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Monday, 31 May 2010

Making Your Mind Up

On the day we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the  great escape from Dunkirk, the UK comes last in the Eurovision Song Contest which Germany won. They deserved to, it was by far the best song and already well known and had been, we were told, a smash hit across Europe.

This latest humiliation does not bode well for England's chances in the World Cup in South Africa. For many of us there is a worrying symmetry forming here. In 1967 we won Eurovision with  Sandy Shaw's "Puppet on a String". We won the World Cup the year before.

In a world where English is the first language we, the English, now seem strangely at sea. Wouldn't you think that a country that gave birth to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Tolkien, not to mention John Lennon and Ray Davis could write a song that had a chance of beating the perfidious Europeans? But, of course , we do. This year's winning song was written by English composers. As were many of previous years' winners. Which begs the question why can't we find a similar talent to write our entries?

Which in a round about way brings us back to the World Cup. Unlike the Americans we don't have a national game that only the Japanese want to play seriously. Football is the  lingua franca of sport. Everybody understands it better than we do. We have to employ foreign managers to explain the game to us. We have to field overseas masters to ensure we can compete against overseas teams.

We are constantly seeking affirmation of our place in the world. The least sparkle or nova is seen to presage the beginnings of a new age; when we will take our rightful place as leaders in all that is sporting. Yet we just miss. In tennis, in golf, in rugby we slip at the last gasp. Currently cricket is our saviour - we are winning and winning well. But already many of us are asking "How long?"  This is not a question that would trouble the Australians.

Yet I'd like to argue that this continuing failure (and uncertainty) is our strength. We know what our limits are. Often we're uncomfortable in our own constraints, but often our own lack of seriousness ( application some might say) creates a brilliance that we as a people bask in.

Much of our literary heritage grows out of our self mockery, our sense of our own pomposity and over weaning grandeur. So much of our humour reflects our own suspicion of accuracy, discipline and success. Basil Fawlty, Del Boy and the Young Ones, The Office, all undermine any sense of rightness we might harbour, but for me it is Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock that captures our essence. We're a right load of puffed up fatally flawed geniuses. A man who can hold at least four conflicting views at the same time yet  arrive at a choice that validates his own sense of worth. (Others might view him as a buffoon or fool). That is genius.  Hancock, bowed maybe, rises serenely certain of his place in the cosmos.

To see or hear Hancock ( over 50 years ago) is to witness the improvisation that carved out Dunkirk, that gave us that stunning Gazza goal against Scotland. It reminds us that we're a lucky race; who don't deserve our place at the high table - except by some magic we give rise to some of the most creative voices ever.

So let's celebrate our last place in Eurovision. We don't do programme, planned pop. We don't do detailed planning. Our genius is intuitive, happen chance and revelationary. If you need any persuading read Milton's "Paradise Lost" or listen to The Kinks "Waterloo Sunset" and watch the sun rise on an English field to sense the power in our folly.

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