Yesterday morning, still half-comatose and grappling through early half-light in search of caffeine, I turned the corner from Orchard Street to Oxford Street and BAM. There they were. Hundreds of them, flying and fluttering about in the grey breeze. I don’t mean people, I mean Union Flags. Oxford Street was a joyous riot of British rejoicing, indeed it’s plentiful patriotism was so splendid that it stretched as far as Tottenham Court Road station, and some days even the Northern Line doesn’t manage to do that.
It was a sort of Mayoral elections / Olympiads / Oh look she’s been on the throne for 60 years, bless ‘er! combined Union Jack-a-thon, in which our nation will be trying to digest a massive diet of Jubilee, London 2012 and the Boris / Ken SuperFight, which is enough to give any Londoner dyspepsia. There is no doubt that there is a lot to celebrate. Elizabeth II is the only monarch apart from Queen Victoria to actually have a Diamond Jubilee. That’s because most Kings and Queens are usually dead before then. The Thames River Pageant, with its boats representing different musical eras of our New Elizabethan age seems too hysterical to miss (hope Duran Duran’s boat sinks). It will be one of the largest flotillas ever assembled on the water but to me it just looks like a bleeding disaster, but Her Majesty didn’t consult me this time round. Personally, I think we should fire her out of a cannon whilst Cliff Richard serenades the masses to “Devil Woman”. The Diamond Jubilee Pageant website tells us the armed forces will be afloat on the River Thames – the fire service, ambulance service and a whole range of coppers – which begs the question : WHO is actually looking after the country? Why get the Head of State, the London Fire Brigade, Metropolitan Rozzers and an necessary batch of paramedics in the middle of one of the most security conscious summers we have ever lived through and send them messing about on boats?
Because, it seems, of Great Britain. Great Bunting Flag Waving Lovely Britain. The flotilla will feature 30,000 flag-waving patriots (forced to wave flags lest they be sent to Tower of London and have their heads cut off) . That’s nearly half a Wembley Stadium. Then a massive royal gun will go off and the procession, including a floating belfry whose chiming bells will be answered by riverbank churches, will pass through an avenue of sails belonging to oyster smacks and naval vessels. (You think I’m making this up, don’t you? I’m not.) And wave, wave, wave, go the little red, white and blue flags of the happy people. And we will all feel happy and have a tear in our eye, even the most cynical of us. Royalty is clever that way.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the current Queen, compared with the crazies and miserabilists we’ve been landed with in the past, is a blinder. She’s about as good a Queenie Queen as you can get. I think we should be celebrating the Diamond Jubilee. But surely we can find a less retarded way of saying “thank you, corgi loving tiny lady” than shoving her on a boat next to 30,000 commoners and a floating bell. She’s old – surely she should be celebrating by having a rest. What she wants is a tray full of Gin & Dubonnet and a chance to put her feet up and watch the Eastenders omnibus.
As for the Union Jack factories and tourist shops there will be no let up. How many Union Jacks will be sold this summer? The trouble with the Union Flag is that, unlike other national flags, it’s a bit common. Lots of French flags flying would look like a Francophile food festival or Bastille Day. You know, a bit classy. Lots of Italian flags flying would look like a celebration of sliced ham, fascism and opera. But loads of British Union Flags flying looks like a BNP-riddled sink estate full of inhabitants who only ever wear manmade fibres. The Union Flag has no classy connotations whatsoever. The West End of London appears to be hysterically addressing the balance in the 85 days that remain before the Olympics and the 30 days before the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, by attempting to make the Union Flag classy again. It doesn’t look classy. It looks like we’ve just gone to war.
The Union Flag is sort of officially called the Union Jack but, as this is England, no one’s quite sure whether it is or not because no one wrote it down so no one knows what’s going on. “Jack” is a maritime word, which is appropriate for an island nation that built a mooasssive Empire / ruled Britannia’s waves etc etc through its Navy. In 1674 it was officially named “His Majesty’s Jack” but that just sounds rude. I do not find it a very interesting flag, and I think someone just wasn’t trying hard enough. It has no decorative qualities. A true British flag should basically be a jar of marmite and a packet of Digestives with the Coronation Street logo running across the top of it and when you shake it from your flagpole it should emit the wheezy giggle of Barbara Windsor. No one has put any effort in. Instead it’s some kind of boring combination of the crosses of St Andrew / Patrick / George etc (YAWN YAWN) and – incredibly – it has a wrong way up and a right way up. Being British and inscrutable, it’s impossible to tell which is which. Once, the BBC reported that someone had hung it the wrong way up during the signing of a trade agreement with China and everyone went absolutely mental. Can you tell which way up it’s supposed to go?
I’m married to an Anti-Unionist, so he won’t tell you which way up it’s supposed to go but he will tell you where to put it and it won’t be nice. Some people hang it outside their windows when a member of the Royal Family gets married, having forgotten that the Royal Family are Germans. And here is the irony : the Union Flag is in fact the official flag of the monarchy, not the flag of the nation. It shares this queenly characteristic with the National Anthem, which is – of course – not a song about the nation but a song about the monarch. It’s all a load of badly thought out codswallop. Use of the flag at sea is only allowed by official vessels and prohibited for everyone else, sailor. Unfortunately, civilian use on land / at football matches / by ugly people in the name of racism / by Def Leppard / by Spice Girls is not prohibited as a crime against fashion, but in the name of all that is England, it should be.
In America, flag desecration is not allowed. So, if, when the celebrations are over and Independence Day is through, you are in fact still dependent upon the laws of flag consecration. Burning the US flag on US soil will not be pleasing to the local constabulary. No such law exists in the UK, so you can burn it and use it as kindling for your Diamond Jubilee Barbecue, or cut it up to create an attractive helmet or cloak for a fancy dress ball. Also, in the US, should you be unfortunate enough to cop it during military action, their is an intricate folding system for the US flag which will be in evidence at your funeral. Not that you’ll see it of course. This folding ritual is origami-like in its complexity, stupidity and downright silliness. There are no official guidelines for the maintenance or folding of your Union Jack however. The general advice is pragmatic and British : the flag should “simply be folded ready for the next use”.
I have spent an imaginative morning on a webpage run by Lincolnshire County Council called A Guide to Britain’s Flag Protocol. It’s a page turner. Oxford Street may be full of buses with flags flapping across their upper decks like bunting from the great lines of string from one side of the street to the other, but the Lincolnshire contingent have got it well sorted. We should basically just let them run the Olympics. You know where you are with a county whose air is rife with the scent of raw pig. The introduction to this guide features what looks like a pilot on a bicycle with the Union ensign flying from the back, and an entirely unrelated paragraph about how brill and fab heraldry and flag stuff is. Although not illegal, the guide reminds us it is “improper” to use the Union Jack as a tablecloth or seat cover, and they “discourage” using it to mask a statue, even if it’s one of a really ugly person. They suggest that should you fly a flag at night it would be best to illuminate it. (NO? Really?) And we should really try not to soil it. That’s easy to say, Lincolnshire County Council, but when a British citizen runs out of loo paper during a long Jubilee bank holiday, is it really reprehensible to reach for the bunting? There is much on the website about yardarms and “gaffs”. There is “cross-flagging” and “double flagging” to worry about, not to mention the precedence issue, which will see in evidence at Stratford shortly when Operation Hop Skip Jump Swim & Run 2012 gets under way with us as the host state – basically our Union Jack has to be bigger and sparklier and more gay than the other flags, or something. When it comes to funerals, Lincolnshire reminds us that the Union Jack as coffin pall ought to be removed prior to cremation. When a flag is to be raised at half mast, it needs to be first raised to the top of the mast before you can “halve” it, which of course makes sense – how can you tell something has been halved if you don’t get the full impact of the “whole” first? I once had a conversation with Boris Johnson about being at “half mast” but I’m afraid to tell you the circumstances were utterly different, and I was so affected by the event that it only takes the sight of a pair of handcuffs and a whiff of cherry brandy to take me right back to that unfortunate evening.
I’m not flagging up the summer of festivities in any Scrooge-like way. I remain positively indignant with enthusiasm over the Olympics and what’s not to like over a four day public holiday jubilee weekend? Whilst not exactly in thrall to the monarch, I don’t mind her being there, plus these days she’s smaller than ever because she’ started shrinking. By June 3rd she’ll be 2 foot 6. Last time I looked, there was enough room in Buckingham Palace for a 2 foot 6 inches person. Actually, there’s quite a lot of rooms. 126 to be precise. But the nation is going to have to work harder at making the whole shop and shooting match look a little more classy.
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