Saints are in the news at the moment. On Sunday Pope Francis, in a nifty piece of ecclesiological triangulation, ‘raised to the altars’ (made saints) two of his predecessors, the liberalising John XXIII and the conservative John Paul II. And then last Wednesday, April 23rd , St George’s Day, the national day of England, was met in London with ... well, a very English polite indifference. Apparently there was a feast in Trafalgar Square on the Sunday before, but it certainly didn’t spill out into neighbouring streets like Chinese New Year, pack pubs like St Patrick’s Day, or cause a tenth of the travel disruption even a routine Premier League home fixture brings. The flag of St George flew from 10 Downing Street for the day, and I spotted a few limp flags in the suburbs. And that was about it, in London at least.
Why do we feel so embarrassed about England’s national day in England’s capital city? One reason – a sad one – is that when I see a flag of St George my train of associations instantly leaps to racism, bigotry, and prejudice. And, even more sadly, I’m usually right. The red cross on the white background has been appropriated as a badge of resistance by those who fear and resent modern England. Fly a stars and stripes from your house in the USA and you’re merely doing your civic duty by the rest of the street; fly a flag of St George from your house in England and you’re pretty much sticking up two fingers at anyone in the street who happens to have a black or brown skin.
There are those who argue that it is all the more important therefore to reclaim the flag from the racists; but here we run into the other problem, that many Londoners, myself included, simply don’t feel English. England is the country which surrounds our city, and it’s full of beautiful places and lovely people, but it is a different place. New York, where I was last week, felt vastly more familiar, more like home, than any provincial town in England. I support England in sport, but only really by default. (Lord’s, Wembley and Twickenham are at least places where the racist associations of the flag are suspended; I vividly remember, on the morning of England’s Rugby World Cup triumph in Australia, seeing a young Asian woman and a black man dancing together on the terrace of a pub, literally wrapped in the English flag.)
So what about a day for London? Wikipaedia lists Erkenwald, Mellitus, Michael, George and Paul the Apostle as patron saints of London, which seems to me to risk a dangerous confusion of responsibilities if the delegation isn’t handled carefully. In any case, perhaps having a Christian saint at the head of our celebration is just not appropriate for such a multicultural city (go on, Daily Mail, you can have that for free.) Or maybe we should go for Shakespeare, whose birthday (450 last week) coincides with St George’s Day. April 23rd is also the date of his death, when saint’s days are traditionally celebrated, that being the moment when they achieve the ultimate promotion. He is an internationally recognised and esteemed brand. His plays have the teeming variety, the encyclopaedic sweep and the global scope of London. And he was, after all, pretty much a typical Londoner, not born here, but instead getting out of his small town as fast as he could to come to the capital, live it large, make good, and then go back home to lord it over the provincials he’d left behind with the proceeds. Saint William, pray for us.