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Crying God, Harry, St George, April 23 etc. etc. etc.

April 23, 2015


There’s a bleating sound you hear round parts of England about this time of year.  It’s the bleat of a certain kind of person along the lines of “how come my local council spends more on St Patrick’s Day than on St George’s Day?”

This connects with a related bleat “why is it considered racist for English people to display their own flag?”

The fact is of course, that comparatively few English people are invested in the cross of St George except for on certain sporting occasions.  With the result that it’s been appropriated by the far right.  Anybody who waves this flag at something other than a sporting occasion risks being identified with the far right.  Especially if they are bald and have no neck.

St Patrick has a narrative that has something to do with Ireland.  St. David lived and breathed and fought Pelagianism in Wales.  He has an actual shrine.  St Andrew has a very tenuous relic based link with Scotland but most Scots have, intelligently, transferred their annual sense of nationhood from St Andrew to Robert Burns.

St George’s connection with England is even more tenuous.   While it is said that some of Andrew’s bones are on Scottish soil, is is generally understood that any near eastern bishop called George would have thought of “Britain” (no England yet) as a foggy outpost of extreme empire.  He would, in fact, have never thought of it at all.  The cross of St George has become identified with the crusades and crusader knights.  In the context of twenty-first century geopolitics, that’s another no no.  The monarch most associated with the cross of St George is therefore, Richard I – an Angevin warlord who despised England and spent as little time there as possible, regarding it only as a tax base to fund his atrocious wars of religious hatred.

Could the English not just do what Scotland did and rename everything after Shakespeare?  Shakespeare died on 23 April and was also christened on that date.  It’s possible he was born on the 23rd April.  The done thing was to get your kid christened on a Sunday or a Holy Day.  The 23rd April 1564 was a Sunday, and a same-day christening might have been a little rushed – though not if the parents were worried about Willie’s survival chances.  (Incidentally, Shakespeare certainly did NOT die on the same day as Cervantes if they both died on April 23rd, because Spain was already on the Gregorian calendar in 1616 while England still used the Julian calendar.)

Perhaps the very stature of Shakespeare as a literary figure makes him less than convenient for the purposes of national appropriation.  When people celebrate Robert Burns (and you can never celebrate Robert Burns too often), they do so with a sense of what he represents (which is not only everything good about Scotland but everything that is good in human nature).  Who or what Shakespeare “represents” is rather harder to isolate.  It’s not that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare.  Only people who have stuck a fork in their brain and embraced the unsavory idiocies of Anti-Stratfordianism claim that.  We know as much as we have any right to expect to know about Shakespeare and rather more besides.  No, the problem with Shakespeare as a unifying symbol is that his energies dissolve into his own characters.  “Negative Capability” creates Hamlet, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth etc. etc. at the expense of the Warwickshire man himself.  Unification is never Shakespeare’s project.  Making Shakespeare stand for something, making him “represent” something as specific as “England”, feels impoverishing.

The truth is, that as the historically, demographically and politically dominant nation within the complex of nation states of North West Europe, the extent to which any symbolism that is exclusive to that dominant nation can achieve a kind of unapologetic innocence seems dubious.  Only a full constitutional upheaval that reimagines all the nations of North West Europe in a freer and fairer association can properly rehabilitate the Cross of St George.

Billy Bragg has thought a lot about this issue (as he has many issues).  He recommended “taking down the Union Jack” because it clashes with the sunset and in any case Britain isn’t a real country lacking a patron saint.  Trouble is, of course, that George isn’t much a patron saint either.  Even killing a dragon seems a bit negative and anti-Welsh.

We live in provisional times, where the mere appropriation of nationalist imagery by nicer people isn’t going to be wholly satisfactory.  If we allowed the crusading cross to fade a bit in the meantime, while investing rather more in Shakespeare, then a sense of inspirational heritage (I hate the word heritage) could at least be wedded to the greatest example of polyvalence and multi-vocality the world has ever known.  Shakespeare, superimposed on a pink (salmon?) flag would illustrate the political work that still needs to be done joining many distinct voices into something like a unified work of art.


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