A Symbol (or three) Too Far
Yesterday we had the American flag featured in the Robert Rauschenberger piece Short Circuit. There was obviously a reason for his including it – I think it was done by Jasper Johns – and it’s thought-provoking for that reason. I find the study of flags, for which there is a term vexillology interesting in an abstract sort of way. The designs and motifs included can be informative; I have used them with children and adults to talk about symmetry to interesting effect. Flag flying, however, is a symbol I struggle with and I am not sure why. I think it is something to do with my confusion around the purpose of the symbol. If someone hoists a flag outside their front door, or in their back garden, what does it mean? I think it’s when I don’t know what it means I become unsettled. It’s not like we have a flag flying culture in England hence my confusion. And then of course I am sensitive to other implicit motives. This is probably peculiar to our culture. The American culture takes a different attitude, the Danes another again. As much as flying a flag says something, so does our relationship to the symbol being flown.
Anyway, that was a bit deeper than I meant to go with this, but it has been borne out of an anger I felt this afternoon when driving home from work. As I waited at the traffic lights at Victoria Circus, I noticed something outside the Revenues and Customs offices, a not inconsiderably sized office block: the Union Flag flying at half-mast. What annoyed me, is that there is never a flag outside that building. They had bought a special one for the purposes of flying at half-mast for today’s funeral of Margaret Thatcher. I continued, fuming, down Victoria Avenue. The Civic Centre – same. A flag on the top of the building and another outside. Again, these poles are normally empty.
I was incensed on so many different levels that I still don’t quite understand it myself. The point of flying a flag half-mast is to signal respect or mourning. What the purpose of buying a flag to fly half-mast and then presumably remove is some other sort of fucked up symbolism that messes with my head (and the public purse). Perhaps in my head it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ten million quid on the main event in London and then new flags all round – out of our council tax. You can’t just use symbols willy nilly like that because it’s staged. It’s exploitative and disrespectful. We don’t fly flags outside the Revenue and Customs office normally, so don’t start now. It’s a red rag to the bull’s horns of austerity that the public are being gored on.
I am not against flags, but they are too potent a symbol to be used casually, for the purposes of spin, to dictate a mood to the country that we mainly do not feel. Margaret Thatcher was an old woman who had a good life, who knew no especial hardship, and whose convictions seemed, too often, to be partly based on absence of empathy. She was an old woman whose time has long gone, but had the power to cause a lot of social injustice which remains. She was an old woman, loved by her family, who died in The Ritz hotel, aged 87. She died of a stroke and, I imagine, knew nothing about it. It’s not a bad way to go, as things stand.
I wouldn’t mind it so much myself. There is, however, no specially purchased flag necessary.