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Game, set . . . and Scottish flag

Andy Murray may be wishing he’d never raised his nationality – but the worlds of tennis and politics

1 In 2008, the Williams sisters declared their enthusiasm for Barack Obama but surprisingly declined to vote for him. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they insisted, they were barred from voting in any election. Serena explained: “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, so I don’t get involved in politics. We stay neutral. We don’t vote. So I’m not going to necessarily go out and vote for him. I would if it wasn’t for my religion.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have consistently cited John 17:16, in which Jesus says of his followers: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” as a call to refrain from such lowly matters as the governance of world superpowers.

2 If the British player Buster Mottram had had his way, Wimbledon would have been all-white in more than just dress code. A member of the National Front from 1975 onwards, he once remarked:“I hope Enoch Powell will never die, just as his namesake in the Bible never died.” Mottram subsequently attempted to redeem himself by performing with the black singer Kenny Lynch. But he was shamed again when he was expelled from the UK Independence Party (which David Cameron once described as a “bunch of . . . fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”) for attempting to form an electoral alliance with the British National Party.

3 The German player Gottfried von Cramm had much to be nervous about ahead of his 1937 Davis Cup match against the American Don Budge, so it hardly seemed worth taking a phone call from Berlin minutes before he strolled out on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon. But as he swatted the phone away, von Cramm feared the unknown identity of the caller would distract him yet further. He turned back, to find Adolf Hitler on the line. Von Cramm was a noted anti-fascist, but after Hitler revealed his fantasies of a victory parade, he was forced to reply through gritted teeth: “Ja, mein Führer.” A pallid, trembling von Cramm emerged on court and lost the match by six sets to eight.

4 Alan Johnson soon came to regret applying tennis analogies to Gordon Brown halfway through last year’s Wimbledon. Speaking shortly after Brown’s first anniversary as Prime Minister, the then health secretary declared that Brown was not “interested in playing on the Centre Court of politics”. Johnson insisted that he’d meant the Prime Minister was “just interested in getting on with the job” – but couldn’t resist adding that Brown would “achieve the results and serve more aces than Andy Murray, whether it’s on the outer courts or whether it’s on the Centre Court”. Given Brown’s recent woes, one doubts that Murray has lost much sleep over the challenge posed by his fellow Scot.

5 Fred Perry, the last British player to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, is also the only one to have had a Labour MP for a father. A cotton spinner radicalised by the co-operative movement, Samuel Perry was elected the Co-operative Party’s first national secretary. In 1923 he became the Labour MP for Kettering. Perry fils was himself anti-establishment; Greg Rosen’s book Serving the People: a Co-operative Party History from Fred Perry to Gordon Brown unravels the red thread that links the two men.

6 Burdened by debts of £17.8m last year, Labour was forced to investigate novel means of fundraising, including auctioning off a game of tennis with Tony Blair. The offer helped the cash-strapped party secure at least £10,000 in new funding. Lord Levy, Blair’s usual tennis partner, expressed polite bemusement at the auction, declaring that “desperate times require desperate measures”.

7 Last year, the nine times Wimbledon women’s champion Martina Navratilova announced that she had regained Czech nationality more than 30 years after she fled a communist regime she compared favourably to that of her adopted country, the United States, under President George W Bush. Navratilova was born in Prague; she fled in 1975 after being denied the right to compete in professional tennis in the US, the scene of most serious tennis tournaments. She subsequently became a US citizen. The star, who supports charities devoted to children, animals and gay rights, told the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny: “The thing is that we elected Bush. That is worse. Against that, nobody chose a communist government in Czechoslovakia.”

8 In February, the United Arab Emirates caused controversy when it denied the female Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer a visa for the Dubai Tennis Championships. The world number 48 had been drawn to play the 15th seed, Anna Chakvetadze of Russia, in the first round of the event, which includes the world’s top ten women players. A month before the ban, Peer was the focal point of protests in New Zealand after Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The tournament organisers claimed that they feared public fury over Gaza would threaten Peer’s safety.

9 Tony Blair may have left office with the pay gap between men and women standing at 17.1 per cent, but when it came to Wimbledon he was a consummate redistributionist. Until 2007, the men’s champion was awarded £30,000 more in prize money than the women’s. The All England Club attempted to justify this disparity with reference to men’s best-of-five-set matches compared to women’s best-of-three, but the club finally caved in after Blair “fully endorsed” players’ demands for equal pay.

10 Is he a British champion? Or a Scottish loser? The question of Andy Murray’s national identity may be the source of innumerable jokes, but it is perhaps also a microcosm of the fraught relations between the two members of the Union. As the young star prepares to compete for Wimbledon glory, the bookmakers Paddy Power are holding a survey on whether the public – and especially the English – think Murray is British or Scottish. Speaking for Paddy Power, Darren Haines said: “Middle England has taken a while to warm to Andy but if he serves up a Wimbledon win, they’ll consider him as British as the Union Jack. An early exit, and they’ll consider him Scottish again. And who’s to say Scottish fans won’t vote to keep him for their own?” Here’s one sportsman carrying the weight of a 202-year-old political union on his 22-year-old shoulders.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape