Category: Britishness

“Why are you here?”

The man was carrying our belongings into our new house. I had told him I was Finnish. It was a quick and direct question, a sharp icy gust blowing in with the old sideboard and the boxes full of books. He seemed surprised that I had chosen to live in the UK.

He was in his late twenties and from Bulgaria. The older man the company he worked for had teamed him up with for the day was also Bulgarian. Neither of them wanted to stay in the UK. The older man told me his brother was working in Germany. That’s where he was going. “Very money”, he said. “Very money”. The younger man had been in the UK for about a year and was also thinking about leaving. The traffic in London was awful, the money wasn’t great, the city was expensive. Life could be better somewhere else.

So. Why am I here? I was trying to explain it to myself as I unwrapped mugs and placed them in cupboards, uncrumpled tea towels and opened kitchen drawers for the first time. I’m here because I like the UK. I’m here because there is something about London that pulls me back every time I leave. But these are intangibles. They didn’t work as answers to that simple, direct question. “Why are you here?”

I’m here because of work. I’m here because I’m married to a Brit. Those reasons seem too practical, too mundane. The underlying truth is that I’m here because where else would I be. This is my home. This is where I became an adult. This is where my life is. That’s why this whole brexit thing is so exhausting sometimes, because when I woke up on the 23d of June I was no longer equal to most of the other people who call this island their home.

The prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after brexit. Those who have experienced her punitive policies when she was the home secretary know that there will be no warm, sympathetic or humane treatment of EU-immigrants, there will only be the cold logic of bureaucracy. There will be a box, you will need to fit it, otherwise you’re out.

During May’s time as home secretary the income threshold for people from countries outside the EU who wanted to stay in the UK was raised. Those who want to apply for permanent residency in the UK now have to prove they earn over £35 000 a year. If you’re a freelancer, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a cleaner, a teacher or an artist that will be difficult.

If you’re married to a Brit, the policy means your British partner has to earn over £18 600 a year in order for you to stay in the country. For each child you have your partner needs to earn a couple of thousand pounds more. Over 15 000 children have been separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of the rules. Even the right wing paper the Telegraph is critical of this policy. It’s created what they call “Skype families”.

Many EU friends of mine in the UK have applied for this same permanent residency during the last six months. They have had to prove that they’ve lived in the UK for five years, they’ve had to hand over bank statements and bills to the state and they’ve had to account for each and every time they have travelled out of the country during the last five years. In the new year I’m planning to do this too. Because this is my home. But simply saying that isn’t enough anymore. Now I have to prove it.

Image by Eduard Militaru.

Britishness Everyday life Thoughts

Britain has voted. We have a new government. The adrenaline of the last few weeks of is slowly ebbing out. I’m drinking coffee, I’m cleaning the bathtub and the oven, I keep writing in my head, but when I sit down the words retreat to the back of my mind.

There are things I’ll remember from this election, snap-shots that will stay with me such as Vince Cable’s slumped shoulders as the results were read out. The shock and sadness of this election will stay with me, just as I can still recall Nick Clegg’s triumphant face in 2010.

And now everyone’s re-grouping, re-thinking, re-planning their PR strategy. Tom Watson wants to be the next Labour leader. Theresa May wants phone companies and internet service providers to keep records of what we get up to online. Scotland’s SNP has 56 MPs. Some tories want to leave the EU. The pound is stronger than ever, house prices in London are going up, anti-austerity protestors are taking to the streets.

We will have more of the same. We will have something completely different.

The words are stuck, so here are a couple of tunes. The first song was stuck in my mind this morning. Please ignore the swearing, Jarvis is amazing.

Two good pieces for those who want to know more:

– Paul Mason at Channel 4 on why Labour failed.
– A baffled American’s take on the election.

Britishness Thoughts

There was a woman on the platform at Hackney Downs this morning. I looked at her for a while. She was well dressed, fashionable, her coat looked expensive (although I can’t really tell these sort of things). Her roots were showing, badly, half her hair was blond, the other dark. Why would someone who was otherwise so stylish leave it like that? Perhaps she was growing it out, perhaps it’s some trend that’s passed me by. It made me wonder and I came up with the seed of a plot, a woman found dead in expensive clothing with roots showing, not many people might make a big deal out of it, but some would, the right kind of detective would. That would be the small detail that makes the case.

I’m thinking about these things because Gerry and I watched a great three part documentary about the history of British detective fiction. It’s presented by historian Lucy Worsley and looks at how the British fascination with murder started in the 1800s, re-telling the stories of famous cases and finally examining why crime novels became so popular between the wars, the period known as the golden age of detective fiction.

That’s when Agatha Christie started writing her books. That’s when the detection club for British mystery writers was formed. It was a secret society in a town full of them. You had to swear allegiance to the club by placing your hand on a skull. It was all quite eccentric, British, funny. These were writers who didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

There was even a list of rules for them to follow.

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Agatha Christie inside the library at Greenway House. Image via pinterest.

I love this type of detective fiction, it’s my guilty pleasure. I have read most of the Poirot books and I would happily read them again. There is something so satisfactory about the neat endings, about there being a solution. Christie and her peers gave their readers comfort. Their great detectives could make sense of the most horrible of crimes, they offered a sense of calm and an escape in a world that was sometimes frightening and chaotic.

This is what some crime and detective fiction still does. It shows us darkness, but leaves us with a happy ending, a solution, a feeling that things might be OK after all.

I read somewhere that crime writers are amongst the jolliest to hang around at literary festivals, presumably because they exorcise all their anger, fear and sorrow in their books. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a pretty cool thought.

Britishness Thoughts Writing

It’s Sunday in the city of London, the heart of the old medieval city. The streets are quiet. All the bankers and the office workers are somewhere else, the restaurants and cafes serving them are empty. The buses are fast and every sound echoes between fat stone buildings. The white dome of Saint Pauls in the distance is attracting every backpack wearing tourist within a mile. There are tours on guided buses, someone wearing the british colours standing on the top deck, microphone in hand. All the tourists seem to nod and pay attention. It’s a nice day for sightseeing. Clear and autumn bright.

I’m heading to the river, to a talk about the myths and mysteries of the Thames. I’m going with Madicken and we climb onto the HMS President which is rocking gently at the Victoria Embankment. Somehow that gentle rocking is disturbing enough to make both of us feel slightly seasick.

It’s not even noon, the boat is packed. We learn that thirty to fifty bodies are discovered in the river every year. We learn that the Thames used to be a sacred river, a sort of Ganges, where the celts dumped ceremonial objects. The river was a way to another world. Camelot has been placed in Westminster. Arthur and his knights in London.

Perhaps that’s why the river is also full of skulls. Lots and lots and lots of human skulls resting in the riverbed. Strangely though there are no bodies and no one seems to know where all the skulls come from.

There are more stories. What we see around us today on the shores of the river are many islands. Every place which ends on an ea or ey used to be an island, Battersea, Bermondsey. It’s just like on Orkney where the ey is a leftover from my ancestors. En ö, öy, ey, an island. London Bridge could have fallen down when it was invaded by vikings and King Canute saved the country by commanding the tide and drowning his enemies, no I’m getting ahead of myself here. That’s not really how the story goes.

There are so many stories in this city, mysteries, hidden lore, hidden history. I walk these streets and I only see today, I only ever scrape the surface. But there are layers and layers of lives and thoughts, hopes and dreams, going down deep into the mud underneath our feet. This place has been a metropolis for centuries. All that energy is stored within stone walls, all those lives, loves, fears, the worship, the ambition, it’s all still here. And I love it. That’s what makes this city great.

For more Thames lore check out the Totally Thames festival. And for London mysteries look up the Fortean Society

Britishness London

We woke up at three in the morning, the sky was an industrial orange, heavy clouds reflecting all of London’s lights. The sound of thunder seeped into our dreams and woke us up with a start, heavy rain, thunder claps loud enough to make the whole building shake, purple flashes lighting up the sky, a plane in the distance. It’s the second time this summer a thunder storm has sat right over our house, the second time I’ve seen a storm like this up close. The air held a hint of release.

We checked our phones. The first results were in, Scotland was voting no. The storm moved on, but the rumbling echoed around us. I worried about my computer being plugged in and data being wiped out. I wondered about Scotland. I fell asleep.

This morning it was clear. There will be no independence. A million and a half bright hopes, a million and a half people wanting a different future. Today they woke up to the grey same-old. Perhaps it’s for the best, because after the sparkling change, the parties, the energy would have fizzled out, like it always does when real life seeps back into idealism. There would have been disappointment, confusion, tension, polarisation.

Big, bright change almost always means that someone will suffer. Some are more revolutionary than I am. I just want as many people as possible to live a comfortable, happy life.

In Scotland 85 percent of those who can vote, voted. People cared. If they can keep caring that will be the most important outcome of this election.

Britishness Thoughts

Gerry’s in the Lake District where he’s camping, building fires and probably drinking quite a lot of his brother’s craftily brewed IPA (although I’m not supposed to know too much about that). It’s making me want to pick up my rucksack and set off on another journey through these isles.

Over the years I have travelled pretty extensively in the UK (some of those travels ended up in my book), but there are still plenty of places left to explore and discover. These are calling me at the moment

The Lake District


 

I’ve never been here! I’ve driven past it, looked longingly toward it, but I’ve never stayed there. It rains more here than in the rest of the UK, which might at first sound like a bad thing, but the rain makes everything lush and green. There are rolling hills and forests and small village pubs. It sounds like a place Tolkien could have dreamed up.

One day I’d like to walk from inn to inn, drinking in the scenery by day and drinking some local brews at night.

Whitby


 

Image via Dennis Bromage.

I have heard so much about this place it’s almost strange that I’ve not yet made it there. Partly I’m blaming transport links. It’s not that easy to get to Whitby from London on the train, you have to change trains at least once and even though that’s not the end of the world, it means that I would like stay there for at least a few days when I go. The right time hasn’t presented itself yet.

I remember watching a travel programme about the UK many years ago when I was still living in a small town in Finland. The presenter visited Whitby, talked about Dracula and walked around the abandoned Abbey looking out over the city. I watched this programme during a phase when I was particularly fond of wearing long black skirts and black lipstick. The message went straight to my heart and ever since I’ve thought Whitby would be a totally cool place to visit. These days I’m more interested in the cute harbour, the medieval-looking streets and the moor perched above the town than in the stories about vampires and goths. Although Whitby does host a goth weekend every year, which I would quite like to experience.

Lewis and Harris


 

The Outer Hebrides have fascinated me since I was able to locate them on a map. Just look at all those fascinating place names (Uist, Benbecula, Stornoway), they make the islands sound almost magical. Everything I’ve read and heard about these places since has made me want to visit. They’re isolated islands, battered by storms that have travelled all the way across the Atlantic. They’re home to seabirds, conservative christians and artists who’ve escaped the big cities.

Robert MacFarlane wrote about the Outer Hebrides in his book The Old Ways: Journeys on foot. He describes first sailing to Lewis and then finding and walking an ancient path across the island. He also visits an artist friend who seems to work mainly with bones and taxidermy. Do I need to jump up and down, clenching my fists, to show you how much I would love to visit this place?

Shetland


 

Another island off an island. Gerry and I travelled to Orkney for our honeymoon and about twice a month I become really nostalgic and want to go back. In my daydreams I also get the ferry to Shetland, preferably in January when they celebrate Up Helly Aa and set fire to a galley whilst dressed as vikings. I imagine it as total madness, flames flickering on a dark night, thousands of people trying to get a good view, lots of smartphones in the air, waves of heat from the fire, the wood crackling and spitting, a collective sigh of relief as the ship collapses in on itself. I would love to see this. And I would love to visit Shetland and to stay for a while. But first I’d like to pick up Ann Cleeves detective novels set on the island. Nothing like a good murder mystery to whet your apetite for travel.

Northern Ireland


 

Yes, I know this is quite a big place. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that after five years in the UK (many of those spent working as a freelance correspondent for Finnish and Swedish media), I’ve yet to visit Northern Ireland. I’ve been to Ireland and liked it. I’ve been wanting and planning to visit this part of the UK since I came here. I’d love to see Belfast and I’d like to see the northern coast. The country has a tragic and fascinating history. It’s a story I don’t know well enough, but one I would like to learn more about.

Britishness Travel

A million cups of tea are drunk every minute.

A couple of years ago I was reading about the history of tea and stumbled across a book which makes it seem like this humble drink was the key to making the British Empire so powerful.

In her book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink writer Sarah Rose explains.

For nearly two hundred years the East India Company sold opium to China and bought tea with the proceeds. The opium for tea exchange was not merely profitable to England, it was indispensable. Nearly one in every ten pounds sterling collected by the government came from the import and sale of tea – about a pound per person per year.

Tea taxes funded railways, roads and Civil Service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation. Opium was equally significant to the British economy for it financed the management of India – the shining jewel in Queen Victoria’s imperial crown.

And then the Chinese tried to ban opium, which didn’t end well for them.

The Chinese tried to ban opium … Victoria sent Britain’s navy to war to keep the lucrative opium for tea marriage alive.

As part of the peace treaty England won concessions from the Chinese no one had previously thought possible in a century of diplomatic entreaty: the island of Hong Kong, plus the cession of five new treaty or trading ports on the mainland.

Eventually the Brits got tired of rowing with the Chinese and started growing their own tea instead, in India. And they have enjoyed their tea ever since.

 

Image by Morgan Sessions.

Britishness

About two years ago I found myself sitting on the floor in the flat, crying because a pipe was leaking underneath a sink. There had been builders in the house for several days, sorting things out in our new home, the home Gerry and I would settle in for a few years.

There was a trickle of water running along the floor and I couldn’t keep the tears away. I felt helpless and I realised that this was it. This was my home. This country was now my home. There would be no more moving for a while, no more wide-eyed fascination. The third stage of culture shock was setting in, but I didn’t realise that back then.

Let us rewind a bit further. It’s 2009, I’ve just arrived in London. I breathe in the air at Heathrow and it fills me with a bubbly joy, the sweet, polluted air of London. I rush past the yellow signs to collect my suitcase and I move into my first flat in the city. I spend a year happily riding buses for hours, walking everywhere, even enjoying the tube – because I am finally in London.

For two years my biggest fear is that something will happen and that I will have to move home. I hold on to every little thing that keeps me in London with an iron grip. I count my months in the city. I am totally and utterly in love with the place. I worry that I’ll get ill or that I won’t be able to support myself. I work hard because that means I’ll be able to stay.

Then I meet Gerry, then my life slowly winds itself around this town, then I get married, we move into the flat, the flat becomes a home, Finland feels very far away. And suddenly I find myself longing for home. Not the real country I left behind, but small things like the forest, the clean air, the cold winters and the long summer nights. I miss my family because I realise this isn’t a temporary thing anymore. I have rooted myself in this country. And that’s when the problems start.

It’s said that there are four stages of culture shock.

1. The honeymoon phase

  • Everything about your new home is lovely, amazing, fascinating. It’s the best place ever. You get offended if someone says anything negative about your new home. You have lots of energy, you want to see everything, do everything, talk to everyone. You wake up happy every day because you’ve moved to such a wonderful place. You’re totally in love

2. The negotiation phase

  • Homesickness starts to creep in. Suddenly you notice things about your new home, things you don’t really like. You pick up on cultural differences and they annoy you. You realise that perhaps this isn’t such a great place after all. It’s just another place, with problems and annoying people just like anywhere else. You start missing home and people who really get you.

3. The adjustment phase

  • This is when depression hits you. What’s the point, you think. The love is gone. You feel a bit lost, wondering why you moved in the first place. The magic is gone. You’re floating between two cultures. Going back home isn’t an option, staying feels difficult. You’re numb. Nothing makes you happy.

4. Acceptance

  • You’ve come out on the other side. You know this country now, you know this culture and you’re starting to figure out where you fit in. You will always be different, have a different cultural background, but you have found some kind of middle ground. And suddenly you’re ready to fall in love with the country again, this time accepting its flaws, problems and realness.

I struggled with the adjustment phase. A lot of things in the UK started to annoy me. Why were the politicians so useless? Why did I have to move to country where the majority of people in power have gone to the same private schools? Why do you hardly see any female, black or asian faces in Westminster? Why does the post never arrive? Where is my place in this society? Will I ever be able to settle in the UK? Why does everyone around me only seem to care about money?

For a while my life turned into a dull grey. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be going anywhere. This new country, my home, had lost its sparkle. I wasn’t in love anymore, but I couldn’t ever see myself leaving.

In this confusion I managed to write a book. I poured my frustration and confusion into Det finns inga britter. I started researching what it meant to be British. I read up on the history of this country, learning there is a long tradition of immigration. I got even angrier realising how some of these immigrants had been treated throughout the centuries. I read about the reality black and asian immigrants were faced with in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, being refused housing and medical care. But even though there were many things that made me angry, I also earned that British culture has been shaped by immigration, going all the way back to Roman times. This country is an amalgamation of different cultures and people, but sometimes the Brits find it easy to forget this.

As I read another Britain started appearing before me. A real country, with real problems. It wasn’t the same country I had moved to back in 2009, but I didn’t mind so much anymore because the ground I was standing on felt solid again. I was starting to see this country like some its citizens was seeing it.

There is a fifth stage of culture shock, the independence stage.

You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.

And that’s where I’ve come out. I live here now. In some ways the UK is the country where I’ve become a grown up, I know more about how to run a business here than in Finland, in theory I know how to buy a house here. This is where I pay my taxes. And when I go home there are things I forget, like weighing my vegetables when I go grocery shopping. Small things, but things that root me in one place. Even my annoyance and frustration with this country connects me to it. After all it’s pretty British to complain.

I didn’t think culture shock would affect me. But moving to a new country is a big thing, no matter how well you think you understand that culture. If you find these sort of feelings affecting you, remind yourself that everyone goes through it and that you will come out on the other side, hopefully a little bit wiser.

Image by Luis Llerena.

Britishness London The moving to London collection Thoughts

“Get them on the property ladder by the age of 29 or your children might NEVER be able to buy their own house”, the Daily Mail.

In the UK everyone is expected to own their own home, if you don’t you’re destined to become poor and old, freezing to death in your expensive rental flat because you can’t afford to pay the gas bill.

For many Brits climbing the housing ladder is as much of a cultural mile stone as getting married and starting a family. Buying house after house secures their future. Some imagine they’ll sell their final, very expensive house and then live off the proceeds in their old age. The house is their pension. And there is a cloud of doom hanging over those of us who aren’t able to scrape together the minimum of a £30k deposit for our first home or who aren’t able go to the bank and get a mortgage.

The thing is even though most Brits want to own their own home, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get on the housing ladder. In the late 1990s, the average house in the UK was five times the average salary, now it is 10 times that, and rising. It’s becoming very difficult for “normal” people to buy a house in the UK, especially in and around London, the city that has become my home.

“Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.” What television presenter Kirstie Allsopp would tell her daughter.

The culture of home ownership

I’m from Finland, a country where there is no great stigma placed on those who’re still renting in their forties. Sure it’s nice to have your own place, but it’s not obligatory. It’s also not crazy expensive to buy. And that’s the case in many European countries. Even though buying is cheaper in Germany than it is in the UK only 39 per cent of Germans own the homes they live in, compared with about 60 per cent in Britain.

Because it’s so expensive to buy in the UK many middle class Brits rely on their parents to help them get their first food on the property ladder, some get help with a deposit, others inherit property.

But there are also many Brits whose parents never got on the housing ladder and some who can never scrape together a deposit for a house. They’ll keep renting, sometimes they’ll rent off the British state with its diminishing, dilapidated housing stock. Some will keep renting their whole lives. Home ownership separates one class form the next in this country.

Property is seen as an investment in the UK, it’s a way for the wealthy to get wealthier. In other countries and cultures a house is simply just a home.

My story

I’ve been renting ever since I moved away from home. When I moved to Helsinki to study I rented a studio flat, like almost all of my university class mates – sharing a flat is a strange concept in Finland.

I thought moving to London would mean higher rents, but I’ve been lucky with my flats. The room in my first flatshare was cheap. Then Gerry and I moved in together and renting a studio flat as a couple is cheaper than renting it own your own. But even though I’ve been lucky with the amount of rent I’ve had to pay, I quickly realised the London rental market can be a tough place. Many landlords are unreliable. It’s not unheard of for contracts to finish without much of a warning, flats being sold, re-developed and the tenants moved on. In London Gerry had moved almost once a year before we met. I moved once a year until we moved into our current place almost three years ago.

We’re in a good position today, but even though we have a nice flat and can stay where we are for a few more years, we’ll eventually have to move on. And I keep thinking that one day, maybe, it would be nice for us to own our own house.

I like looking for properties online. Even though no one is thinking about buying, selling or even moving, it’s not unheard of for my mother and I to send each other emails with links to interesting looking properties. House hunting is fun when it’s just an amusing hobby. It’s less fun when you realise you have to move and there aren’t any affordable properties out there.

More info

Image via rnvl’s flickr.

Britishness The moving to London collection Thoughts

Hello World Cup 2014, everyone is talking about you. As I was researching my book “Det finns inga britter“, I stumbled across an interesting theory about why football became such a popular sport in England and then in the rest of the British empire.

David Winner writes in his book Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football that playing football was encouraged as a way to stop British men from, er, there’s no easy way of saying this… from masturbating.

Winner writes.

Revd Edward Thring, was headmaster of Uppingham School and one of the giants of Victorian education, equalled in importance only by Thomas Arnold of Rugby. In the mid-nineteenth century Thring was a key figure in shaping Victorian ideas about manliness. He was also a pioneer of two of its key motors: organised sport and sexual repression.

His younger brother J. C. Thring helped found one of the significant vehicles for this new manliness: the game of football. Edward was a muscular Christian who turned “weaklings into men”. He also preached a holistic, egalitarian educational doctrine which he called true life … He was obsessed with stamping out the heinous sin of masturbation, which (he was certain) led to early and dishonoured graves.

Apparently Uppingham school wasn’t a very nice place to be a young man, at least not by today’s standards.

Any boy at Uppingham who was found to have committed “self-abuse” was instantly expelled. To maintain an atmosphere of “purity”. Thring encouraged boys to spy on each other. And used sport as a tool in the war against vice.

“Self-pollution” was not only intrinsically vile; it also posed a danger to race and Empire because it was the crucial first step on the road to all other kinds of effeminate and dangerous sensuality. If only boys and young men could be taught not to masturbate, they would grow up chaste and pure and all other sexual evils would disappear.

The Victorians had a strange obsession with masturbation. Interestingly the campaign against so called self-pollution was started by a man who wanted to get more costumers for his brothels, Winner writes.

The idea had first surfaced in a quack French pamphlet in 1710 called Onania. The author believed to have been a brothel-owner trying to drum up business by using scare tactics against a rival form of entertainment. He claimed that masturbation wasted essential bodily fluids and “destroys conjugal affection, perverts natural inclination, and tends to extinguish the hope of posterity”.

The pamphlet was widely translated and for nearly 200 years underpinned a quietly burgeoning medical and quasi-medical literature on the subject. Only in Britain did a full-scale moral panic erupt. Doctors were partly to blame.

It was widely believed that masturbation had the following “side effects” – pale complexion, emaciated form, slouching gait, clammy palms, glassy or laden eyes, averted gaze, or worse insanity and death!

So what does all of this have to do with football? Well it was used to turn these British weaklings into real men.

Thring and other schoolmasters started a radical new ideology – athleticism – a motor for the muscular new imperialism, for militarism and conformism. Suppression of sexuality, individuality – an even thought itself – were essential elements of this process, and were encoded in the games themselves.

What I find interesting is that this fear of masturbation seem to have stemmed from a deeper, almost subconscious fear that the British empire was failing because British men were no longer “real men.” It’s all pretty Freudian.

One key fear at the time was that British power was faltering. Ironic because the late nineteenth century appears now as the zenith of British power, wealth and social stability, but that’s not how it felt at the time. The Victorians were gripped by a sense of dread, seeing not stability, but decay; they felt their world crumbling. Some of this anxiety reflected geostrategic changes … from the 1870s America and Germany started catching up – industrially, economically and as imperial rivals, but the British problems went deeper still.

In almost every cultural register of the time there is a sense of Britain under attack or threat … there were massive problems with the British economy in the 1870s, and it’s linked to anxiety about the Empire. There were new anxieties about sexuality too, shifting boundaries between men and women and emergence of the “new woman” phenomenon: women living alone, wearing bloomers, riding around on bicycles and reading “suspect” novels. It was an awful lot for the British to come to terms with psychologically says gender historian John Tosh. And since it’s men who are supposed to defend the Empire and run the show, it was clearly all to their discredit. In some sense it was seen as their weakness.

Winner also writes about the English way of playing football and perhaps offers up a theory of why the English aren’t normally World Cup winners.

The game is and has always been “a man’s game”. English footballers are expected to display Lionheart qualities: strength, power, energy, fortitude, loyalty, courage. As for delicacy, cleverness, sleight-of-foot, imagination and cushion-slicing … well that’s the sort of thing we prefer to leave to foreigners.

The idea is rooted in what the Victorian’s called “manliness” and it lies at the heart of all that’s best and worst in English football. It accounts for the energy and power which make the English league exciting. It helps explain why English football rarely produces creative artists (and usually treats badly the ones who do emerge). And it provides an insight into the root cause of England’s forty years of hurt in the World Cup.

Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football is a fascinating book, it’s filled with interesting stories about sexual repression and sport in Victorian Britain. I don’t want to show you all of my research as it feels a bit wrong to share so much of the author’s own work. But if you find this kind of stuff interesting I recommend you check out the book.

Britishness The moving to London collection