Symbols are, of course shorthand for much larger ideas and we respond to those rather than the symbol itself. However because the symbol is an abstract we can invest it with what we choose and for one person a given symbol can have a vastly different meaning than another.
National flags are a good case in point. When I was growing up the Union Jack had been co-opted by the far right. It was the era of the National Front, of blatant racism, of ultra-nationalist violence.
I remember going to a gig at the Victoria Hall in Southborough. Here & Now were playing. I spent my mid teens following Here & Now around. My dear friend Trev was busy producing their album Fantasy Shift. It’s a great album and I loved their music. Even more I loved the scene around them – it was Stonehenge beanfield meets barefoot urban warrior.
The support act was a reggae band and a bunch of knuckle dragging skinheads in the audience started chanting ‘if they’re black, send ‘em back’.
That’s what the Union Jack meant for me back then – racism and hatred. It had been captured by people who had managed to empty it of all the positive things it could have represented and filled it with poison.
In contrast I liked seeing the flag of St George, the simple red cross on a white background, because it was neglected and only appeared on St George’s Day, April 23rd, and then only flying over church towers. It was morris dancing, real ale and wenches in bodices with Fairport Convention supplying the soundtrack.
Some people have traced the re-adoption of the cross of St George to the 1996 European Cup. Now it’s been hijacked by the same sort of idiots who polluted the Union Jack back in the 70s and 80s, removing its dignity and using it as a fig leaf for their own insecurities and inadequacies. However it has meant that the Union Jack can be rehabilitated.
Some symbols have been so thoroughly polluted that they’re irredeemable. The swastika is the obvious one. There was a campaign launched recently to rehabilitate the swastika as the symbol representing the auspicious and the good. Not in Europe, not so long as history survives. It is so toxic in the West that even deliberate echoes, such as the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn’s own symbol, drawn from Hellenic architectural decoration, are close enough to make the flesh crawl.
Symbols are what we make them. We can make them good or we can pollute them.
A few weeks ago a put up a flagpole for Luca. I’m not big on flags but I knew the two I wanted to fly – the flag of Sussex, six martlets (heraldic evocations of swallows) on a blue background, and the skull and crossbones.
I have a deep love of where I live. I want it to be a welcoming place where anyone can feel at home and be accepted. I’d like the Sussex flag to be one of acceptance and freedom and closeness to the land.
Just in case anyone has any doubts I flew a pirate flag underneath. I think pirates have come to embody our desire for freedom, independence, self sufficiency and romance. Of course real pirates were probably just unpleasant but somehow the skull and crossbones is now more Captain Jack Sparrow, all swagger and eyeliner, than Edward Teach.
We seem to be living in an age, a crowded age, where true freedom is harder and harder to find. Cut off from the world in my small but very beautiful corner of Sussex I’d like to think some freedom is left. Freedom is like love; life without it is hardly worth living.