Yes, it’s the Patron Saint day that dare not speak its name today – apparently; though considering the paraphernalia that accompanies another Patron Saint day within these islands, the casual observer might be forgiven for assuming St Patrick’s Day is the only one the English celebrate. As London Mayor, Ken Livingstone plucked £100,000 out of the capital’s coffers to mark St Patrick’s Day in 2002 by dyeing the Trafalgar Square fountains green, though didn’t dye them red when St George’s Day came around. Then again, perhaps we should be thankful the majority of the population are so indifferent; the prospect of the kind of vapid state-sponsored jingoism that accompanies royal events being thrust upon us on an annual basis is enough to inspire gratitude for such small mercies.
The coincidence of Shakespeare’s birthday and the day he allegedly died both falling on St George’s Day is one of those suspicious acts of serendipity that is probably exploited for extra patriotic mileage by those that get carried away with that sort of thing; but St George’s Day was also the birthday of the late Phil Archer, fictitious member of a fictitious family in a fictitious corner of Albion known as Ambridge, and I would imagine that was no happy accident.
The problem with all these national occasions – and we have, after all, got four of ‘em in this neck of the European woods – is that their organisation and promotion is in the hands of the uninspired and unimaginative, so they’re invariably marked by falling back on every indigenous stereotype, which should really provoke at the very least an almighty wince. Boris Johnson has often called for St George’s Day to be a public holiday in England, though I suspect Bo-Jo’s idea of celebrating the event would be to scoff a roast beef dinner with a little Flag of St George stuck in his top hat, rounding off the feast with a toast to the Queen.
No more appealing is the other option, with a high-street parade of red-faced fat blokes akin to the ones who emerge whenever the England team are playing in the World Cup, all singing the national anthem in unison – ‘En-ger-land!’ As with New Year, the whole event is reduced to an excuse for a piss-up. Do we require an officially designated day that gives us permission to do so?
One could argue the tone of this post so far demonstrates the very cynicism with St George’s Day that has resulted in it being the least celebrated Patron Saint’s day in the British Isles; but it’s not as if I’m cynical towards the occasion because I carry liberal guilt over St George somehow symbolically representing our shameful colonial past and therefore seek the brotherhood of the Irish, Welsh and Scots who, as rewritten history will inform us, had no part to play whatsoever in the great imperial adventure. Again, it’s more a case of the way in which these events are handed down to us by the powers-that-be, like adults dishing out sweets to toddlers on the condition that they behave themselves in exchange for the treat.
Also, it depends where one stands on the existence of Patron Saints in the first place. St George has only occupied that position in England since the Reformation, a side-effect of the removal of the numerous images of Catholic Saints and their flags cluttering up churches. From then on, the one Saint would suffice and George was the one who got the job. In those days of religious fanaticism (unlike now, of course), these symbols mattered when each individual nation on this island defiantly clung to its own independent culture. The 1707 Union with Scotland saw separate nationalism gradually superseded by a collective nationalism as represented by the combined flag Great Britain now sailed under – in England, at least.
The late Victorian vogue for reviving – or, to be more accurate, re-imagining – Ye Olde England was manifested in the formation of druid chapters, the sudden interest in cataloguing traditional folk songs, Gothic architecture, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the 1894 founding of The Royal Society of St George. This organisation can boast past Presidents of the calibre of Rudyard Kipling, Field Marshal Montgomery and…er…the Duke of Windsor, as well as past Vice Presidents such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher – Great Patriots all. Still in existence, it sees its function as primarily promoting traditional English values.
Question that function and no doubt the Daily Telegraph would willingly have you hung, drawn and quartered as a Communist; but for me humour, and specifically the ability to take the piss out of one’s more humourless countrymen and institutions, is as English a tradition as any I can think of. Cocking a snook at authority – that’s about as genuinely English as it gets.
There’s a distinct humourlessness in the English who vehemently oppose the existence of St George’s Day and happily drink themselves into a coma when the Patron Saints of Ireland and Scotland come around, just as there is in the English whose pompous and unswerving belief that any criticism of their official brand of what Englishness constitutes is tantamount to treason. For me personally, the best films about England and all of these traditions are the ones that satirise them, such as ‘The Ruling Class’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘If…’ and even ‘A Clockwork Orange’. They belong to a tradition I actually do feel at home in. Because I’m English? Perhaps…
© The Editor