Monday, May 02, 2011

Patriot Games

Americans get to be patriotic almost every day — though days such as today afford opportunities to turbo-charge the experience.

Guatemalans get to be patriotic essentially once a year, though there's often a bit of leakage into the rest of September, and results notwithstanding, flags may also be waved enthusiastically when the national soccer team takes to the pitch.

For us Brits the opportunities are generally more spaced out, though this may not be such a bad thing. Part of the 'problem' is that sporting endeavour is as much a force for division as it is for shared celebration. Guatemalans can get a periodic extra patriotism fix from an international soccer fixture, but at such times we Brits find ourselves partitioned into our composite inner nations: English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, the latter identity inherently packaged with deeper, darker divisions.

Almost none of the sports that are followed in number in Britain provide much of an opportunity for waving the Union Flag. OK, there's tennis, but how many cathartic moments of national triumph has that delivered in living memory? Right, none.

Hence the value of last Friday's small family gathering. We can't win the World Cup together (or indeed terminate our national bogeymen with extreme prejudice) but when it comes to cavalry and choirboys, who is there to match us?

It's easy to be a cynic and a killjoy, when you're on your own. Had I watched the Royal Wedding on TV back in Guatemala, I might well have found myself blowing raspberries at the screen. But back here in Blighty amongst friends and family, the shared meanings started to actually mean something. Both my parents are in their eighties and this may well be for them their last experience of the rituals that have periodically renewed the mystical nation. In such company there's enough history in the air to prevent downer adjectives like 'outmoded' from springing so readily to mind.

And this time everyone really did want a fresh start. Maybe it's wrong to seek a deeper meaning in the absence of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from Friday's guest list, but given that certain petty old scores were rather obviously being settled (Earl Spencer in the economy class queue outside the Abbey for instance), one might also suspect that a grander score was also being settled with the New Labour decade in which, in spite of its thrilling surge of prosperity, one also witnessed the nation losing its bearings in a number of potentially disastrous ways.

As a (former) medieval historian I can tell you that 1200 years of historical continuity isn't something to be sniffed at. Our history and our sense of it is the glue that keeps the whole thing together, but over the past couple of decades there were worrying signs that even that couldn't prevent a creeping process of un-glueing.

Guatemala has an almost disconcerting lack of national heroes in its historical narrative. There are a few big characters lurking in the chronology, but no-one who really epitomises a particular set of values.

Contrast Venezuela with its El Libertador, from whom all sense of modern political legitimacy appears to derive. Mexico on the other hand has not one, but a whole collection of symbolic personages in its past, less a pantheon than a Homeric melee of warring men and women, each of whom stands for a certain ideal of what the nation ought to be, and many of whom died in conflict with each other. There, resolution is seemingly deferred, but here in the 'United' Kingdom, the very name of the ultimate political unit suggests an end to the ruckus.

It has been fascinating to follow A History of Celtic Britain on the BBC over the past month, not least because of the way Neil Oliver has gleefully revised the pervading assumption that the only British history that really matters is English history, and that anything else is essentially an unpleasant after-effect of the Romans' failure to finish the job.

Oliver consistently refers to 'our island' (well, it's only been an island for around 5000 years) and 'the British' whilst describing events pre-dating the incursion of the Anglo-Saxons by half a millennium or more. Yet he was game enough to submit his own ancestry to the swab test (as I too have done) and discovered that whilst his mitochondrial DNA has led a relatively secluded existence since Neolithic times in the Scottish islands, his father's genetic inheritance points to a trail of men drifting across Eastern Europe. And hence the warning that there's no really such thing as a discreet identity on this sceptered isle.

Anyway, whatever anyone else thinks about the pomp and pomposity of Wills and Kate's big day, it has been a real pleasure to experience the concomitant coming together first hand in London.

Revolutions rarely do away with healthy institutions. In almost all the cases I have studied, the ancien regime had come to the end of its particular line both politically and economically before the crowds emerged to deliver the coup-de-grace. It strikes me that most modern westerners, should it fall to them to participate in one of those rare 'clean-sheet' moments of history, are unlikely to include a monarchy in their new constitution. So, on paper at least, many of us Brits are indeed republicans, and yet remain convinced that the monarchy, even when populated with oddball and even vaguely unsavory characters, is the very spine of our history and the only real excuse we have for waving the flag.


Anonymous said...

I can't comment about monarchy,I don't understand people's attachment to it. You are so right about Guatemala not having any heroes. We Guatemalans are conflicted about who we are and the traits we value -- humility and self-sacrifice -- are not particularly heroic. When I was a kid it was an insult to be called Tecun Uman, who really was a heroe, because of his ethnicity. Mexicans can whitewash race because of their extreme, irrational, deluded nationalism, which in the end is a good thing. They buy Mexican though their candy be lead-tainted.

EyeInHand said...

Great post, Guy.