- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

Everyone seems to have a different version of Saint George. Edward Gibbon presented him to us as George of Cappadocia, a corrupt trader to the Roman Army who rose to become the Arian bishop of Alexandria before meeting a suitably grim fate at the hands of a mob. Another, more widely accepted theory, according to my trusty copy of "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," is that he was a Roman officer martyred near Lydda during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. Most English schoolchildren, on the other hand, think of him merely as a handsome man in a suit of armour who slew a dragon, possibly somewhere abroad, possibly in the Home Counties, and was rewarded by being transformed into the patron saint of England.
I certainly don't recall being told anything more specific than that when I was at school. And I suspect that most English adults know little more about him. It's probably true as well that only a minority could name the correct date of Saint George's Day April 23. Fewer still, perhaps, are aware that this endlessly versatile figure moonlights as patron saint of Portugal, and has also seen service as the protector of Venice, Malta and Barcelona, to name a few. Even scholars seem confused as to why he was clasped to England's bosom in the first place, particularly as he appears never to have visited this country.
Although historians have traced his cult back to the pre-Norman era, his popularity reached its height during the early Crusades when, legend has it, he came to the aid of the invading forces at Antioch in 1098. It would be reassuring to think that, at this point, he and the Crusaders (or occidental intervention force, as our diplomats presumably prefer to call them nowadays) did battle with some form of giant reptile. But my "Brewer's" informs me that the legend of George and the dragon is "simply an allegorical expression of the triumph of the Christian hero over evil, which St. John the Divine beheld under the image of a dragon."
So much for facts. The good news for St. George is that he seems to be making a comeback. Thanks to the combined effects of England's performance in the World Cup, the Queen's Golden Jubilee and the vague but ever-recurring hope that a British player will win the men's title at Wimbledon, the flag of St. George a red cross on a white field has become just about respectable this summer. Who knows, by the time April 23 rolls around next year, we could start thinking about organizing our own small but noisy answer to the Fourth of July
Only a few weeks ago things were still very different. When my wife started to notice that more and more cars and vans were decorated with a St. George's flag or badge, she felt a pang of unease. So did I. Not because we were infected with political correctness or media-class guilt. No, it was simpler than that. We are both the children of immigrants my father is Jamaican, my wife's parents were part of the large Asian community expelled from East Africa in the 1960s. And we both knew only too well that the Saint George's flag along with the Union Jack had become the emblem of the British National Party and other self-proclaimed defenders of the master race.
It all seems to have happened so suddenly. Once upon a time, when we only had three TV channels to choose from, and they all closed down around midnight, the Union Jack (or the Union flag, to give it its correct name) would be shown fluttering in the wind as the networks played the national anthem. Then, some time in the Seventies, the only occasion on which we ever seemed to glimpse the flag was at neo-Nazi rallies, held aloft by pasty-faced men with thick necks, thick boots and scowls to match.
Yes, the Queen still ventured out under the red, white and blue on state occasions, but the monarchy was a symbol of fossilized tradition to most of my post-war generation. (Even some monarchists had to admit that "God Save The Queen" was not exactly the most inspiring tune of all time.) And so we reached the stage where both flags were regarded as desperately un-cool. Worse still, from the Eighties onwards the flag of St. George was hijacked as an essential fashion accessory for that great British export, the football hooligan.
So it is encouraging to see that St. George is in the process of being rehabilitated. The process has been helped along, almost unwittingly, by the Blair government which, by granting devolution to Scotland and Wales, has made people think anew about the meaning of English nationalism. (All very ironic, when you consider that the New Labor leadership's heart really lies with the demure blue flag of the European Union.)
It goes without saying that in a country as class-conscious as England, flying the flag becomes a complicated gesture.
Bourgeois households have, inevitably, been slower to get into the act. Pass through a blue-collar area, in contrast, and you see no shortage of red and white flying from windows. Pubs have put on a good display too. Even some supermarkets have been getting into the act. And most encouraging of all, black and Asian people have been seen flying the flag in the back windows of their cars. Me? I haven't plucked up the courage just yet I still can't quite conquer all the old memories. But by the time the next World Cup comes around, I think I'll be more than ready. My sons already are, which is about as encouraging a sign as I can imagine. I have a feeling we may have killed ourselves a dragon.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and Sunday Times, London.


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