My friend Chris sent me an email on Friday. He works in the road haulage industry. "It has become apparent that many people of subnormal intelligence have become licensed to drive a car. To ensure that other motorists can identify potentially dangerous drivers, it has become compulsory that everyone who falls into this bracket should carry a warning to other road users, so that they may keep out of their way. This warning shall consist of a flag with a red cross on a white background and must be displayed on the car - or, more likely, the van - at all times. For drivers of exceptionally low ability, extra flags are required."
Like Christmas trees in August, a good four months before any major football tournament, out come the flags. At first tentatively, maybe only one per vehicle, and then in wild profusion, like swallows returning for the summer. Have they been carefully stored since last time? Or are they bought new each year, from specially-designated flag retailers? Where are they manufactured? In China? Or by failed asylum-seekers in East End sweatshops? Somehow, you feel, either would do.
The debate, of course, has already reached the mature stage. Everyone has their entrenched opinions, not excluding me. I found myself in the pub the other day, a few beers to the worse, suggesting that what we really need is a satellite in orbit armed with laser cannons taking out any vehicle flying a St George flag. Good, liberal, peaceable men that we all are, we had a good laugh. But this isn't pure prejudice. It's about five-sixths prejudice with a bit of fear added for good measure. The flags speak of more than mere sporting identity. What they actually seem to represent is an undercurrent of rage.
As though anticipating that I would be writing this piece sooner or later, I have spent much of the past few weeks peeking through windows trying to see who is driving these cars. Mine is an informal survey, based around the rage-crazed streets of north London, but I think it's quite revealing. Roughly 23 per cent of the drivers I saw were shouting into mobiles or Bluetooths. Roughly 24 per cent were shouting at other drivers; 11 per cent were shouting at me, standing on a zebra crossing trying to peek into their windows; 8 per cent were Asian men gulping slightly nervously; 0 per cent were women. And about 16 per cent were the Incredible Hulk.
What's so sad about all this is that the flag should really be a celebratory symbol, an expression of optimism and hope in an otherwise unforgiving world. On the face of it, all the flagwavers are trying to say is that they are fervently looking forward to the World Cup; they genuinely believe England might win, and if you disagree, they will cut your head off with a hacksaw.
A couple of years ago, during the last vitally important football championship, I was wandering up the road when out of the newsagent's came a huge shaven-headed man, his face scarlet with rage, fists clenched, teeth gnashing, breath dangerously heavy. I quickly deduced that he was looking for someone to punch. There was only me. I know from previous experience that the worst thing you can do in these circumstances is turn and run away, because mad angry people can always run faster than you. Crossing the road is nearly as risky, because they know you are crossing the road to escape and so they cross the road with you to make the confrontation unavoidable. The only choice is to walk straight past, making no eye contact, and pray. I was lucky. I am not Asian, unlike our local newsagent, whose non-scarlet face appeared to have upset his aesthetic sensibilities. Unharmed and emboldened, I turned round to see which car he got into.
The one with the two St George's flags, of course. And the huge flag of St George laid across the shelf inside the back window. And the St George's flag medallion attached to the radiator grille. Do mad people wrap themselves in flags, or does wrapping yourself in a flag drive you mad? This poor innocent flag, previously associated with the offing of dragons, now seems to represent vast reservoirs of anger and frustration that have nowhere else to go. But worse that that, displaying it seems like an unconscious admission of defeat. It's like saying, the world has no use for me. This is all I have left. This and Wayne Rooney's metatarsal.Reuse content