Daily Archives: 4 February, 2012

The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom

This is a first for Daly History – a review of a book, by an author who I have actually met before reading the book! To tell the story, and go off on a bit of a tangent, Professor Groom lives in the same village on Dartmoor that my girlfriend originates from.*

I found this a really interesting study. The title is a pleasant surprise in that it is perhaps slightly misleading – it isn’t just a story of the flag itself, but of the union in a broader sense, and indeed, it is a story of national identity and culture, not just of Britain but of its constituent parts too. Groom examines pre-Union Jack symbols such as the three lions, and also phenomenon such as the patriotic song.  Not only is it a history of how the flag evolved – sure, we all know about how the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick were combined – this book also takes a stuidious look at how the flag has been interpreted as part of national culture. The Union Jack has been used by the mods, and in more recent times by the far right. And of course there are those garish union jack shorts, and Ginger Spices union jack dress of the 90′s. The interesting this is, that the flag itself, in a physical manner, has never attracted the same reverence as the Star Spangled Banner. Try lowering the american flag, in front of an audience of american tourists. If the Union Jack was to be dragged through the dirt none of us would be too offended, yet if Old Glory so much as brushes against the floor, that event has cataclysmic repurcussions!

For me, the most pertinent and salient point made within is that British identity is at a crossroads. Whilst Ireland has partly seceded from the union – leaving behind Ulster – Wales and Scotland have, in recent years, been showing increasing independence. Witness Alex Salmond’s contunual posturing. So where does that leave Britain? who knows. But more tellingly, where does it leave England? For as long as anyone can remember, English identity has become subsumed by that of Britain. Inevitably the dominant partner in the union in many ways, until recent years the identity of the English nation was relatively vacuous. English sports teams sang the British national anthem, and more often than not their fans carried the union jack instead of the cross of st george.

Perhaps that is changing, and since Euro 96 English football fans have recently embraced St George -  I can receall watching England at Euro 2004, in a Lisbon Estadio da Luz carpeted in white and red. English success in Cricket and Rugby has probably also helped matters. But what exactly IS english identity? What is it to be English? It is so true that English identity has not evolved in the same manner as the other British nations. We think of English culture, and we think of morris dancing, or quaint little customs that take place in random villages. England doesn’t have a national dress, or even its own national anthem. And with Scotland and Wales potentially going their own way, perhaps English culture has space to evolve and emerge in the coming years?

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It has received rave reviews since its publication, and one can see why. It sits at an interesting and all-embracing nexus between history, sociology, culture and politics.

*…And Nick is quite some hurdy-gurdy player too.

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Filed under Book of the Week, politics

Charles Dickens at 200

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Image via Wikipedia

If you’re into Charles Dickens there’s a hell of a lot going on in Portsmouth over the next week or so.

The City Museum in Portsmouth is hosting an exhibition, aptly-titled ‘A Tale of One City’, looking at Dickens and Dickensian Portsmouth, and exploring some themes that Dickens wrote about – poverty, money, crime, they’re all things that Charles Dickens wrote about in Victorian times and we are still faced with today. The exhibition also features part of the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickelby, the only Dickens novel which features the town of his birth, on loan from the British Library. The exhibition runs until November.

Tomorrow (Sunday 5th Feb) the Charles Dickens Birthplace is free entry all day. And on Tuesday 7 February, on the great man’s two hundredth birthday itself, the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth will be hosting special events throughout the day. There will be a range of activities and celebrations in Old Commercial Road, including street performers, musicians, food, craft activities and readings. At 10.45 the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth and Ian Dickens will speak outside the Museum, before laying a wreath. At 11.30am the Museum will open to the public. The birthplace itself is a small terraced house, so expect it to get very busy! For more information click here.

At 12 noon there will be a thanksgiving service at St Mary’s Church in Fratton, where Charles Dickens was baptised in 1812. Simon Callow and Sheila Hancock will both give readings, and there will be a performance of Songs from Oliver by the choir of St Johns RC Primary School. In the evening at the New Theatre Royal Simon Callow will be reading excerpts from his book ‘Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World’. Later in the year the Dickens Fellowship are planning to unveil a statue of the great man himself, appropriately outside Portsmouth Central Library Square.

I’ve always been a great fan of Dickens and his works. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy reading the books that much – the manner in which they are written does not, I feel, lend itself well to reading from cover to cover. The books were initially serialised by chapters, in cheap popular magazines of the day. This is probably how they should be read – a bitesize chunk at a time. Or performed – I feel that it is a true testament to Dickens that his works translate so well onto screen and stage, when TV was invented almost a hundred years after he was born!

The themes, subjects and stories that Dickens wrote about are very much still relevant today. What would Dickens have to say about Bankers bonuses? or last summers riots? Or social media? That’s the funny thing about history – and social history in particular. Whilst on the surface life has changed immeasurably, actually, humankind hasn’t changed all that much.

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Filed under event, fiction, Local History, Uncategorized