by Vanessa Wright
The Union Jack. Three colours. Three stories. The same national symbol unites and divides us.
RED: “to paint the town red: meaning to party or celebrate, usually in a public place”.1Red – en.wiktionary.org/wiki/paint_the_town_red
We walked a couple of streets to Howberry Road, where we would spend every Saturday morning visiting the butchers and greengrocers with Mum. But on this occasion, it was transformed. Trestle tables instead of parked cars now lined this street in Thornton Heath; red, white and blue bunting draped between lamp posts; Union Jack flags arranged as centrepieces on tables. And crowds lined the street in readiness for the races. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, 1977. My earliest memory of the British flag.
I remember watching Mum and Dad take part in the parents’ race and feeling proud they both came close to winning. I had never seen our neighbourhood like this before. It was the biggest party I had ever been to, and everyone seemed to be having fun, no matter what their age. I started school that September, and Mum had made my dress. A royal blue, gingham fabric sewn with Union Jack buttons. I treasured that uniform as no-one else had buttons like mine.
It wasn’t until 35 years later that I felt the same pride about our flag again. London 2012. I remember the opening ceremony and how it celebrated everything that was good about being British. The NHS. The music, from Elgar to Bowie. Choirs singing the anthems of our four nations. And the ability to laugh at ourselves, including James Bond meeting the Queen and her corgis at Buckingham Palace. I don’t think I had ever seen our monarch smile so much before. But most of all, it celebrated progress and how far we had come as a nation. People spoke to each other on the London Underground during those few weeks. Social norms cast aside; barriers broken down. It brought people together. Unified us.
WHITE: “is the unblemished marker of purity…untainted by any other hue”.2White – www.sensationalcolour.com
The search was on for which secondary school I would attend the following year. Applying to a better school on the other side of the borough would mean moving to a new family home. We drove from house to house with ‘Thriller’ as the soundtrack to find ‘the one’.
A particular house was anonymous, apart from one room. Having climbed the narrow stairs up to the attic, the woman showing us around opened the door to a bedroom. It was dark. Painted in muddy army green. Looming over us was the most oversized Union Jack I had ever seen. It engulfed the entire wall. The other walls plastered with ‘NF’ stickers. And a duvet with ‘Millwall FC’ covered the bed.
“I’m sorry, it’s my son’s room”.
The house owner averted her eyes and looked at the floor. Her embarrassment was palpable. I had a suspicion that the flag meant something else, but I didn’t quite know what. Something sinister.
I knew enough at ten years old to understand that it wasn’t the time or place to ask questions whilst we were inside the house, but as soon as we were walking down the path, I asked, “What is NF?”.
Mum said, “Let’s wait ‘til we get in the car”.
When she explained what the National Front represented, I was horrified. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stop black and Asian people from living in our country. Why a grown-up would think like that. I thought of the friends in my class. We had 52 nationalities in our primary school, one for every week of the year. The notion of “us and them” made me uncomfortable. Even worse, I felt shame that the British flag could stand for such hatred.
BLUE: “traditionally the colour of sadness”.3Blue – ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kasia St Clair.
I was on holiday in Saint Lucia. After a day on the beach, we were getting ready for dinner. The UK is five hours ahead, and the drip-feed of Brexit election votes began to be declared on the BBC website. The first result came in: Sunderland. Leave.
We went to dinner. Returning to our room afterwards, I grabbed my phone. Refresh.
The picture was mixed. Leave marginally outnumbered Remain by the time I went to bed. I expected balance to be restored by the morning.
After a restless night of tossing and turning, I had overslept and was running late for my yoga class. Hurriedly getting dressed, I asked my partner to check the result. Bleary-eyed, he picked up his phone.
“No way! You’re winding me up. Give me the phone.”
I stared at the screen in disbelief. How could this be? Everyone I knew except for two people voted Remain. Who were all these people who voted Leave?
At yoga, I couldn’t be further from “Namaste” if I tried. My mind wouldn’t stop racing. I hadn’t seen it coming at all.
When waiters asked my opinion on the outcome, I felt a compulsive need to apologise. I didn’t want them to think I was racist. There was an uncomfortable undercurrent of colonial imperialism that disturbed me.
But most of all, it made me sad. Sad we would no longer be part of a global community, and one gold star would shine less brightly on the blue flag of Europe. Sad so many people in our country felt threatened by immigration. I was sickened by the news that people who had lived in Britain for generations had their homes daubed with graffiti. The result seemed to vindicate racist attitudes and behaviour. Had we regressed to the 1980s and the hateful days of the National Front?
I felt alienated from my country. And my country was now cut adrift from Europe. An island in every sense of the word. A disunited kingdom.
Three colours. Three stories. A myriad of emotions.
To solve the problems our world faces today, humanity needs to act as a global community. We cannot operate as islands in isolation. The coronavirus pandemic, conservation efforts, and climate change crisis demonstrate we must work across borders to protect our planet and all that live on it. Not just as nations but as global citizens. As one world.
- 1Red – en.wiktionary.org/wiki/paint_the_town_red
- 2White – www.sensationalcolour.com
- 3Blue – ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kasia St Clair.
Vanessa divides her time between Hertfordshire and the Hebrides. She gave up corporate life during the pandemic, taking the plunge to follow her passion for wildlife. Recently completing a Masters in Nature and Travel Writing, she has been announced as Runner-Up in the BBC Countryfile New Nature Writer of the Year 2022 competition.
Her work includes articles for Bird Watching, Country Walking and The Simple Things magazines, and she has run nature writing workshops for the RSPB and The Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival.
Visit Vanessa’s website here.
Editor’s Note: The Union Jack
Here is more information about the feature image used for this article, a photograph of an old Union Jack flag, which was found at Wikipedia, listed in the public domain.
“Zaricor Flag Collection photograph – Zaricor Flag Collection, ZFC3400 https://www.flagcollection.com/itemdetails.php?CollectionItem_ID=2267“
“Union Flag flown from HMS Spartiate during the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and now in the Zaricor Flag Collection, a private American collection. The flag is made from wool, and – as is common for handmade flags – has been made incorrectly, with the arms of the saltires not counter-changed with one another in the proper way. Although the Union was typically only flown as a jack by British warships in port, the Vice-admiral of the White, Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson had ordered on 10 October 1805: When in presence of the Enemy, all the ships under my command are to bear White Colours and a Union Jack is to be suspended from the foretopgallant stay. This flag was, reputedly, the flag flown from this position by the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Spartiate during the Battle of Trafalgar eleven days later. After this crushing British victory and the death-in-action of the national hero Nelson, the Spartiate’s Lieutenant (navy) James Clephan (1768–1851) was awarded this flag. The French-built Spartiate had been in British service since having been captured at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, during which its ordnance blinded Nelson in one eye. Clephan was from Fife and, having been press-ganged into the navy aged 26, was appointed first lieutenant immediately after the Battle of Trafalgar, and rose eventually to the rank of captain. The flag remained among his and then his descendants’ possessions until 2009, when it was sold at auction. The flag is 88″ x 140″ (223.5cm x 355.5cm).”
Additional details about this image are available here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_flag_flown_from_HMS_Spartiate_during_the_Battle_of_Trafalgar.jpg