Christmas Hijacked

‘Ignorance is arrogance,’ I say tartly as George dodges out of the kitchen managing, yet again, to overlook any table clearing or washing up, ‘and arrogance is ignorance.’

‘But humility,’ George looks smugly back at me, ‘is…’

But let’s hold it there a second. Honestly, our family doesn’t just talk in platitudes, but what happened to children not answering back? I have singularly failed to inspire the obedient dread that my father filled me with.  Why hadn’t he told me what hard work it was creating that unforgettable family atmosphere of spite, fear and loathing?

Really, George is arrogant enough already, why are we scrimping to send the boy to an expensive posh school where he’s just encouraged to be unbearable? They all walk around like they’re the big swinging dick and, considering the frightening number of A*s the boys have to their names, their trousers are very full indeed.

The family gets stuck teaching the less alluring qualities, a little humbleness, thoughtfulness and empathy.

Accordingly, just that morning, I’d conscripted George to help fill the Christmas shoebox for Operation Christmas Child; an annual guilt avoidance scheme for fat westerners to send shoeboxes full of goodies to thin African children.

As we watched the heart-warming video on their website – weepy music with wide eyed children – I spotted, with each box delivered, there’s included, a full-colour child-friendly pamphlet bringing the good news about Jesus.

‘Christ!’ I exclaimed with unwitting irony. ‘They’re using us! We buy a nice present for someone so they might have some faith in humanity, and it’s being hijacked as a proof of God’s love. It’s not God’s love. It’s my guilt!’

‘No, it’s a Christmas present,’ George reminded me, ‘and Christmas is Christian.’ He’s right and so I felt doubly guilty. Child of the Band-Aid era I tend to think of Christmas as about “giving”; not a birthday celebration.

‘Maybe,’ I persisted, ‘but that doesn’t stop me feeling I’m being co-opted like a pusher; what with religion being an opiate.’ I was hoping to out-gun George by quoting beyond his 16-year-old reference frame. Unfortunately his snotty school had got there first.

‘Marx,’ he informed me earnestly, ‘meant religion may have been used to pacify the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. But the last hundred years have proved different. Now religion’s not an opiate, it’s like cocaine: an aggressor, a tinderbox, a firestarter.’

My jaw dropped.  The fact that my little boy was suddenly capable of intellectual argument was electrifying; his understanding of the effects of class A drugs –terrifying.

‘But it can still teach right from wrong.’ he continued placing the top carefully on the shoe box.

‘You don’t need God to keep you moral.’ I countered, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure. I come from a long line of fearsome fathers who were the objectification of their children’s moral conscience. You didn’t fear fire and brimstone, you feared the bizarre and often painful punishments your dad would cook up. And if that caused a tragic insurmountable distance between father and son? Well that’s the price of love.

But now I’m thinking.  Is atheism so important? If my kids grew up fearing God not me, maybe we could be closer. So what if they think the earth’s only a few thousand years old or that gays will have an after-life of unimaginable torture? We could all just fear together.

Richard Dawkins calls children’s religious education ‘child abuse’. But I’ it’s expediency.

My generation of revisionist middle-class parents have done our jobs too well, we’ve failed to strike fear into the hearts of our children. They’ve had no Nazis or Daleks. They’re blind to the poverty that silently surrounds us. George and his ever protected Range Rovered school chums have no fear.  Should they learn it? Should they discover humility?

According to the birthday boy it was supposed to be the meek who inherited the earth. To Marx this was promising fantastic afterlife for obedience to your shackles in the here and now.

But look at the extraordinary success of the Camerons and Osbornes, of the public school educated bankers and elites. They’re there through unwavering, ignorant, arrogance, the assumption that privilege is their right.

There I was all ready to knock all the conceited self-importance out of George when I realised that that master of the universe attitude is probably just what we’re paying that fancy school to instil because it’s not the meek and the peace makers who are blessed.  It’s the big swinging dicks.  The ones who couldn’t care less for the poor, they’re the ones who get ahead. They’re the ones who’ll be gambling a pile in the city and retiring early.  All I’ve got to do is make sure George retains a sliver of conscience when my pension needs topping up.

So today George looks smugly back at me, ‘But humility is futility.’ He smiles. ‘You told me that.’

I’m not proud.  But my pension options are looking a whole lot better.

Happy Christmas.

Medicine Unboxed Magic Show in Tweets

My Medicine Unboxed Magic Show described in Tweets (start at the bottom) – a challenge to rational minds.

Welcome to the Dominatrix

So. Last week. Suspicious that all our get up and go, had got up and gone, Claire and I decided to face the music and dance. Or, more specifically, Tango.

‘Lean on him,’ our expert instructor kept urging at the trial session.

Claire cautiously leaned. ‘Feel him move and you move, anticipate every step he takes, and take it backwards.’

And then, as I managed to trip over her foot and jab my chin in her eye, he sighed.

‘You must be the man, make the decisions, you control her every movement; whatever you do she must follow.’

But I’m just not that sort of man. I’m about as alpha as alfalfa, more bean salad than meat and potatoes. Claire on the other hand is as co-dependent as cobra. As a teenager she was severing the limbs off corpses and disembowelling the dead. As a highly trained doctor she doesn’t do leaning on, or following, or being walked through. And I, who spent my own student years writing essays about flower imagery in Victorian poesy, enjoy leading and making decisions in the same way I enjoy dysentery.

We felt as awkward as the AGM for the Jim’ll Fix It Fan Club. We’re simply not the dominant man throwing the weak compliant woman around; going through motions born in a profoundly patriarchal age in a country which has taken thirty years to catch up with us and elect their own Malvinas malevolent war-hungry female leader.

It takes two to tango – just not us two.

Should I feel ashamed at my unmanliness? Am I the Amtico flooring of our relationship? Laid right once, then easy to walk all over for the next twenty years? Or are we both standard bearers for a progressive cultural shift? Are we the future?

Anxiety about this is palpable. ‘NO MEN ALLOWED:’ fretted one Daily Mail headline last week, ‘London’s first exclusively women-only members’ club opens breaking centuries of tradition.’ Looking through the titles and subtitles of a host of recent books, women are now, apparently, The Richer Sex, and The Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. Author Hanna Rosin even claims it is, The End of Men.

What they’ve noticed is more than the gradual rise of female power in the workplace but a significant jump created by the crash. At the beginning of the 2007 recession, or ‘he-cession’, men suffered roughly 80% of job losses. Possibly this was because, men were being paid more on average than women doing the same jobs, it made sense for companies to keep the lower paid equivalents. It has meant that, statistically, women have fared better than men.

In 2010, ‘for the first time in history,’ says Rosin, ‘the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who continue to occupy around half of the nation’s jobs.’

Conversely cultures from the Middle East to China and Africa have had decades of testosterone fuelled male preference and selective birth control. Many view the West’s deference to women as effeminate. If things go on polarising, the next war between East and West could truly be a battle of the sexes. Still I know which side I’d rather be on. One thing we know is ‘feminine’ in no way means ‘weaker’: from Golda Meir to Mrs Thatcher and Malala Yousafzai, women won’t shy away from conflict.

‘Assuming a world run by women is more “tender”’ says Rosin, ‘seems… just a story we tell ourselves.’

Let’s bring it on. One journalist I know returned to Iraq after ten years. He stood with a friend praising how much women’s rights had improved. ‘When I was here last,’ he said, ‘women had to walk five paces behind the man, now I see they’re walking twenty paces in front.’

‘That’s not women’s rights,’ his friend replied, ‘it’s landmines.’


First published in


Microbes ‘R’ Us

When I was a kid I hated the idea of microbes – but they’ve grown on me.

I mean, I knew they were there, nestling in my nooks and crannies, but out of sight was out of mind; even if they were still in my brain, living it up in my liver and braving my guts.  We simply ignored each other – until the bloody Olympics.

You see, if my family hadn’t lost the lottery for tickets we wouldn’t have flounced off to the US and I would never have set out to climb the terrifying mountain Half Dome in Yosemite.  A sheer cliff on one side towering majestically – a phrase, I imagine, that refers to the Stuart type of six foot plus royalty rather than our present miniature monarchs – five thousand feet above the valley floor. I wouldn’t have suffered its thigh searing ascent nor the blood-pounding senior moments, convinced I was about to be placed under cardiac arrest. But, mainly, I wouldn’t have then received an email from the U.S. Center for Disease Control informing me that due to a number of incontinent, and may I say rather shitty, rats in the park I, along with 21,999 other visitors, had been exposed to the Hantavirus, a microbe that generates an incurable and fatal disease which may or may not manifest itself ‘in the next six weeks’.  Intimating that I probably shouldn’t bother to renew my library books.

I was incensed. How dare something so tiny have such a devastating effect on something as big as me?  With only weeks to live, I decided my last days would be spent trying to understand the microbe. It was then I realised that none of us are who we think we are.

The vast majority of life is microbes.  ‘Microbes make up 80 percent of all biomass,’ says microbiologist Carl Woese. The world, it turns out, is not run by democracies and despots but, overwhelmingly, by microbes.

Biologists see humans as a collection of 10 trillion cells, the product of just 23,000 genes. But microbiologists see, inside all of us, a microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing at least 3 million non-human genes.

But if there is more non-human than human in all of us, what actually are we?

In comparison to the detailed information we find in our microbiome, DNA is less the “blueprint” of identity, it’s more like those Taiwanese gadget manuals translated by the literary equivalent of a Come Dine With Me contestant.

In fact, we exist in constant symbiosis with our resident bacteria; our microbes fight germs, break down food and generally let us get on with the taxing business of consciousness and tweeting our high score on Fruit Ninja, whilst we feed, house and nurture them.  They aren’t parasites or passengers; they’re fully fledged members of a society which we, human “hosts”, are just one member of – albeit a bloody big one.

The philosopher Hobbes imagined something similar: a ‘Leviathan’, a single giant made up of all the individuals in a nation.  As the population grows, we will witness more and more the pixilation of a nation. Like the Olympic stadium on TV; less the individual fans, more the collective sounds and forms produced by the mass and their individual nine bulb seat panels. With the benign model of the microbiome , perhaps we will worry less about the aliens in our midst and understand better how the totality works.

Hobbes was arguing the necessity of kings to represent the will of the people.  Now with mass polling the Leviathan represents itself.  Hobbes couldn’t see how the king, Charles I, could also be just one of the Leviathan’s constituents or why his giant would execute its own monarch.  But it did. A week to go now.  I’m waiting to see what the star chamber of my own roundheaded microbes will decide.  If there’s no column next month take heart, democracy still won.


This article first appeared in


Binge Your Own

Binge Your Own

Tuesday, 4th September 2012

So there are Olympic Medals to celebrate and it’s summertime and, hey, you’ve got to let yourself go when you’re on holiday. It’s never too difficult to find an excuse to down the odd pint… or twenty.

But here’s a money-saving tip: if you’re going out for the evening with a young lady in any British provincial city, don’t bother to buy her dinner, you’ll only see it again, hitting your shoes with such force that you’ll be picking carrot out of the seams for weeks. I speak from experience. Because, between the ingesting and the expulsion, imbibing to excess is almost obligatory.

Blotto, stinking, caned, sloshed, smashed, sozzled, pissed; we’ve almost as many words for getting drunk as we do for rain.  And we don’t like to merely get a little squiffy or merry or take the edge off; we have to down it, chuggalugga, set ‘em up. According to Andrew McNeill, of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, “among 18 to 24-year-olds, only one in four women and one in six men say they never binge drink… in fact among 20-something women, 60% of the alcohol consumed is in bouts of heavy drinking – more than six units a day.”

But why do we drink so much when all our Police Reality TV shows demonstrate endless scenes of northern lasses with their heads between their knees and urine soaked war memorials?  Why do we handle our alcohol with all the subtlety of a ‘Glasgow kiss’?

Happily, answers abound. Just ask anybody on a bender. They’re not hard to find. They’ll not only tell you the answer, but buy them another pint and they’ll fight you for it. Every drinker has a binge theory, or excuse, if you prefer, and they’ll tell you endlessly, if you dare to ask.

Why binge? What have ya got? Dead end jobs, a mortgage-chasing culture, economic meltdown, double dip recession, work strictures, study strictures, dole strictures, relationship troubles, seasonal affective disorders (SAD), social pressures, coping strategies… but, sober and honest, who wouldn’t admit that it helps us deal with that most British disease: inhibition.

We’re just not American enough. American TV and movies surround us. It seems Americans open their mouths and great one-liners or emotionally honest truisms just stream out.  Americans speak without fear of saying the wrong thing or being judged foolish. They apparently don’t stumble in terror at the thought of opening their hearts or talking about their emotions. We aspire to be like that and that’s what we think we become when we’re drunk: American. Not bad going for a nation founded by Puritan teetotalers who couldn’t handle their drink and sailed off to set up a new world not cursed by the carousing of godless drunken mayhem.

Maybe, afflicted with inhibition, we don’t drink to forget then, but to remember. To remember the thugs we naturally are, the warrior peoples who built an empire long before we tied it in red tape and polite behaviour to quell our natural urge to violence within and prove ourselves the moral superiors to the natives we vanquished. As anybody who’s been to a football match knows, when we lose our inhibitions, we fight.

The Royal Navy is perhaps the only military service in the world in which a daily tot of rum is still obligatory for ratings. Trafalgar was won as much on bloody-minded alcoholic bravado as the cunning tactics of a hardy, one-eyed Admiral.  Drink for the British doesn’t anaesthetise, it vitalizes: it is our aqua vita!

Could the late Victorian and early Edwardian Teetotal movements have been the first nails in the coffin of empire? Drinking might make us less civilized but maybe it makes us more human. The binge is extreme drinking and extremes are what we inhibit when we’re sober. So one drink would seem, inevitably, to lead to the next and so on – more literally than figuratively – ad nauseum. As long as we’re drinking to lessen our inhibitions, we’ll be picking the diced carrot out of our seams.

Marius Brill’s hilarious novel ‘How To Forget’ is in all good bookshops now.

via Binge Your Own – KensingtonChelseaToday.

Make Them Eat Cake

I’m standing outside the restaurant after my son’s birthday party.  It’s a warm night on the King’s Road and I’m holding what’s left of his very large and chocolaty birthday cake to take home.  As I wait for the guests to gather their jackets, my eye is caught by a woman approaching along the street.  She is of a “certain age”.  The one when you become certain you never want it mentioned.  But she is clearly undernourished, paper thin, her Bulgari bracelets rattle like barrel hoops around her biro thick wrists.

A wave of pity overwhelms me.  Can I really stand by, holding over 3000 calories of creamy good chocolate cake, while a fellow human, close to starvation, one who has probably not even tasted cake for thirty years, just passes by?

It just seems too inhuman.

‘Cake.’ I insist as she comes close.  ‘Please, I’ve got plenty.’

She looks at it in terror.  As if I had just reminded her of a traumatic memory she had obliterated along with butter, cream and chips.

‘I know it’s only Sainsbury’s but it’s still…’

Then, like a little fragile dying bird, with all her might, she summons what muscles in her mouth are left uninfected with botulism and gives me a polite tiny smile.  With the slightest tremor of her head she declines before looking me up and down and recoiling from my own middle age spread as if it was Nutella.

And she is not alone.  The King’s Road teems with the cake-free; emaciated cadavers being blown past shop windows in the breeze. Would you not spare some cake for these poor creatures?  Could there not be a cake campaign: cake donors stationed at London’s most fashionable corners to help, or taunt, the fashionably famished?

Maybe, with people really starving in this world our sympathy is misplaced here?  A life less cakeful is their choice after all.  Isn’t it?

Thinness is the West’s burqa: marketed as a choice but so laden with cultural agendas and identity pressures – is it really possible to decide on objectively? Have these cakeless skeletons really chosen, or have they been enslaved by the cult, the idea of thin?  If thinness weren’t a status statement, would anyone really choose to live entirely without cake?  Thinness comes at a cost and status is all about what we can afford.  It’s discipline, abstinence, low carb, excess leisure hours down the gym, it’s high metabolic stress caused by busy high flying jobs; in the world’s second most obese country, thinness is an elite club.  It just says so much… with so little.

For my cake denier, my calories have come too late.  Years of studied malnutrition have taken their toll: her skin hangs like fluttering shreds of translucent tan toilet paper; her cheekbones jut out to keep her pale shoulders in permanent night-time and as I watch her go I notice her shoulder blades protrude so prominently I wonder if she hasn’t just put her bra on backwards.

Once, it’s clear, she was a trophy but now she’s just atrophy; stuck in the competitive sport that teen girls eternally play with their gastro-intestinal systems.  She hasn’t noticed she’s no longer a contender.  It’s a young girl’s game. Fat and fifteen may be sad but thin and fifty is just wrong.

‘Come on,’ I chase after her. ‘it’ll do you good.’

I wave the cake after her but then in a sudden surge of melancholy realise that when you start to see women as too thin you’re no longer young, you’re no longer stirred in the loins by the fit, you’re middle aged, you’re a tut-tutting dad.  You’re your dad.

I stop in envy of her delusional youth.  It’s all too sad, I feel I could cry.

Luckily there’s some cake present.


This article originally appeared in


Illustration: Don Grant

In The Power of the Flower

“Why?” she sneered at the quivering bouquet in my hands, “would I want a bunch of slaughtered lifeforms, brutally severed, doomed to wilt and drop dead within a few days?  And why are you obligating me to bathe and feed them and try to keep them alive as I watch them painfully expire leaving a reeking mess behind?  Is that really symbolic of our relationship?”

I paraphrase; it was a long time ago.  But I remember her shoving the flowers straight back in my face.  As I plucked petals from my teeth, I wondered where I’d gone wrong. Was it the pollen? The time of the month?  My halitosis?  I didn’t wonder if it was because she was shagging a bloke called Darren. I had two more weeks of crippling emotional anxiety to suffer before I worked that out.  But she was right: flowers are a terrible metaphor for love.  How did they become so powerful?

Nowadays I mistrust flowers; the annual Chelsea Flower Show brings a feeling of unease.  Maybe I should blame the florist who had winked, assuring me that flowers guaranteed a bit of the “old birds and bees” when I was too horny to realise that he meant it literally.

But then, isn’t there something disturbing about an organism which uses other species to procreate?  If we even attempt that, were straight on the register with a stiff warning from the RSPCA. What I find even more sinister is that it’s not just birds and bees in flowers thrall, humanity itself seems harnessed to their will. Flowers have inveigled themselves into all our rituals, rites and celebrations. They even pretend to be willing conspirators in our delusion that we have some control over nature in our gardens.  They flatter and blossom and, quite frankly, probably laugh at us as we do their bidding: spreading their seeds far further than their natural means, pumping water from distant reservoirs through unbanned hosepipes just to anoint them on dry days and evolving new strains for those flowers too lazy to do it themselves.

Are we really the master in this relationship?  Aliens might conclude that humans are slaves to flowers; even some of our monarchy are holding talks with them.

And oh yes, they talk; just not to the likes of you and me. Last year, peer-reviewed research at Ben-Gurion University revealed that a stressed pea plant communicated its anxiety to other pea plants. It sent biochemical messages through its roots about the onset of a drought, prompting others to react as though they, too, were water starved.

It’s a war we’re losing. In their usual passive-aggressive way, flowers are winning the battle for our hearts and minds. The very scent of the person you love is not their own; that’s distilled petals you’ve taken to your heart, and how many human minds are lost in the grip of the poppy’s opium derivatives?  Unlike utilitarian crops like wheat providing staples for our survival, flowers are relatively superfluous, an indulgence and yet, including the drugs trade, more money is spent on flowers than any other agricultural crop.

So flowers may lose a few root soldiers in the battle? Their short lifecycle means they can afford to lose a billion and still keep winning the war. My defaced bouquet was just one of their daily sacrifices; a few rose martyrs to keeping a roothold in our human economic systems and ensuring fields will be devoted to their species.

We think we’re so smart, but then why have we been doing all the hard work for a bunch of stamen and petals? We’re bulb burying slaves and, as long as flowers appeal to our delusions of control, we are at their mercy. Gardeners of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chrysanthemums.


Illustration: Don Grant

Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How To Forget Black Swan £7.99 is out in paperback now.

via Flower Power – KensingtonChelseaToday.

Less than Ideal

We get off the tube. The Miserable Nutter is screaming, as usual, at passengers leaving the station.  I grip J’s little hand and prepare to run the gauntlet.  Maybe he won’t notice us.

“You,” he shouts. “Yeah you, the fat ***t with the f*****g kid.” That’ll be us then. Eyes front. Walk briskly. “I’m not f*****g invisible.”  Two F-words and a C!  J’s eyes are popping out at him as I drag her away.

“Why’s he unhappy?”

“How do you know he’s unhappy?”

“When Mummy shouts you say it’s ‘cos she’s unhappy.”

“Well he’s just not quite right in the head.”

Wisely, she doesn’t point out that that’s what Mummy says about me when I shout.  She’s more philosophical. “Why can’t everybody be happy?”

I resist the urge to add more F-words to her collection, asking her if I look like the effing Dalai Lama. I’m not sure how simply impregnating her mother elevated me to a font of all wisdom and knowledge. But it has. Nor, why I attempt to live up to the part and actually try to answer her absurd questions. But I do.  “Well that’s a nice idea darling,” I say, “In fact it would be ideal. But the world isn’t ideal, there’s always going to be some unhappiness somewhere.”

The closest I ever get to an ideal is a cheaper rate on my Apple phone.  As soon as you’re old enough to pay tax, idealism is one of those things you realise you can’t afford anymore.  Nice ideas like world peace, universal happiness or every day a good-hair-day, gradually seem less achievable. Age and reality, the struggle to just get on and achieve some respite from the drudgery, has a terrible way of throttling ideals.

Where's My $%*ing Dinner?

So why, after 103 years, do we still have an Ideal Home Show? You’d have thought a certain cynicism might have set in by now. It seems an anachronistic throw-back to the ideals of the spreading leafy suburban Acacia avenues; women with polished set hairdos and thick lippy in shiny pencil skirts preparing Sunday roasts lathered in Bovril.

Ideals are like lost soap in the bath, they move on as soon as you grasp them. Now with austerity keeping the housing market as buoyant as the Costa Concordia, most people’s chance of moving on can only be described as, ‘fat’. Perhaps this isn’t the time for reaching for ideals but appreciating what we’ve got.

Next year, Earls Court, the less than ideal home of the show, will be demolished to make way for 8000 homes. All ideal – until they are inhabited.

Then they’ll be no better than mine or any other house in the borough – ideal if you lived a century ago, had full below-stairs staff and could afford heat loss on the scale of Chernobyl. Yes, there’s no lift, we’re too far from the garden, the windows rattle, floors creak, wifi signal drops a foot from the router and the water stops with the first flake of snow. But, it’s somewhere J, and the rest of us, can feel secure from the nutters. It gives shelter, good neighbours and a place to shout, or laugh.  No house is ideal, but then it’s a home and I suppose that’s an ideal all of its own.

Marius Brill’s How To Forget (Doubleday £12.99) is in all good bookshops now.

via Less than ideal – KensingtonChelseaToday.

Car Guard Song

Simply found this both funny and moving – which is kind of what I try to do when I write….

“In South Africa, where the official unemployment rate is 25 per cent, car guarding has become a lifeline for thousands of young men desperate for work.

Nearly two million have donned the ubiquitous fluorescent vest to offer their services protecting cars from street crime in South Africa’s cities, but they are not always welcome.”



State of the Union Jack

Sid was a charmer.  I met him in a riverside pub beloved of fishermen; celebrating a catch: a whopping primordial fish gawping with the regulation expression of surprise so beloved of judges on Britain’s Got X-Factor.  We swapped dirty jokes and got on in that blokey way that doesn’t involve hitting each other.

I suppose there were clues to a darker side to Sid but my inner liberal chose to look the other way.  He was clad in combat gear, but then that’s uniform for fishing types isn’t it?  His bovver boots seemed… functional.  Surely the shaved head merely hid early balding.  And the ‘NF’ tattooed on his meaty arm?  An enthusiasm for Natural Fishing? Maybe a girlfriend called Natalie…

It was only when we staggered back to his council flat for ‘a couple more’ the truth suddenly sobered me.  An unassuagable guilt gripped me, as if I’d just taken tea with those delightful al-Assads. Sid wasn’t just another ‘bloke’, he was a dangerous, right-wing, Nazi thug. What made me so sure? There, hanging on his front door, was a Union Jack.  And for all it meant it may as well have been a swastika.  My spineless outer liberal made a pathetic excuse and scarpered.

That was only last year.  Today, the Union Jack seems to be trying for a comeback. From clothing to bunting, jugs to bras, the multi-coloured asterisk is everywhere.  But can it really be wrested from the clenched fist of British Nationalism?

Flags always possess meaning. In America it’s simple. ‘Honor the flag’ or dishonour the country.  Ours though, is steeped in nuance.  Who would pass the Citizenship Test if it asked candidates to explain the British attitude to their flag?  Other countries revere their flag. Here we just enjoy sniggering at those who don’t know which way up to hang it.  It’s all about subtlety and superiority.  Alienation through humiliation. It’s British.

Until 2007 flag waving was limited to proscribed ‘flag days’.  There was something considered distasteful about the ostentation. But this subtle dissociation made the Union Jack vulnerable; easily hijacked by a political extreme.

Then, as things go pear shape, the establishment want it back.  Our flag is a Matador’s red Muleta, waved to distract and obscure the hidden sword beneath.  As Evelyn Waugh pointed out, when wars are going badly ‘Put Out More Flags’.

And we do love to bunt.  Look at all the bunting going around: fluttering pennants draped from alley to high street, catching the eye, encouraging us to look up… just don’t look down.  Don’t look the way we’re going. It’s good old 1952 again! Keep Calm and Ignore the Austerity.

I bumped in to Sid again last week, in a land gripped by austerity: PoundLand.  I was hunting jubilee party items. Union Jacks were everywhere: bunting, mugs, napkins – and a tiny pair of enamelled cuff links.  Studying them, I felt the sinister presence of Sid’s Union Jack again. The bunting and paper plates are just dressing-up, a silly shared make believe fifties – waved and binned.  But there’s something in the personal preciousness of jewellery that gave these little flags an insidious undercurrent still capable of holding the chill of Nationalism.

‘Hello Mate,’ Sid said amiably. We shook hands and for a moment I wondered if the whole flag thing had been in my head.  Maybe the Union Jack is something we should just all be proud of.  Sid was simply ahead of the curve. ‘D’ya know where the fishing gear is?’ he said, ‘I asked at the counter but couldn’t understand a word that f***ing w*g said.’


This article originally appeared in