Thursday, 23 April 2009

St George's Day

How ironic that the patron saint of England was born, as far as we know, in Turkey and fought in the Roman army. However, it is not George's nationality that we celebrate but his courage and faith. Perhaps that's what we need most of all as we face the worst economic recession since the Second World War.

It's also ironic that one of the very characteristics of Englishness that is so admired around the world - that of self-deprecation - prevents us from celebrating our national day. I'm glad to be English and to live in England. I appreciate our 'green and pleasant land'; when I have been in Africa I begin to pine for cloudy wet days. I appreciate our long history of democracy going back to Magna Carta. When I was in Kenya some years ago I was asked by a group of church elders why Kenya was so poor and we were so rich. I replied that I thought having 800 years of parliamentary accountablity had something to do with building a system that is reasonably honest and that works. I enjoy our sense of humour: wit and irony seem very English. The Germans laugh at other people (schadenfreude) but we laugh at ourselves. I admire the quiet courage that saw this country through the Second World War. I love English films like 'Brief Encounter' and 'The Dambusters'. Why do we need such public outbursts of grief and emotion, for example at the death of Princess Diana, when there is an English way to do it. I watched The Dambusters again last week and marvelled at the English way that Guy Gibson deals with the death of his faithful black dog N****r (I don't know if I can even print his full name these days!). Gibson doesn't cry, he just looks for a moment into the distance and then puts the dog's lead in the wastebin. Does his lip tremble? Maybe an implied tremble is all that we get. That is Englishness - just look into the distance, then get on with life.

I think another characteristic of true Englishness is to accept people as they are. I don't think we are a racist nation at heart, though some people confuse patriotism with nationalism. When you look at other European countries you see how much more integrated our society is.

It takes an outsider to really appreciate Englishness, and Bill Bryson does this suprememly in his book 'Notes from a Small Island.' He realised that he had started to take on the characteristics of the English when he began to look forward to 'a nice cup of tea'.

Should we celebrate St George's Day? I haven't got a flag to fly even if I wanted to. I think it's more English just to say, "Yes, I'm glad I'm English. Now let's have a cup of tea."

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