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.’


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