Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
Fat-bellied white men clinging to the front of a double decker (destination Willesden), or tumbling over plastic tip up seating. Images of a green laser beam on the furrowed brow of Casper Schmeichel readying himself to save Kane’s penalty. Another fat-bellied white dude, in this case the prime minister, draping himself in the flag of St George, endlessly thrusting at the eager cameras tumescent thumbs which have been in god-knows-what places over the five decades of his sinful, successful life.
Such bacchanalia following the England’s first qualification for a final since 1966 would have been interpreted by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as the temporary triumph of the lower stratum, the sudden outburst of carnival and the bodily grotesque, a necessary counterpoint to the official order of the Renaissance social system.
It is embarassing but also intoxicating and I miss being part of it. People in England have been physically locked down behind facemasks and in their homes, and digitally couped up in their filter bubbles. I reckon these filter bubbles have become more hermetically sealed than ever during the pandemic. For instance, on the last day of term, I suddenly found myself in a tense early morning discussion at the school bus stop with two ordinary dads, educated middle class expats, when a polite inquiry about destinations for summer holidays descended into a very testy exchange about vaccines. These men were genuinely convinced that the pandemic, lockdowns and vaccinations were a global conspiracy to manipulate and control the population. When I suggested they should be more worried about the world on fire and ruining the future lives of our children, I further learned that they dismissed global warming as a distraction from the real problem of human underpopulation of the planet, and that we are not having enough babies who can ‘look after us’ when we are old.
The pandemic has taken a further toll on the diversity of social interaction. Already a generation with heads bowed and focused on screens, lockdown for long periods obliterated the chance encounters in the street, on the bus and by the water cooler where you might briefly have been exposed to views unfamiliar or divergent or opposed to your own.
It is a big problem in society now. It is terrifying that temperatures this summer have hit 50 degrees in Vancouver and Jacobabad, and 20 in Antarctica, and the Gulf of Mexico in flames in a scene that set #Godzilla trending, sending into an unsuspecting atmosphere yet more tonnes of carbon which we can ill-afford and had lain deep within the earth for millions of years. My wife mused we might be witnessing a vindication of the Gaia theory, the inevitable unfolding of an impersonal universal plan to harness and contain its most dominant species.
Euro2020 has released a pressure valve and it’s not supposed to be beautiful. For me football and England have represented an unresolvable conundrum of identity and belonging. I spent most of my life in London. My parents are Irish and Indian, products of the British Empire. My partner is Polish and we live in Flanders. I have attempted to rebrand myself as Irish, sickened by the nationalistic turn in my country of birth. Noone is convinced. And football is my game of choice, as a spectator and player – though few were ever convinced of that latter either.
So I have had a love-hate relationship with the England national team. I was scandalised by Maradona’s hand-of-God in 1986, repulsed by the omission of Arsenal players in 1990, and enviously watched from Italy the original ‘it’s coming home’ class of 1996, devastated when Germany won on pens. I then cheered them on and wanted to belong in the 00s, much to the chagrin of my Irish family, until eventually the side descended into an ugly uselessless and sense of entitlement encapsulated in the disdainful grimace of Wayne Rooney. Italy was my home for a while, I am not a really English, Brexit is happening, so my allegiances in tomorrow’s final should be a no-brainer.
Indeed, watching the semi outside a bar on the ironically-named Place de Londres in the trendy margins of the European quarter, the well-heeled crowd other than a clutch of estuary English were united behind Denmark, and booed when England scored. Speaking with an English accent is now a mark of Cain in these parts, thanks to Brexit and Boris. Guilt by association is never fair. The rapper who regaled Glastonbury a couple of years ago with ‘fuck Brexit fuck Boris’ is the same brilliant black musician spotted in Croydon stoking the ectasy that greeted the win over Germany in the round of last 16. This England team is composed of phenomenally-talented boys young enough for me to be their dad who are prepared to take the knee and endure the scorn of the gammon boomers with their eternal victimhood and new mantra about wokeness, which are merely proxies for wanting to go back to the good old days of racism and homophobia. And these lads are managed by Gareth Southgate, a previously dorkish penalty-squanderer with a modesty and respectfulness that the country doesn’t seem to deserve: this is has been a week where their journey-towards-fascism government has now proposed laws criminalising peaceful protest and helping asylum seekers. It is a squad of mixed races and second or third generation immigrants like me, sporting that Delphic surface shyness and mischief associated with GenZ. They probably inspire envy in other Europeans from a continent riven by systemic racism that its politicians willfully ignore as they pat themselves on their back for their integration of nations under the EU flag. The UK was an unusual member state as it would bring black and brown faces into policy discussions. So I wonder if there is a hint of racism in the European’s booing this particular England team which manages to represent the millions, like my friends and family I left behind over 13 years ago now, with a positive vision for the country. Everyone’s shit stinks.
So much of life is just spent arranging your face. People have tried to congratulate me on England’s progress and I have reacted with long-winded tergiversation like this blogpost. The best advice came from one old friend whose delayed response to one of my hand-wringing texts was quite simple. Take the win. Don’t think too hard about it.