbling infrastructure, health service and pension system, and unending conflict in Iraq) a Spanish building company bought most of Britain's airports; Singaporeans (or maybe Aussies) took over the ports; and Icelandic speculators, operating out of a country whose economy seemed gravity-defying, bid for Britain's biggest department-store group. "Great, super, marvellous," chorused 10 and 11 Downing Street.

In the early 19th century some daft Tory aristo wrote:

Let wealth and commerce, law and learning flee,
But spare us yet our old nobility.

For nobility, read football, and you get the drift. These are the same sort of sentiments as Frederick the Great's call to his troops - "Fools, do you want to live forever?" - best repaid by a bullet in the back. Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling, seeing the Boers chasing the Tommies across the veldt, got Biblically worked up about what Marxists would call false consciousness:

Then ye returned to your trinkets, then ye contented your souls,
With the flannelled fools at the wicket, and the muddied oafs at the goals.

Bill Shankley's line about football being "more important" than life and death was probably an invention; but in Glenbuck in the 1930s, the game was certainly more important than the life chances the Scottish coal-and-iron economy, flat on the floor, offered. The intriguing thing was to see how this cult had battened on what was supposedly the Europe-beating economic set-up run by New Labour.

There was an almost metaphysical question here: ought the Scots, Welsh or Irish to want England to win or to lose? If England lost, humiliation; but also the possibility that the whole miasma of football patriotism might burn itself off, and the place might sober up and get real (and worrying) with its politics. Or would winning bring the whole delusional quality of the contemporary UK to a crisis and accelerate the break-up?

There is a persistent realistic, underdog element in traditional English patriotism. Think of the bowmen in the camp before Agincourt, the cheerful volunteers in Philip Larkin's MCMXIV:

These long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark ...

And then there are the little ships coming back from the Dunkirk beaches. Remember how in 1982 Chariots of Fire, with its outsiders - a dedicated, over-professional Jew, an evangelical Scot coming up from behind - gave a moral tone to Thatcher's Falklands adventure.

In Germany, however, the English 11 and its entourage, millionaires to a man, seem to resemble the cocky French chivalry on the night before the battle in Olivier's Henry V. It is all, in fact, damned un-English, and one looks for some plucky small democracy to usurp the honourable underdog role, and take them down a peg or three.

Past the crowds broiling outside the pubs (who were they? East Grinstead wasn't exactly proleville. City boys, I'd guess, slumming it), I walked out on the Downs and got the length of Standen, a house built by William Morris's disciple Philip Webb in the 1890s for a London solicitor's family and since the 1970s owned by the National Trust. Standen still had the sense that you, the visitor, were living in it, even if only for a few minutes. Farmhouse-like, unpretentious, 'formerly the scene of plain manners and plentiful living; oak clothes chests, oak bedsteads, oak chests of drawers, and oak tables to eat on'. I bet Webb knew these lines from William Cobbett's Rural Rides. His and Morris's arts-and-crafts socialism went back to that English demotic patriotism of Bunyan, Blake, Paine and Cobbett.

But there was a German connection. Around 1905 a young architectural critic attached to the embassy in London, Herman Muthesius, discovered Standen and other modest country houses by Norman Shaw, CFA Voysey, Baillie Scott and Rennie Mackintosh. This, he proclaimed to the Germans, was how the middle classes should live - country life and walks, entertaining en famille, music-making, healthy eating, social work, rather than the frenetic "hotel existence" of the great European metropoli - encouraged civic virtu.

This was a bit ambiguous. Like Phyllis in Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children (which had the same date and roughly the same plot), Muthesius meant extremely well, but his anti-urbanism was taken up by various enrageés who saw in every flat roof and plate-glass window the inevitable cosmopolitan-Jewish plot. One of them, Philipp Schulze-Naumburg, built the Cäcilienhof in Potsdam for the crown prince: a Sussex country house for a man who became notorious as a Nazi sympathiser.

But this does not stop contemporary Germans from coming to marvel, or goggling at unending TV adaptations of Rosamunde Pilcher novels in which nice English gels save nice old houses (how different from the lives and homes of Ludwig of Bavaria, Alfred Krupp and Kaiser Bill). Yet the sort of mutual, self-improving England that Webb and the National Trust represented has come under threat.

The mutual company in insurance or housing has followed nonconformity to the margins, and now higher education is becoming cash-selective. The Youth Hostels Association is closing down many of its country hostels in favour of big-city addresses that encourage the 'hotel existence" of those drawn to the dreary sequence of London sights. Public libraries are being cut to the bone and voluntary bodies are worried about the lack of young recruits from a yoof not being energised by, but drowning in, the flood of infotainment and advertising hype.

What would be the future of the younger of those close-cropped fans in red? There was actually an echo of the Tartan Army - "We wiz magic! We wiz rubbish!' - about them: a running-gag about pretension and puncture. Perhaps, since the English in Germany were high on partying and low on violence, they were taking on the Scots mastery of postmodern parody.

The transformation of Mad Mac in Braveheart into the Jimmy Hat, who saved the 1998 World Cup from the hooligans, was now at a discount because the Scots 11 was not good enough to qualify anywhere. But could the English continue the joke when the industries that could produce high-value-added services and perhaps a new entrepreneurial generation in eco-hi-tech manufacturing were (in an avalanche of "burying bad news"?) being flogged off to the Baugurs and Ferrovials? Would future employment mean shelf-stacking, van-driving, cold-calling; or the anonymous chances of the financial services industry, with its vast gulfs between call centre folk and salarymen, and between salarymen and CEOs? And what would happen when the housing retail driver failed?

The Scots always were wheeler-dealers, sentimental only insofar as far as it paid; the English, from Cobbett to Orwell via Chesterton and Kipling ("An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool you bet that Tommy sees!") have always been more passionate and visceral. As the data from the footsie oscillates ever more alarmingly, out of the Sussex woods and meadows one senses Cobbett's voice - Reigate, 25 October 1825 - growing louder than any stadium roar:

Go to plough! Good God! What, young gentlemen go to plough! They become clerks, or some skimmy-dish thing or other. They flee from dirty work as cunning horses do from the bridle. What misery is all this! What a mass of materials for producing that general and dreadful convulsion that must, first or last, come and blow this funding and jobbing and enslaving and starving system to atoms!

 
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