I have always had a problem with St George: all that flag-flying, God-for-Harrying, Last-night-of-the-Promming fervour. I’ve never been wholly happy to have him in church, thinking he’s probably best left in the cheery care of the Pearly Kings and Queens down Trafalgar Square, jostling with the burger vans and roaming entertainers.
The dragon-slayer is now a familiar sight on the Spring outdoor-events circuit, having been brought centre-stage —like his colleagues Saints Andrew, David and Patrick— chiefly by a hospitality industry that is always keen on a knees-up, avoiding in this instance any unwelcome post-Easter/pre-summer slump in sales.
The cult of Saint George was initially brought to England by crusaders returning from the Middle East, and some of their more robust and mouthy descendants we no doubt see to this very day in an assortment of high-speed vans, their red-and-white flags fluttering from the windows whenever the nation’s next sporting humiliation draws near.
More modest souls would probably prefer his predecessor, the chaste and godly Edward Confessor who built Westminster Abbey, and whose touch alone could cure the most unsightly dermatological complaint. But he was not exactly high-octane on the personal level, and we can see how George might have been considered the more invigorating option and so anointed for the top post-mortem post of patron saint.
I say ‘we can see’, but alas we can see nothing, wholly deprived as we are of any consensus on anything. In recent times, we have gone way beyond the old familiar sensation of being a nation that had lost an empire without finding a subsequent role. After decades of indecision and a bitter and mendacious referendum, we have abandoned our European neighbours and, seeing ourselves as some sort of priapic world player, have chosen to invest our hopes in the USA just at a time when their own choice of leader makes such a decision look somewhat ill-advised. Add strident calls for Scottish independence, intractable problems with the Irish border, and the sense of a kingdom cracking beneath the weight of its own self-induced cock-up is palpable. It’s like being stuck in the storm with King Lear.
George as emblematic of England absolutely feeds this ravenous disunity. For the racially-intolerant (whether UKIP’s faux-tweedy Farageistas, or the no longer shaven-headed supporters of the BNP), our dark-skinned patron saint is pressed into incongruous service as symbol of a non-existent whites-only England, as if we were acting out an endless episode of Miss Marple, without any of the racial and cultural diversity that we have in some measure experienced since Boudicca was a girl.
And now, with the unspeakable betrayal of the Windrush generation by the Right, and the appalling anti-Semitism that continues to cast its incomprehensible shadow on the Left, we find ourselves called to celebrate St George at a time when we are not so much ‘taking back control’ as completely spinning out of it. Government and Opposition are equally rudderless, significantly damaged by racism and disunity; the historic third party, already decimated, is unable to assume any mantle of responsibility, and with the dangerous uncharted shambles of Brexit just around the corner, one feels that England cannot have been in a worse situation since the throaty aircraft of the Luftwaffe were chugging dangerously through the skies above us.
All of which, perhaps, is simply the imperial bully’s just reward for past sins, the whirligig of time bringing in his revenges, and so on. It’s certainly easier to celebrate nationhood in a country that was more colonised than colonising. I lived for a time in Greece and adored celebratory evenings of national culture. They have of course like all of us done some frankly unpleasant things from time to time in their history, but their essential myth of throwing off the shackles of occupation (being true, unlike the supposed Independence Day our Foreign Secretary egregiously wants to fabricate out of the day of the Brexit vote) gives them the liberty we have lacked to drape the flag over their shoulders, tune the bouzouki, throw a bit more oregano in the kleftiko, and make a song and dance like Zorba.
So if there’s one thing we need to do urgently in this England in such dire need of renewal, it’s consciously to transform St George’s Day and his flag so that they are associated not with ‘setting the bounds’ of Empire, but opening the hearts and minds of our citizens ‘wider still and wider’. Obviously, such work does not happen overnight, especially when it runs counter to a human instinct to fear difference. This is going to take more than a few bhajis and Victoria sponges to sort out. But it can, must and will be done, and this year’s London celebration of the ‘Feast of St George’ was a great encouragement. The Mayor of London spoke movingly about the English complementarity of his identities of husband and father, Londoner and Muslim. (Had he been gay or a woman or disabled or trans, these notes would also have rung out with an urgency equal to those of race and religion, adding their own indispensable sound to the nation’s much-needed harmony.) He waved his St George’s flag with a gathering of old white Cockneys, while the rainbow people partied on around him, consuming community-building gallons of tea (the drink that cheers without inebriating), and no doubt enjoying much else besides.
One picture on his Twitter feed caught my eye. A young brown girl with pierced lips had painted a red cross in make-up on her face. It needs no interpretation: it is an icon of what all these words have been about.
In all of this, George himself points the way. The only two biographical details the hagiographies give us with any certainty is that he gave his goods to the poor and confessed the name of Christ at the court of his king. To be generous to the point of folly, and faithful even when persecution is threatened, require a strength which only the gentle can muster, and a realism which only the idealist can achieve. For Christians, the significance of these acts is clear. As the Pope said in his recent visit to the English College in Rome, love of God and of neighbour provide the foundation stones of the Christian life.
And for people of all religious traditions and none, the creation of any worthwhile national community involves a commitment to others, irrespective of their background, recognising their inviolable human dignity, especially that of the least fortunate; and a constant search for justice and truth. So perhaps we can cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George’ with an easier mind than we imagined. It turns out that he is as contemporary and necessary as can be.