Letter from London: The Stoic Competitives
Brits may publicly eschew the base desire to win, but no people celebrate harder (subtly)
Dear friends and fellow Americans,
Last July — my first summer in England — I found myself on an artificial grass court in South London, sweating profusely, huffing and puffing and standing in disbelief after hitting ball after ball in every corner of the opposite end and having them put right back at me. My opponent, a music teacher 10 years my senior, didn’t necessarily have the skills or the acumen that I did at more than 35 years in the game, but by mid-match, it was clear this Brit wanted to grind me to the ground. When I mentioned her determination, she simply brushed it off, smiled and said, “I’m a dog like that. I chase everything down.”
I left the court thinking perhaps that because the English invented Lawn Tennis, they felt obliged excel at that particular sport. After all, every Wimbledon fortnight is a celebration of the best of the Queen’s ball-smashing subjects. But hoping to make friends, mind you, not more competitors, I joined a running club and then found myself trying to keep up with the last of the pack at a 5k training race. Bloody hell, I thought, if I can’t outrun them, outwalk them? So I talked my then-girlfriend into joining a women’s golfing group. She proved a capable golfer. I, on the other hand, watched everyone hit eagles and birdies — dismissing their talent as “luck” or “wind” — while after five shots over par, I picked up my ball and moved to the next hole.
Through all of this, I learned an important lesson about the Brits: they are as doggedly competitive as the most obnoxious American, yet they are loathe to ever admit it. And yet, I persist, having given up the golf… Still, with every club, team, or even practice match, I seem to find increasingly competitive opponents and teammates. When I bring this up to English friends, they agree and laugh it off, which is not very helpful. So I walked down to Waterstone’s and consulted two English people who have also tried to figure out their own kind: the late journalist, A.A. Gill, author of The Angry Island: Hunting the English, and the dual English-American citizen and anthropologist, Kate Fox, who wrote Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.
Gill seems to have figured it out when he became a parent, and felt the “unseemly desire to see your kid defeat every other kid,” knowing “it’s wrong.” The spark of success had terrified Gill. The child of a man who had a “deep despise for the muddied oafs and flannelled fools,” Gill once nicked a fellow competitors’ track shoes and won 100-meter race. Could he do it again? He thought not, and ultimately decided “not to do sport,” but to do “cynicism instead.” Gill ultimately concluded that prowess and winning might just be too Darwinian for the English — even if Darwin himself was English.
“The world we have created is not inherited by the fleet and strong, the bold or brave. It is invented and maintained by the collegiate, the cooperative, the committee people, the team players, the democrats, the humanists,” Gill wrote in 2016. “The people you want to spend your life with are the pretty, witty ones, not the ones who can hold their breath longest underwater.”
Alright, so base — or human — emotions are for the lesser of us. Sure you can feel them, but don’t show them. Yet somehow those middle-aged English ladies in my Monday-night doubles matches still curse like sailors when they hit a bad forehand. What’s with that? What does the anthropologist have to say?
Fox looked to reality television — specifically, the dated show Big Brother — to try to figure out “English false modesty.” The people who applied and auditioned to take part in Big Brother weren’t exactly the typical English, however; they actively wanted to be exposed to the public gaze, be lauded and famous. “And yet their behaviour in the Big Brother house was largely characterised by typically English inhibition, squeamishness and awkwardness. They only broke the rules when they were very drunk.” Rather, they drowned themselves in drink legitimise their deviance, wrote Fox, who added that her book’s “success is almost entirely down to luck, no doubt.” At least she cops to fact that her “good fortune” may have something to do with what prompted her to write Watching the English: her grasp (or lack of grasp) of “Englishness” was keeping her “awake at night.” Join the club, Kate.
Back to last summer — my middle-aged opponent and I went on to spilt sets, and thankfully, I won in the third (I hate to lose to inexperienced players). Later that month, I watched a BBC documentary about the 2012 London Olympics, Gold Rush: Our Race to Olympic Glory. Described as the way “Britain turned its sporting reputation around over 16 years to triumph at the London 2012 Olympics,” this TV show, without even saying it, explains the phenomenon of the quiet English competitor. A tiny island against the rest of the big world, if it can’t beat the others naturally, it will outspend, outmaneuver, outsmart and get the job done, putting on the most memorable Olympics in years and bringing home 29 gold medals — just behind the US and China. But England’s people shall never forget their place on the map, lest some other quiddity come along and offer a reminder.
But even as I write this, the news announces that six Brits have advanced to the second round of Wimbledon and the BBC commentators couldn’t be happier about it.
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