Now that the annual extravaganza at the All England Club is underway, commentators in various other fields will, no doubt, be reaching for excuses to trot out that inelegant neologism ‘Wimbledonisation’ – as in “the Wimbledonisation of Britain”.
Its meaning is clear. It derives from the fact that, while Wimbledon is still widely regarded as the tennis world’s most prestigious tournament, and remains one of the most popular events of Britain’s renowned summer Season, the All England men’s title hasn’t been won by a local chap for three quarters of a century. In other words, as wonderful as Britain may be at hosting such events, it is pretty poor at winning them.
The fate of the last Briton who did manage to win Wimbledon, Frederick John Perry, may be instructive. Having won the title three years in a row, between 1934 and 1936, the dashing and ambitious Fred promptly turned professional. The All England Club – which many would characterise in adjectives precisely the opposite of the two just used to describe Fred – promptly ostracised him, amateurism being one of the club’s hallowed traditions. Fred in turn promptly skedaddled off to the United States, where, needless to say, the Americans welcomed him as a sporting hero. After retiring he made a fortune flogging branded tennis kit.
Most observers of the British tennis scene today agree that all too little has changed in the intervening years. The absolute truth of that may be disputed, but the absence of home-grown winners since Perry – seven barren decades and counting – speaks volumes.
The All England Club’s lofty ingratitude to Perry was far from an isolated example of officialdom preserving the tradition of an event at the expense of producing a Brit capable of winning of it. For what has been said about Wimbledon can also be said, and increasingly is being said, about pretty much everything else that goes on in the host country, and not just in the world of sport.
Commerce provides a prime example of Britain building an impeccable record of opening up markets to overseas enterprises, only to watch the foreign devils run off with most of the spoils. Try doing that in Germany.
The procession of old and beloved British companies heading off into foreign parts continues, with no end in sight. Among notable recent defections, CadburySchweppes was acquired last year by Kraft, an American food company perhaps best known as the manufacturer of a gruesome brand of orange, rubbery and entirely tasteless sliced cheese. “How could we possible let that happen?” I’ve heard people ask. Well, no-one forced Cadbury’s directors and shareholders to say yes.
Not just companies have been handed over to Johnny Foreigner; entire British industries have been loaded up and carted off. Heads are still shaken sadly in taverns when thoughts turn to all those iconic names lost to the British automotive industry: Rolls Royce, Bentley, Jaguar and Aston Martin, to name just a few. Even that cute little Mini is now eine kuter kleiner Mini. These beloved emblems of a bygone age are still rolling off the production lines, it is true, but they are foreign-owned production lines (even if some are physically located in Britain). Shame on us, I say, not for failing to protect our industry but for failing to run it properly.
The same regrets about loss of national treasures have been expressed about banking, a profession in which Britain once supposedly excelled to the point of being the envy of the world.
Now, it has to be said that banking is no longer the business that it used to be. Gone are the days when former public school classmates, after extending a few loans in the morning, spent the afternoon sleeping off the effects of an extended liquid boardroom lunch. And that much-admired, pin-striped figure once revered as ‘Something in the City’ is now resolutely blue-collared. The stripes remain, but are much wider than they used to be.
Banking has become what locals these days might call “a nice little earner”. If the phrase is redolent of the street market, it’s because that’s where many of them, if deprived of the opportunity to manipulate international markets from desk-top computers, would be obliged to ply their trade.
Curiously, the deployment of such doubtful skills has led some to hail the rude health of the City as one of Britain’s proudest post-war achievements. That’s debatable, and anyway ignores the uncomfortable truth that most of the City’s powerful institutions these days are foreign-owned – Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and HSBC being currently the most visible. What happened, you may well ask, to all those fine British financial institutions of fierce tradition and international renown, the ones that financed the great imperial adventure? They simply faded into oblivion, or in many cases disappeared altogether soon after 1986, the year Mrs. Thatcher’s government deregulated the City, a process referred to at the time – with what now seems uncommon prescience – as the Big Bang. Opening London to overseas competition merely proved what many suspected, that most of London’s finance houses were incapable of surviving in a global marketplace unless they were protected by restrictive practices based on parochial self-interest.
But let’s return to the grand sporting events on the British calendar. It is true that most seem to be staged these days as much for cash-laden foreign aficionados as they once were for Britain’s increasingly penurious aristocracy. Mingle in the paddocks and grandstands at Wimbledon, Royal Ascot, the Henley Regatta, the Formula 1 Grand Prix and other such occasions, and what increasingly assails the auditory senses is no longer the cut-glass accent of the shires (of late replaced by the coarse estuary English of the metropolitan counties) but the babble of “lesser breeds” from the Middle East, India, Russia and China. Well, if you were the marketing manager of these events, what kind of punters would you want to attract? And is it really worse watching exotic foreign nabobs disporting themselves on our playing fields than stuck-up British aristocrats?
And to be fair – or before someone reminds me – Brits often win at these occasions, Wimbledon remaining the obvious exception. But this is to miss the point. The sporting activities taking place are less the attraction than the social cachet attached to attending them. Local resentments arise not from the perception that Brits always lose but from the belief that the ‘grand occasions’ of the British season have somehow been hijacked by an international jet set of vulgar celebrities and industrial billionaires from countries most of us couldn’t locate on an atlas, and all sponsored by global corporations of no discernible residency.
Well of course they have. But does it matter? The answer is no.
We may find it galling to have no other role to play but grateful and obeisant host to the filthy rich from other countries, but whose fault is that? Shakespeare would have known. With apologies to the Bard, the fault, dear Brits, lies not in our stars but in our selves.
If foreigners seem to have more money than we do, it may just be because they work harder – or at least fiddle the books more adeptly. Alternatively, it may just be that the rest of the world, in economic power, as in much else besides, has finally caught up with, and in many respects, overtaken us.
Rather than grumbling – a pastime in which Britain still unfailingly excels – perhaps we should be content instead merely to bask in the glow of national hubris. For the attraction of British companies to foreign enterprises lies in the quality of the products and services on offer. And the devotion to our grand sporting occasions is explained by the fact that, as an excuse for exuberant orgies of showing off, they are unmatched anywhere. Imagine – if you can – strawberries and cream at some neo-Communist concrete stadium on the banks of the Don. How about Ladies Day at Saudi Arabia’s annual Camel Derby? Actually, the ladies wouldn’t be invited, except to wait on the men, and even if they were, those cowed figures clad head-to-foot in black wouldn’t add much in the way of colour.
One final point, before I’m accused of nursing secret elitist sympathies. Let me hasten to add that whatever welcome Britain extends to the fat cats at the top of the social and economic scales should also be extended to those at the bottom.
Why do they, too, the huddled masses, want to come here? Because Britain, in the American liberal tradition, and greatly to its credit, offers immigrants the essential virtues lacking, and usually beyond imagination, in their homelands: opportunity and freedom.
Immigration, like imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.
So let ‘em all come, I say, stinking rich and dirt poor alike, just so long as the former bring their dough and the latter their honest aspirations.
By the way, Andy Murrray, as of today, has only two more matches to win to take Wimbledon for Britain. That would consign Wimbledonisation to the lexicological wilderness. Unfortunately, those matches will probably be against Nadal and Federer.
We can but pray.