This blog is one of many which, this past weekend, was hoping to open its entry with those inimitable words: ‘Annutio vobis gaudium magnum’. ‘I announce to you tidings of great joy’. And so indeed I can, although it is not yet the long-awaited publication of Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio concerning the Tridentine Rite of Mass. The latest rumour — about the thirty-seventh in a most productive line of rumours — now speculates that Benedict will await his return in triumph from a visit to South America next week before publishing probably the most controversial piece of canonical legislation since Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. Watch this space, and Dominus vobiscum, while we’re about it.
No, the ‘gaudium magnum’ of this past weekend was Manchester United’s successful re-conquest of the English Premiership, after four years of playing second-fiddle to Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. We might perhaps re-brand it the reconquista in deference to José Mourinho’s Iberian origins — that Portuguese gentleman being the now crest-fallen manager of a second-place football team valued in excess of £200 million — although deference is the last thing Man U showed in a season that stands second only to the 1998-1999 Treble for its inspirational levels of passing and attacking football. Alex Ferguson, the old Scots warhorse who has orchestrated the success of Man U over the last 21 years, was as magnanimous in victory as he can be in defeat. Not for Sir Alex the nursery-school whinging of Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s own Gallic cheval de bataille. Ferguson will have the untold joy of visiting Stanford Bridge on Wednesday evening with the Premiership trophy firmly stuffed in his (probably very large) pocket, but he has promised Mourinho a bottle of his finest from the famed Ferguson cellar, and Mourinho, though hated by the United faithful, is a man not only gifted with a powerful football brain, but also capable of grace in defeat. Indeed, José is fundamentally a good sport, and Ferguson shows him levels of respect that he has long since abandoned in his ten-year rivalry with the catatonically-challenged Wenger.
But what struck me about Ferguson’s post-victory reflections was his almost literary commentary on defeat and victory. ‘José,’ he said, ‘will learn that victory and defeat are to be received in very much the same way. As twins of a kind.’ My quotation is inaccurate but that was the gist. Fascinating. Even reassuring in some ways. The wise words of one who has known both sides of the street, undoubtedly. But where did he get the twin idea from?
I rattled my brains for several minutes, but all I could think of was that awful couple in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. He couldn’t have been thinking of TV’s Gog and Magog, Ant and Dec, could he? God forbid. Then in a flash of something or other this evening, it struck me. Ferguson was not making reference to Alice, even if his best player, Christiano Ronaldo, throws himself frequently to the ground with all the enthusiasm of a connoisseur of rabbit holes. No, Ferguson was probably thinking of Rudyard Kipling and his poem from Rewards and Fairies, ‘If’:
If you can meet with victory and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same,
[…] you’ll be a man, my son.
That’s it! Again the citation is a rough one, eked out of brain cells which clocked off early this evening and disappeared into a soothing bath of Costières de Nîmes (appellation contrôlée). But this is Ferguson all over. Stoicism’s the name of the game. Victory is great; but let’s move on. Defeat is dreadful; but let’s move on. As far as they go, there is sound sense in those words. I don’t care much for the man’s nose, and I find his irascibility very off-putting. But he’s no mean street philosopher, of that there is no doubt.
And so, another 8th May draws to a close. The French have had a bank-holiday today for Victory in Europe 1945. Why don’t we celebrate that in the UK? We surely have more reason to! I’ve been ploughing again through Evelyn Waugh’s Men-at-Arms for the first time in a number of years, and feeling great sympathy for Waugh’s hero, Guy Crouchback, a man marooned by circumstances and an enthusiastic volunteer in search of some purpose, as the events of the Second World War unfold around him. Finally, Guy is left not with the sense of having conquered, like Monty in North Africa, but with a deeper understanding of the individual’s service in the midst of achievements which, on a global scale, can seem ambiguous. When one reflects on the fact that Britain entered the war for Poland’s liberty, and ended the war in a pact with Stalin whose legacy over the Poles was not broken for another forty-five years, one can perhaps understand Waugh’s ambivalence over the victory in Europe…
And treat those two impostors just the same
Well, impostors only from a certain point of view…
As my adorable Polish friend Jolanta would undoubtedly say, ‘Z Bogiem’.