26 April 2009

What do they know of England, who only football know?

Today I attended my first ever St George's Day parade, in which members of the various factions of the Scouting movement troop down Colchester high street before attending an outdoor gathering with slightly religious overtones. There has been something of a grassroots movement in recent years to establish St George's Day as a national holiday in England. Having cast off the ingrate Scots and Welsh to their own parliaments, we are now free, apparently, to express our Englishness. But it seems to me the main hurdle to this taking off is knowing exactly what you would do in order to celebrate England's patron saint. Kill a dragon, presumably.

England has long been accused of yoking the Celtic nations with the idea of Britishness, thereby suppressing their ability to express fully their ethnicity. In fact, the opposite was the case - the Act of Union that created Great Britain gave the Scots, Welsh and Irish something to kick against, and so develop cultural ideas and institutions. The idea of Englishness, insofar as it was different from Britishness, didn't really come into it. And by the time you have apologised for the worst excesses of the British Empire, what does that leave of Englishness itself? Drinking tea and taking off your cardigan so you feel the benefit later.

It was a lovely sunny day in town today, and there was a respectable, if not exactly spectacular, number of people lining the streets. Indeed, there was some comment from those around me that the numbers were down on previous years - no doubt in the recession even patriotism is in short supply. I was trying to work out what collected St Georgers about me had in common, something that might be uniting the nation in a passion for Albion. Looking around, it seemed to be mostly a Body Mass Index above 30 and tattoos of their children's names.

The culmination of the post-parade gathering was a muttered prayer and a dismal rendition of God Save The Queen, a downbeat dirge at the best of times, and I was left to reflect on how unnaturally the language of patriotism fits us, unlike, say, Americans who can slip comfortably into eulogies for Uncle Sam from more or less any topic. The only equivalent we have is irony, whose use in England is not so much common as it is a reflex action for any social situation. The trouble is patriotism seems to demand a straightforwardness that many of us find uncomfortable, because we might have to sound like we actually mean it.

This then leaves the only time in which the English are direct, passionate and vocal about the nation as being on the football terraces, as we stagger towards inevitable elimination from biannual football tournaments. Maybe for St George's Days in the future, if given a public holiday, we could reenact losing to Germany on penalties.

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