On falling in love with England.
Twenty-five years ago this spring, I boarded a British Airways 747 for Heathrow Airport, where I was seated in the fifth-to-last row. I thought it inauspicious when, immediately after the fasten-seatbelts sign went off, the plane began to fill with smoke.
I turned around: In the four rows behind me, every single person had lit a cigarette simultaneously, as though participating in some carcinogenic ballet. To my surprise, I was a passenger on a “smoking flight,” as they used to be called, though I hadn’t been on one for years and was under the impression they were banned. On this particular flight, smoking was allowed only in the last four rows. I was the sucker next to the smoking section, whose toxic cloud had a way of straying away from the smokers and into my nose. Unlucky me. This turned out to be the last smoking flight I ever took.
But that was also the last misfortune I suffered in a blessed spring and summer, soaring through London. Being an American means loving America, unless you suffer from some sort of freakish malprogramming in your personality software, but it doesn’t take any effort to love the country of your birth. Falling in love with another country requires living there, feeling comfortable there, having friends there, knowing its slang and its cultural landscape and its newspapers and how it thinks about itself from inside. Getting to know England like a lover was one of the greatest pleasures I’ve known. Every day I studied its habits, got to know it a little better. Over breakfast I stared at a little card someone had provided to walk me through “Old Money” (¼ d, farthing. ½ d; ha’penny . . . ) At last, I knew what the “half-crown” mentioned in every Dickens novel was (two and six), and why Mr. Pickwick never paid for anything with a crown (they did exist, but they were very rare). I wanted to know everything about England. The difference between a tourist’s fondness for a country he visits briefly and actual love of a country is like the difference between worshipping a model in a magazine and actually having a girlfriend (or a boyfriend).
I was an “exchange student” — traded off by my employer, the New York Post, on a temporary assignment to London so that some Londoner could occupy my desk back on Sixth Avenue. As part of the deal, I was given a lovely new company apartment in what looked like an Edwardian townhouse in Wapping, in an eastern precinct of the capital. My flat, I was astonished and delighted to learn, overlooked the Thames. I watched party boats go by and basked in my extreme luck. I suppose I’ll never live in an apartment with a river view again. And yet this apartment cost me nothing. Instantly, I became a regular at “the local,” the Old Rose (now, like my youth, long-gone).
1996 was peak Britpop. Music was not then what it is now; unless you bought every CD containing a song you liked, you just had to wait to hear it on the radio. This meant a certain thrilling anticipation with regular, random payoffs. What a brilliant place to be at such a time! It was as if the handful of Brit bands I had loved in the early 80s — ABC, Soft Cell, Naked Eyes, Flock of Seagulls — had returned with a peppier sound and pushed out all of the thudding grunge and twee-hipster rock that was destroying American radio in the mid ’90s. Britpop was smashing, bouncing, joy-giving, singalong pub music. “We are young, we are free, we’re all right!” declared Supergrass in “Alright.” “It’s a beautiful day to waste away,” noted the Levellers on the jaunty drinking song, “Just the One.” “It’s good enough for you, it’s good for me, it’s good enough for two, it’s what I want to see,” sang Dodgy on the delirious “Good Enough.” None of the radio stations I knew in New York were playing anything like this.
Above all Britpop gentry stood the rulers of the kingdom, Oasis, whose plaintive and beautiful single “Don’t Look Back in Anger” was the first song I remember hearing when I moved to London. Oasis ruled the radio, the air, the planet, the universe. Not liking Oasis was not an option. Everything Oasis said was in the newspapers; Oasis jokes were told over lunch. “Did you hear about the Oasis soup?” a girl asked me. “You get a roll with it . . . .” Oasis, in 1996, was Britain: slouchy, cynical, funny, smart-arsed, brash, but a bit sensitive and bookish underneath.
Within an astonishingly short period of time, I saw O. J. Simpson address the Oxford Union, heard the Eagles play at Wembley Stadium, had one of the most exciting cinematic experiences of my life (Trainspotting, at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton), went to Scotland where I saw the Paul McCartney-celebrated Mull of Kintyre, checked out the crater left by the last IRA mega-bombing in London at Canary Wharf, fell in love with Nick Hornby after buying a copy of High Fidelity in Paddington Station, and accidentally witnessed the world’s most pathetic campaign rally when I saw the wan, lonely-looking Prime Minister John Major walking gamely around the little town of Stratford-Upon-Avon amidst less crowd enthusiasm than is ordinarily associated with the average ice-cream truck. I also accidentally acquired a lovely girlfriend and became an associate member of her family of mischievous and extremely fun redheads from Dulwich (the land of P. G. Wodehouse).
I became friends with a Times photographer named Guy Burgess. (“Guy Burgess? Like . . . er, the spy?” “Bloody hell, Americans know about that?” he said.) On July 4, I went to the press preview of Independence Day in Leicester Square with a reporter from the Times, Steve Farrell. Steve is, or at least was, an extremely handsome guy with a posh accent who had no difficulty in “pulling,” as the saying goes, which should have been enough for any man, but girls were not what he wanted. He was a conflict junkie, a war freak, a trouble-seeker. He yearned to get out there in the field, to rush headlong into danger zones, to hurl himself where the action was. As a coward, I disagreed: Danger zones sounded dangerous to me. What I wanted was to get paid to write about movies.
We both got our wishes. Steve went out there, where the action is, in every war zone he could find. And got himself kidnapped by Sunni insurgents. How many people do you know who have been kidnapped? Steve’s the only one for me. Later, he got kidnapped by the Taliban, and after that by Libyans. Three kidnappings are approximately three more kidnappings than I have the stomach for, so I have no regrets about spending my career in peace zones.
London theater is, if anything, even more delightful than New York’s, and I was being lifted off the surface of the earth by what was billed as a “semi-professional” production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous masterpiece Sweeney Todd in Holland Park, still one of the most transcendent cultural experiences of my life, when I became aware that the audience had something else on its mind. Pre-Internet, pre-smart phones, word traveled . . . organically. Someone was posting the score of a concurrent soccer match on a blackboard near the bar. At intermission, we learned that England was running up a big lead over the Netherlands in the European “football” Championships. I’d played soccer as a boy, but I’d never heard of the Euros. From then on, not getting caught up in the frenzy was not an option. The English nation was hosting the championships of the English game. The biggest games were being played right here in London! Hence The Song.
“It’s coming home, it’s coming home . . .” I recalled that I am English, ethnically speaking, and everyone knows the U.S. men’s soccer team is crap anyway. The England team would henceforth be my team.
“It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming . . .” I’ve never been anywhere that was so saturated by a single tune for a moment in time. You didn’t just hear it on the radio, or in pubs, or on television, it seemed the country itself was singing it. Suddenly, everywhere, flags, English ones: The English aren’t flag-wavers because they find patriotism slightly embarrassing. But this was a form of national pride that absolutely everyone could get behind. The English nation was hosting the European teams in the English game.
“It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home” were the opening lines of what was intended to be merely a novelty song by two comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, to hype the first-ever Euros to be held in soccer’s birthplace, England. Yet “Three Lions,” with music by the Britpop band the Lightning Seeds, turned out to be one of the catchiest pop songs ever written and became the new unofficial national anthem. It would be the soundtrack of England for all subsequent soccer tournaments. “30 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming,” ran the lyric. Could England deliver victory on its home soil?
First, they’d have to make it past the legendary German squad, three-time winners of the Euros. A left-wing tabloid, The Daily Mirror, printed a frightful joke on its front page, a parody of Neville Chamberlain’s war announcement declaring “football war on Germany.” Then the Germans won the game, a semifinal, when a defender named Gareth Southgate missed a penalty kick, with eleven-year-old Charlie Cooke watching in anguish from behind the goal at Wembley. I found it satisfying that the magical year in English football was the year of my birth — 1966. Winners of the World Cup that year, they never made it to the finals of either the World Cup or the Euros at any point after that.
Until now. Last week England, now managed by the same Gareth Southgate, finally dispatched Germany, the team that beat them in 1996. Earlier this week they beat Denmark in the semifinal. Sunday brings the championship match against the fearsome Italians. I wish I could be there. If you’ve never fallen in love with another country, I recommend it unreservedly. “Three lions on the shirt . . .”