The trouble with mocking the English is that they've already been there before you. Never in the history of the world has a people been so willing to take a hard, honest look at itself, identify its weaknesses, then doggedly perpetuate those weaknesses in order to mine them for cheap comedy. Thanks to the approach of the England-USA World Cup match, there's been a stronger-than-usual impulse lately on the American side of the water to have a chuckle at the old country's expense (see: Hate England Week, now boinging around a Twitter feed near you). But trust me, my fellow Americans, when I tell you that you can't possibly be better than they are at putting themselves down.
Proof of this, insofar as the World Cup is concerned, comes via David Stubbs' brilliant new book, Send Them Victorious: England's Path to Glory 2006-2010. Stubbs, who has one of those hard-to-summarize careers that begins with a (very funny) column in Melody Maker and sweeps through a biography on Charlie Nicholas before coming to rest in an awesome, un-updated website, has spent the last several years writing reports on England matches for the One Touch Football forum on When Saturday Comes. Those are collected here, and together, they make for what is almost certainly the funniest World Cup book of all time.
Stubbs writes in the voice of the "Wing Commander," a crotchety, supercilious, old, Nazi-sympathizing toff whose mix of triumphalist nationalism ("Effortless England Slaughter Benighted Brazil Like Filthy Pigs in the Night 1-1") and bilious misanthropy manages to plunge a bright skewer into the last two centuries of accumulated English culture. It's as if the entire Victorian era and British Empire had been a long set-up for the punchline that finally arrives in this book. That Brazil match report begins:
Reasonable people agree that the South Americans are a pretty extraneous shower, in the main. Were South America as a whole to sink into the sea — preserving, God willing, the precious Falkland Islands — I doubt that anyone would miss it, especially now that we have the recipe for refried beans. Fry them once — fry them again. Serve. Well done, that continent. Bally simple, really. However, having owned several mines and coffee plantations in the country, I must admit that I have harboured a modicum of affection for the Brazilians. They are a toothsome people. In my employ, they were paid a dollar a month, but being so happy and carefree, I believe they bundled together these excess dollars into a paper football, which they kicked about on the beach.
And thus are sent up English colonialism ("mines and coffee plantations"), culinary imperialism ("refried beans"), paternalism ("they are a toothsome people"), Thatcherite militarism ("the precious Falkland islands"), and even the tradition of stereotyping Brazilians as adorable naifs who do nothing but play football on the beach. ("Indeed, I once owned one of them as a pet," the Wing Commander croaks.)
The Wing Commander himself is grotesquely, fantastically unlikable, is a kind of large-scale meditation on the nature of unlikableness, but Stubbs' language is so sharp and inventive that the character never becomes tiresome. After years of freezing in the snowdrifts of anodyne journalese match reports, it's a delight to read that while some players appear to be in two places at once, Frank Lampard "always appears to be in the same place, twice, which is still more extraordinary." Or that the rules ought to be changed to allow for David Beckham "to be transported about the field on a sedan chair, with Theo Walcott and Jermain Defoe as bearers." Or that "as for Steven Gerrard, his distribution was yet another eloquent argument for demolishing Wembley Stadium and rebuilding it with a new pitch measuring 380 yards long and 275 yards wide — a pitch large enough to accommodate the grand scale of his ambitious passing."
I could go on piling up quotes — I realize I haven't even touched on the Wing Commander's relationship with his manservant, Seppings, which forms one of the funniest strands of the book — but you might as well just buy the thing and read it in the font that its author intended. It's terrific fun, so much so that I don't know whether to hope or to fear that he might do America next.