My pride in our failure to celebrate St George's Day

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The Independent Online

Today you shall be strong. You shall be clear-eyed, sit up straight and, if required to speak, you shall use a measured, dignified tone. It is St George's Day, a moment to be grateful for your national heritage. If you are unfortunate enough not to be English, you can perhaps simply be glad that you are able to move among us and talk to us, almost as if you were our equal.

Today you shall be strong. You shall be clear-eyed, sit up straight and, if required to speak, you shall use a measured, dignified tone. It is St George's Day, a moment to be grateful for your national heritage. If you are unfortunate enough not to be English, you can perhaps simply be glad that you are able to move among us and talk to us, almost as if you were our equal.

There will be a St George's Day party in the village near where I live. We are rather nationally-minded in these parts – there's already a waiting list for our Golden Jubilee mugs – but, sadly, I won't be able to attend this particular event.

There is something about being asked to wear an item of patriotic clothing, the sartorial theme of the party, which is faintly off-putting. Wearing a national flag, however discreetly, makes one feel like a member of the National Front or one of our famous Ingerland football yobs.

In fact, the simple idea of dressing in a particularly English manner, or being expected to talk or behave like an Englishman, is profoundly embarrassing – at least to an Englishman. It is like being asked to draw attention to one's own flaws. After all, when someone as described as being "typically English", there is never a moment's doubt that he or she is being insulted.

For an Italian, an Australian or an American, the idea of being sneered at for showing characteristics of one's own nation would be incomprehensible, but here it is part of the culture.

The less sophisticate foreigners occasionally mistake this bashful self-mockery for the low self-esteem of a nation that has lost its way in the world. The opposite is the case. We laugh at ourselves precisely because we feel superior; we can afford to be modest. We don't have to boast to be proud. We know that a healthy irreverence towards patriotic guff is yet another area where other nations, more po-faced and less self-confident, could usefully learn from us.

It is unimaginable, for example, that the equivalent of West Wing, a glossy, dishonest television series set in the White House, could be produced here. The idea that a drama, with well-turned scripts, good-looking Hollywood actors and high production values could be based around the lives of our politicians, revealing them to be attractive, sensitive, hardworking folk who are in public life simply in order to do good in the world, would be laughed off the screen.

Yet in America, apparently, it is just fine. This compelling, sophisticated and faintly pernicious work of cultural propaganda is beamed around the world, presenting, without a trace of irony, a version of the White House that is every liberal's fantasy.

Last week, the President of the United States and his staff were devoting their time and energy to helping an unnamed African country, afflicted by Aids, in its negotiations with international drugs companies, also sympathetically portrayed.

A bright young Republican was recruited to the White House (this President likes lively minds, even if they disagree with him), and discovers that the people working there are – and this word was used – "righteous".

The latest episode, more promisingly, included a subplot about the randiness of the President, played by Martin Sheen, but – wouldn't you just know it? – the object of his desire was his wife.

The image that a nation presents of itself through television and film can be revealing. The Americans have Calista Flockhart; we have Dawn French. They have Sex and the City; we have Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. They have A Few Good Men; we have Dad's Army.

Closer to home, national contrasts are equally marked. The window on its society and people offered by French film suggests a nation that, for all its fascinating variety, is consistent in one sense. It takes itself seriously – whether in sub- Jean de Florette pastorals, dramas of intimate life like Le Secret or even in its enraged, controversial Baise Moi moments.

Reviewing that film on last week's Late Review, Tom Paulin seemed to be accusing France of having become a soulless culture that has become alienated from itself over the past two decades. That might be pushing it a bit, but Sunday's vote in the presidential election suggests that, as in America, there is a link between national self-importance and social intolerance.

The great strength of St George's Day is precisely that it is not celebrated. The twinge of uneasiness and embarrassment felt by most people of sensibility when the English draw attention to their nation, whether at football matches or at the last night of the Proms, is rather healthy when compared to its alternative, a strutting, overt patriotism.

Perhaps Ken Livingstone instinctively understood this when he refused to grant public money for St George's Day celebrations, having agreed to generous grants so that the Irish of London could mark St Patrick's Day with parties, noise and bright lights.

The English approach is different. We look ill at ease, clear our throats and change the subject. It may not be quite as much fun but it has its virtues.

terblacker@aol.com

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