Monday 27 August 2012

… in which I finally learn to stop hating flags!

Flags have never been my favourite thing. Your very own Irish Tricolour does nothing but use the white stripe of truce to keep apart the two warring factions of Republican green and Protestant orange, but no nation in the world reveres its flag more than the United States of America.

The reason that Americans sing an anthem to their flag rather than their country, praising its political significance way beyond its physical appearance, is that the USA is designed as a naval combat unit. The President is Commander-In-Chief on the bridge, and all the organisations of government are arranged as on board a battleship of the line.

Flags are vital when you’re at war on an ocean, and Americans don’t let the tiny lickle detail that their country is actually a lump of land 3,000 miles across spoil their love of Old Glory.

My cousin used to live in the USA. He adored the place, but after 9/11 he felt overwhelmed by the flag flying. Everywhere he went the Stars and Stripes obscured the sky, and even though he understood and empathised with the pride and hurt being exhibited, the shift from patriotism to nationalism unsettled him deeply.

The old adage suggests that the patriot is proud of what their country does, while the nationalist is proud of their country no matter what it does. The first time I went to Northern Ireland, back in the bad old days, I was shocked by the plethora of flags flying. Proclaiming this village for the Irish tricolour, that housing estate for the Union Jack, those flags were aggressive symbols of a deep-seated hatred, reminding me I was entering a war zone.

Actually, as my memory serves, it wasn’t the Union Jack (or Butcher’s Apron, depending on your political bent!) but rather the Cross of St. George that the Loyalist communities flew, which seemed absolutely bizarre to this Englishman. The Union Jack is an amalgam of the crosses of the saints of three old Kingdoms: George, Patrick and Scotland's St. Andrew, so it offers at least some attraction towards which Ulster Scots might feel loyal. But those Northern Protestants were flying the Cross of St. George, which is purely English, and in the main flown only by fans of the England football team and fascists (please, as modern Irish people, resist the temptation to joke ho ho “What’s the difference?”).

In my youth the Union Jack was the exclusive symbol of the National Front, and later the BNP, so it was with absolute delight and great pride that while I was recently over in London, I saw the flag being reinvented as a worthy symbol.

As a tourist in the city of my birth, it’s much easier for me to get gooey about London. If I had to live there still, I’d be a far less happy person than I am today. I love my life out here in the West of Ireland, but there are certain things that I still miss, which fill me with joy to see when I’m back in Blighty.

Early on a sunny Summer’s evening I was on a tube train travelling down the District Line, smiling as I watched an immaculately turned-out middle class Indian family sitting to my right, with two little girls aged 7 or 8, clutching their little Union Jacks, having just come from an Olympic event at Earl’s Court.

‘How wonderful!’, I thought. ‘How long will it be before a similar Indian family living in Galway City would feel proud and comfortable and so wholly included that their children would not raise a local’s eyebrow waving the Irish flag?’

To my right sat a white woman in her mid-30s, escorting three teenage girls from the same event. All of them had their faces painted with the Union Jack, and two of the girls were draped in larger Union flags. After all the horrors of racism and the spectres of the Falklands, Gulf and manifold wars for which this flag had been flown, how wonderful it was to see it being used benignly. How great that all these diverse young people were feeling happily united by a healthy pride in a national identity, rather than any exclusive hatred of others.

Everyone on the train was buzzed up. As I glanced directly opposite me to where an older lady was sitting, I realised that I was sporting a massive smile on my lips.

She too was looking back and forth, to her left and right, and being a sentimental fool with a healthy aptitude for fiction, I figured I knew what was going through her mind.

She had lived through two World Wars, doubtless making terrible sacrifices to keep her country free from occupation and tyranny, and now, with her tired swollen legs just about able to hold her up, she was enjoying the feeling that all those historical efforts had been worth it. Peoples of many beliefs, ethnic origins and cultures had all come together to celebrate the oneness - the singularity - of being British, in a way that could offend nobody, while making this ex-pat glow and hum with love of life.

Finally her eyes met mine and we smiled at each other, sharing a truly knowing magical moment. The longer we looked at each other, the deeper we smiled. Not only was such an invasion of privacy and personal space the exact opposite of usual Londoner behaviour, but there was, I’m sure, a tremendous bonding going on in those brief seconds. I knew that she knew why I was smiling, and she was aware that I could see the same emotions in her face. 

We were both proud and happy.

It’s not often I get to say that I’m proud to be British, but for those few precious moments on that tube train, all was right with the world. For 16 unique days, the flags were a force of good.


Paz said...

doesnt make a difference what colour/race or religion you are on first Sunday in Sept if you have a Maroon and White Flag in Galway city your elected.
After that normal service will be resumed

Charlie Adley said...

Galway abu! All the way mate!

Evie said...

I guess you have to be American to understand the sense of invasion and horror at the terror we felt at 9/11, so the flying of the flags was a sign of solidarity, strength and honor for our love of our wonderful country. As for myself, I tend to morn in quiet, and didn't feel the need to run around hanging flags, but people handle trauma differently! I to love the Olympics and how people wave their flag for kind of the same reason...I don't see how you then understand it...just sayin'. Peace...

Charlie Adley said...

Evie - sorry it's taken me so long to reply - I was out of the country and away from comouters for 10 day!

I do undertand how everybody handles grief and trauma differently,and have no objection to bonding under a flag. It just makes me uncomfortble, maybe for reasons of my own historical and political pespective, when flag waving becomes vengefuland more important than the people who died.

Thanks for your interesting feedback and for reading the colyoom.