Archive for April 23rd, 2010

Why we should celebrate St George’s Day

St George’s Day should be the beginning of a rebellion against a teaching of history that reduces our past to a mere aperitif to modern times

Saint George

April 23rd, the happy conjunction of St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday should be a love feast for England to which all are invited.

We constantly underestimate the appetite of some of the most recent arrivals on our shores to understand our island story and be part of writing some new chapters. The festival of St George and Shakespeare is a good opportunity to trace the way we have come and to develop, in fresh ways, our common story

One of the great advantages of George as a patron saint is that so little is known of him beyond the fact that, whatever he was, he was not English. He was supposed to have been a soldier who died as a martyr for the faith at the hands of the Roman Emperor on April 23rd 304. His principal cult was centred on Lydda [Lod] a town, on the road from Joppa to Jerusalem. His shrine is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

It is already clear that the 21st century will enforce a re-assessment of our place in the world and put a strain on our social cohesion. If, as the people of England, we are to play a creative part in this new world of promise and peril we should not be hobbled by any hankering for past glories but made free of the resources which come from rich memories.

If we have a richly stored memory of the narrative of English history – the comings and goings, the conflicts over principle, the struggles for identity, not least when we were a second-rate power on the extremity of Europe – then we shall have the possibility of responding creatively to the changes which this century will bring.

The notion that an erasure of memory leads to the growth of a marvellously tolerant society is nonsense. Eventually, there will be fierce resentment. If the virtues and the traditional culture of England become unmentionable by respectable politicians then the symbols of Englishness will be appropriated by those who have only the slightest grasp of the rich story they claim as their own.

To be genuinely hospitable one must have a home. A genuine narrative of English history with its Celtic; Danish; Norman; Jewish; Huguenot; Afro-Caribbean; Scots and Irish and now Muslim enrichments is a corrective to any exclusive racial cult.

St George’s Day should be the beginning of a rebellion against a teaching of history that reduces our past to a mere aperitif to modern times; a brief ascent to the pinnacle of enlightenment on which we are currently supposed to be standing.

I was deeply shocked recently to inspect the GCSE history syllabus which had been inflicted upon one of my children. It was dominated by Twiggy and the Vietnam War with a brief excursion into ancient history, represented by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The story of the dragon slain by St George and “which envenomed all the country” is recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, englished by William Caxton. Church authorities rejected the dragon as authentic history at a very early date. Pope Gelasius when he reformed the calendar in 494 classified George as one of those “whose acts are known only to God”. But symbolically and artistically the dragon was to have a great future.

The dragon which needs to be slain today is the dumbing down of our culture and the denigration of the story of the peoples of this island by those who cannot see anything good beyond the narcissistic annals of the sensitive self.

Despite recent debates about his precise birthday, April 23rd is also the traditional day for celebrating Shakespeare; part of the birthright of all English speakers. It is good to see that there is no reticence about this subject in Stratford upon Avon where a three day party for the bard is being planned.

Obviously much more is known about William Shakespeare than about St George but in many ways he is even more of an enigma. The compassionate complexity of his genius is such that he is constantly enlisted as a partisan for all kinds of incompatible causes. The history plays amply demonstrate his appreciation of the deceitfulness of political bombast but he put into the mouth of the dying John of Gaunt patriotic words which every school child knew before the ban on learning poetry by heart made a void in our inner spaces. What kind of sectarian loves will occupy the vacuum if we are not able to celebrate “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”?

Thank God we are the heirs to Shakespeare’s comprehensive work. Simply rehearsing bland universals like “tolerance”, admirable though they are, or intoning various abstract synonyms for “fairness” cannot engage our affections or offer a cordial for drooping spirits. Abstract principles gain the power to transform lives when they are married to examples and embedded in stories which convey some of the energy and ambiguity of real life.

The point is that we do not require a univocal idealization of our country or a roseate view of English history as some kind of cross-gartered rural idyll. But our children deserve a rich account of the narrative of England which will give them the resources to make an informed and original response to the 21st century. They need a narrative of England which does not palliate the crimes and injustices; does not edit out the debates between Catholics and Protestants, Anglicans and Puritans, the argument between the followers of Hobbes and the protagonists of Locke but which also insists on the glory and the grit of the Northern industrial towns; the cosmopolitan wonder of mercantile London and the hard earned ease of the suburbs.

I hope that we shall hang out our flags on April 23rd and plan for more pageants and parties in the years to come. The story goes on, neither confined to the day before yesterday nor starting now. Just as in the past, newer arrivals are a vital part of the new chapters which are being added. If we fail to work at constructing a common story which does justice to our rich and varied inheritance then we shall face a sectarian future.

“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit: and, upon this charge

Cry, God for Harry! England and St George!”

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