Flagging Our Tangled Past
Jesus Would Be Disgusted
Dangerous Nationalist Thought
by PHILIP WHITE - This was originally published on Australia Day 09 - I publish it again after the ridiculous hoo-haa in the British press upon the record price an old Union Jack has just brought at a British auction, after being flown at the battle of Waterloo and languishing in a drawer in Sydney since the 'sixties.
At Easter, the chalk board outside the little Protestant bookshop in Clare sported a sketch of a cross. “Jesus built a bridge”, it said, “with two planks and three nails”.
Overlooking the fact that the bridge was actually built by the Italians, whose consequent, un-Christlike version of Christianity turned the cross into the world’s most powerful trade mark, I began wondering again about the Australian flag.
It was very strange, hearing people decry the savage hoods of Cronulla for draping themselves in their flag during Sydney’s race riots those short years ago. Even stranger were the subsequent demands that mosques should be flying it. The crescent moon and star on the flags of many Islamic states represent life and peace.
That should do at a mosque. The Australian flag - really the British Blue Ensign with some southern stars on its blue fly - carries five primitive representations of the Roman form of the gallows. Perfect poncho for rioting yobbos.
And that’s just the beginnings of the religio-racial horrors involved in our flag. Some of these are explained in an amazing little book that every Australian should have read: Carol A. Foley’s The Australian Flag, (Federation Press; 1996).
It says something for the musical Welsh that they never insisted on having a cross, a leek, or even a harp, included in the current Union Flag of Great Britain: the Blue Ensign that we disrespectfully call the Union Jack. Maybe they realised that their harp would have to go in the middle of all those crosses, on top of the cross of St. George, which the English would never permit.
The Scots scored with the cross of St. Andrew – a white saltire on a blue ground, a saltire being a diagonal, X-shaped cross, like the tail of the early Christian fish graffito. Roman crucifixions were conducted on saltires, not on the standard vertical cross later popularised by revisionist Christians, who made it their logo, and used its shape as the floorplan of their church buildings. There would be many fewer right angles in modern architecture had the saltire correctly been the model.
Nobody knows exactly why the Scots adopted Andrew as their patron in the eighth century. Foley makes clear that he wasn’t a Scot, and his saltire didn’t begin to appear as a national emblem until about 1290. At least he was crucified, a distinction begrudged Saints George and Patrick. St. Andrew died on his saltire in Greece, at Patras, in 69AD. Three hundred years later another Greek, called Regulus, took some of his preserved bones and a tooth – for good luck - on a journey which ended with him shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland, where he eventually started a Roman church called St. Andrew’s.
St. Patrick was the dissolute son of a Scots monk. He eventually took the cloth and worked his way up to Bishop before heading south to Ireland as a missionary. While there were never any snakes in Ireland, his famous purging the Emerald Isle of them had a lot more to do with him ridding its infant church of its dangerous tendencies to accommodate wisps of Druidic, Moorish, and Coptic theology, not to mention its obsessive confusion of the Virgin Mary with a sort of profligate faery queen, the Mother of Life, whom they celebrated with keystones in the arches of their churches. Other bas reliefs of this woman, squatting on her bottom, her arms about her vertical shins, her hands holding open the labia of a vagina that extended to her grin, were installed decoratively about church walls, like stations of the cross. These stones, called sheilagh na geeks, gave Australia its colloquial term for females. While the pious St. Patrick had them removed from the church walls, thousands of them miraculously survived, and still lie in the basements of the museum in Dublin. But Patrick was never crucified. He died of long life in Armagh in 463AD.
The Irish used the golden harp or the shamrock as their emblem, and we don’t know precisely how the red saltire on the white ground ended up representing them on the Union Flag, although it seems to have been convenient to the graphic artists of the time - its red saltire fitted neatly within the white of saltire of St. Andrew. But it also has to do with the fact that this saltire, finally named after St. Patrick, was in fact the flag of the Fitzgeralds, who’d been sent by the leonine Henry II, father of Richard I, to bash the Irish into submission in 1169.
The English cross of St. George, a ‘cross throughout’ in heraldic terms - in this case a vertical red cross on a white ground - came from France. French warriors fought beneath it in their invasion of the Islamic east in the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Their English mates carried a white cross on a red ground. By the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) the English had adopted the French version and sometime thereabouts also adopted St. George as the patron of England.
There’s a serious move afoot to have St. George’s Day (April 23rd.) made a public holiday in England. In its St. George’s Day Special Issue of 19th. April 2008, The Spectator’s Diary was written by that venerable scholar, Beryl Bainridge, who calls St. George a scroundrel. “Why on Earth [he] was made our patron saint is a mystery”, she wrote.
Born in 303AD, George was a soldier in the time of the Emperor Diocletian. He made a great deal of money selling pig meat to his fellow troops before he was ordained Archbishop of Alexandria, a position from which he gorged his coffers by taxing the bejeesus out of the Christians while he gave everyone else, like the Jews, the horrors, by pillaging their places of worship. Eventually he was imprisoned, but a mob broke into the jail and chopped him into bits which were chucked into the ocean. Call that a matyrdom if you must; he was certainly not crucified. His spirit was believed to have miraculously assisted the English by visitation to battles fought centuries later by the terrible warriors Richard I, Lionheart, (who was tough on Jews, Moslems and the Pope), and Edward I, Longshanks, (who was tough on the Scots, the Welsh and the Moslems). The bit about the dragon was invented by an Italian biographer of saints, Jacobus de Voragine. George killed many pigs, but a dragon? Uh-huh.
Bainbridge recounts asking her grandson whether they’d taught him anything about St. George at school. “No”, he said, he hadn’t, “apart from the fact that George had a friend who was a dragon.”
That accounts for three crosses. The fourth is a phantom: it’s not really there. Then, you could say it was always there. When the first Union Flag, named after Queen Anne, was designed in 1606 to symbolise the union of Scotland and England, the creative types down at heraldry found they had to retain some of the white background of England’s flag in the form of that narrow white border around the red cross of St. George. At the same time, had they not retained its blue background, the white saltire of St. Andrew would have disappeared into the white ground of George’s cross. And the English cross, of course, had to lie atop the Sottish one, lest the Scots dream of dominance. So the fourth cross represents nothing more than the English presumption of superiority.
The fifth cross is even more ethereal. To somehow imagine a group of stars was put there by God to remind us of his son’s crucifixion is well, stretching it. Why didn’t he stand it up the right way? Shouldn’t it be a saltire? Why is there the annoying fifth interloper? Is that the original Crux, the middle star, slipping down to the right?
It’s too late now to ask Augustin Royer, the French astronomer who first named it Crux Australis in 1679. In those days austral meant something grave, sober, harsh, stern, austere, dry, windy, threatening, astringent and tannic in the great southern unknown.
On the 1901 version of the Australian flag, the five stars in the group each had a different number of points, indicating its magnitude of brightness in the heavens. Poor old Epsilon, the stray one, rarely visible these days from our cities, scored only five. Which it still has. For ease of manufacture, the rest had officially settled at seven points by 1908.
The seven was convenient in that the large Federation Star, aka the Commonwealth Star, below the Union Jack, has seven points, indicating the six states and Papua New Guinea. Yep. Papua New Guinea.
If the Gaelic states, Ireland and Wales, had united and colonised Australia, we could have a flag bearing a sheila, playing a harp amongst the shamrocks.
Which reminds me of South Australia’s first official state badge, or cartouche, which showed a helmeted Britannia standing coolly on a beach, surrounded by cliffs like those at Rapid Bay. Her blowing, flowing robe looks as loose and casual as hippy cheesecloth. She has casually put her shield on the sand, resting it against her right hip, and extends her left hand to an aboriginal bloke who’s hardly dressed at all, sitting on a rock, holding his spear. Maybe it’s her spear. They’re obviously having a chat. Might just as well chat about spears.
Just what the Australian flag represents to aboriginal people gives me the horrors. There are many aboriginal words for bits of the Crux Australis; of course many tribes had their version of how those stars got into the sky, or who, or what they are, but they never, of course, saw a cross in it, preceding, as they did, the invention of God and crucifixions by tens of thousands of years.
Pretty hard, too, to imagine what a God-fearing Islamist sees in our flag. Unless, of course, it’s wrapped around the shoulders of the white crusaders of Cronulla, where it makes absolutely perfect sense.
The Australian flag was best summarised by Seinfeld during his visit to Adelaide. Having spotted the huge bugger flapping in the square outside the Hilton, he said “I love your flag. It’s like England at night.”
As a soldier who has "served under" that flag I do not share the sentiments of so many of those, who in resisting change to a more appropriate bunting, always use the defence that the flag is somehow sacred because so many have "died under it".
From my experience that is a load of codswallop. Certainly, in Vietnam there was no such flag sentiment that I ever noticed. Unit logos, badges and other less formal signs, usually of black humour, dotted the unit lines at Nui Dat. I don't recall seeing too many Australian flags flying although there may have been at Task Force HQ. Vehicles carried stenciled red kangaroo logos to identify us as Australians and there were no Australian flags on our uniforms (I do note that our modern day diggers in Iraq and Afghanistan have Australian flag badges on their uniforms and fly Australian flags on their vehicles but I presume this is because they operate in multi-national forces and they do it to be recognised as Australians). It is always a good idea to ensure that you cannot be mistaken for an American.
I reckon soldiers, particularly those in war zones, are not very flag conscious at all. Not in my day anyway. Everyone was too busy getting the job done and getting home in one piece to be that patriotic - although scratch a digger not very deeply and patriotism will gush forth.
In 1967 if you had asked an Australian digger in Vietnam what the Australian flag should be he probably would have said it should depict a can of VB with two Melbourne Cup winners rampant.