Anjali Nirmalan
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How to Slay a Dragon - and other lessons the English have cast off

December 27, 2010 @ 3:10 PM | Permalink




"St. George slaying the dragon," 16th century.  

Other illustrations by author.


“I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty

Then saunter along like a toff

I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand,

Then I walk down again with them off!”


The absurd 19th century lyrics rang from fountain to fountain in Trafalgar Square, courtesy of a stageful of musical hall performers – apparently the most “English” of all entertainment (Spice Girls notwithstanding).  With enough make-up for three drag queens, the members of Royal Academy of Music bawled out old favorites - that is, if your music preference is along the lines of "Burlington Bertie" - with all the bawdy bits excised.


Welcome to St. George's Day.



The previous evening, my slow shift at the local cafe had been enlivened by the sound of an irate English radio host interrogating his hapless caller.


"St. George's Day tomorrow, and why?  Why, I ask, does no one know or care?"

"Well, perhaps if there was more publici-”

"The Irish have St. Patrick's Day, they have parades and gratuitous inebriation, and what do we English have?  Widespread, disgraceful ignorance of our own St. George!"

The dragon-slayer? I decided that this oddball soldier, star of many a medieval fairy tale and now mostly relegated to obscurity, deserved at least a small sympathetic audience; that Saturday, I strolled down to Trafalgar Square for the official celebration sponsored by the Mayor of London for this, England's "national day."  Perhaps this would be the key to my search for what is truly “English.”


Bordering the square is the National Portrait Gallery, that store of British faces: some stunning, some famous, some best-forgotten.  At the same time as St. George's Day, the Gallery was advertising a new exhibition by the London-born Singh Twins.  For an illustration of the current reinvention of English identity, look no further than this pair of artists, who provide a complicated reflection of British immigrant culture.  In one piece a Union Jack lies in the rubbish bin at a Sikh wedding; by contrast, another served as a glowing artistic testament to the twins' adopted home of Liverpool. 

Still, I remained convinced that the best clue to English identity would be found not hanging on the wall, but outside on the streets.  As I exited the gallery, the air swelled with sun and song; the small crowd had begun accompanying the music hall performers in a sweet rendition of "Daisy, Daisy, give me answer, do...." and I found myself singing traditional English lyrics I didn't know I knew.  


The tents hawking port-and-Stilton burgers lay deserted.  But since the tourists were out in full-force, so were the buskers - from silver-sprayed robot to Jamaican drummer.  None, however, could top the octogenarian outfitted in a daringly short skirt plus dour expression, performing in a giant Star of David what his sign proclaimed to be an "Irish Dance for St. George."

The bizarre sidewalk entertainment threatened to steal the elderly thunder of the afternoon's main act: Joe Brown, an affable English guitarist who was around when rock-and-roll first came over the Atlantic.  I find that he bears a remarkable similarity in appearance and endearing Cockney accent (if not style) to the has-been rocker Billy Mack in "Love Actually," but a peek at Brown's CV informs us that he is a good deal less controversial (and that is no doubt why at the ripe age of 68 he gets to headline in Trafalgar).  


Contentious public stands are more the style of Billy Bragg, alternative-punk-grassroots old rocker, who chose to mark the holiday by infuriating a member of the BNP: he pointed out that the original St. George had been, in fact, Lebanese.



I first encountered the infamous British National Party (BNP) early in the school year, during a seedy basement party in a university hall.  A riveting beer-bong game was in mid-play (all of these freshman were of legal drinking age, in striking contrast to the players  in American frats,) but for some reason there seemed to be a bigger crowd around the small television than the sticky tennis table.  


Being aired was not the latest episode of "Grey's" or "Glee," but "Question Time," the BBC's 30-year-old political show in which representatives of the main political parties are invited to sit on a panel before a live audience.  As it turned out, this particular "Question Time" had been preceded by weeks of public protest, since for the first time the BBC had extended an invitation to the BNP.  In the group of students surrounding the screen, I was the only one who did not recognize the pudgy yet polarizing face of Nick Griffin, BNP chairman.  This meant I was able to judge him on his own character - the contents of which slowly filled me with horror.

"We are the aborigines here," declared Griffin, casting himself as defender of white Britons from an "invasion by foreigners"; he also bragged about once sharing a panel with David Duke, founder of the KKK, and described homosexuals as "creepy."  As the show progressed, a picture of the BNP emerged: a tiny far-right party that had been slowly gaining support, reaching 6.26% in the last national election, by demanding tighter immigration policies and forbidding party membership to blacks and Asians.  

I looked at the faces around me, all of which flashed with anger and disgust.  But it was in the faces of the many students of color - most the children of immigrants, some immigrants themselves - that I also saw a little fear.  As I would discover in the subsequent months, it was a rare moment for these well-off students to feel specifically targeted as "other"; on any normal day in central London, they manage to identify quite naturally as thoroughly, multiculturally "British."

And being British is very natural, in some ways - and perhaps that is why there was such an extremely negative reaction to Nick Griffin even being allowed airtime for his nasty views.  It was a reaction that particularly  jarred me; while I had been identifying with my British peers' stance up till now (as familiar as good 'ol American multiculturalism, with the same admirable ideals if the same "melting pot vs. salad bowl" problems), it never occurred to me to protest the decision to let the BNP  take part in a high-profile panel with other political parties.  Perhaps if the group was so extreme so as to be completely irrelevant - but the fact is, it currently holds two seats in the European Parliament, and seems to have a voice whether we like it or not.

Strangely (and perhaps this is what offends Mr. Griffin), the most British way of being British seems to be to not be British at all.  Both Britain and the United States share the problem of splintered national identities; not everyone who arrives on those countries' shores (or even who is born there) enjoys the privilege of instant acceptance.  The American solution to this involves a nauseating number of plastic Stars-and-Stripes, parades, and barbeques; the British one seems to be to do away with unseemly displays of patriotism altogether.  



I can count on both hands the number of times I have seen a British flag on public display in the past year (and if you eliminate government buildings, vintage shops, and tourist traps, you're left with nearly none), and until now I had never seen the English St. George's flag.  As Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland grow more independent of the United Kingdom, the English are finding it even harder to define national identity; all you can really do is turn on the telly and watch some bloodthirsty football.  


"The BBC is British, the army is British, the Parliament is British, the royal family is British,” author David Goldblatt recently told the New York Times. “Where do you express what is English? In the national football team. The Church of England and the opera are not the stuff of which nationalism is made.” 

And neither is St. George's Day, apparently.  Jovial the atmosphere may be, but for the site of a capital city's national celebration Trafalgar Square seems, well...sparse.  Also calm, and as easygoing as the visored war veterans taking in the sun and nostalgia.  This is no American July 4th, when even small cities are rife with fanatic patriotism and facepaint; the most outrageous attire consists of plastic 3-pound bowler hats emblazoned with St. George's cross.  


Lying on the grass in front of me, a couple slowly begins making out, tongues included.  At least something's getting hot and heavy. 




It all stands in stark contrast to the last time I was in Trafalgar Square for an event sponsored by the Mayor of London.  Then, masses of attendees of every age, color and religion perched on the huge brass lions; balloons were released over the Square as the marble fountains glowed with gentle water lanterns.  Long noisy queues criss-crossed each other on the way to the naan-and-curry carts.  Traditional garba dancers performed in the centre of the Square itself, and then ear-deafening Bollywood-inspired performances lit up a huge stage.  TV crew satellite dishes rose silhouetted against the sky as broadcasters fought their way through the spirited swarms, trying to report on what exactly has brought together Londoners in such a powerful way.


To this newcomer, it seemed to be the very best England had to offer.

Sorry, Mr. Griffin, but that was Diwali.




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