A lot of things that don’t make much in the way of sense tend to get written about the decline of the British national character. Half a century or more of the welfare state, easy credit and easier divorce has, so the prophets of doom say, turned us into a nation of pleasure seeking layabouts liable to collapse into hysterics of a sort that would have shamed our stoic grandparents when faced with the slightest hardship.
I can only imaging those people who make their living reading the last rites over the corpse of their country must be blind to the solemn scenes played out with painful regularity in a small Wiltshire town with a name so typically British in its whimsicality you could be forgiven for thinking it the creation of a team of marketing experts.
The town in question is Wootton Bassett and the solemn ceremonies relate to the bodies of British service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan returned in flag draped coffins to nearby RAF Lynham.
Almost since the start of those two unhappy wars local residents, joined more recently by people from around the country, line the streets to pay tribute to the returning war dead. This isn’t a ceremony scripted by some government appointee with one eye on garnering good publicity for an unpopular war; rather it is the spontaneous product of something the media claim has all but vanished from our national life, patriotism.
At a time when the nature of what it means to be British is under assault from the forces of a globalized economy, social change and a peculiarly British desire not to be seen making a fuss about who you are or what you stand for the display of public patriotism seen in Wootton Bassett is both authentic and vital.
Its authenticity rests on the fact they is so very understated, there are flags in abundance but they’re lowered to symbolise a shared grief and a shared understanding of the part played by the casualties of the current conflict in the much longer story of a small island struggling to make its way in a large and threatening world. The difference between this and the loud, gaudy and puddle shallow patriotism of a football crowd draped in flags of St George is as clear as that between lead and pure gold.
That such a display takes place at all is vital in the way that it demonstrates a sense of what it means to be British that isn’t based on race or generation, the crowds lining the streets in Wootton Bassett were as multi-cultural as anything assembled by earnest workers after integration and the age range spanned those with memories of the last world war to children young enough not to have been born when Tony Blair took office. It also symbolises a sense of what it means to be British that is informed by an awareness of our remarkable history and past achievements without being their hostage.
It would be reading too much into an event given value by its simplicity to claim this marks some ‘sea-change’ in the way we feel about ourselves; an end to years of hand wringing apologies and a mature acceptance that while many things change the essential character of a people is a constant. One thing though is clear, however much they wail about its decline the people who claim to understand the British character haven’t, in most cases, managed to get its measure.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the, partial, retirement this week of a sportsman who embodies much that is good about the British character, the England cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, who has given up playing Test cricket saying ‘My body has told me its time to stop.’
Showing a typically self deprecating view of his own abilities as a player and an inspiration to others he scotched any suggestion that his impending retirement would overshadow England’s performance in the Ashes saying ‘An Ashes series is bigger than any one player.’
Quite so, but then again Freddie Flintoff himself is bigger than most other players. In an age when sports stars are all too often gilded aristocrats divorced from the real lives of the fans who pay their inflated wages or focussed but bland automata grinding out results with all the joy of a canned goods factory set up in a gulag he possesses the magic ingredient of ‘character.’
At its worst that can manifest itself in tipsy mishaps that make the front page of the next day’s tabloids, at its best is represents a mixture of gritty determination and anarchic good humour that is as British as tea on the village green and trains that don’t run on time.
Thirty one is a little young for a player of his standing to be hanging up his bat for good, and Freddie Flintoff will still be available for one day matches and lucrative 20/20 games, it does make you wonder what will become of him once the long littleness of full retirement descends.
Surely not decades of well fed ineffectuality as one of the ‘blazers’ of which there are already far too many hanging on the coat tails of British sport, maybe a better role would be as a role model for our disaffected young boys, proving that the discipline of being a team player need not mean the death of the flaws and virtues that make an individual remarkable.