Have you ever been abroad? It’s different there, isn’t it? I mean, for a start, they speak a different language over there. Even different languages, if we’re being technical about it. Plus they have different things on TV, and different things to buy in their shops. It’s almost as if they’re different people to us. Some of the things they do better than we do, but some things I’m not sure about.
For instance, eggs in fridges. We don’t do that in the UK, because we don’t need to. Other countries wash their eggs as part of the preparation for sale; that means that they need to be kept cold. That makes the UK look odd to a lot of the rest of the world. That and the fact that our eggs are almost universally brown in shell. They taste no different from refrigerated white eggs, I can report back.
I enjoy observing the architectural differences between the countries I visit. I would love to digress about the hideous filth which covers buildings in a great deal of Italy and France, but now is not the time. Suffice it to say that every country has its own vernacular of building which is unique to their climate, their geology and their history. It’s worth celebrating, albeit in a very nerdy kind of way.
For those of you that don’t know, I’m British. More specifically, I’m English. Even more specifically again, I am from the North East of England, in an area called North Tyneside. It’s lovely. An odd quirk of the British in general, but of the English in particular, is our relationship with our flag. You see, if we spot our national flag when we’re out and about, we assume that it’s attached to someone odd.
That doesn’t apply to the Scottish, Welsh or Cornish flags; just the English and the British. They are associated with people who would like to have a serious conversation with you. They are understood in a sporting context, but we tend to be a bit wary of them in any other sphere. Some people will tell you in all seriousness that only racists bear these two flags. I disagree with that over simplification.
In Scotland and Wales, sticking the local flag on a product will make it sell better. This mostly applies to raspberries and lamb respectively. Slap an English flag on a product and people will look around in confusion, expecting a football tournament. Or something to do with the central Caucasus. A fallacy persists that England no longer makes things, so it couldn’t be that it is English made. No, not that.
I am a patriot – I love my country – I just don’t tend to shout about it. It’s not very English. And that is, I think, one of the main points of contention. I’ve just come back from a family holiday in Iceland: it was superb. Earlier in the year we went to Norway. In recent years I have also spent time in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. In the supermarkets of these countries the whole place is festooned with the national flag. In England, that would be the odd “and finally” story at the end of the national news.
I know it’s a massive stereotype that the English are reserved and demure – and for the most part it carries as much weight as a helium balloon. It’s just that this seems to be one area where it holds. We do tend to be proud of being English, of being British – except for the slavery, exploitation and general colonialism aspect of it, of course – we just don’t like screaming about it. Except for sport.
Is it a general national malaise; that we used to rule the world with a rod of iron, and now feel guilty about it? I hope so, but I doubt it. Is it more that we associate waving these flags with people who hold their views slightly too strongly? Perhaps. Perhaps we also project contentious views on them.
Moving on. I do like seeing the flags of countries I travel to: it’s as evocative of a place as the cuisine, the architecture, the local beers, wines and spirits, the national dress or the local style of folk music. I suppose I just like it local: there is a stereotype of the English holiday maker, only eating sausage and chips in the Costas, and there are many people like that. There are, however, many of us who will only ever eat local food when we’re abroad, eschewing the ever present internationalised food.
Flags aren’t always national. Like the local beers, cheeses and dialects, flags can define a small place as well as they can define a large one. Swiss cantons are a prime example of this. My mind drifts back to an early evening spent wandering the peaceful streets of Gstaad in the Bernese Oberland, the flags of Bern fluttering along the Swiss cross, on strings across the streets. It was evocative of a local pride I have rarely encountered before or since. Except when it comes to football, of course.
My mental image of Copenhagen is always filled with bright red pennants, pierced through with the bright white Scandinavian cross: they fluttered, flapped, in every direction, in every shape and size.
I hate sport. All sports, at all times. I just do not get the fascination, and I do not see the attraction. I understand that I am in the minority here, but I will not accept that I am in the wrong. Not for one second. I derive no pleasure or understanding from the desire to watch people play pass the parcel on an oddly prescribed and delineated patch of grass (or clay, apparently), with no gift to unwrap.
But what is a sporting strip if not a flag? The banner of a team, united by a cause. That’s the one area of British and English culture where there is no ponderance regarding the celebrating of national and regional identity: England is playing football, so the English adopt the cross, and the Scots adopt the “boo”s. It’s what we do, and it’s fine. And it burrows down to a regional level, too. Local teams carry such weight as to become tribes, closer than families. I have family on Wearside who will mock my Tyneside-ness, but only through the sphere of football allegiances, which I simply do not have.
I have been in plenty of shops around the UK which were bedecked in football colours. Even barbers for that matter. They didn’t raise an eyebrow, let alone a film crew. I suppose that defines us more.