This past week presented lots of chances to celebrate England and All Things Patriotic: election events crowded the calendar, Wednesday (the 21st) was the queen’s birthday, and Friday (the 23rd) was not only Shakespeare’s birthday, but St George’s day, the national day to celebrate England and Englishness.As for the election—well, it’s been a busy week. In the first debate, both Cameron and Brown courted Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats to some degree—just in case they might end up having to form a coalition government with his party—especially Brown, who said several times “I agree with Nick”, varying it with “I believe Nick will agree with me here”. Almost immediately, “I Agree With Nick” merchandise showed up on the web: get your T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs, ties, buttons (UK: badges), mouse pads (UK: mouse mats) and, yes, footwear by clicking here. The Liberal Democrat party’s Facebook page photo is a poster reading “I Agree With Nick.”
We’ve had the second debate, but I’ll write about that in another post. And on a more serious and a sinister note, protesters chanted “Nazi scum! Nazi scum!” this week outside the launch event for the BNP’s election campaign (the British National Party; the chant gives you an idea of what some voteres think of their brand of nationalism). Oh, and the voters have begun throwing eggs at the candidates. Well, at David Cameron. Well, one guy did, anyway.The queen’s birthday wasn’t celebrated, unless she had a cake and candles at the palace just for family and close servants. It’s not that people don’t like her; it’s that by tradition she has an official birthday celebration in June because there’s more chance of nice weather in June (really, it says so on her web site)—though you couldn’t have asked for clearer, brighter, more beautiful days than we had here last week. Some people rushed to attribute this to the lack of planes flying overhead, which makes me wonder what these people think causes the beautiful days we have when the planes are flying.
Shakespeare’s birthday didn’t make that much of a splash, either, unless you live in Stratford-upon-Avon. Actually, nobody recorded Shakespeare’s birth, though the parish priest did record his baptism April 26, 1564. On the assumption that he must have been born a few days before the 26th, and that it would be nicely patriotic to have him born on St George’s day, tradition assigns him a birthday of April 23.History also provides some records of the real St George—not many, but enough to show he was real person, although the story of killing a dragon is best left unexamined in the same way that we don’t think too hard about how St Nicholas squeezes down the chimneys. But the historical George had no ties with England at all, and is the patron saint of countries and cities from Rio to Moscow. A politician on the radio pointed out Friday that our patron saint—an immigrant, the child of a mixed marriage, and probably dark-skinned—makes a fitting emblem for today’s multicultural Britain.
Born in Israel, to a Turkish father and a Palestinian mother who raised him as a Christian, George became a soldier in the Roman army. But not too long after George’s promotion to Tribune, the Emperor Diocletian purged the army of Christians, torturing and killing people like George, who refused to renounce his religion and refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Not a good move for his military career, but a necessary step for a young man who thought his fortunes might lie with becoming a saint, instead.But nobody much celebrates St George’s day anymore. Several people I spoke to on Friday said they hadn’t even realized it was St George’s day. If you suddenly notice that everywhere you go people have his flag flying (usually from their cars), it’s likely to be football season, with the England team competing for the World Cup. At other times, someone flying that flag may well be a BNP supporter, because they’ve adopted the flag of St George as the banner for their brand of Englishness, in which multiculturalism is, er, not a good thing.
Recently there’s been talk of reclaiming that flag from the BNP and the mood has turned, with people generally more in favor of celebrating Englishness. The right-leaning Mayor of London, Boris Johnson—a real character, worth several blog posts on his own—and the mayor before that, the left-leaning Ken “Red Ken” Livingston, both promoted St George’s day celebrations. This year, a man representing St George paraded around Spitalfields market in London on a white horse, and men in full medieval armor demonstrated fighting techniques (strange, since they didn’t have medieval armor in the 3rd century, when St George battled his dragon). Boris Johnson—with David Cameron standing next to him—made a speech, in what one columnist called “full irony mode”, claiming that St George was a political Conservative. That’ll go down in history next to his Olympics-related speech in China, in which he claimed that the English, not the Chinese, invented ping-pong (which the English called wiff-waff, first played by batting a golf ball with books, or by batting a champagne cork with cigar-boxes after dinner, depending upon which tale you believe).This was my first St George’s day as a Brit, and I was ready to go all out. On Wednesday the gym, draped with bunting, had seemed like one big party full of people dressed in red and white. The staff had on the same kind of deelyboppers as the grocery clerks in the photos above, with flags of St George bobbing on the ends. A sign announced a costume competition, with a prize for the member who had the best outfit that week. On Friday, St George’s day itself, I was ready. I pinned red ribbons to a white T-shirt to turn it into a flag of St George, I bought a plastic Roman helmet from my nearest post office (no, don’t try to make sense of that; that post office happens to be inside a party-goods store), and carried a metal dragon that I happened to have around, because ours is the kind of household where you are apt to find metal dragons. I made sure to take the blue one, not the green one, so nobody would think I was muddying the waters by dragging support for Wales into an English celebration.
And I was the only one in a costume, and felt a complete fool.