More from Great-uncle Roland’s diary:
Friday 30th June 1916. 7pm.
I have just got back from the trenches, which were squelching with mud … It was a lovely afternoon with a fresh wind blowing. Some of the trenches were badly knocked about. I looked over into Hunland as I came out – the wood in front looking like currant bushes with the blight.
Some trees were down in our wood. I passed the cemetary, as I came back, and looked at [Lt. Wilfred Dent Wroe's] grave. I am moving up by myself at 8.30, having a little time here to wash and have a meal. I had three letters tonight and the Observer, rather delayed, all posted on Sunday.
This ends the diary before the “push” as I must pack up.
Thirteen hours later 2nd Lt. Roland Ingle was dead. He is buried in the same Becourt Military Cemetery he had visited the day before.
Fast forward ninety years. The World Cup is building to a crescendo, and we are bombarded by war-time allegories. Meanwhile, The Times carries a picture of Wayne Rooney in a Kitchener style pose, accompanied by the famous slogan “Your Country Needs You.” My brothers have answered the call, and are in Germany. They have been mingling with the German fans, jubilant after their victory over the Argentines.
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
Bill Shankly’s famous quote persists. I hope he said it firmly with his tongue in his cheek, because it is, of course, utter tosh. Football doesn’t matter like wars matter. Actually, I think most fans know this, despite the hyperbole. There are those who would say that clearly, I haven’t been visiting the right sort of pubs in the wrong parts of town… and yet today in Edinburgh, arch-rivals Hearts FC and Hibernian FC have joined together to commemorate The Somme.
The fun of the game is precisely giving yourself over to a set of arbitrary rules, and ‘buying into’ the theatre that ensues. Sure, one has to suspend disbelief, pretend for a moment that it does matter. But the party atmosphere that my siblings have reported back can only exist if one ultimately acknowledges that is all a game. Something done purely for fun, for enjoyment, for escapism. Those who allow the boundaries to be crossed, as Shankly suggests, are idiots. They are just like those who believe that soap-opera characters are real people.
Contrast the “a game as a war” analogies, with the attitudes of the men at The Somme. I read today that some British soldiers there had a competition, to try and kick a football into the German trenches as they went for the big “push” at 7.30am. No-one claimed the prize, because all those who had competed were killed. As Roland Ingle wrote, they took chances of life and death as all being “part of the game”.
And so over ninety years the analogies are mirrored, reversed. The ball kicked over the trenches in 1916 lands at Rooney’s feet. His “shot” is fired back through the decades, and men fall over, never to stand again. We use the language of war, words like “this fateful day” and “our hero,” to describe events and people that are no such thing. The real heros have already met their fate. And now, because of The Fallen, we are free, to play a game with the Germans and the Portuguese, united by a complete triviality, the one excuse for a party. This is how we honour them.
Look, Uncle Roland! Now they are our friends.