Bad blood

The leader of the opposition was making a dignified acceptance speech. He had won his private battle in Folkstone, but already knew the war was lost. The tone he struck was very British. He was the gracious loser. And really there’s nothing more we admire than a loser, especially if he accepts defeat with a stiff upper lip.

Tim Henman has played the role perfectly over the years (although telling the ball girls, as he did this year in an uncharacteristic and rather un-British outburst, to get their heads out of their arses and find him a Coke was most confusing. We tend to forget that he was expelled from Wimbledon a few years ago for knocking the living daylights out of a poor defenceless ball girl with a tennis ball hit in anger. The nickname ‘Tiger Tim’ is supposed to be ironic: we’re proud of his meekness. We sweep his strange pathology against ball girls under the carpet. In years to come, mark my words, there’ll be a spate of ball girl murders. Morse, called back from the grave to solve the crime, will eventually find the bodies buried deep in Henman Hill. Tiger will be exposed as the culprit. In his defence he’ll blame them, not only for failing to serve up a Coke in his hour of need, but somehow conspiring to frustrate his dream of winning Wimbledon). I digress. For all our apparent desperation for Fred Perry’s heir we wouldn’t actually know what to do with ourselves if Henman had won the damn thing. We don’t like winners. There’s nothing better than the national soccer (as I call it nowadays) team going out in the semi-finals on penalties, or Tiger Tim having his best chance of victory thwarted by those rain delays in 2001. Andrew Murray knows the game: throwing away a winning position because of cramp is exactly the kind of self-flagellating defeatism we crave.

So, watching Michael Howard concede defeat while the night was still young, and only a small proportion of results were in, was truly heart-warming. Sat here, three thousand miles from home and, for the first time able to enjoy the luxury of election coverage at a civilised hour, it really reminded me of home. Difficult to imagine our political leaders arguing over dimpled chads and fighting tooth and nail all the way to the highest legal authority. A photo finish in a British election would result in both parties conceding defeat, “After you Tony…no I insist, after you Michael, it really is your turn…no Tony, I couldn’t”. Michael Howard got his losers speech in first and it was wonderful to watch. You just don’t see that kind of thing in America. Rudyard Kipling would have been crucified over here for suggesting that you should treat triumph as an impostor.

Wimbledon and the election have been the only two events over the past year to tug a little at the heartstrings and make me miss the Motherland. Wimbledon evoked a sense of loss because it’s so quintessentially English, because I’ve made the pilgrimage every year in recent memory and because Ros somehow managed to wangle a work trip there this year. There’s nothing so powerful as a dose of envy. The election and, in particular, that count at Folkestone & Hythe was a poignant reminder of all that is good about England. There was the display of defeatism, there was the whole amateur village hall set-up (it looked as if a key political moment was being played out on the set of Dad’s Army) and, more English than anything else, there was the gentleman standing next to the leader of the opposition who stole the evening. Somehow the honourable representative of the Monster Raving Looney Party had manoeuvred himself into position to share the limelight with Mr Howard. He was shambolic, voluble, completely mad and successfully shared the screen for the duration of Michael Howard’s speech. It was the funniest thing I had seen, not least because it could never happen here.

It’s sometimes supposed that Americans consider our little eccentricities as quaint. Actually that’s what they say, but in truth they find them pathetic, incomprehensible and just a little sad. At best they indulge our quirks and foibles in much the same manner as one might an elderly and increasingly senile parent. There might be a vestige of affection as a consequence of shared ancestry, but sincere sympathy is in short supply. Confirmation of this came when I found my blood isn’t good enough over here. A road accident victim would prefer to bleed to death than accept British blood. And it’s because they don’t want to be contaminated with our madness.

The general assumption is that the British are, to a man, all infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. And watching Lord Toby Jug standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael Howard at a pivotal moment in British electoral history, I was forced to concede that they could have a point.

As far as an American is concerned the British monarchy is top of the pile, the pedigree. So, when they hear the best of breed confessing to his rather dumpy mistress that he wished he were her tampon, they begin to appreciate the actions of their independently minded forefathers.

I’m writing this over Independence Day weekend and the Stars and Stripes are out in force. Back home the only time we wrap ourselves in our flag is when fortified with six pints of London Pride and off to cheer another glorious semi-final defeat at Wembley. Our compatriots across the Atlantic all have flag-stands on the front of their house for their various displays of chest-beating patriotism. Does this make them more patriotic than us or are they simply less self-conscious? Why don’t we Brits adorn our front porch with a large Union Jack? I was about to suggest that it might be something to do with good taste and style, but stopped myself when I remembered that we’re a nation that decorates our gardens with gnomes.

Big firework displays seem to be the order of the day on July 4th, making me wonder why acts of aggression against the British establishment (be it the occupying forces over here or the Houses of Parliament that so inflamed Guy Fawkes) should always be honoured with pyrotechnics.

The more significant anniversary, of course, falls on July 19th: a date that marks a whole year since we returned to the land from whence our ancestors beat a hasty retreat two hundred and twenty-nine years previously. I have to say it’s safer than it was then. The risk of scalping has receded somewhat (although the risk of a receding scalp remains sadly undiminished).

Taking this opportunity to look back over our year I would say the biggest challenge we’ve faced over the past year hasn’t been in helping our children to face the challenge of moving from Battersea where they had lived all their lives to readjust to life in a completely new continent; nor has it been for Ros to learn how to work with people who will readily dress up in cow costumes for formal business meetings; nor has it been for me to exchange my trendy London studio office for the pinafore of the Connecticut Mom; nor, surprisingly, has it been the trials and tribulations of coping with our finally departed Peruvian nanny (someone who made me realise that Fawlty Towers was, in fact, an early reality show and that Manuel was an astutely observed character-sketch for a certain standard of Latin home/hotel help).

No, the biggest challenge by a long chalk has been the challenge of re-programming our eleven-year-old Yorkshire Terrier to walk on the left. She couldn’t understand why, after a life of trotting happily on our right-hand side, she was suddenly being shouted at and forcibly dragged to the other side. How do you tell a canine of limited comprehension that they drive on the other side of the road over here? How can you possibly explain such a thing to an animal with a vocabulary that hardly stretches to five words (especially when one of those five words, the key word in this instance, sends her into such uncontrollable bursts of excitement that any measured communication thereafter becomes impossible)? How do you get across that, because they don’t have pavements in America (why would you if you drove everywhere?), the price of walking on your master’s right is to end of your life as road-kill?

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