A break from the turmoil


Britain: Wearied by attacks on its people, nasty politics and an impending strike, 750,000 take a day to celebrate the English rugby team for winning the World Cup.

December 09, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - British soldiers were still at war in Iraq yesterday, police here were on high alert - again - for a terrorist attack and millions of commuters were prepared to endure yet another strike by workers in the city's crumbling subway system.

For months, this has been a subdued capital city, divided by war, saddened by attacks against its people, most recently in Turkey, its politics getting increasingly nasty and its residents, understandably, seeming to wondering when things might be right again.

For at least a few hours, the answer was yesterday.

About 750,000 people took to London's streets, arriving in the morning and staying well into the afternoon, not to protest, for a change, but to take part in the largest sporting celebration in Great Britain's history, a parade of happy song floating over a sea of red and white to honor 31 unlikely heroes, the English rugby team, which last month won the game's World Cup.

"This has made England feel good about itself," said Chris Lucas, 31, a rugby fanatic from Devon who traveled to Australia last month to watch the English players defeat their hosts in an overtime victory that filled pubs all over London before 9 o'clock in the morning. "With all the turmoil and all the negative divisions lately, I think people have underestimated how much England cares about the country."

A simpler time

Nobody here seemed to mistake yesterday's celebration as any signal that peace in Iraq or Afghanistan is any closer, that terrorism has been defeated, that the country's politics would return more to discourse and less to recrimination, that public workers would do their jobs for more than a two-week stretch without striking or that, more generally, somehow the world was returning to what once seemed gloriously simple.

Scotland Yard, in fact, first expressed doubts about the wisdom of holding the parade, fearful that the quickly planned party would be too inviting a target for terrorists to resist and that London's transportation system would not be prepared to haul so many people on such short notice.

In the end, though, the English apparently felt it time to do what they have done so well for so much of their history: hold up their chins, hold up their pints, fill their streets and pubs with song and live a little.

"It's about time we had something to celebrate," said Hazel Wood, who at 78 and eight weeks past a knee replacement leaned on a crutch and waved her flag of St. George at Trafalgar Square, which only weeks ago was the scene of a large protest against the visit of President Bush. "It's quite nice to just come out and have fun without going on about all the problems."

"It's a feel-good factor," added her daughter, Sharon Weigh. "We all wanted to come and show how pleased and happy we are. The day's just been brilliant."

Soccer, not rugby, is the national sport of England. But rugby fans are passionate about their game, and yesterday's crowd was a combination of die-hard fanatics, newly born fans and a good number of people who could not care less about sport nor more about their country.

The parade clogged the streets of central London, attracting more people than the World Cup soccer celebration 37 years ago and the party for the country's last World Cup rugby victory, in 1966.

People waved giant red-and-white flags of St. George - the flag of England - wore goofy hats, blew loud whistles that somehow were not overly irritating, given the mood, and when the two open-topped buses carrying the rugby champions stopped at Trafalgar Square so the players could thank the crowd, it would not have seemed a miracle if the 18-foot statue of Lord Nelson towering over them had covered his ears, the cheers were so loud.

The afternoon tabloid, The Evening Standard, printed coupons for each of its readers to have a pint of beer, compliments of the newspaper, not that many people needed any encouragement to drink.

Pubs throughout the center of the city were packed with people who called in sick to their jobs, and at the top of their healthy lungs they sang, "God Save the Queen," "We Are the Champions," and "If You're English and You're Happy Clap Your Hands." (Everybody clapped.)

Mostly they sang, "Sweet Chariot," the rugby team's anthem, and they sang it over and over and over, which was fun in the pubs but truly impressive when the hundreds of thousands of people at Trafalgar Square sang it all at once - over and over and over.

"They've been talking about 1966 for years, so I wanted to be here for this," said 13-year-old Ben Yerby, who the very day of the parade suddenly developed a trick knee and decided the perfect therapy would be to skip school and travel from Twickenham to London with his father, Tony Yerby. "This will go down in history."

Rugby may be the most physical of all team sports, with its players hurling themselves into each other without helmets, without padding and, often, without teeth.

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