Tuesday, 6 July 2010
Best of British, on July the 5th.
We don't have a day for Britishness in this country. St George's Day doesn't exactly count - the saint is patron of at least a dozen countries and has no actual connection to the place itself. He is a guy that we liked originally because he appeared a couple of times as a sort of omen of good fortune in various battles of the medieval period. It's not a holiday. There are no speeches. A few people wave a few flags with more gusto than normal and primary school children listen to an exciting fairy tale about a man who stopped young women being sacrificed to a dragon. It's more 'patriotic' to remember the day as Shakespeare's birthday. At least he was British. Anyway, he's only the patron of England; as a nation, we're divided even on that.
I feel most patriotic I suppose on Remembrance Day - Armistice Day, the Day of Peace In Flanders Fields. Is it still about the war, where we did stand hopelessly against what seemed impossible odds and triumphed at the last minute to limp from the ashes? Are my impressions out of date? Perhaps. The modern Brit abroad is arrogant and drunk, and I am ashamed of that. Do we still stand for Right, like we tried to do in the 40s? Not that it was or is ever that clear cut. We laugh at our spectacular losses in sport - we're almost proud of them. They represent that wartime Britishness, in a way. Something about not succeeding but doggedly trying anyway. Other countries celebrate winners, but we celebrate the 'glorious' defeats, the underdogs, the never-had-a-chance-but-at-least-they-trieds. We call it stoicism and resignation and determination and maybe it is, but it allows us to be defeatist and pessimistic and dour yet full of injured innocence. Expecting the worst allows occasional moments of glory to be that much more exciting for being unexpected, I suppose. The British character is a figure of Romance - often self-deprecating to the point of false modesty. Strange how close humility and pride are.
I was surprised to find myself proud of my country, in an emotional way rather than a logical one it's true, but still. Maybe I could use the loaded 'love', which suggests a blind admiration for the place which overlooks or diminishes the faults, rather than the word 'proud', which to me anyway suggests the application of judgment. I assumed I wasn't. I'm as prepared as the next person, British or foreign, to poke fun at the place and its silly traditions and attitudes myself, but I seem to object to other people doing the same sometimes. And I look at that feeling and I am faintly ashamed of it. We are a small place with a big ego. Ego is unattractive, though I would perhaps rather have an honest ego than a false modesty. In some places we have influence. We ought to be a wise country given our age and our history and I wonder whether we are. I would like for the things we've had happen to us and the things we've made happen and their consequences have educated us a little. I'd like for them to have educated the rest of the world too - we are the best example* since the Romans of what happens in a large empire. I'm pretty sure it hasn't. Depressing to realise. The way that no westerner is able to win an Afghan war yet people keep trying is my favourite example of an inability to take note of the past.
Celebrating Britain is a bit naff. We're embarrassed about it. Maybe we should be embarrassed. But maybe if we were proud we would endeavour to keep the place as something of which to be proud. Do we do that? Maybe, sometimes. I want to be proud of a country that went from arrogant racism to full acceptance and integration of other races and cultures. Proud of somewhere that learns from its mistakes, laughs at itself, values itself and works always to care for the innocent whoever they are.
*That's 'best example', not 'best' example; there is a lot wrong with our colonial past, I just mean that we have had the farshest reaching empire in the world in recent centuries, and hence when examining the subject of empire the first place to look is the state of Britain, c. 1850.