Land of the red-blooded Mail

I hope you have noticed my forbearance throughout the recent football tourney, resisting the urge to prate upon the follies of fandom, let alone the poisonous catalysis that ensues when they are admixed with patriotism. But now, with fair Albion lain out upon the veldt, the Boerfarter's jackboot on her heaving breast, the time has come for me to put my own boot in.

On the day after the catastrophic defeat, Richard Littlejohn "wrote" in the Daily Mail: "If the Few had defended as badly as England, we'd all be speaking German now." Someone in television once told me that he'd been present at a meeting where a reality show was pitched called Daily Mail Island, the conceit being that contestants were marooned on an island where the only news they had of the outside world came to them via the Daily Mail. Needless to say, the pitch failed when one of the commissioning execs observed that such a land mass already existed - and it was called "Britain".

But even on Daily Mail Island, the equation between la gloire of football and national self-regard is delusory. The sage Montaigne once wrote words to the effect that it was unwise to trust a man who took games too seriously, for it meant that he didn't take life seriously enough. But I'm perfectly willing to concede that there are millions of men and women who take both football and life seriously indeed.


Therein lies the madness, because it must be utterly bizarre to be one moment living in a world in which your entire sense of well-being is concentrated upon how well 11 super-fit adolescents (and I say "adolescents" advisedly, for recall: these are "men" who almost mutinied over their access to their PlayStations) are kicking about an inflated leather bag, and the next to accept that this previously all-consuming passion is not important at all.

In psychiatric circles - which encompass me rather more than is healthy - the maintenance of two such utterly inconsistent belief systems would be termed something catchy like "acute mental diplopia", but in my part of the country we just call it Dagenham (two stops short of Barking). In fairness to all you England fans out there, I do perceive some political logic in your passionate advocacy; harder to comprehend is the gut-churning empathy experienced by the supporters of English Premier League teams.

Becoming Beckham

I suppose I am a bit of a dinosaur - and a triceratops at that - but when I last went to see Arsenal play, I felt as if I'd inadvertently slid into a parallel world. It didn't help that my companion, a season ticket holder, is an eminent psychoanalyst who has written numerous papers on acute mental diplopia. Like Papa Sigmund whacked on cocaine, he was his own case history, for within seconds of kick-off, he transmogrified from a calm, urbane man into a screaming loony.

“Youuuu fuuuuucking f-f-f-f-fuckers!" He strafed the Gunners with his own fricative fusillade; and so it continued, volley after expletive volley, until at half-time I taxed him: "How can you feel such a close affinity with this polyglot team, drawn from the ends of the earth by the lodestone of gelt?"

“Aha," he explained, "you don't get it - it's not about partisanship at all, it's about catharsis. These young players are mythological heroes for middle-aged, middle-class men such as me. We rant and we rave, we bellow and exult; then, when the hurly-burly is done, we can return to the dull accommodation of our strip-lit lives."

“You don't really believe that bullshit, do you?" I asked him. "Surely you of all people understand that to flip from hysterical identification to passive indifference is tantamount to psychosis?"

“Maybe." He bit into his gourmet sausage roll and small flakes of pastry speared my tender cheeks. "But what's the alternative? Think back to when, everywhere you went, you saw men and women in number seven England shirts with 'BECKHAM' blazoned across their shoulders. What a fine madness it would have been if all those fat Beckhams, short Beckhams, infant Beckhams and ancient Beckhams really had believed themselves to be England's striker. No asylum in the land would've been big enough - they'd have required some kind of special colony."

“Daily Mail Island."

“What's that?"

“Oh, nothing."

Next week: Real Meals.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain