At the End of the Day

The only thing in Britain which doesn’t take us by surprise is failure

I imagine quite a few perfectly healthy Brits will be throwing a sickie tomorrow. Once again, Britain has a Wimbledon semi-finalist. He’s on absolutely top form, and playing the top seed Nadal in what promises to be a cracker. When that obnoxious git Krishnan Guru-Murthy said on a news comedy show last night “Of course Murray can’t win Wimbledon, don’t be silly”, I immediately began wanting Channel Four’s answer to Johann Hari to be proved spectacularly wrong.

A large part of me, however, thinks Guru-Murthy is probably right. For Wimbledon has become, over the years, the best weather-vane with which to gauge Britain’s state of mind, and level of decline.

Murray himself, for example, is a classic case of an obsessional loss of life balance in pursuit of a goal. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but our Andy has no sense of humour and – beyond tennis cliches about focus and attitude and feeling good about himself – little or no conversation. He has no style either, what with that dreadful wispy bumfluff sprouting from his neck, and shorts that always look as if they might be on inside-out. I know dozens of Andy Murrays in the UK. They work in ad agencies and commodities and Hitech and retail, and the reasons I don’t know them better are first, they never have any time; and second, they never talk about anything except digital banners, footfall and pork-belly futures. Andy Murray is the British dickheads’ champion.

Wimbledon crowds reflect our emotional incontinence and increasingly exhibitionist tendencies to a tee. Murray has set point, so those shrill “C’mon AndEEEEE!” yells start. He bounces the ball in readiness, and some twerp always wants to fill the silence by going “Whoooo” or “Yehheer”. In thirty years time, the yarooing twerp will play back recordings of the moment to bored grandchildren, saying “Hear that? That’s me that is!” It’s all part of living in the Facebook generation, because it’s all about Look At Meeeeeeeeee.

The expensive strawberries and corporate entertaining tents increasingly reflect a society within which the awful few have an awful lot, and the rest of us watch the telly. The prize money is getting ridiculous. And the ever-present pc insists that women earn the same as men – this despite endless market evidence that mens’ tennis is far more attractive to most fans. Once again, the feminists triumph over the realities.

Equally British is the BBC’s hold on the coverage rights. Auntie has lost most of them, but the traditional BBC (one somehow imagines) will always be the perfect Wimbledon broadcaster.

The Beeb still suffers from the generic live-sports delusion about former players making good commentators. Boris Becker makes technical observations during every game, but the problem is they’re the same ones over and over again. “That’s good, he has broken service. This means he can have a rest, and then come back fresh to clinch the set”. Becker is engagingly honest when talking about his life, but up there with Martin Keown in the commentary box. And Tim Henman is wooden. Nice enough, but wooden. I keep on wanting to shout “C’mon Tim!”: it was a way of life for so long, I can’t break the habit. Perhaps in recognition of his Wimbledon career, they won’t let him commentate on the Final. He’ll lose to John McEnroe in the semis.

Penultimately, if Wimbledon is about anything, it is about the British plonker. In the background are very old upper-middle class men trying to maintain some air of dignity in the face of all the grunting and line-call arguments. In the foreground are very wealthy young men and women cadging free Champagne off their suppliers and agencies. On the Court are British players who promise much and lose badly. And in the commentary box are the semi-finalists from three decades of average performance and hopeless temperament. Britain is superficial, amateurish, incompetent, visibly falling apart and devoid of adventure. All of this is on show at the All England Club championships.

And yet finally, the cachet of the event for foreigners demonstrates just how much potential there still is in the brand ‘England’. (Sorry, Scottish people, but on this issue I agree with you: Andy Murray is a Scot, but the appeal I’m talking about here is green England, not Bonnie Scotland). What’s lacking among many other things in the country England is one, any imagination within the Government corridors of Whitehall and Westminster; two, an education system based on ambition, inspiration and individuality; and three, a sporting investment plan to raise standards. What the Wimbledon Club itself is good at is preserving the brand Wimbledon. It was made in England to be quintessentially English. These days it is a confection: but the enormous power is still there.

Many English products reflecting our lingering image of fairness, eccentricity and decency are woefully under-exploited. The reason is obvious: Britain has no brand manager. I don’t mean the ‘Cool Britannia’ bollocks, I mean those aspects of England with global appeal – Savile Row, Oxford, Shakespeare, country pubs, solid furniture, tea, jam, milk chocolate, real ale, rock stars, the BBC, architecture, fruit cake, roses and a million other things.

Our lives in 2011 retain virtually none of this. But we don’t need to sell to ourselves, we need to sell our cultural output to others. I hope Murray wins tomorrow. But if he loses, that too will be in tune with our increasingly self-placating acceptance of mediocrity: “Never mind – there’s always next year”. The UK faces a situation in which there isn’t going to be any next year unless we raise our game now.