Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Feast of St Eric

William Shakespeare's birthday and, if the stories are true, his death day too.

And, of course, it's St George's Day, the most underwhelming national celebration of identity in the world. He’s a bit of a mystery man is our George. One story says that he was born to a Christian family in Turkey during the 3rd century. His father was killed in battle so his mother took him back to her native Palestine where he was raised. In time, George became a soldier and achieved the rank of Tribune under the Emperor Diocletian before he was 30 years old. However, when Caesar Galerius decided to embark upon a persecution of Christians, George refused to take part and criticised the Emperor’s decision. Diocletian ordered that George be tortured to renounce his Christianity. George refused despite terrible punishment and was eventually beheaded on April the 23rd 303AD. His martyrdom convinced many others to convert to Christianity.

But it was during his military career that he achieved the feat that he is most famous for. A dragon lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. The dragon demanded two sheep every day from locals and when it didn’t get its portion of mutton, it demanded a young maiden instead. George arrived in the area just as the local village lottery had chosen a young princess to be future dragon poo. Despite the fact that whole armies had died taking on the beastie, George crossed himself and rode into battle and killed it with one blow. Of his sword. As the result, everyone around about became Christians and George distributed his prize (a generous bounty from the Princess’s dad) among the poor before riding off into the sunset.

Of course, there are any number of spoilsports who’ll point out that it’s just an allegorical story about the triumph of Christianity over other faiths. But the dragon story is a lot more fun and George soon became a bit of a cult figure because he was chivalrous, strong, generous and devoted. He was all the things that men wanted to be and all the things women wanted men to be. By the 15th century, his feast day was as popular and important as Christmas Day. And it’s celebrated in many countries still.

The cult of St George probably reached the UK with the Crusaders returning from the Holy Lands in the 12th century. Edward III (reigned 1327 – 1377) was keen to promote the ideals of chivalry and knighthood in his kingdom and so he adopted George as the patron saint of England and dedicated the chapel at Windsor Castle to his honour. And so it continued, with George becoming the icon for all the things that the British aspired to. He was commemorated in song and poetry and prayer. The George Cross was founded as an award for extraordinary bravery in battle. And St George’s flag – the red cross on white – became the English flag.

All this … and George never once set foot on English soil.

So why don’t the English celebrate St George’s Day? There’s no easy answer to that. Many people point accusatory fingers at successive governments who seem to have been so browbeaten by political correctness that they’re scared to celebrate Englishness for fear of being accused of nationalism. Which is why, in a 2004 poll organised by the BBC, 90% of people cannot name a single battle of the English Civil War, 80% don’t know which English king was executed by Parliament in 1649, and 67% of schoolchildren had never heard of Oliver Cromwell (1). Basic English history. Our heritage. Sigh.

But it gets worse … as reported in The Guardian (2), another BBC poll to support the launch of their Battlefield Britain series showed that:

‘A sizeable slice of younger Britons think Gandalf, Horatio Hornblower or Christopher Columbus was the hero of the English fleet's defeat of the Spanish Armada (…) and a third of 16 to 34-year-olds did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, while more than a fifth of 16 to 24-year-olds thought Britain had been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish.’

Oh dear. What has gone so horribly wrong? Nationalism isn’t a crime. It’s good and right and proper to celebrate your heritage and history. You’ve just got to be strong enough to divorce yourself from the bullies, the racists and the militants who ignorantly claim that the English should stay ‘pure’; a state which is practically impossible as almost every man and woman in the UK is the descendant of some immigrant, whether it was a Norman, a Saxon, a Viking, a Somalian or a Sri Lankan. At the height of the slave trade in 1750, one in 20 Londoners was black. Multiracial marriages and liaisons were a lot more frequent than you’d think back then and it is quite likely that many white English people have a black ancestor somewhere in their family tree. Certainly, they have an ancestral German. The Y chromosomes of the majority of English men are as Germanic as you can get.

So perhaps it's time we adopted a new patron saint? My money is on Eric Morecambe.

What better example of all that's best and right and proper about being English could there be than St Eric?

Any other suggestions?

(1) You could have the battles at Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby for starters, and the king was Charles I. But of course, you knew that …
(2) Information taken from ‘Gandalf finds a place in British history’, The Guardian August 5th 2004.


The Factory said...

Fine choice for sainthood sir. Should we also canonise Ernie, as Eric always works better as part of a double act.

Stevyn Colgan said...

You know what? You're absolutely right. Let's have a St Eric and St Ernie Day.

He's not wrong you know.

The Factory said...

You might be amused to hear that I played the Andre Previn sketch for a bunch of Spaniards the other night, and despite not really understanding most of the dialogue they all laughed like drains and begged me to lend them the DVD. However I did translate the 'I'm playing all the right notes...' line for them, as in my opinion it is one of the funniest lines ever written.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I'm not surprised in the slightest. That kind of humour transcends national boundaries and social mores. Laurel and Hardy are popular everywhere (and under a bizarre range of names like Dick und Doof, Flic y Flac and Gog okk Gok!) as is Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and even the less wordy Benny Hill sketches. It doesn't mean it's 'simpler' comedy - in some ways it's a damned sight harder to make something like that work and seem effortless. There's not enough of it these days, in my opinion.