Friday, April 23, 2010

St George's Cross to Bear

Today is St George's Day in England. The upcoming election (which has got very, very interesting since I last posted, but I'll come to that next week) has swallowed much of the headlines, as has the travel chaos left by volcanic ash (I live under the flight path to Heathrow and the quiet was uncanny. If it hadn't been for the rattle of distant tube trains, I'd have thought something was really wrong.) Which means the annual debate over St George and why we don't celebrate it has been stilled somewhat.

The argument goes something like this: Q. Why don't we English celebrate St George like, say the Irish do St Patrick?  A. Because no one feels the need to. Q. Why not? Are we ashamed to be English? Shouldn't we celebrate it? A. Not really. There are other ways to celebrate Englishness. And anyway, isn't celebrating rather un-English? Q. You see, that's the problem. We act as if we're ashamed to be English, and play it down. It's people like you that do us down. I don't see the Irish playing it down. A. The Irish have been have had their identity trampled upon for many years. By the English. No wonder they feel the need to give voice to their nationalism when we did our level best to quell it. Q. It's this kind of self-loathing guilt I can't stand. I'm English and I'm proud. A. Oh shut up you jingoistic fool. St George was a foreigner anyway. He never even visited the country.

Or something like that. People do try and celebrate it but there's always something faintly apologetic about their efforts. A friend has been invited to a celebration during the lunch hour at work (which tells you all you need to know about how highly they value it.) The idea is to bring along food that is red and white, matching the cross of St George. Suggestions are scones with cream and jam; red and white iced buns; strawberries and cream; the suggested drinks are dandelion and burdock and ginger beer. There will be a quiz. Wild. Forgive me my lack of patriotism but give me seven pints of Guinness and a ceilidh any day of the week.

We don't just have St George to ourselves either. It is the second most important National Feast in Catalonia, where the day is known in Catalan as La Diada de Sant Jordi and it is traditional to give a rose and a book to a loved one. Slightly more enticing than an iced bun and some fizzy pop.

The campaign to celebrate St George and make it a public holiday has become pretty tiresome. It's always the same faces and voices, as well as the right-wing press bemoaning the fact the English don't have a day in which all that is English and good is celebrated. The fact is, as my friend's invitation shows, no one quite knows how to do this celebrating. Given how the cross of St George's has been hijacked by the right in the past, there are many who don't feel comfortable flying it. We have no national trauma or forced diaspora which encourages to defiantly assert our national identity (some would argue our past of inflicting the odd national trauma and diaspora means we should keep schtum). Other than scones and ginger beer, maybe with a bit of Morris Dancing (don't even ask...) thrown in, the ideas on how to mark this occasion are pretty lame.

Then there's the awkward fact of St George himself. As I mentioned earlier, research appears to show he was born and raised in what is now Turkey. He was a fourth century Roman general who was killed for professing Christianity. There are some who say he never existed. I'm pretty sure the dragon didn't. Whether he lived or not, what good is a bloke who never stepped on the land he was made patron saint of? There have been polls to try and come up with better candidate, but not surprisingly the job of patron saint is a difficult one to interview for. In a recent BBC survey St Alban came top, the first British Christian martyr. He had the benefit of not being a warmonger like George, and looked a lot like Jesus. Yet nothing much happened as a consequence. St George kept the gig and the debate about how to celebrate him keeps cropping up.

Funnily enough, while flags rarely fly on St George's Day,  in a few weeks you will be barely able to move for them. That's when the English football team will embark on yet another heroic effort to claim the World Cup; before they lose heroically on penalties in the quarter finals, as is traditional, St George's Cross's will hang in windows, flutter from car aerials, and be festooned across pubs.

I'm happy with the way things are. There is nothing worse than forced jollity, and a contrived public celebration fills me with dread. Not that I'm not proud to be English. I am and there are many characteristics I value in my country and its occupants. The sense of humour, the warm beer, its wonderful, cosmopolitan capital city, the fact it has embraced immigration in such a way that its national dish is now curry, folk music, trainspotters, the way we go a bit mad when the sun comes out, the way we take a delicate oriental infusion and then throw loads of milk and sugar in it, apologising when it wasn't really your fault, crisp frosty winter mornings, cricket, and the endless talking about the weather even when the weather isn't really that spectacular. Hell, I'll even sing along to Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem (but not the national anthem. That's an awful dirge.) But I see little point in making a day of it.


Dan - Friday


  1. The Catholic Church in Ireland owes a debt of gratitude to England. When England became Protestant, Catholic Ireland dug in it heels and screamed it would never be anything but Catholic. If Henry hadn't started his own church, maybe England would be Catholic and Ireland Protestant. The Irish had to be contrary.

    Patrick might not have gotten all the attention he has received over the years if the English hadn't encouraged the Irish to travel and expand their horizons by heading to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. So Patrick owes England a debt of gratitude, too, for spreading his name all over the world.

    Maybe England might want to invite Saint Patrick to be their patron saint as well. Think of all the Irish who called upon Patrick when they were in the coffin ships heading to whatever country would take them. Devotion to Saint Patrick grew abundantly thanks to those voyages.

    Ireland will share and if England has any snakes, Patrick will be glad to help.


  2. Hi Beth. Very wry. I liked the bit about encouraging the Irish to travel :)

    I'm reminded of Alan Partridge, glorious creation of English comedian Steve Coogan, an awful, crass, pompous, petty-minded radio disc jockey and chat show host with delusions of competence. He's asked to meet some Irish TV execs about the prospect of hosting a show for RTE. Of course, he ends up offending them massively. He asks how many died in the potato famine. Millions, they splutter. He replies: ‘At the end of the day, they will pay the price for being a fussy eater. If they could afford to emigrate, they could afford to eat at a modest restaurant.’

    Truth is, as was always the case with Partridge, there are a few socks and sandals Englishmen who would agree with what he was saying, not realising the joke was on them.

    To be honest, St Patrick is pretty much the de facto patron saint anyway. On St Patricks Day the pubs of England are crammed. Not with expat Irish, though there are more than a few of them, but with English looking for a bit of that elusive craic, as well as cut price Guinness. More is made of it, albeit by landlords with their eyes on a decent take, than is made of St George's Day.

  3. Oh, grand. I love it! I must say, George LOOKS awfully English. At least, he always has in the picture books I was shown as a child.

    And I actually know what Morris Dancing is! I heard a report on its near-extinction on NPR one day. It was quite a funny report.

    I think George makes a great saint, and there is much fun to be had at the sake of a dragon. Where is your nation's childish spirit? :P

    Southern City Mysteries