Squealing

Ian Buruma

  • Gower: The Autobiography by David Gower and Martin Johnson
    Collins Willow, 256 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 218413 3

David Gower was this year’s most popular victim, the English underdog, the handsome knight sacrificed by knaves. But good news is at hand: the hero has announced a brilliant season full of runs. In the tradition of General MacArthur, David Gower has announced his return. I hope he succeeds. But success is not the only thing that makes a hero. I have a nagging suspicion – no more than that – that his current popularity has something to do with his having been pulled down a peg. The humbling whiff of failure never goes amiss in an English idol. Gower’s return, at any rate, will be heralded as a return of class.

They do it everywhere, of course, but the popular sport of pulling the rich and famous off their pedestals is played with special relish in England. It is not an edifying spectacle. But then neither is the squealing of toffs when they feel put upon. Only the other day, Charles Moore (Eton, Cambridge, Spectator, Telegraph) compared Old Etonians to persecuted Jews.

Both the pulling and the squealing point to a society in distress, to a sense of national claustrophobia, to a place where too many closed doors promote envy instead of ambition. The great unwashed resent the privileges the toffs are terrified of losing. Like every other country in the world, Britain is changing, but in few developed countries do people have such a strong feeling that every change is for the worse. Britain is plagued by a mood of cultural pessimism that brings to mind France of the 1870s. Every event – a nasty murder in Liverpool, the death of Bobby Moore, a Royal tryst – is sucked into a nightmare vision of a society spinning out of control, or at best, sinking into a state of supine decadence.

Take the cricket tour in India and Sri Lanka: a disaster which spilled over from the sporting pages to those normally reserved for political editorials. Gooch’s failure, it seemed, was yet another indication of England’s ruin; his unshaven scowl a symbol of national decline. The interesting thing to a semi-outsider such as myself was how virtually all the commentators tried to explain the troubles in India by evoking a rigid, old-fashioned image of England. Over and over, the historical clichés raised their exhausted heads: Roundheads v. Cavaliers, Officers v. NCOs, Gentlemen (Mr D.I. Gower) v. Players (Gooch, G.).

Conservative writers invariably use these commonplaces with nostalgia, as though the root of English problems were the erosion of the class system, or the defeat of the Cavaliers. William Rees-Mogg, in the Times, rather wittily compared the Gooch and Gower saga to a romance of the Great War. Gruff Sgt Gooch can’t stand dashing Lt Gower, but when the Hun tosses a hand-grenade into their trench, the dashing lieutenant saves the gruff sergeant-major’s life by pluckily hugging the grenade to his breast. The conclusion is most touching: with golden curls pressed to tear-streaked stubble. Lt Gower dies in the arms of Sergeant Gooch. When it’s really time to go over the top, Rees-Mogg appears to be saying, the different grades of Albion will come together in Victory. Gower will return this year to make a century against the Australians, and Gooch will escort him off the field, brawny arm wrapped around delicate shoulder.

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