What has a bloke on a horse with a ruddy big lance got to do with modern England? Isn’t that crusader suit a bit inappropriate these days? And aren’t fire-breathing dragons an endangered species?
The story of Saint George and the dragon has long seemed like a barmy old myth, way out of kilter with the nation that our patron saint is meant to represent. But I have a confession to make, on his feast day. Tonight, for the first time in my life, I will raise a glass of local ale to Saint George.
Not because I’ve fallen for the far right’s lies. Quite the opposite. It’s because if we don’t rethink and reimagine the emblems of our nationhood, and celebrate what they say about us, then the far right will.
And the thing about old George is that after years, even centuries of irrelevance, he suddenly looks like a saint worth having. It’s not that he has changed; rather, it’s that we have. The English are beginning to look just like him.
The “real” George is said to have been born in Palestine in about AD270, to a Roman father and a mother from Cappadocia, in what is now eastern Turkey. He served the army of the pagan Emperor Diocletian until the order came to persecute fellow Christians. George would not deny his faith, so he was tortured, buried in the sand and finally beheaded, in the town of Lydda (now Lod in Israel) on 23 April 303.
Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe none of the above is true. Historians disagree about what “really” happened. Some place his birth and death elsewhere. That doesn’t matter. The point is that George is a man with a complex heritage, born as cultures and empires were colliding.
Promoted by the crusaders, he became the patron saint of Catalonia, Greece, Lithuania, Russia and many others. Which makes him perfect for England today: we need a saint who can speak the dozens of languages you hear on the high road every day.
We used to have to play down the fact that he was a foreigner, but now it’s time to play it up, because the English are being transformed. Just a generation ago, we were considered so homogenous that the government didn’t even put out statistics about ethnicity. Then at the last census just 87% of people said they were “white British” – but that was nearly a decade ago and there have been many new arrivals since then.
The English are changing colour, with children that are six times more likely to be mixed race than their parents. Even those who find that alarming have to concede that it’s inescapable. George – a multiracial man of the world, if ever there was one – is therefore perfect for us.
Despite the tiny seed of historical truth, mostly George is a great big fib. That makes him a great figurehead for a land in which grown men and women use the flimsiest of historic pretexts to do things like chasing cheeses downhill or charming the worms from the ground with song.
Then there is his religion. The dragon story – a town terrorised, a virgin sacrificed, a knight rides in to kill the beast and save the girl – was brought home from the Middle East by the crusaders, but it was probably based on a pagan myth. Again, that makes him ideal: a new, loose, improvised spirituality is emerging in England after the collapse of the church, informed by Buddhism and the green movement but also by pagan ideas.
But the biggest reason we should all find a way to celebrate Saint George is that if we don’t then the far right will be able to go on telling the lie that he is only for white people. That’s rubbish. This Palestinian Cappadocian Roman international man of mystery, both mythical and multicultural, can and should be just as much an icon of the new Englishness as he was the old. Raise a glass, then, for the new England – and Saint George.
This piece first appeared in The Guardian in April 2010, on publication of the book Is God Still An Englishman?