In my teens I did not believe in patriotism, the world would be a better place if we saw humanity as one family. Waving the Union Jack and claiming to be better than other nations did not fit my vision of the world.
But I have been waving the St George flag for the last few weeks even if it did end in tears. This year, as a Torquay supporter I’ve seen two disastrous penalty shootouts.
At the age of 14 I went to France on an exchange visit before the French boy came to stay with us. Wherever we took him in the UK we got the same lines, “It is better in France” or “We ‘ave ze same in France”. Even Longleat, before any lions, was no better than a French Chateaux. When I was staying with his family I had not suggested “we have the same in England” but as, I stayed in the Alps, it would have been difficult to imagine anything quite the same in England. I then realised that I am patriotic if a foreigner insults my country. Only a true Englishman can insult England.
I have now spent many happy holidays in France and realise that he was not typical, but then there are also some difficult Englishmen.
My patriotism returned for the Euros, and I don’t mean the currency.
I am so geriatric that I remember 1966. I was 16 on a cycling, camping holiday with a friend when we reached Porlock, took one look at the hill and decided to book in at the camp site at the bottom. I listened to the football on a small transistor radio. There was a German family in the next-door tent. At 89 minutes England were winning 2-1. The commentator was waxing lyrical. “England gave football to the World and now take it back in the form of the world cup” and, without stopping continued, “and Germany are now on the ball and Germany score”. The words are still stuck in the brain. The German family looked over and smiled.
Extra time was tense, but I don’t need to tell you the result. At the end I looked over at the German tent. It had gone. It’s a pity there isn’t a German word for “schadenfreude”.
I then walked into the village when a coach drove past. A man stuck his head out of the window, which was possible in those days. “Who won?” he shouted. I shouted back “England” and the whole bus cheered.
But British patriotism is more subtle than, for example, America. On holiday in Florida we arrived at Busch Gardens as they opened. We had just walked in when “The Star-Spangled banner” was played over the PA system. Everyone stopped and put their hand over their heart. I joined in but felt self-conscious. I’m not American but deliberately not putting my hand on my heart might have seemed like an insult, and they all have guns. But I wondered whether it would have the same effect if they played “God save the Queen” as they opened Alton Towers.
Without having a flagpole in my garden or waving a union jack, I do rather like my country and would not want to live anywhere else.
Like many other Brits my most enthusiastic response is “it’s ok”. I am proud of the British habit of not appearing proud, our self-effacing cynicism. We have laughed at ourselves and our leaders from the days of Jonathan Swift through to the political cartons of James Gillray in the late 18th century up to Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s and Have I got news for you today. Even the light satire of Yes Minister would not work in some countries. In America some people thought it was a documentary.
Laughing at our football team has become a national sport over the last 55 years. The song ‘Three Lions’ is not triumphalist – 30 years of hurt although it’s now more like 55. But there will be another chance to be patriotic again. Next year it’s the World Cup.
Torbay Weekly Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.