Friday, 23 April 2010

Celebrate George - banish apathy

So, today is Saint George's Day. A day when every red-blooded Englishman or woman proudly boasts his or her heritage. Or not.

It has always struck me as strange how apathetic most English (including me) are about their Patron Saint. Let's face it, despite the fact that he slayed a dragon, for goodness sake (no mean feat even in those heroic days of old), we English treat poor old St George a little bit like an embarrasing relative. Like the loopy old aunt you invite over for Christmas dinner ("She's got no-one else in the world, poor dear") who then proceeds to suck all the chocolate off the brazil nuts before putting them back in the box for other guests to enjoy. It's as if going around slaying dragons is really not the "done thing".

Like dear old auntie, St George is acknowledged, even loved, but we English aren't going to go out of our way to advertise his existence. Not for him the revels our Celtic cousins put on for their saints. Just take a look at St Patrick's Day parades - and more - around the world on 17 March, or heady celebrations in honour of St Andrew by those from north of the border on 30 November. Even the Welsh (like Ffynella the Fragrant and Welsh Fran) wave their daffodils and leeks with gusto for St David on 1 March. As for the English, when 23 April rolls round, we read in the paper that it is St George's Day and say "Oh yes, so it is" before going back to the crossword.

That's not to say that English patriotism is dead - it just tends to be most visible at sporting events (at least the ones we manage to win). Maybe that's the problem? Perhaps patriotism is now seen as the domain of hooligans, and demonstrative English pride is considered rather unseemly (especially after all those jingoistic years of Queen Victoria, the Empire the sun never set on, 'There'll Always be An England' et al).

More to the point, I suspect that the problem is that patriotism has been hijacked by those who flaunt their indigenous "British-ness" as a justification for open bigotry and thuggery, making it something rather inappropriate for ordinary moderate-minded folk.

I'm not hugely patriotic - and I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a Union Jack, Cross of St George or any other flag for that matter - but I am very proud of certain things about the English: our sense of humour; our tolerance (or even celebration) of eccentricity; the inexplicable rules of cricket; that our history has woven so many diverse cultural threads into the fabric of society; rolling green fields; our willingness to make fools of ourselves for a good cause; a decent cup of tea. But as for going nuts in honour of a dead bloke on a horse, it just doesn't happen.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that history shows that St George has no real link with our green and pleasant land? He was a soldier of the Roman Empire from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey ), who came to be venerated as a Christian AND Islamic martyr. According to legend, when an edict was issued in 303 A.D. authorising the systematic persecution of Christians, George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticised the imperial decision. As a punishment, he was tortured and decapitated, and becama a martyr of the early Christian church.
Hold on a minute, I hear you cry. What about the dragon? What indeed?

The story of St George slaying the dragon probably first emerged during The Crusades, raising the romantic profile of a saint already revered in the Eastern Church. Apparently, a dragon had made its nest at the spring that provided water to the city of Cyrene in Libya. To dislodge the dragon from his nest for a while to gather water, the citizens had to offer a daily human sacrifice, chosen by lots. All was well, until it was the turn of a princess to be fed to the hungry dragon.
Then, out of the blue, came St George (just passing through you understand), who slayed the dragon and rescued the princess. The grateful citizens abandoned their ancestral paganism and converted to Christianity....
....and they all lived happily ever after.

Not a smidgeon of a link to England to be found anywhere in the legend - and I guess that could explain our apathy. St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and cast all the snakes out of the Emerald Isle; St David was a Welsh (born and bred) bishop; and (though not directly related to Scotland) St Andrew's relics were brought to Scotland in the early days of the church.

I'm willing to bet that if it were not for the media reminding us, most English would not remember the exact date of St George's Day. Probably about as many of us who know it was also (very conveniently) the birthday of someone England can justifiably be proud of: good ole Will Shakespeare.

So, do poor old George a favour today and don't just raise a cup of luke warm tea to the Patron Saint of Apathy.
Instead: think of the Bard of Avon; mutter "Once more into the breach, dear friends" under your breath; and on 6 May - wherever you put your all-important X - don't "Vote for change" (possibly the world's most over-used campaign slogan), just "Vote, for a change".