These are peculiar times. Things are off kilter in the cockpit of the old empire. It is as if something in the air and soil has conspired to banish the celebrated cliches Britain as a nation moans about: miserable weather, sporting failure—and weather causing, affecting or being in the vicinity of sporting failure.
For those determined to find gloom amidst this—this summer of mass content—there’s still the tanking economy, plus a coalition government looking increasingly like a petty resident’s association doing its dirty linen in public. And for steely republicans, the hysteria over the birth of a future heir to the throne.
But, for the majority in the UK, the past few months have been a rather spiffing affair. The temperature has soared to around 30ºc most days, the sun shines uninterrupted and the skies beam a blue so blue they make the turquoise mines of Madagascar curl in envy.
And as if the scorching climate was not enough, it seems Britain has rediscovered just a touch of its past greatness in the realm of winning.
It seemed impossible that last summer could be topped—a phenomenally successful Olympics in London, with Team GB reaching a staggering third in the medals table, the pomp and grandeur of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the first ever British winner of the Tour de France (Bradley Wiggins). But, apparently, 2013 just will not be beaten at the game, on any field, track or pitch, played with balls in leather, rubber or cork. In the past two months, Andy Murray has won the Wimbledon—the first British men’s champion for 77 years; the British and Irish Lions rugby team were victorious in their Australia tour, the first series win in 16 years; and Chris Froome has retained the Tour de France for Britain.
And the crowning glory? England are simply thrashing the Australians in the Ashes. This week’s excoriating 347-run rout at Lord’s has put England 2-0 up, with a big series triumph anticipated by all except the staunchest outposts of optimism Down Under. Indeed, the confident Lord’s crowd openly, derisively, chortled when Australian skipper Michael Clarke voiced hope for a turnaround in the remaining three Tests.
As Tim Adams noted in The Observer, an apparent change in the British character has occurred—yet, characteristically, without too much fuss. “Forty-five years of inbuilt resignation—born out of assuming the homegrown player or team would eventually locate a novel means of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—was replaced by a strangely un-British confidence: things may look pretty bad just now, but most likely they would turn out alright in the end.”
It is an odd cocktail, at once sweet and strong—optimism has after all always come with a health warning in Britain. One of the most common phrases quoted around times of ignominious exits from football World Cups—usually on penalties—is paraphrased from John Cleese’s character’s lament in the 1986 film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
So is this indeed a golden period of British sport, thematically engineered to complement its golden summer? English cricket has enjoyed many a heyday, but this one coincides with the decline of the once indomitable Aussies who whitewashed them 5-0 as recently as in 2007. Rugby tells a similar tale. And tennis and cycling, two sports played by the individual, are undoubtedly having their day in the uncommonly warm sun.
The Daily Telegraph sports writers pitched right in. Cycling correspondent Ian Chadband feels the UK has never had it so good. The wins “eclipse anything that has gone before, with British track riders dominating the Olympics and a nation now being able to boast three champion road racers who could adorn any era.” Simon Briggs, its tennis writer, chimes in with the thought that Murray is up there with the best British players of all time.
But can a healthy suspicion of good fortune ever be dispelled? Shakespeare wrote in The Rape of Lucrece, “What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?” And those who are quietly elated now that British reserve and pessimism has had its day should bear those words in mind. On the night the royal heir was born, the heavens shook and the rains lashed down. The gods were either joyous or cheesed off, depending on who you spoke or tweeted to. It felt like the final act in a ‘history’ worthy of the Bard himself.
A history that begins in far-off lands, where warriors of the Sceptred and Emerald Isles fought to reprise the mighty egg of the heavens. Through scrum and drop-goal, they conquered the ferocious Wallabies that had tortured them so through pub banter and humiliation (Cue lightning). A prophecy of a highland (well, Dunblane) brave who would conquer the green, pleasant lawns of England with his sword hewn from graphite and catgut (Cue thunder). Of the man with winged helmet and magical machine, fleet of foot, born in the dark continent (Kenya) who shall speed to the triumphal arch (Cue more lightning). Of the island natives that shall rise up with willow cudgels and leather missiles to beat back the invaders who come armed with sun cream and bleached hair (Cue thunder again). And, finally, of the infant kingling, born under a hyperglycemic storm—whence the people rejoice...until World Cup 2014...when England go out...on penalties once more (Cue rain).
By Saptarshi Ray in London