'The Grudge' - Tom English (2010)
When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron memorably gave a speech in which he made a notable gaffe, in which he stated that he supported West Ham United, when, in fact, officially, he has stated that he supports Aston Villa. One thing which is missed by messing up a joke, is that it detracted from the statement he was making, in relation to multicultural national identities in Great Britain (given what I am about to write about, I appreciate the irony in using a Westminster Prime Minister as a starting point). The full quote stated that Britain was a “shining example of a country where multiple identities work”, and went on to say that it was a place "where you can support Man Utd, the Windies and Team GB all at the same time. Of course, I'd rather you supported West Ham."
One thing it is clear to take from this is how sport is incredibly important to national and cultural identity - I am very slowly working my way through another sports book where this is a theme. Using his example of supporting the West Indian cricket team, I would defy anyone to watch the documentary Fire in Babylon, and not understand why it is possible to have an affinity for the West Indies cricket team, particularly in the context of Tony Greig’s incendiary remarks about wanting to make the West Indies players ‘grovel’. That lit a fire under the quickest, and most lethal bowling attack in the history of test match cricket, backed up with batsmen with flair and skill. Safe to say England got absolutely blown away in that series. And rightly so.
This is a process which, strangely, I have experienced since moving to Scotland nearly 4 years ago as a result of watching/following the Scottish Rugby Union team/Glasgow Warriors as a season ticket holder. Sport has helped shape how I have settled, and feel very much at home. I am originally from Bristol, but haven’t really lived there since I was 18. The family home is now in South West Wales, and whilst I have lived in Cardiff, Amiens in France, and in Leeds, I probably still would have watched the Six Nations as an England fan, that didn’t know any better.
My two PhD supervisors were Scottish, and I would get a snap shot of Indyref discussion between them, but without knowing the full context. Nevertheless, they gave me some key advice before moving up to Glasgow. 1 – Don’t try and do the accent, at all. 2 – If someone asks if you support Rangers or Celtic, say neither. I’ve managed 1 fairly well. The 2nd one is less of an issue – I’m an Arsenal fan – but it is far easier, and far less complicated and contentious to pick a Scottish football team to support. It's safe to say that I have now fully converted (excuse the pun). My 6 year-old niece and I have an ongoing bet when Scotland play Wales, where if Scotland win, she has to wear a Scotland shirt to her dance class, and if Wales win, I have to wear a Wales shirt into work...she's had a lucky escape for a few months with the game being postponed, clearly (yes, I did buy her the hat).
I do enjoy sport, though, and whilst football is the easier game to understand, rugby union (not league, never league) is a far better game to watch, particularly in person. I’ve found the atmosphere at Murrayfield for internationals is incredible (in particular the game vs New Zealand in the autumn internationals a couple of years ago). I went to my first game with my parents as a surprise for my dad to watch them vs Argentina in November 2016 (poor game – it was the coldest we’ve ever been, I think, but Greig Laidlaw won the game with a last-minute penalty). I started going to a few more games, and there’s something incredibly endearing about that team. When they get it right, they are incredible to watch. They make you want to support them. JK Rowling has said previously that in the Harry Potter world, all wizards support the Scottish Rugby Union team. And crucially, there’s not the arrogance that you get with the English. In fairness, most non-England fans would name England as the team that you want to beat.
This brings me to reading Tom English’s ‘The Grudge’, first published in 2010, but which has been recently re-printed, with additional interviews and reactions. I confess, I’ve only read the 2011 edition. The Grudge tells the tale of the match between Scotland vs England in the Five Nations in 1990, a game which, at the time of writing, is available to view in full on the Scottish Rugby YouTube Channel here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJtC8iDYEXQ). This is a game which carries significance for several reasons.
Firstly, it was the grand slam decider between the two teams. England had been blowing the opposition away. Scotland were the more pragmatic of the teams, driving out victories. Secondly, Scotland had adopted ‘Flower of Scotland’ as the anthem of choice that year. A song about the Battle of Bannockburn, in which the English are sent packing was a statement of intent. Thirdly, the political divide between Scotland and the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher was stark. The disastrous poll-tax policy (ask your parents) was first applied in Scotland. This, and the general attitude of Thatcher’s government, was satirised by Spitting Image, in which ‘Scotland’ is referred to as “the testing ground”.
It is also easy to forget that at this moment in time, rugby was not a professional game. There are differences in perception of the game as a result. In Wales, rugby is a sport for the masses/working classes. People who would, for example, live in Neath and Port Talbot have a strong connection with rugby. This is in stark contrast to the ‘posh boy’ image of English rugby. The captain in 1990, Will Carling, attended a prep school in Cheshire on a military scholarship (for balance, I think one of my favourite current players, Hamish Watson, has attended the same school), studied psychology at Durham University, and went on to join the military, leaving in 1988. He was portrayed as the patriot/poster-boy for England, and a symbol that was very easy to hate. This is a role which Owen Farrell now firmly holds – he’s a b******, except when he’s playing for the Lions, because then at least “he’s our b******”.
The book takes its time to outline all the key persons involved – Carling, the Scotland coaching team of Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, David Dole, Finlay Calder, Brian Moore, Jeremy Guscott, and many more. It really does make clear how both teams viewed the game – England as a chance to assert dominance, Scotland as the underdog, despite winning the other games, wanting to send them packing with a bloody nose, both figuratively, and literally. Watching any of the game back, you are incredibly thankful that the game has moved on, with the high tackle and concussion protocols trying to improve player safety.
As someone who was 7 months old at the time, I might be forgiven for not really knowing too much about the game, or the political context of the day. What the book does incredibly well is log the game as a piece of sporting social history, giving a way to provide some context as to the divide between Scotland and England, through the lens of a national identity provided by sport. I would be lying if I said that living here, I didn’t now have a greater understanding of what my PhD supervisors were discussing during Indyref. I’m experiencing that disconnect between Westminster and Edinburgh now, and I have a greater appreciation of how entrenched that is. I’ve never really considered myself to be out and out ‘English’ – unless we’re discussing cricket – but the book does indicate how ‘English patriotism’ is perceived by others in a way that is accessible. I’m hoping that acknowledging this makes me an adopted/honorary Scot, at least.
I’d like to come up with some fancy ending to sign this off. I’m not really sure of the best way to do this. So here’s a video of Sam Johnson’s try at Twickenham, which I could watch on loop.