‘Self-control used to be a virtue. Now it’s thought of as dysfunctional. If we don’t display our feelings, it’s assumed we don’t have any’.


Image courtesy of lakwatsera via flickr.com ©©

I have no personal animus against Andy Murray, and I daresay it is irritating not to win a tennis match, but precisely when did we turn into a nation of snivelling losers?

At what point in the history of the last hundred years did the stiff upper lip start to quiver; Did it stop being shameful for a grown man to burst into tears just because he came second in a game? Did it become possible for a serial runner-up to become “champion of our hearts” not with a bang, but a whimper?

The television commentator with an inappropriateness that was almost sublime quoted Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful hymn to phlegm “If”.

You know – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster,

And treat these two imposters just the same”

– and there was Murray, weeping.

Shortly after Kipling wrote that poem, in 1908, London staged the Olympic games. ( I know because they were held in the White City stadium in Shepherds Bush, now, in a metaphor for national decline a media centre. Round the back, though, is a plaque recording the medal winners. ) Great Britain (we’ve dropped the Great these days, have you noticed?) won more medals than all the other countries combined. Three times as many as the next most successful nation, the United States.  They were the whiners then, refusing to dip their flag to Edward the Seventh, lodging official protests every day. And losing.

Their tug-of-war team was yanked off its feet by a squad of Liverpool bobbies who accepted gold with just a gruff handshake. Several of the marathon runners almost died – they ran in sweltering heat and refreshed themselves with brandy, champagne and – I kid you not – rat poison. They panted, but did not sob, and went home on the bus. Britain’s greatest Olympic swimmer – three golds in 1908 – spent the rest of his days as a penniless attendant at the local baths, without complaint.  For many of Britain’s medallists, their last competitive event was to be the Somme. Their widows would have cried, I am sure, but they wouldn’t be seen dead doing so.

It’s sad that the effortless supremacy of Britain at the apex of its fortunes should have been so reduced that it hasn’t won a men’s tennis championship for three generations, or a major football competition for nearly half a century. Sadder still that the Corinthian ideal should have been so comprehensively buried.  The organizer of the 1908 games was a rowing and running double blue, an Olympic fencer, who swam Niagara twice and climbed the Matterhorn three times; was an MP at 25,and the finest public speaker of his generation. We have John Terry.

Saddest of all is the death of reticence.  Self control used to be considered a virtue, now it is regarded as dysfunctional.  If we don’t display our feelings, we obviously don’t have any.  They must be trotted out for the gratification of the mob who feels belittled by achievement, excluded by dignity.

Keith Miller, the Australian test cricketer, who’d been a fighter pilot in the second World War, summed it up, coarsely but brilliantly.

At a tense stage of a postwar Ashes series an Australian reporter asked him: “Are you feeling the pressure, Keith?”

“Look, Mate”, Miller replied, “A Messerschmit up the arse is pressure; this is just an effing game, all right?”

No Longer. It’s enough to make you weep.


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  • When the infant Michael Buerk was developing in his primordial soup he noticed he was was different from the other boys……….developing all of a sudden an urge to be argumentave he found his natural bent.

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