England and St George?


10:04 am - April 26th 2008

by Simon Barrow    


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So what did you do for St George’s Day, then? It was on Wednesday, in case you weren’t looking. I found myself down the pub in Exeter that evening, watching the football (or the absorbing chess match, as it turned out) between Manchester United and Barcelona.

The place was as ethnically unmixed as the southwest can be, and draped in red and white crossed flags. When one of Barca’s black players was fouled early in the second half, a man wearing a St George hat duly yelled, “What’s wrong with that? First the ball, then the nigger!”

There were general giggles of amusement, and to my shame I decided against marching across the room and verbally jousting with half the bar. I try to challenge racism whenever I can. But the atmosphere around that remark was more than casually threatening.

Now it would be ludicrous to blame this kind of thing on St George’s Day. But it would be equally daft to claim that the two are wholly disconnected. In recent years the red and white flag has been somewhat prized away from the far right, numerically anyway. However the ‘little Englanderism’ associated with it has not gone. Mainly because it has not been sufficiently challenged by a better, more convincing narrative.

But there are murmurings of change. In the Catholic Cathedral of St George in Southwark this week (and through to 3 May), you will find a painting of the ‘dragon slayer’ in very different guise – holding a dead soldier, and in mourning. Artist Scott Norwood-Witts, certainly no stereotypical leftie, says he was inspired not just by loss of life among the armed services abroad, but by the common misrepresentation of St George as a crusader.

Ekklesia pointed out in our report last year (When the saints go marching out) that the earliest traditions concerning this historically obscure figure are that he was a high-ranking official who converted to Christianity, set aside his weapons, went to challenge the Roman Emperor Diocletian over his policy of persecuting minorities, and was executed as a result.

As activist Peter Tatchell argues, in a way that makes him an early human rights campaigner, and as Ekklesia has suggested, a figure of courageous dissent. What’s more, he was most likely Turkish, and his image rights are claimed not just by the English but by a host of other nations and principalities – including Catalonia, Portugal, Beirut, Moscow, Istanbul, Germany and Greece.

St George is ripe for reclaiming in a host of visually, figuratively and politically creative ways. Not negatively, but positively. Not as part of an arcane debate abut ‘Englishness’, but as an embodiment of something different. Not in the name of narrow nationalism or imperial nostalgia, but of people seeking to celebrate the international and truly hospitable dimension of their inheritance.

Next year, I hope a range of very different people (maybe including you) will come together to do just that. We need banners, songs, slogans, artwork, events and campaigns that link St George to the other side of our history – where troublemaking, fun, thoughtfulness, protest, hope and new possibility lie.

Of course, the tabloids will hate it. Their vision is rooted in resentment, loss and exclusion. Richard Littlejohn had an offended (and poorly researched) pop at me in the Daily Mail last year, when Ekklesia’s proposal that 23 April be deemed a ‘National day of Dissent’ got syndicated. But his arguments were typically defensive and threadbare.

Any country’s legend and history is bound to be deeply contested. Rather than whingeing that reactionaries have all the best symbolism, let’s retell the story ourselves – with the people as true protagonists, rather than victims of capricious narrow-mindedness. But for goodness’ sake, let’s not be too worthy and po-faced about it.

Mine’s a pint of Martyr’s Ale, thanks.

Ideas or comments on ‘re-claiming St George’ are welcome.

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About the author
Simon Barrow is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is co-director of Ekklesia, a think tank looking at issues of religion in society from a radical Christian perspective. He is a writer, theologian, consultant and commentator and also blogs at FaithInSociety
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Reader comments


An interesting post. For starters my local council, Sandwell Council, could refrain from inviting fascists with terrorist connections, namely the British Ulster Alliance, to lead the St Georges Day parade.
http://westbromblog.blogspot.com/2008/04/exclusive-neo-nazi-terrorist.html
That would make a good start.

Last Christmas the mummers came to our pub. One of the characters in the play was St George. Some idiot stood up and drunkenly shouted “YAY St. George! England!” and was delighted when St George killed the Arab character to the extent that he started ranting about the BNP and how we should do that to “all the pakis”.

My boss, the landlady of the pub, took him aside and explained to him that 1, St George was a Turk who lived in Palestine for most of his life 2, Arabs are not “pakis” and 3, if he said anything like that in her hearing again he would be barred from the pub

I remain convinced that the best way for this shit to be dealt with is for people in a position of power to do something about it. You were possibly correct in not putting yourself at risk by confronting the racism in the pub you were in, but I’m saddened and disappointed that none of the staff or management confronted it, because that gave the racist wanker their tacit approval.

So what did you do for St George’s Day, then?

I went to the pub. And I vaguely wondered why it was so full of flags. Now I know – thanks.

Having Littlejohn have a pop at you should be worn as a badge of honour. I would! I’d display it proudly on my blog.

he was most likely Turkish

There are two problems with this statement:

1. it’s quite likely that St George was not a real person

2. the story has him living in Anatolia (i.e. modern Turkey). However, at the time there were no Turks in Anatolia (they were all in central Asia). So he couldn’t have been of Turkish ethnicity. The main language spoken in Anatolia at the time (c. 300 AD) was probably Greek.

Cabalamat: (1) True (obviously). We’re dealing with the history and adaptation of a myth. But it is one that has cultural and political application. (2) There are other traditions that have him coming from Central Asia.

7. Alan Paxton

“St George is ripe for reclaiming in a host of visually, figuratively and politically creative ways. Not negatively, but positively. Not as part of an arcane debate abut ‘Englishness’, but as an embodiment of something different. Not in the name of narrow nationalism or imperial nostalgia, but of people seeking to celebrate the international and truly hospitable dimension of their inheritance.”

You know, this could just be worth a try. I can’t say I feel much enthusiasm for George, but we don’t get to choose our ethnicity and its associated history, so we just have to work with the material to hand and see what we can do with it.

Multiculturalism celebrates the cultures of minority groups while saying to the majority, in effect, “You can’t be allowed to celebrate your culture for fear of oppressing everyone else.” The man in the pub was perhaps responding to this, though that in no way justifies racial abuse. It does bring out, though, the importance of articulating an Englishness that isn’t thuggish, racist, crusading or nostalgic, attributes that all come to mind when I think of George as he is commonly portrayed in England.

Separating him from these assocations isn’t going to be easy. But the legend of the high-ranking servant of Empire who renounced armed persecution and in consequence became a nonviolent martyr (i.e. a witness to the truth) is a powerful one. It could be presented not as a reflection of what the English are actually like, but as an ideal towards which we should be working.

What do non-Christians make of George? He is reportedly venerated as Al-Khader by many Palestinians, Muslim as well as Christian.

Jenny-perhaps you could tell your self-righteous landlady that Turkey did not even EXIST in Europe until 1485, so there is no way St. George could have been Turkish. Still- don’t let the facts get in the way of a right-on rant! It seems many on the hard-of-thinking Left know little of history, and blithley assume that all countries have been where they are since the beginning of time (apart from England which is a ‘nation of immigrants’). Not so. I suggest a trip to the library before judging the intellect of others.
Incidentally, has anyone else noticed the way that a few years ago it was always the union flag that had been ‘hijacked’ by the BNP, whereas now it is claimed to be the St Georges cross? Why can’t you even make your lies consistent? The truth is that neither were hijacked (how the hell do you hijack a flag for God’s sake!) merely picked up out of the gutter where the likes of Simon and Jennie had thrown it. Wankers indeed.

“Jenny-perhaps you could tell your self-righteous landlady that Turkey did not even EXIST in Europe until 1485, so there is no way St. George could have been Turkish.”

England didn’t exist til 927AD. For your next trick, are you going to claim King Arthur wasn’t English? I reckon your BNP mates wouldn’t be happy about that one…

Hurrah! I’ve been trolled!

11. Matt Munro

This article makes me want to vomit.

12. Matt Munro

I went to a St Georges day parade (my son is in the beavers), my first attendance at church in god knows how long. Traditional English hymns, union jacks and St George flags everywhere, and the national anthem at the end. On the way it out ot rained and we all got soaked. Went home and had rost beef and yorkshire pud. Marvellous.

John B – King Arthur wasn’t English. He is probably an amalgam of various Celtic warlords. There were no Turks in Anatolia in the reign of Diocletian. They wouldn’t arrive for another 700 years or so.

George, whoever he was, was probably Greek.

Yeah, calling him ‘turkish’ is highly anachronistic

Why hasn’t anyone quoted Billy Bragg yet?

“Now Britannia, she’s Half English
She speaks Latin at home,
And St George was born in the Lebanon,
How he got ‘ere I don’t know.
And those three lions on yer shirt,
They never sprung from England’s dirt,
Them lions are Half English,
And I’m Half English too.”

I’m surprised that there was such an English feeling down in Devon, Simon. Haven’t those south-westerners got their own flag?

16. Matt Munro

What on earth does it matter exactly what his blood line was anyway, the point about Saints is that they are a symbol of nationhood, how many countries can prove the exact lineage of their saints ? It really doesn’t matter that he wasn’t “English”.

“the point about Saints is that they are a symbol of nationhood, how many countries can prove the exact lineage of their saints?”

That’s the whole sodding point – the BNPists believe English nationhood is based on white Anglo-Saxon-ness *and* celebrate St George without understanding he was foreign, which makes them ignorant and silly.

Wheras Billy Bragg understands that English nationhood is based on cultural mongrelness *and* celebrates St George whilst understanding he was foreign, which makes him informed and sensible.

18. Matt Munro

“the BNPists believe English nationhood is based on white Anglo-Saxon-ness *and* celebrate St George without understanding he was foreign, which makes them ignorant and silly.”

Who is being ignorant and silly though, the left or the right ? He’s a SYMBOLIC, not a literal figure, so his ethnicity is irrelevant, for want of a better word he’s adopted by the “English””. Nationhood is socially constructed, so St George has whatever meaning you wish him to have, the fact that the BNPs is not historically accurate does not (or should not) affect how he is viewed by the general populance. Ideas about the symbol, not the symbol itself, determine it’s social meaning. “St George” is just a label for the concept of “Englishness”, he could just as easily be a 12th Century Ukranian wheel tapper and still symbolise England.
By your logic Hitler wasn’t German so Germans aren’t to blame for him ??

“Nationhood is socially constructed, so St George has whatever meaning you wish him to have”

Well , I believe that, you believe that and Billy Bragg believes that. The point is that the racists *don’t* think nationhood is socially constructed, they think it’s based on ethnicity.

“By your logic Hitler wasn’t German so Germans aren’t to blame for him ??”

No, because he identified as German and the German people voted for him. If the Mexicans in 500 years’ time were to adopt Hitler as a great national figure, that would be a closer parallel…


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