As an agnostic who doesn’t believe in dragons, I won’t be celebrating St George’s Day on Monday. This does not mean I am ashamed to be English. I’m happy being English. I eat crumpets for breakfast, drink tea by the gallon, and have even started wearing a bowtie and tweed jacket to work. On a less cartoonish level, I love the rock music, the sense of humour, the old trees at the side of country roads with no leaves on the branches but with a think green beard of ivy. I love the history, the language, the cities. I love the people. I love the long standing tradition of tolerance and multiculturalism.
I am aware that there is an equally longstanding tradition of intolerance and racism, and that there are those who think that to be proud of being English you must believe that England cannot include those who have cultural roots in other countries. I would take a perverse pleasure in referring those people to a Frenchman. Charles de Gaul wrote that ‘patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate of people other than your own comes first'. Unfortunately, any patriots wishing to celebrate St George’s Day risks having to put up with nationalist saying embarrassingly racist things like a drunken uncle at a family wedding.
However, this is not why I reject St George’s Day entirely. I’m just not sure what celebrating the feast day of a Roman soldier from Palestine who is most famous for killing a creature which probably never existed, and who was venerated by a faith which I, and many other English people, do not have, has to do with being English. I suspect (although I have no evidence for this) that the choice of George as patron saint may have been partly inspired by a desire to kick the Welsh dragon into line. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the story of George and the Dragon most likely originated from the iconic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with the dragon as a metaphor for the anti-Christian Roman Empire which eventually tortured and executed him. He is portrayed as victorious because his bravery in the face of death led to the conversion of the empress, and of a high profile Roman priest. If we must remember St George, let it be as someone who stood up for what he believed, and was killed as a result of religious intolerance.
As for patriotism, surely there must be some English person worth celebrating - someone known and respected internationally, someone who has had an impact on English culture. Well actually, there is, and we wouldn’t even have to change the date. William Shakespeare was born on the 23rd of April, and died on the same date about fifty years later, which probably ruined his birthday party. In that time he wrote around 38 plays which still cast an enormous shadow over world literature. Yes he might ‘only’ have been a writer, and I might be a little biased, but Scotland has Burn’s Night, so why not? Few people have had so strong an impact on the imaginative life of our nation – he has been part of the secondary school syllabus for generations, and almost anybody educated in Britain will have read at least one of his plays. Most importantly though, he does not represent a single faith, creed or ideology – his interest is in people as human beings. So, whether you plan to celebrate St George’s day on Monday or not, spare a thought for good old Shakey.
Incidentally, I discovered while writing this that somebody else had the same idea and took it even further. It’s controversial, but it’s an interesting point of view. You can read their article here.