It wasn’t a surprise of earth-shaking proportions when the Prime Minister yesterday came out in favour of St George. It didn’t take a psephological genius to anticipate that Cameron would get behind the knight with the lethal lance. It was just a question of whether he or Nigel Farage would get there first. And Farage was doing so much Little England rabble-rousing this week with his new anti-immigration ads, he hardly needed to draw explicit analogies between European jobseekers and a dragon that needed slaying by a chap with a G in his name.
“St George has been England’s patron saint since 1350,” the PM reminded, “but for too long his feast day – England’s national day – has been overlooked” (you can almost hear Cameron’s palms sweating as he says the word “England” twice, riskily mentioning its existence as a country in its own right). “Today, though, more and more people are coming together on or around 23 April, eager to celebrate everything it is to be English.” Each line of his speech quivered with the knowledge that English “people”, especially the English Defence League, tend to celebrate their Englishness by painting the St George’s Cross on their faces and noisily showing how much they hate foreigners.
How much, though, is a celebration of Englishness cognate with a love of St George? What was so English about him? As many people know, he didn’t have a drop of English blood in him. He was born in Palestine to Greek parents: his father Gerontius (meaning “old”) was a captain in the Roman army, his mother a Palestinian Christian called Polychronia (meaning, if I understand it right, “I’ve done it many times”). Young George (Georgios means “worker on the land” – the modern phrase would be “hard-working farmer”) went to the Roman emperor Diocletian and asked his help finding a job; Diocletian, who’d known George’s father, instantly fast-tracked him to become a tribune in the imperial guard, thereby initiating a tradition of nepotism that has oiled the wheels of politics ever since.
George and the emperor fell out when Diocletian went hard-line about his soldiers worshipping only Roman gods. When George insisted on reaffirming his Christian faith – not a million miles from what Cameron was doing on behalf of the country last week – he was arrested, tortured by means of a “wheel of swords”, a kind of 4th-century Prime Minister’s Question Time, and decapitated outside the walls of Nicomedia. His sufferings so impressed Diocletian’s wife Alexandra that she embraced Christianity and was martyred alongside him.
The dragon with whom he’s so often identified is supposed to be a fire-breathing emblem of paganism – and the palpitating maiden in the background whom the knight has saved is meant to be Alexandra. So Georgios’s martyrdom, a broadly passive affair of being tortured and killed just for saying the wrong thing, became seen as an active, heroic deed to save others from damnation. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with such a person? Cameron’s admiration is clear, and the sentiment would have been shared by anyone alive in the Dark Ages – across the known world he was venerated, beatified, canonised, given a feast day, and invoked as a war-cry, while his name was plastered on banners…
What’s rather splendid, though, is that not only did he have no direct or historical connection with England, he was never actually made our patron saint. He got the job by default. The Synod of Oxford declared St George’s Day an English feast day in 1222. The day was shifted in 1415 to coincide with his birthday on 23 April. And when the Reformation came in 1552 and all the saints’ banners were abolished, George’s were the last ones left fluttering.
So he’s a de facto patron saint. A national guardian who never sought fame. He never hustled for the job, never strove for election, never campaigned on doorsteps or made unrealistic promises, never claimed a denarius on expenses, never sucked up to a superior, never engaged in debate with other aspirant saints. The fact that he was still around after all the other saints had been made redundant is a rather British thing, isn’t it? Like a chap who gets a medal for being the last man standing in a battle.
Erasmus, the 15th century scholar, called him a protective giant for the West, like Heracles – but such is his ubiquity in folklore, he’s also that rare thing, a Western saint who’s known to and admired by Muslims; he was reputed to have killed a dragon in the sea near Beirut. Soldier, superhero, synthesiser of faiths, swordsman, saver of maidens, benign all-purpose good egg – and, according to Carlo Crivelli, the 15th century painter, he was a curly-haired spitting image of Harry Styles. No wonder everyone, from Cameron down, wants a piece of St George’s armoured ass.
I like the incoherent mumbling of ‘Jamaica Inn’
BBC1’s dramatisation of Jamaica Inn has drawn a lot of abuse for its inaudibility. This was attributed by the BBC to “issues with the sound levels” (though they didn’t seem much improved by Episode 2.) Me, I assumed the sound problem was a completely normal predicament for anyone venturing near the environs of Bodmin Moor. My heart went out to poor Mary Yellan, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, as she struggled to understand the levels of threat and sexual overture made to her by the Merlin clan at the tavern. At one point, the taciturn landlord Joss – a man who keeps his lips clamped together and his chin on his chest while speaking – mumbled, “You likes to ‘ear me talk, do ‘ee?” to which she presumably longed to reply: “Chance would be a fine thing, mate.”
It was a studiedly authentic production, in which the only inauthentic note was Mary’s failure to say, “What?” or “Pardon?” as the locals muttered dark, incomprehensible confidences in her ear. I was reminded of watching The Wire and wondering why Dominic West, playing Jimmy McNulty, an Irish-American cop, seemed able to converse fluently with mixed-race Baltimore drug dealers whose idiolect was baffling and whose delivery was rubbish. How did he make out what they were saying? How come he never asked, “Sorry, what was that?” or “Hello?” Why, come to that, did they never ask him: “What you speakin’ that posh‑enunciation Rada shit fo’ mofo?”
I’m surprised there isn’t more recognition that, in drama as in life, not every spoken line will make perfect sense to the dramatis personae. I’d like to see a production of Macbeth in which, at his first meeting with the witches, he greets their eldritch chanting (“The weird sisters, hand in hand/Posters of the sea and land/ Thus do go about, about/Thrice to thine and thrice to mine/And thrice again to make up nine…”) with the words:
“Sorry, i’faith, I could not comprehend/A word thou said. What in the name of th’Almighty/Art thou on about?”