The stars' tennis balls
or, a short introduction from an unusual angle
In 1977 an eighteen-year-old American skipped his high school graduation to play tennis in Europe. Although an amateur, he competed against professionals — thrilling fans and maddening traditionalists with his prickly, passionate attitude. Even to people for whom tennis was of little interest, his behaviour seemed at once scandalous and magnetic. Two decades later a sociologist, E. Digby Baltzell, would assess the player's impact in his book Sporting Gentlemen. This had had a rather more catchy working title: John McEnroe and the Decline of Civilization.
Tennis mattered a lot to me when I was a child. Each summer I would go square-eyed watching Wimbledon. In the first couple of years that I was able to follow it, I registered McEnroe's sulky petulance, and registered also how violently it was at odds with the coolness of his great rival, Björn Borg. I liked Borg, the doleful-looking Swede who reputedly slept surrounded by his racquets, and was encouraged in this preference by my parents.
McEnroe was considered a disgrace because he flouted the norms of a sport steeped in tradition, showed no regard for authority, and always insisted that he was right, even when (and partly because) such insistence was guaranteed to be futile. His technique disclosed his angsty nonconformity. In a review of one of the player's televised matches, Clive James observed that McEnroe gave the impression of 'serving around the corner of an imaginary building'; his service motion, apparently developed to prevent back pain, seemed consonant with paranoia. Meanwhile his demeanour was 'as charming as a dead mouse in a loaf of bread'. A further source of outrage was McEnroe's appearance: his air of dishevelment (wild hair, sloppy socks, a mystifying lack of muscle tone) meant that he looked like a dabbler, at a time when tennis was embracing the bland ruthlessness of professional sports management. McEnroe's manners grated. His defiance stemmed from a hatred of anything that seemed phoney; he suffered not from a lack of sensitivity, but from a tendency to be hypersensitive in situations where he was meant to be stoical.
Borg and McEnroe suggested two distinct ways of experiencing the world, two distinct ways of greeting fortune and misfortune. Borg was the embodiment of restraint and politesse, averting his gaze from his own excellence, whereas McEnroe was the embodiment of ... well, of what E. Digby Baltzell considered calling the decline of civilization.
The choice between these two figures and their attitudes was presented to me explicitly. Neither was English, but I saw the drama of their rivalry in an English setting, and it spoke to an English audience. Here were two approaches to life: the mannerly and the unmannerly. One player kept his feelings locked up; the other expressed them continually. One had eliminated all trace of intimacy from his behaviour; the other the stars' tennis balls was forever admitting us to an intimate place we didn't want to go.
Yet now the choice between Borg and McEnroe feels different: we find McEnroe's conduct authentic, even courageous, while Borg's seems that of an android. In his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe writes that 'Where money and publicity meet, there's always excitement, but good behaviour is rarely part of the mix. Manners are the operating rules of more stable systems ... I thought tennis had had enough of manners. To me, "manners" meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn't pay any taxes.'
To McEnroe, as to many people, the notion of manners seems old-fashioned and starchy, and it also means something divisive, corrupt, shamefully unquestionable — and quintessentially English. The manners of every society encode a particular view of the world. They can be understood as a system for producing a sense of togetherness or minimizing a sense of not-togetherness. But in the pantheon of national stereotypes, English and manners go together like French and romance or German and efficiency.
In the pages that follow, I examine English manners. I also examine Englishness. It therefore seems appropriate to say something about the words English and British. The distinction between them is one that English people often fail to observe; in the eyes of the Scottish and Welsh, it is much clearer. Britain is a political construct; the Act of Union in 1707 joined England, Wales and Scotland as 'one united kingdom by the name of Great Britain'. This construct, which blurred traditional divisions, was strengthened by a reaction against all that was encountered overseas. As a political concept, 'Britain' has worked, but at root the people of England, like the people of Scotland and Wales, feel that while 'British' may be the name for what they are, it is not who they are.
Excerpted from Sorry!: The English and their Manners by Henry Hitchings, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2013 by Henry Hitchings. All rights reserved.