This happened this morning, in Devizes…
Today, in The Vize, there is rain, falling in a warm fine drizzle through the grey of the morn. As I lock the church and walk to my bicycle I see a man with a flag, by the flag pole at the War Memorial on Long Street. He is small and elderly, with bright eyes, and is wearing a cap.
I’m interested in watching him put up the flag. There has been debate on a local Facebook site about the correct way to display it, and I can never remember which way up it goes. It’s the Sunday after the Queen’s birthday, and there will be a Parade. I say hello, and he smiles in a friendly manner. He’s Irish, and could have been a jockey, perhaps. He’s from the British Legion. “They call me the Poppy Man” he says. He’s happy to let me watch, and humours me for my interest. He shows me the line and the toggle, and explains that the correct way to display the flag is with the broad white band uppermost on the top right. “Apparently lots of people display it wrong” I say. “Well, now, that would mean distress” he says, and tells me about how the flag was displayed like that during the Indian Mutiny.
I’m English. I ‘identify’ as English. My Great Aunt Betty, who wore a silk turban, was a genealogy enthusiast, and traced my family on my mother’s side back to the twelfth century. I am related to a strange poetess who lived in a nunnery on the Isle of Man, someone who apprehended Guy Fawkes, and a young bloke who managed to get out of being executed for the Mutiny on the Bounty because he had friends in high places. We were vicars and ladies-in-waiting. We ended up being what used to be termed lower middle-class. My grandad was a clerk.
I am a liberal patriot. I’m entirely uninterested in sending anyone back to somewhere they may have arrived at from here anyway. Come and live in my country, by all means, whatever the colour of your skin. Chances are I’m dimly related to you anyway. Practice your culture as you will, but don’t compromise mine. Pay your taxes if you can, and don’t chop up yer daughters. Understand that, if this is Rome, certain things have to be done as Romans do them. I’m sorry that you have to do all the dirty badly paid jobs that the English feel are beneath them. I hate racism. I love you. We are one another.
I’m ambivalent about the monarchy, but I respect the Queen. When she was young, she looked like my Mum. I don’t want anything bad to happen to the Royal grandchildren. In my view the Queen is as much responsible for the crimes of history as I am for the Inquisition. But the wealth is embarrassing, and the Duke of Edinburgh is not my homeboy.
Oh how I love my country, with a passion; every green and rolling hill of it, every church, every tower block, every blade of grass, every hymn on the wind, all the palaces, the pictures, the books of our history, and our circles of stone. I belt out ‘Jerusalem’ in church like there will be no tomorrow.
Here we are, me and Franklin, at the flag. He shows me a sheet bend, and chats. His mother had a sense of humour, he says. His name is really George, but she had the habit of calling her children by their middle names. He handles the flag with reverence, paying great care to securing the knots. He tells me that he takes even more care since once he didn’t secure the flag properly at the bottom, resulting in it flapping inappropriately wildly on the mast. He tells me about the time all the little crosses, each with the name of one of the Devizes fallen from the first two World Wars, were planted in sand by the Memorial. He hoists the flag. It sticks to the mast behind the rope and he shakes it a little to free it. I wish that I could take a photograph, of Franklin and the flag at the War Memorial, but it is still drizzling on the two of us.
I shake Franklin’s hand, and thank him. He smiles at me. Franklin with a ‘i’ and not a ‘y’, I establish. He walks one way and I walk the other. But hang on, who is that looming grey figure with a dodgy looking hand-held machine by Franklin’s car? Franklin has chosen to park on the road by the War Memorial near the zebra crossing, and Community Enforcement Officer WN085 is looking awfully smug. It’s an ‘immediate issue’, apparently. He’s too near the zebra crossing, Franklin. It’s Sunday, just before nine, and there is no-one in sight other than Franklin, WN085 (who has a faint air of Cyborg about him), and me. I am a strange poet, and I am not happy at all. “Are you going to give him a ticket?” I ask, striding towards him. “Yes” says the Cyborg. He likes his job. “But he’s putting up the flag for the Parade,” I say, “is there no scope for a warning, in this circumstance?” WN085 thinks not. Franklin is still smiling, disguising his frustration admirably even though he is, understandably, slightly miffed. “It’s OK,” he says to me, “don’t you worry. I’ve broken the law, and that is that.” I appeal to WN085 one more time. The sound of stuff falling on stony ground is deafening. He won’t be influenced by strange poets, or patriotism. He wouldn’t know how to climb out of a box, never mind think outside of it.
I know when a battle is worth fighting, and when it isn’t. I say goodbye to Franklin, and he smiles and gets in his car. I have enjoyed meeting him, and am grateful for the flag lesson. I am sorry that he has got a ticket for his pains, but have been blessed to share time with him. I walk to my bike.
WN085 strides purposefully towards town feeling well pleased with himself.
This, my friends, is England.
© Gail Foster 2016