Thursday, June 1, 2017

Waving Flags

The Welsh poet Owen Sheers' 2005 poem, Flag, has an epigraph from Christopher Logue's Professor Tucholsky's Facts. It reads:

'Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.'

I am not familiar with Logue's poem but in those four lines he encapsulates the burning need for nationalism that is all-defining for some. Sheers' poem goes on, in a form reminiscent of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, to chart increasing sightings of the Welsh flag from a westbound train. Sheers expresses both pride - "our flag" - and disappointment - "dreams of what might have been" - in his national identity but what is more interesting about the poem is the disparate places he sees the red dragon. We are used to national flags on public buildings - "glimpsed above a town hall" - but Sheers spots them "strung up on bunting...on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym...tied to the side of a SNAX caravan." It struck a chord with me because, not only have I noticed that any lay-by fast food van seems to be obliged to fly the Union Flag as it dispenses tea and burgers to the travelling public, but there seems to be an epidemic of domestic flagpoles in East Sussex.

There are not many villages in my part of the world where there is not at least one national flag being flown from a twenty-foot flagstaff in a front garden. In the centre of Cowbeech there is a cluster of three homes each with Union Flags atop pristine white poles; I am unsure whether this a demonstration of their patriotism or simply to let the neighbours know that, like the Queen, they are at home. In Pevensey, the Union Flags are complemented by many St. George's Crosses and, in Hailsham, the latter has been painted onto the entire end wall of a terrace of houses; this may be a football hangover from Euro 2016 or the owner could just be showing off on Google Earth.

Whether the increase in English flag-flying has been prompted by the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales in the wake of devolution, I am not sure. The spread of British flags could be a response to the fragile state of the Union but it is more than likely an expression of anti-EU sentiment and an affirmation of British identity in a post-referendum age. Whatever the reasons, I have to confess to feeling troubled rather than stirred by the sight of these flags. This is a shame but, their appropriation by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s, and the English Defence League more recently, have tarnished them in my mind.

The flag-flying is not all bad, however. There are a couple of houses that I pass daily where the owners seem to have an ever-changing supply of international standards - each day presents some sort of Boy's Own test in identifying flags of the world. But whilst one house has flown the rainbow flag on the day of Brighton Pride, the other was sporting a 'Trump for President' banner last November, an action that could not even be redeemed by their sympathetic flying of a Hartlepool United flag the day the County Durham team were relegated from the Football League.

Although Wemmick tells Pip, in Great Expectations, that he "runs up a real flag...and cuts off the communication" when he is at home, the practice of domestic flag-flying is something that seems to have been imported from the United States. There, however, the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in American life by a ritual - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" - recited daily in schools and government institutions. Ours is an old country and I think we will never see such widespread displays of national pride because we are a people who are too relaxed and recalcitrant. A pair of flags I enjoy passing by most of all are flown, I am sure, in precisely that spirit and are on display to puncture the whole puffed-up patriotism of domestic flag-flying: in Maynards Green there is a house that has a large Smiley flag at the top of its flagpole and on the road into Battle there is a lonely cottage that regularly flies the Jolly Roger.

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