You may be aware that the World Cup - in association with those staunch advocates of sporting endeavour McDonalds and Gillette razors (other non-sport related sponsors are available) - is fast approaching. Anticipation is building, favourites are being discussed, bloggers shamelessly write related posts (ahem). There’s a zeitgeist swelling.
And tied in to all this, in recent weeks I’ve noticed the re-emergence of something which irritates me deeply, seeping into my core. It’s something which two years ago, during the European Championships, initially bemused me but with increased and prolonged exposure made me boil with rage. It’s the flags flying from cars.
This of course needs some clarification. It’s not the flying of the flag of St. George that’s getting to me. No, it’s not that at all. It’s the flying of perfectly good St George’s flags which have been rendered pointless by the needless addition of a single word: England.
Think about it, you people flying these idiotic things, what is the point of a flag? Surely, it’s a symbolic display of your nationality/region/standpoint/intentions/etc. which allows you to immediately signal or display to someone all of the above with all the specifics neatly accounted for with a mere glance. It means you don’t have to have a big placard with ‘I am from….’ written on it. The flag tells people that for you as a matter of course.
As soon as you go adding needless text to a flag, it becomes something else, something less striking. It loses its immediate symbolic power, having to fall back on the written word when really it should be relying solely on the influence of the image.
If you are going to be so proud as to go to the trouble of displaying a flag, to then deface it in such a moronic way, disregarding traditions and sensibilities, is a ridiculous act of the most sublime nature.
Round these parts I see plenty of Polish, Brazilian and Portuguese flags flying too, and it hasn’t been deemed necessary for any of these flags to suddenly need to idiotically state the name of the country it represents. So why, England fans, do you choose to fly such flags?
Let's see. Maybe it’s to avoid people mistaking it for the Ulster flag? I think there’s little risk of that, not round here. And anyway, those England fans who could recognise the Ulster flag will probably also therefore be capable of spotting the whole lack of the Crown, the Star of David and the Red Hand of Ulster the flag of St. George has got going on.
Admittedly, football is somewhat unique when it comes to flag flying. Football fans the world over have a tradition of adding text to their national flag, in particular the name of which specific club they follow the rest of the time. Doing so allows people uniting under one flag to still retain some identity and loyalty to a specific club or region, and if you’ve travelled to deepest Bulgaria, it at the very least gives the chance for the wife watching back home on the TV in Lyme Regis, Lancaster or Ludlow to see that you got there safely. So this sort of flag doctoring makes sense to me (or, at least, the majority of it does…). But merely saying "England" on the English fucking flag is stating the obvious in the extreme.
Now, there are plenty of other flags which have writing on them, and do so legitimately as part of the flag design. On the whole though, these are slogans or such like. Yes, it’s a little untidy and contradicts the whole purpose a bit; it complicates matters and makes closer inspection necessary, when really all you want is a flag which, wordlessly, says "Hey you! It’s us!"*. But the sentiment behind it is just about understandable, even if the effect is rather tacky. This naffness often goes hand in hand with uninspiring uniform flag design. It’s certainly a hallmark of British colonies: consider The Falklands, The British Virgin Islands, The Caymen Islands. But like I said, for all their failings, at least these are little mottos.
To merely put the name of your country on it is truly the signature of the thick. I can only think of Guam who actually commit the whole "name of the country on the flag for real" crime, and their flag is, quite frankly, shit.
But anyway, at least these flags have writing on them to start with. The damage has been done, and denizens of such countries or regions have to make the best of a bad job. But taking a perfectly fine flag, and perverting it with text so inane it could be inspired by a 3-year-old? (no offence, 3-year-old readers) Gaaaaah!
Those frontrunners of patriotic drop-of-a-hat-national-flag-waving-even-when-no-one-is-necessarily-looking, the Americans, have got it right**. Across the pond, The National Flag Foundation has offered guidelines to help avoid Flag Etiquette faux pas of the sort I’m talking about for over 120 years, with Congress officially adopting their code in 1942. With regard to any written word featuring on the flag they have the following to say:
"...The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature. (U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(g))..."
See that? It says "never". Not "sometimes". Not "except in World Cup years (and for the European Championships/regional equivalent too if you really must)". What they are saying is "Here’s your flag, we already finished it for you, we are happy with it and it doesn’t need anything added to it. The thought and time of greater minds than yours have gone into it, so leave it alone. No, seriously."
I don’t want to have a go at people wanting to display the flag of St. George. Even if I do think the ‘off-the-car’ jobbies are a bit cringe-worthy and how it’s a little contrived the way they only make an appearance once every 2 years when Beckham and Co. are put into summer action, I think there should be a place for the flag in English society. I appreciate the English are one of the few nations who feel obliged to guiltily wring their hands when it comes to displaying patriotism – perhaps due to the often undignified manner those who do choose to conduct themselves in – and on the one hand I’m a little glad it’s like that. But I can also see that as a nation the English are almost forced to miss out on something which is essentially a birthright for everyone else, and good luck to those who are legitimately reclaiming that right.
So, fair English people driving in your cars, by all means fly the flag this summer. Hell, fly the flag all year round if you really must. But please make sure it is your flag, and not some foolishly nonsensical tacky travesty of a rag.
Josh Parsons reviews and grades national flags here
* Of course, there are a number of Arabic and East Asian nations who display writing on their flags. I will offer up the defence though that in such cultures calligraphy is held in a higher regard than in other parts of the world, and personally I find the role it has on the Saudi flag, for example, to be rather effective.
**Alas, on a more regional level they don’t always do themselves proud. To name but a couple, shame on you Fort Worth, TX, and shame on you too South Dakota. And The U.S. Virgin Islands? What the hell is wrong with you? I mean, initials? Could you be any less cultured about the whole thing?