A Point of View: Why are our obsessions never the things we're best at?

England fan looking disappointed Image copyright Getty Images

The English love football, but it doesn't love them back, says Adam Gopnik. Why are our obsessions never the things we're best at?

I am back in London, a city I love - love more, I think sometimes, than the people who live in it do these days - and where I've lived at times in my life, and where my football club, Chelsea, now reigns. When I first supported Chelsea, back in 1973, the side was made up of pale-faced Englishmen and ruddy-faced Scots. They all wore tiny, tight shorts and had that strange shaggy, discouraging 70s hair - mullets, they were called. You only had to watch them, on a smoky Saturday morning, to tell at once that they had been raised to a peak of fitness on diets of beer, bad whiskey and boiled potatoes, each provided extra pace by a pack-a-day cigarette habit. They were thrilling until, loaned to their national sides, they played other countries and you found that they weren't, really. It didn't seem to matter.

Now Chelsea is owned by a billionaire from Russia and made up of several millionaires from Spain and West Africa, with a couple of Englishmen left over to cower on the sidelines, wearing fake suntans and curly black wigs and hoping to be taken for Brazilians. This strikes me as a completely positive change, making them much more exciting to watch - but some of the local flavour is gone, including the peculiar local flavour of not being very good.

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Image caption Chelsea squad 1972: "made up of pale-faced Englishmen and ruddy-faced Scots"

My enthusiasm means that I end up talking to my London friends a lot about football, and I am struck to find them still just a bit aggrieved about England's failure in this past summer's World Cup, even though it was indistinguishable from England's failures at the previous 12 World Cups. The reason for this is apparent to me, at least, and I have shared it with my English friends, though for some reason they seem reluctant to embrace it.

It is simple. The English lose at football games because they are not good at playing football. They think they are because they are very good at watching football. That's a skill unto itself. When I follow the Guardian live football blogs, the jokes are terrific - far better than they ever are in the parallel French football blogs. But England loses all the same. Simon Gray, in one of his wonderful diaries, describes observing the poet and editor Ian Hamilton's passionate, self-annihilating habits of watching Spurs. A Parisian playwright and a Parisian editor would never do that together - none of them, or very few, live and die with Paris Saint Germain. The English football lovers convince themselves that their passion for football is so intense that it must express itself on the pitch. It doesn't. The intensity of their attachment to watching makes them naturally assume that their fellow-countrymen are equally good at playing. They aren't. But the illusion persists. It will rise again in four years.

This is, I think, a general principle. I am on my way shortly to my previous hometown of Paris. Now, nothing is truer than that the French love writers and admire literature. To be a writer in France is to be blessed with a reverence that no British or American writer can ever hope to attain except in France. Yet, let us be honest, you probably have not actually read a novel by a working French novelist in a long time - though you may well have read in college an obscure bit of French theory about books by a French book theorist. The French talk spellbindingly about great literature more often than they actually make it.

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Image caption Nobel prizes notwithstanding, are the French better readers than writers?

The French, right now, are not very good at writing books. But they are matchlessly good at being literary. This is why, as happened just this week, they keep winning the Nobel Prize for Literature even though the writers who win it are the authors of extremely - and, it must be said, often deservedly - obscure books. The last French Nobel laureate, for instance, was an exceptionally tall man, who spoke six languages, and looked like a cross between Henry Fonda and Max Von Sydow. I was delegated to interview him for PEN, the writers organisation, when he came to New York and I barely came up to his shoe tops. In my best double breasted suit, I looked like a ring boy at a wedding. He was eloquent, gently humorous, and truly planetary in consciousness. I would have voted for him in a second as President of World Literature - despite the truth that I was then and still am struggling to finish any of his novels, which tend to have all the excitement of the narration of a UNESCO documentary. I am still not sure how good a writer he is. But I know that he was a great literary figure, and that is, after all, one of the things the Nobel Prize is there to reward.

French letters in the Magazine

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  • France once had a great literary culture, and most French people would say it still does. But if so, how come their books don't sell in the English-speaking world? Is it our fault or theirs? (Why don't French books sell abroad, December 2013)
  • TV series Game of Thrones is frequently compared to fantasy creations such as the Lord of the Rings, but it owes an equally large debt to a cult French historical novelist little heard or or read in English (The cult French novel which inspired Game of Thrones, 4 April 2014)

Call this The Constructive Fallacy Of The Secondary Activity - or perhaps, The Delusion of Mastery Through Proximity. The very worst case of this is one I know at home. No one talks more about democracy, republicanism, self-government and liberty than Americans. But in truth Americans have no special skill at self-government - they are only good at dramatising their struggle for it. In many respects, the United States is the least democratic of the big democratic countries. The entire Constitution, fetishised by Americans to a religious degree, is designed to keep the country from ever actually becoming a representative democracy.

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The Senate, in which tiny rural states are given as much power as the large metropolitan ones - so that Wyoming has as much weight as California - is a permanent barrier against the majority of Americans ever having their interests fully represented. The system is absurdly tipped against cities, by design, and remains wildly unrepresentative - which is one reason why we have some of the richest farmers, and some of the worst inter-city train travel, in the developed world. The presidency is the site of the most passionate and expensive electoral contests in the world - but then turns out to be an office of almost absurdly limited powers, except in wartime, which may be the simplest explanation of why American presidents so often start wars.

Americans are not very good at practising democracy - but we are very good at advertising democratic ideas which makes us also imagine, God help us, that we are good at spreading democracy, with the results we know. What Americans are uniquely good at is the rhetoric of republican virtue. British people mostly mumble with embarrassment when you praise their parliamentary traditions - well, the British men I know best mostly mumble in embarrassment if you praise their anything - but they do have the Indian parliament to point to with post-colonial pride.

One could persist in this line of inquiry. English people, for instance, wrote so many sex farces for so long in response to the absence of sex in English life - essentially the same reason, in reverse, that explains why there is so little good literary food writing in France. Our natural gifts are never the subject of our obsessions. No one obsesses over what they do best. Obsession is the subject of what we long for most.

Image caption The English sex farce - a response to the absence of sex in English life?

There seems, in other words, to be many kinds of talent at large in the world. Among them is a natural talent for doing things. Another, a talent for dramatising things that we do only with great difficulty. There is a natural talent for performance, of the kind given to the Maradonas and Messis, and there is an acquired talent for the self-conscious presentation of what the talented perform naturally. This need not be a small thing! The self-dramatising, presentational talent, though it includes lowlifes and small fry like critics and weekly radio commentators, also includes fully equal kinds. Being a great conductor, a Bernstein or a Klemperer, seems no less a talent than being a great composer. The composer makes the music, but it takes the conductor to dramatise it properly.

People always tell you that the path to glory lies through doing what you do best and love most. But for the rest of us, there may be another kind of wisdom. The secret is not to find the thing you do best and then do it more. It may be to find the thing you like most but do least well, and then do something that is almost like it. From this secondary, self-dramatising activity, you may still make a primary life. You may lose at the World Cup, and yet see your books on football conquer the world. You may write poorly, but represent literature well. Like the Hobbit Bilbo accompanying the dwarves, knowing full well in his heart that he is no burglar, but going on into the dark mountain as if he were, we all make our lives from our longings more often than from our natural talents. But then the longing becomes another kind of talent, and suddenly, there! The dragon is dead.

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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