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Apr 20, 2013

One green, one pleasant Englishman

In his moments spent not shooting bonobos or being deliberately and gratuitously obnoxious, renowned restaurant critic AA Gill finds the room to construct some particularly memorable thoughts expressed through incisive prose. Take the English, for example. In Gill's book The Angry Isle, he described the people he shared his home with as such: "The thing that seems impermeably English is, in fact anger... A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is the collective cross England bears with ill grace... English humour is the sound of bullies."

The monkey-murderer is correct. There are two main types of Englishness. There is one which is aspired to and projected as a kind of duplicitous PR exercise, rarely personified. It's a sober Englishness that mainly exists in adverts for gin, acting like a young Nigel Havers looks. But there is also that which the tourists unfortunately bring to the world on summer holidays, stag dos and, miserably, our footballers abroad. Joey Barton is the worst of the English - the Angry English. David Beckham, on the other hand, might be the classical, mythical and almost always fictitious, pleasant Englishness.

Beckham has embraced many of the qualities of the English that we like to believe are the foreground of our country: Angry England claims to be multicultural, yet its anti-immigration rhetoric shows it's not quite honest about that. Angry England claims to be polite and civil, and yet is still in the habit of doing otherwise. The virtues the English appear to believe they possess are most often ignored. Beckham, on the other hand, has not just claimed different cultures in his home - he has made his home in different cultures. You can mock how adept he is at speaking Spanish, but it's a step up from the average Englishman screaming "DOS CERVEZAS! EGG Y CHIPS!'' that the Spanish usually endure.

In Italy with AC Milan, in Paris with PSG, and in America with the LA Galaxy, despite inevitable hiccups that you might expect with any new job, Beckham has always departed appraised as an essentially decent human being, able to work hard and build friendships. Plenty of twenty- or thirty-something Englishmen just leave a country with a fresh addition to their criminal records or bulging sacks of duty free goods.

As the English like to believe themselves, Beckham is, at least, superficially charming. He conducts himself with smiles and a willingness to please during interviews and promotions. He has sought out new challenges, and worked hard to win over audiences and managers. Granted, he has had to do this as part of a determination to build his surname into his brand, but there are plenty of similarly famous Englishmen (hello, Robbie Williams) who have mistaken egotism for charm.

While charm, multiculturalism and dignity are all qualities that the English like to believe we export to the world, Joey Barton displays all the genuine traits that make us so furious, volatile and resentful. The stuff that makes us so unpopular abroad. The anger, the insecurity, narcissistic rage and hatred-turned-inwards; the destructive relationship with hooch and the self-aggrandisement of the deeply bitter. As a package, it's a hard sell.

When Joey Barton found himself in a title decider last season, between QPR and Manchester City, he seemed to resent the occasion. Not that he particularly loathed former club Manchester City, but that he was presented with all that he had thrown away. Conceivably, with discipline and hard work, he could still be at City in some form, part of a squad that won the Premier League. As it was, he found himself playing for Mark Hughes at QPR, desperately trying to avoid relegation. It seemed like the situation he was in was far more important than he would ever be again as the protagonist, and so he lashed out. Despite earning a 12-match ban with self-regarding, tedious and inevitable thuggery, he was still unable to make the match about him. City conjured up a ludicrous finale.

You get the sense that this is what will annoy him more than anything. Not the ban, not the exile, and certainly not the defeat - on the contrary, if he can't have success, he'll take notoriety as substitute. What got him is that life carried on without him as its axis, and something more important happened in his absence. He is jealous of those capable of playing for something bigger than themselves. Like Angry Englanders standing on the side of the European Union, constantly meddling on the sidelines, calling to attention the disgust they have for the organisation, all the while remaining members and trying to exert ever more influence, with ever less power. The Angry English are a people consumed by jealousy. 35-hour working weeks, early retirements and unionised workforces - the English secretly want it all.

You could see envy in Barton's diatribe against Thiago Silva. Thiago Silva was busy playing for Paris Saint-Germain, against Barcelona in the Champions League. He was doing so for a team that domestically established a likely unassailable lead over Barton's Marseille. He was doing so a couple of days after being asked about the chance to play for Barcelona one day, such is his standing as one of the best central defenders in the world. He had mentioned Barton before, quite reasonably asking why Barton, with so few accomplishments, needed to constantly rate and upbraid players such as Silva, and one of the best talents about, Neymar, and then wondering who Joey Barton actually is.

As most Angry Englishmen do when criticised, he chose to attack first, rather than consider his actions. While being offensive to trans people and Thiago Silva, he also sullied his team to the point where he was forced to apologise. The apology itself was typically English, in that it conveyed all the sincerity imbued in it by the lawyer who presumably typed it up for him. Just as our MPs apologise for, 'any offence that may have been caused', rather than their actions, it read as if Barton had barely felt or even seen the content of the apology, let alone written it himself.

Of course, Barton was happiest at Marseille when he was treated as a hero. Welcomed by a hardcore of fans with a personalised message, he seemed to believe he was finally at the club that deserved him, arriving as a legend, like an Englishman in his colonies. When he was faced with the real world a few months later, as an unvalued journeyman midfielder for a team falling behind the leaders, he lashed out, just like the English hooligans did after the defeat to Germany in Euro '96, and just as the country once crushed rebellions.

None of this is a fluke. Barton is a product of his country. Brought up with a sense of cocky entitlement, that the world's respect is due to him before he achieves anything, he matches perfectly the way the Angry English abuse towns on their stag dos, or demand the servile locals understand God's own English, making sure fights are provoked and that arrests are obligatory. He resents those in his homeland and abroad who choose the sensible decision, needled by the happiness it seems to bring them.

Of course this could all be unfair on the English. After all, it's hard to take a starting point from AA Gill and treat it entirely seriously. He shoots monkeys.

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