Flying the flag for pride and patriotism

It is difficult now to express national pride with any kind of conviction or decency
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The Independent Online

Now and then, usually when St George's Day rolls around, I receive a call from the Richard Littlejohn Show. They have the idea that they might discuss the subject of what it means to be English in the 21st century. Should we not, for instance, follow the example of other countries and celebrate more openly and proudly the name day of our country's patron saint?

Now and then, usually when St George's Day rolls around, I receive a call from the Richard Littlejohn Show. They have the idea that they might discuss the subject of what it means to be English in the 21st century. Should we not, for instance, follow the example of other countries and celebrate more openly and proudly the name day of our country's patron saint?

My role in the discussion would clearly be that of the wussy liberal. I once wrote a column in which I suggested that it was our very lack of overt patriotism which made one proud to be English. The best way for a true Englishman to celebrate St George's Day was, I suggested, to ignore it altogether.

Because this gentle, caring approach to nationalism rarely plays well in a red-white-and-blue debate, it was probably a good thing that the debate never took place. I rather assumed that, since there are fewer national flags to be seen on St George's Day than when our team is playing a European qualifier against Liechtenstein, the argument against the cruder expressions of patriotism has been won.

But perhaps not. This time last week, a man called George Courtauld received the first consignment of a small book which he had decided to publish for himself. His initial print order had been for 10,000 copies, a dashingly large number since none of the large book chains, who have a stranglehold on sales, had taken copies. That 10,000 has already been sold and a reprint of 50,000 has been ordered in time for the author's appearance next week on the Richard and Judy Show.

Courtauld had had one those irritatingly simple ideas: The Pocket Book of Patriotism. Written while its author commuted from Essex to London where he works for a head-hunting firm, it is, according to the modest website which has been set up to advertise it, a collection of "essential British words and deeds, dates and phrases, songs, speeches and commandments from Stonehenge to the present day". In its pages, we are assured, can be found "no judgement, no padding, no fashionable distortions or whitewash, just the bare bones of our magnificent history brought to life by soul-stirring quotations that still echo down the ages".

Normally, British publishers like nothing better than a very simple idea which is cheap to produce but, when approached by Courtauld, they were distinctly sniffy. The only editor to express interest, clearly one into whose soul media cynicism was deeply etched, suggested that it might just work if re-titled The British Book of Soundbites. This lack of enthusiasm was reflected among the buyers of the larger bookshops.

Something odd is going on when an industry that is as market-conscious as the books business can misjudge things so badly. Presumably, within sophisticated metropolitan circles, patriotism has become profoundly unfashionable. First it was hijacked by football - in the recent past, the worst, most yobbish type of fan supports country before club. Then the BNP came along. Finally, and most embarrassingly of all, patriotism became associated with UKIP.

It is tempting to suggest that sales for the book come from the usual band of huffers and puffers of the right. The Daily Mail predictably described The Pocket Book of Patriotism as "the perfect stocking-filler for the po-faced, self-hating liberal in your life". On Amazon, the reading habits of those who had bought a copy tell their own story; among other titles they had recently purchased were Christopher Booker's The Great Deception: The Secret History of the European Union, John Humphrys' Lost for Words and, most tellingly of all, My Autobiography by Peter Alliss.

Yet I suspect that it will not just be traditionalists and bleaters about political correctness who buy Courtauld's book. National pride plays its part in the sensibility of most people, but it is difficult now to express with any kind of conviction or decency. Four English teams may have been playing European football competitions so far this week, but when over three quarters of their players are foreign and their managers are Spanish, Portuguese, French and Scottish, support for them has little to do with patriotism.

Normally, war can be relied upon to bolster a sense of national identity, but today any act of military heroism in Iraq is likely to be more a source of embarrassment than pride, tainted as it is by doubts about its moral justification. Large parts of America still seem to buy a Hollywood version of the war, but there is no yearning here to read stories of how our men are fighting like Rambo. Instead, we would prefer to think of our soldiers doing caring, non-aggressive work, working with the local community rather than against it.

Under those circumstances, patriotism becomes a complex business, changing shape and colour with differing perspectives. Obviously, as a kind of national pride, it is preferable to flags, slogans, triumphalism and butt-kicking but it may leave a gap for many people, including a few po-faced, self-hating liberals. Perhaps a modest little book of facts and quotations, prompted by events that are safely in the past, is not such a terrible way of filling it.

Terblacker@aol.com

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