Phew – that was an intense fortnight. I am the first person to drop out of a conversation about football. In my 40 years I have tried several times to see what the fuss is about, and it just doesn’t interest me (a bit like Star Wars). But even I finally got into it for Wednesday night’s World Cup semi-final.
There’s just something about a national fever that you can’t ignore; and it would have felt needlessly perverse and snotty to turn away from England’s semi-final efforts, even if I do find the game less than engaging. These things turn into shared milestones in our common culture, and can often form cross-generational talking points as the years go on. I still remember what our school did to celebrate Prince Andrew and Fergie’s wedding in 1986, and so do many of my friends, who are from all sorts of different places around the country.
I had the same thing with this year’s Royal Wedding. I was pretty determined not to get involved, excited or interested about two people who seem pretty nice on the face of it, getting a very fancy wedding that most of us only dream of, simply because of the groom’s parentage. But there I was on 19 May, sobbing because a beautiful American woman was doing it for herself, for me, and women and girls everywhere: bucking centuries of oppressive tradition by walking down the aisle ON HER OWN, to marry into one of the most strictly traditional and most British of establishments. I LOVED it. But it was that national fever, built up for weeks before, that drew me in on the morning itself, and made sure I witnessed and felt part of this moment of wonderful significance.
These things happen every couple of years; the last royal wedding in 2011, followed by 2012 and the London Olympics, and more recently whenever Andy Murray has had a sniff at the Wimbledon final. The national unity in excitement, anticipation and expectation is much the same for the big state occasions, as it is for the sporting ones.
The state occasions are always a triumph: they’re littered with stunning, historic buildings; young and glamorous members of our Royal Family, which has risen from the disastrous ashes of the 90s to fight another day; and buckets of pomp and ceremony. Combine all that, and you get events that triumph at home and abroad, and give us a collective national high; a feeling that Being British is Best, even it’s just for the day.
And we love that high. It’s a massive ego boost to a part of your identity – your home, your country, your nation is the best at something. That’s what inspires you to get behind the team, or watch the royal event. It’s just so tempting you can’t look away.
Our sporting occasions are much the same: imposing stadium settings here and abroad, filled with gods and goddesses who possess levels sporting ability that most of us can’t hope to achieve, all competing in games and events that are known and loved by millions; culminating again in that spectacle not to be missed.
But there’s one big difference with the sporting events – that British high just isn’t guaranteed. There is always the chance of us losing at whatever sport we are trying our hand at; and frankly, we lose far more regularly than we win.
But this is the point about backing British. We love that high, and we always have unshakeable faith and belief that our teams can triumph. This year’s World Cup was the closest the men’s team has been for 28 years.* The high was in touching distance, and the levels of joy if they’d won the final would have been delirious. In 2012, Andy Murray gave us the Wimbledon win we’d been waiting for in the men’s game since 1936…it was a long wait, especially for those of us who slogged through the Tim Henman years. But for millions, the high was worth it – and believing in the possibility of the high, along with everyone else, is always too tempting to turn down, even at the risk of the low.
*It is very well worth pointing out that the England women’s team made the semi-finals of the World Cup three years ago, and that they generally have FAR more success than the men; but this travesty of reporting regard is another story, and another blog post.