Monday, November 7, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It’s all over now and I’m happy to say that when it was going on, I made no public statement about it.

I watched and enjoyed the fireworks on the opening night from a good vantage point on the North Shore.

I couldn’t help knowing how the contest was progressing, because for the duration, our inadequate television news half-hours became de facto sportscasts.

I made the connections that thousands of others have made before me.

Sport – but especially rugby – as ritualised warfare. Team affiliations as permissible forms of national aggression. The tribal waving of flags. The assertion of ethnic cultures. The less likely the national team was to win, the more in evidence the crowds and the enthusiasms. Welcome Samoa. Welcome Tonga. Behold the fence painted a uniform Tongan red, a few hundred yards from my home. Behold the Samoan flag flying three doors up the road and the Silver Fern banner flying next door. A cheerful venting of multicultural identities, especially in Auckland. An excuse for a big piss-up in the streets. Some in-built cynicism too. The partial reporting of costs, trying to prove this didn’t run at a loss. The bland politician posing with the players and the cup, calculating how much good this will do his election chances.

See it as a harmless folk festival or see it as something to paper over the void. “We believe in the All Blacks!!!” But what is the quality of this belief?  Will it perform miracles? Does it mean anything more than fandom, or does it verge on public religion?

Religion. Now that rings a bell. True to my own religion, I made sure that I watched no game in its entirety. This was a religion which I formulated some years ago when I realized – even after having attended a rugby-saturated Marist college for boys – that I had never in my life either played a game of rugby or seen a rugby match in its entirety.

And I vowed to keep it that way.

How then, do I presume to comment on the phenomenon?

Because over the years, I have seen a half-hour of rugby here and a quarter-hour of rugby there on television. Repeatedly. It’s impossible to be a New Zealander without doing this. From Gee’s The Big Season to McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and beyond, I’ve experienced the impact of the game on literature and culture. I’ve also read books like Chris Laidlaw’s Mud in Your Eye (given to me by a thoughtful older brother who wanted to ensure that I wasn’t entirely ignorant of the game).

Yes, I can chat to my barber (his radio permanently tuned to Sportstalk) about the relative merits of The Boot and Pinetree, and whether Kel Tremain ever reached his potential, and were they fair to Murdoch all those years ago, and how does Sean Fitzpatrick compare with Richie, and – blimey – whatever happened to the Boks this time? He knows I don’t play the game, but I don’t think he’s ever twigged that I’ve never really watched it either.

So let’s put it this way. I know more about rugby than Richard Dawkins does about religious practice.

Let me speak my piece.

Which, as the whole thing fades away, brings me to my point.

The term “sore loser” is a familiar one, but perhaps we should contemplate the term “sore winner”.

In the final, New Zealand faced France. New Zealand won by one point. When your reason unclouds, you will have to admit that a victory by one point is not decisive. It’s a matter of sheer chance. One small happenstance here, five minutes more play there, and it could easily have been reversed. I know, I know. In sports results, a miss is as good as a mile. But this clearly wasn’t a mile.

Result? The underlying sense that the final really showed two teams of equal merit in equal combat.

Further result? Out comes the Sore Winner syndrome. Reach for that regular stand-by when we’re up against the Froggies, good old Francophobia.

How dare their team intrude upon our half when the sacred opening haka was being performed? (My response – because the haka signals war and aggression, and a non-violent response was both appropriate and well-managed. The advancing wedge looked pretty good too.)

Ooh! One of them might have done some eye-gouging! (My response – not nice for sure, and should be reprimanded if it happened, but not unheard-of by New Zealand sides either.)

Post-match, some of their players got pissed and misbehaved in a bar. (My response – you mean they behaved like rugby-players?)

But underlying this, the inherited resentments of unthinking Francophobia, especially as Les Bleus have had the cheek to pip the All Blacks in earlier World Cups.

Why do I say inherited? Because unthinking Kiwi Francophobia descends from the English variety, the annoyance of one people pitched against another people when, in past centuries, both were trying to carve up the world. This is the English habit that thinks of the French only as the people who lost the Battle of Waterloo and were overrun in 1940 – hence, as history’s permanent losers and second-raters in the struggle for world dominance. The same habit conveniently forgets how, throughout the whole of the First World War, the French army dominated the defence of the Western Front, with Britain and her empire strictly in a supporting role; or forgets the shared tradition of popular democracy.

And so on and so on.

I could continue at some length on the demonstrable inanities of English Francophobia, but you get the point.

Of course, I do not fall into opposite trap of unthinking Francophilia. I am not W.S.Gilbert’s  “idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, / Every century but this one and each country but his own.” Because something is foreign does not mean it is automatically suffused with virtue. A film does not become art because it happens to have subtitles. France has the same proportion of geniuses and deadheads, nice people and nasty people as any other country. Some elements of French culture deserve a vigorous thrashing. By and large, I endorse Clive James’ view that recent French intellectuals have much to answer for in inflicting the obscurantist gobbledegook of post-modernism and post-structuralism, the lies of Lacan, drivel of Derrida and faeces of Foucault on the world. In other words, they’ve had about the same negative impact on the world as English intellectuals have.

But it’s the swill of Francophobia I’m thinking of here.

We have inherited some of England’s hatreds and prejudices just as we have inherited England’s public-school sport, rugby.

Once upon a time, I might have called this a sign of our cultural immaturity, but that would be a facile response. All nations are a melange of the inherited, the transposed and the locally-invented. In this New Zealand is no more immature than anybody else. Nevertheless, it is true that the most hysterical shows of national chauvinism (a good French word, that) tend really to demonstrate how dependent we still are on other peoples’ dreams and nightmares.

Go the All Blacks! Vivent les Bleus!

Oh well. At least it all has the merit that nobody was killed.


  1. What I disliked about the whole thing was the inherent violence about it all. Not the violence on the field, which was all rather gentlemanly. But the violence amongst the fans. The shouts of "Kill them" which I heard, often, while walking down the street during a game.
    And in the end I was thankful that NZ won, because honestly, I think there would have been a riot if NZ hadn't won. As a country, we have an awful attitude as spectators. We don't have the crowd size to have a 70s or 80s style "Soccer Hooliganism" street battles. But the rugby world cup gave us that critical mass. We had a lucky escape.

  2. What I found fascinating in the UK was that the commentary was clearly pro French for the final, and this was mirrored in comments attached to news articles online. Essentially, New Zealand, while having historical links to the UK, was seen as being more foreign than France, which is a fellow Six Nations team. So it was very much a Southern hemisphere vs Northern hemisphere final. Francophobia did not feature in any of the commentary here, although it may have done so in New Zealand, particularly given the recent history between the two nations with the Rainbow Warrior incident.

  3. For a good proportion of New Zealanders, when asked the value of a rugger ball it'd be: bugger all.
    The title of an article by a Guardian journalist reporting on the World Cup was: "NZ needs to see past Dan Carter's groin."
    The game is stopped for 40% of the time.
    To excel at the highest level you need to weigh in at 100 kg +
    If France had gained the winning margin of one point, would coach Henry have been vilified, dumped and forced to emigrate?
    When asked by a chatty checkout operator if I was watching the game tonight, my "No I've got better things to do" was overheard by more people than I thought. Cue a few howls of derision. Even the open-sesame door was reluctant to let me through.
    P.S. I love the comment about Dawkins, Nicholas.