Opinion & Features

Mary Kenny: Iceland’s moral victory

Iceland’s Kolbeinn Sigthórsson celebrates victory over England (AP)

It is claimed that the French philosopher Albert Camus once said that “what I’ve learned about morality I’ve learned from football”.

The actual quotation is a little more complex. Camus, who played in goal for an Algerian team called RUA, said: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.”

The broad message holds good: much can be learned about character and life from the conduct of football. And the story of the England team in the current Euro 2016 championships illustrates that.

A variation of what was said about the American forces in Britain during World War II could be applied to this sorry squad of footie players: over-paid, over-sexed, over-indulged and under-educated oafs. It was reported that they “didn’t have time” to pay their respects at the Somme cemeteries, where better men than them had given their lives.

By contrast, the Welsh and Icelandic teams behaved in accordance with Camus’s standards about morality and duty. The spoilt-brat way of life characteristic of English footballers, with their flashy, bling-adorned wags, is alien to the modest part-time Icelandic players, who emphasise, instead, team spirit, altruistic behaviour and a sense of serving the community. On character alone, they deserved to defeat England.

When the Icelanders were finally beaten by France, they took it wholly in a sporting spirit: losing with grace, acknowledging the victory of the opponents, but knowing that they had done their duty and their best for their country. Camus, one feels, would have approved.

I’m not a huge fan of public figures apologising for episodes in history that were not their responsibility: I guess it was well-meaning of Tony Blair to apologise for the Irish Famine of 1845, but this mournful event, at least, was hardly his fault.

Pope Francis’s suggestion that the Catholic Church should apologise to gay people for the way it has treated them was, clearly, also intended to promote Christian charity and reconciliation. And, indeed, some of the official language used about homosexuality should never have been countenanced – “intrinsically disordered” is no way to speak about human persons, and the orientation of their inborn nature.

And there are grounds for revised thinking in terms of biological science, which is leading us towards the conclusion that individuals are probably born with the sexual orientation they have. People are, as they used to say in Ireland, “the way God made them”.

Yet the Pontiff could also have emphasised the positive, and recalled the number of homosexual men who became Catholics precisely because the Catholic Church was less judgmental and stern, and was more welcoming to, if one can put it that way, the gay personality.

Oscar Wilde, the poet Lionel Johnson (remember his lovely “By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross”), the “decadent” artist Aubrey Beardsley and Roger Casement all converted to Catholicism and were made to feel at home within it. The letter of the law did not always apply to the spirit.

The fascination with – and the pleasure enjoyed by – gardening and gardens never ceases to astonish me. We had an “open garden” weekend in our Kentish town last weekend, whereby various visitors were invited to tramp around local gardens. One of my near-neighbours had more than 600 people visit his garden on one day. Every domestic garden now aspires to be a Sissinghurst, it would seem, and the passion for viewing gardens appears to be inexhaustible.

My own garden, front and back, is more like an anti-garden – tumbleweeds eye-high fore, and a morass of overgrown wilderness aft. My late uncle would have said that such a garden must belong to a “slovenly slattern” who was too feckless to do anything about garden maintenance.

My neighbours seem to exercise more Christian charity and I haven’t yet been reproached for the state of things, but the hordes of visitors trekking around seeking beauty in gardens have elicited, finally, enough shame and mortification to make me resolve to pull up a weed or two and do something about the long grass – besides lie in it.

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