By (Saint) George! The English Identity Crisis

As Saint George's Day approaches – it's April 23rd in case you're not sure – pubs up and down England will be hanging out the bunting and offering special deals and so on in honour of England's patron saint. But for many people living in England, this idea of making a big thing of St George's Day feels a bit alien. Apart from the odd Scouts and Guides parade, St George is largely overlooked these days. But it wasn't always the case. During the Middle Ages, St George's Day was a feast day and celebrated in England with great enthusiasm. Once England and Scotland became unified the tradition began to wane until by the end of the 18th century it had faded almost into oblivion. And even though there's been several attempts  many English folk regard the revivial of St George's Day as a cynical attempt at boosting takings by pub chains and greetings card manufacturers. 

Perhaps that is the case, but would it be so wrong to celebrate our patron saint like, say, the Irish do? And yes, while I also have some Irish and Scottish ancestry, I do consider myself to be primarily English. Because being English is about more than having English parents, grandparents and great grandparents. And, as most rational people already know, being English has absolutely nothing to do with race. You only have to look at an England football or cricket team to realise that. But could that ever really catch on?  But can the English ever get over not having  that long a tradition of partying to the beat of the man who slayed the dragon?

Of course, the attempts by several extremist political parties to align their racist viewpoint with the cross of St George scarcely encouraged liberal-thinking English people to wave their own flag. On this at least – and this is a rare occasion indeed – I find myself agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson in that we must be the only country where its own national flag is deemed so potentially offensive. Thankfully there has been a bit of a backlash against that and the English are beginning to reclaim, and fly, their flag – without it being indicative of any kind of extremist symbol.

But the fact remains that we tend to steer clear of any kind of discussion about 'Englishness', unless it's to do with sport, because we feel uncomfortable with the subject. And it hardly helps that so few of us actually have a clear idea of what the English identity is. After all, English culture and history is so intertwined with that of the rest of the United Kingdom, that it's not always easy to identify something uniquely English. And, England has always been home to people from many different lands and of many different cultures. This was something that the writer J B Priestley noted in his 'English Journey' as long ago as 1933. As he wrote: 'The England admired throughout the world is the England that keeps open house.' 

And, perhaps, this is the true essence of being English? We aren't a people definable by cultural or racial characteristics, but by civil ones. There's a joke that a being English means driving a German car to an Irish pub, where we drink Belgian beer. On the way home we get an Indian takeaway and then sit on our Swedish sofa in front of a Japanese television watching American programmes. So is it little wonder that the English don't really know what the English are? 

Perhaps, in order to understand ourselves, we need to look to the non-English viewpoint of the English. Well, that might not be such a good idea. And it certainly won't be very accurate. Because it inevitably centres around cliches about eating fish and chips and forming queues for everything. Okay, in retrospect that might not be so inaccurate but, believe me, on my travels, in particular to America, I've heard all kinds of assumptions about what the English are really like. It usually involves going to private schools where we sit in the headmaster's study eating buttered crumpets. Or being posh, spending our childhood riding our ponies and our adulthood gathered in fog-enveloped ancient inns reading poetry out loud. In truth most of these things (fogbound poetry readings aside) could be described as English, just not typically so.

So, I'm wondering whether, in order to make the whole St George's Day bash thing stick, we English might need to create for ourselves a new identity. One which better reflects life in modern England. Well we're quite good at losing at sport (after first showing promise and then tormenting our supporters for hours on end before throwing it all away at the last). And we love to discuss the weather (but this is a popular pastime throughout the British Isles so hardly qualifies). Perhaps if we concentrated on very English successes. Well there's the World Cup in '66 but that's so long ago it starts to seem a bit desperate if we draw on it too much. And, given recent deflating losses, it's probably wise to stay away from sport altogether. Now, if we concentrate on literature we've surely a rich vein from which to choose. How about Geoffrey Chaucer  or Jane Austen? Or perhaps the best storyteller of all time, Charles Dickens? And, of course, there's William Shakespeare. A very English playwright, who wrote extensively about English history and who had the good sense, supposedly, to be born (and die, as it happens) on St George's Day itself. Surely you can't get much more English than that? There are countless great English inventors, musicians, philosophers, scientists and so on. All surely worthy of celebration?

What we need is a very English hook on which to centre our celebrations, while making them appealing to everyone else. After all, it isn't only the Irish who pile into pubs on March 17th to celebrate St Patrick!

Some will argue that since there is no tradition for celebrating St George, it is now too late to begin. But I'd counter that even St Patrick's Day had to start somewhere. So why not? Why not put up that red and white bunting, walk about with a rose on our lapels, live a little. But just a little. We need to keep it low-key. After all  perhaps the most English trait of all is to dislike making a fuss about being English!