A football World Cup is supposed to unite the nation, or at least the English part of it. Football, we are told, is now so much part of our culture that it cuts across barriers of race, class and even gender.
This is poppycock. Most of us may support the England team. But how we support it leaves us more bitterly divided than ever, mainly on class lines. You can see that from the press coverage.
On Friday 2 June, the Sun launched a campaign "to defend the right of all English men and women to fly our national flag". That day, it printed 20 St George's crosses. Eight days later, it had 56, with the cross appearing on assorted faces, cars, balloons, balls and bottoms. To the "killjoys" of NTL, Tesco and others who had banned their drivers from flying the flag, the Sun front page screamed "Up Yours", words which may have seemed inspired when Kelvin MacKenzie aimed them at Delors 15 years ago, but now seem crassly unimaginative.
White, male and tattooed
In the Guardian, a couple of weeks earlier, Joseph Harker had used even ruder words: BNP. The drivers of vehicles flying the flag, he wrote, were largely "white, male, tattooed, pot-bellied 35- to 55-year-olds". They were the sort who had been on TV saying they voted BNP because "we're losing control of our country". Then Michael Henderson in the Observer announced he would be supporting Germany, the land of Beethoven and Wagner, not England, the land of yobbish fans and players who dropped CD wrapping out of car windows. The Independent searched for a gentler, more inclusive spirit. Illustrated by a taxi festooned with the dreaded red crosses, six pages were devoted to 1930s and 1940s radio talks by the late John Betjeman on railways, churches and so on. These, we were advised, offered "a glimpse of something eternal" in English life. However, the paper's front page on the morning of England's opening match took some deconstructing. The headline, "England expects", was exactly the same as the Mail's. But the Mail's picture was of Nelson, with two flags of St George behind him, while the Independent confined one little English flag to a bottom corner. The rest of the page featured 31 other flags (one for every competing nation) with a mugshot alongside each.
Star players? I don't follow football closely, but Croatia surely couldn't be playing 29-year-old Anita Maric. Turning the page, I learned they were supporters, all resident in England, explaining how they would celebrate their nation's victory. "I will cook . . . lamb on a spit," confided Anita. "We'll be ringing the cowbells," revealed Armin Loetscher, a Swiss restaurant owner. "If it's sunny we climb into the mountains," disclosed Titiana Bianco, an Italian waitress.
This is all helpful information. At my home in Essex, I shall know what's going on if the St George's flag suddenly disappears and I hear cowbells, smell roast lamb or spot lost Italians, mountains being scarce round here. That may explain why the English need their flags: not enough mountains, cows or cooking skills. Perhaps we can follow Betjeman and celebrate victory by visiting churches or catching trains.
A day earlier, the Independent had put the question we all needed the answer to: can a middle-class liberal fly the flag? Peter York, whom the papers always call "the style guru", enlightened us. The answer seemed to be no, in Primrose Hill (north London) at least. Across the road, York had spotted three white vans flying the flag, but had established that at least one was from Essex. QED.
That still leaves race and gender. The first was briskly disposed of by Anila Baig in the Sun. She didn't "understand why medieval history was being dragged up"; there was nothing anti-Muslim about the England flag. Since, as always, Baig's picture showed her in a headscarf, that's all right. Obviously.
As for gender, my sympathies lie with Anthony Lane, the cerebral New Yorker film critic, cast in the role of "the useless Simon" in Private Eye's Polly Filler column. According to his wife, the Mail columnist Allison Pearson, he will be "absent on Planet Boy" throughout the World Cup and hasn't been so excited "since he won a hubcap and indicator-light identification competition on holiday in Llandudno in 1972". That is how husbands are supposed to behave in the Mail. In the Independent, on the other hand, Deborah Orr laments that her husband, the novelist Will Self, "does not care about football at all" and prefers that drama series called Heimat that went out on BBC4. That's Independent man for you.
Naturally, neither Pearson nor Orr names her husband. There's ironic stereotyping in all this. As there is in this column. That's how you know you're reading an upmarket paper. The masses don't understand, you see; they think we're just talking about football.