1 May 2012

For God, Harry and St George

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Can St George’s Day ever become for the English what St Patrick’s Day is for the Irish? My first response to this question was one of mild scepticism, says Andrew Gimson. We English dislike the idea of compulsory fun. Our nationalism is for most of the time an understated thing. That does not mean it is weak. But we feel inhibited about making a song and dance about it.

Yet as soon as these faintly disobliging thoughts had occurred to me, I remembered the annual street party which we have enjoyed every summer since moving to our present house in north-west London in 2002. All the cars are removed from the street, which gives a delightful feeling of space. For one day in the year, children can run about without any danger of being run over. Bunting is erected and games are played: the most popular is the one where you try over a greater and greater distance to throw an egg to your partner without the egg breaking. There is a tea for the children, and later a supper to which everyone brings a dish, followed by music and uncompulsory dancing.

This street party, which has enabled us to get to know and even enjoy the company of neighbours whom we might otherwise never have met, has nothing to do with St George’s Day. But at least this festivity shows, in a modest sort of way, that we English have some capacity for communal celebration. In this case, the original impulse came from the monarchy:  our party began as a one-off event to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and because it was successful it has been running ever since.

If we are to invent a tradition of celebrating St George’s Day, then the celebrations should probably be of as unofficial a character as possible. Let St George be a pretext for things we might like to do anyhow. The English summer is rich in events where the ostensible purpose – horse-racing, say – becomes an excuse for drinking and dressing up. But these things cannot be coerced, and people who want to opt out must be left in peace.

The danger of doing nothing to celebrate St George is that he will be commandeered by extremists who purport to be the last English patriots. Let St George’s flag fly from church towers and town halls. Let roses be worn in buttonholes. But please do not make this into an occasion to compete against St Patrick, St Andrew and St David.

For there has been a kind of wisdom, as well as laziness, in our reluctance to make much of St George. Those of us who value the United Kingdom do not wish to undermine it by asserting our Englishness in a way that becomes anti-Scottish, anti-Welsh or anti-Irish. Englishness is a very deep though usually dormant emotion. Once roused, we can become ferocious: a point often discovered too late by our enemies. We should not worry if St Patrick is celebrated more boisterously than St George. A village fete can be quite enjoyable.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris – The Rise of Boris Johnson”, just published in an updated edition by Simon & Schuster, available here.

This article was first published in British Future’s This Sceptred Isle publication, available here.

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