To Be "Really British"

     Last week, there was some attention paid to a recently-opened store in north London called “Really British.” Its owner Chris Ostwald says that he is in the business of selling “quintessentially British items” made in the United Kingdom, such as traditional British condiments, Union Flag tea towels and pillows, miniature red telephone booths, models of the Queen, and socks made by a Welsh company which produces them for Prince Charles.

     However, he and his store have stood accused by local residents of racism and instilling hatred by having a name – Really British – which suggests an attempt to divide between British goods and foreign ones or provoking prejudice against foreign ones. Some people felt that this had something to do with promoting Brexit and raising a middle finger at those who voted to remain in the European Union and otherwise promoting anti-foreign behavior, along with being culturally insensitive.

     Now, perhaps it may well be that this man is taking advantage of Brexit in some way when he talks about the need to promote Britain in Britain following the EU referendum and show that there are British products that can make up for whatever loss or price hikes there may be in terms of items based in other countries, such as French wine. As he said: “It is to highlight what we can get that is in the UK, because after Brexit people were saying: ‘What are we going to do? Nothing’s made in the UK anymore’. “It’s all out of proportion – we can do very well ourselves. I just think, let's support ourselves a bit.”

     With that in mind, I believe there is nothing wrong with promoting the UK and expressing pride in it, especially within the country itself in or out of the EU. Indeed, through the last couple of years, I have been disconcerted by the apparent reluctance of a substantial number of Britons to show some pride and appreciation in their country and worse, who are very cynical, dismissive, and ashamed of its heritage, institutions, and symbols which have contributed to its character, way of life, and how it is seen at home and abroad.

     As a foreigner looking in from across the Pond, I have spent much of life being heavily interested in the UK from a variety of angles: historical, societal and cultural, political and constitutional, the Special Relationship with the United States, and among other things. It started with the great British ocean liners and Harry Potter, and has come a long way from there. Nowadays, I have become so deeply immersed from afar that I have “adopted” the UK as my second country for which there is an appreciation, respect, and love rivaled only by that which have I for my own country.

     It is therefore dispiriting to see the lack of such feeling in Britons themselves. At best this has resulted in somber indifference and at worst, a corrosive cynicism which actively mocks and looks down upon the country and everything about it to the point where people are ashamed of the country and come very close to feeling that it has no worth, value, or redeeming qualities. Without these attributes to pave the way for a healthy patriotism, there is a lack of emotional attachment to the country and hostility toward things such as the Union Flag, and at that point, how long before people come to the conclusion that perhaps the country should simply be cast into the dustbin of history? Indeed, I believe that this is one reason why the SNP has been able to take hold the way they have in Scotland and came close to breaking up the UK in the 2014 referendum.

     Having been closely involved in UK matters for the better part of the last 4-5 years in part because of the referendum and its aftermath, I can understand that the reluctance and even hostility to embrace Britishness – and for that matter feeling ashamed to be British – has to do in part with the rise of the far-right and its use of the Union Flag and other British symbols in their iconography, paraphernalia, and propaganda. It is also understandable that some people may be uncomfortable with Britishness because of the outcome of the EU referendum and the more unfortunate and deplorable events that have happened since and even during the referendum, such as the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox by a mentally disturbed white nationalist who is claimed to have shouted “Britain first” or “Put Britain first” as he carried out the attack.

     This and other actions directing hatred and malice toward others is unacceptable;  it does not represent the Britain I have come to know and is not a mark of showing pride in the country. Such individuals and groups may wave the Union Flag, sing the great national songs, and speak in the name of Queen and Country, but all they have done is help to give the Union Flag and other symbols of Britishness a bad name, even at home, which has lead to the reactions against the Really British shop.

     Now, it is my belief that Union Flag waving is not bad in and of itself, and I like it when watching special events such as the Last Night of the Proms, royal occasions, and Trooping the Colour. It is not necessary to do (and nobody ought to be forced to do so), but can be a healthy expression of patriotism so long as it is not used in an aggressive manner with the purpose of intimidating certain groups of people and attempting to divisively exclude them from society. For my part at home, I hardly wave a US flag during the year, not even on special days such as Memorial Day and Independence Day, and we don’t (as of now) have a flag pole at home. However, I do appreciate those who do decide to have a flag flying at their home or business, or wave it on certain occasions, and whenever I get in on the act, I do it – as so many others do – as an expression of love and appreciation for the land we call home and not hatred for anyone.

     Going along with this theme in the UK, there is also nothing wrong with singing the national anthem, God Save the Queen, or for that matter, Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, and I Vow to Thee My Country. All of them have their place in various events throughout the year, such as the first three at the Last Night of the Proms and the fourth one on Remembrance Sunday, and their own way, are positive expressions of British pride. I especially like I Vow to Thee for its touching, peaceful, and very thoughtful expression of love for country in much the same way as God Bless America.

     The point is that there is a difference between good-hearted patriotism and ugly nationalism, and a balance must be struck in showing ones appreciation and respect for the country that is the United Kingdom without devolving into that nationalism which divides and discriminates. If anything, I believe that it is past time for the vast majority of sensible Britons to reclaim their flag, monarchy, national songs, and other symbols from the far-right and they need to do so in a way which emphasizes that such things are for everyone who calls Britain home.

     Racists and white nationalists use our flag as well, but we as Americans – the vast majority of us – do not allow them to define who we are as a people and as a country; under no circumstances do they own them and nor do they have ownership of what it means to be American. This applies just as well to the UK with regard to how the country as a whole ought to deal with its symbols being hijacked by extremists.

     The British patriotism that I speak of and believe in is one which places faith in the country, and therefore acknowledges that the country is bigger and more consequential than any extremists claiming to speak for it. This patriotism is also bigger than the government of the day, so that there’s much more to the UK than Theresa May, just as there is more to the US than Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

     This leads to the ideal that patriotism is about the power of the individual and what he or she does to positively contribute to society, however big or small and regardless of where they come from, and therefore gets to the heart of the British patriotism I have in mind – one which combines the best of the UK’s traditions and heritage with the best of the modern culture in the country today, which has come by means of immigration and an increasingly interconnected world. After all, my deep and abiding interest in the United Kingdom and to connect with some of its citizens rests on the global nature of our world today.

     Make no mistake that when I think of the UK, I do indeed think of – in part, at least – things such as the monarchy and the Union Flag, Big Ben and Edinburgh Castle, hackney cabs and red telephone booths, bulldogs and tea, Burns and Shakespeare, and the Beatles. And I have to say that in my opinion, the ITV reporter was making too much of a big deal about the lack of diversity in the Really British shop by repeatedly commenting on it not reflective of modern Britain, and claiming that it was representing something of a stereotypical Britishness.

     However, the reality is that the things I’ve mentioned above are among the things many people look forward to when visiting the UK because that is partly what attracts them to the country in the first place. In fact, there was a black Briton who commented under the ITV video on Facebook with regard to the owner of the Really British shop: “Good for you!! It’s a lovely place with genuine ethical purpose and showcasing true British culture. No need to be ashamed of British culture after all, we are in Britain!!”

     Ostwald himself explained quite simply that: “There’s no race that isn’t British…whoever you, wherever you came from, you live in Britain, you’re British.”

     Those were very encouraging and positive statements about what it means to be “Really British” and proud of it in a way that is inclusive of all backgrounds and showing no malice toward others. Indeed, being British should be about bringing the people of the country together to find what they have in common and understand that they have much more that unites than divides them. In the course of time, I believe this means that the owner should include others things in his shop that are expressive of the United Kingdom in the 21st Century. Reading the Harry Potter books and watching the subsequent films during the last decade provided a glimpse into the reality that modern Britain is diverse place and his store should reflect that. However, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the shop as it is and at the end of the day, all the Otswald is doing is selling towels, tea, marmalade, and flags representing the country in which his store is located.

     At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with a healthy display of patriotism and this man appears to have achieved that with a shop peacefully promoting Britain to Britain, as well as to visitors (hopefully such as myself one day). He and everyone in the country can and should work together to help shape and define what being British means and take some pride and appreciation in that for themselves, the country, and future generations.

New Pound, New Kit, More Unity

     When it comes to visual symbols of the United Kingdom, they are often representative of the fact that the UK is a union for four nations that have come together as one country over the centuries and to reflect particular aspects of each part of the Union.

     This is no different with regard to the new pound coin and the new Team GB athletic kit for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janerio this year.

     First up, the new pound coin is currently in production and will start circulation in March 2017. They will be replacing the popular round coins, which have been in production since 1983 and were themselves designed to replace the one pound note. In contrast to the round pounds, these new coins will be 12-sided – which makes them resemble the old pre-decimalization threepenny bit – to better guard against sophisticated counterfeiting. Over time, the vulnerability to counterfeiting has resulted in 45 million phony round pounds flowing through the money supply, or three coins for every 100 in circulation.

     Aside from this, the round pound was known for the versatility in the design of its reverse side – with representations of the country as a whole, as well as prominence given to one of the constituent parts of the UK in a fashion similar to the state quarters in the United States.

The new 12-sided pound coin. Image Credit:   The Herald

The new 12-sided pound coin. Image Credit: The Herald

     For the new pound coin, its obverse will feature a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, as indeed all coins do. On the reverse, it will continue in the tradition of symbolizing the UK by featuring the country’s floral emblems: the Tudor rose for England, the thistle for Scotland, the leek for Wales, and the shamrock representing Northern Ireland. Each of the emblems are “grown” from the same stem and fitted into a Royal coronet, which symbolizes them being united together into one sovereign entity.

     This inaugural new coin displays a symbol of national unity in the UK by linking the emblems of its constituent parts together in a fashion that is simple, but powerfully symbolic on something which every Briton will use.

     Meanwhile, the new Team GB athletic kit designed by Stella McCartney features uniforms which most Britons will likely not use, but they nevertheless contain the sort of symbolism which shows unity out of diversity for the UK.

     Some of you may remember there was some dissatisfaction over the lack of a Union Flag in the kit for British team at the World Athletics Championships. Not so this time, for the 2016 Olympics kit features the Union Flag quite prominently, and unlike the stylized and “modern” Union Flag from four years ago, this one uses more of the actual colors from the flag itself.

     Indeed, as the Telegraph’s Emma Spedding and Bethan Holt noted, McCartney – who also designed the 2012 kit – went against the minimalist approach with different hues of mostly blue and geographic shapes from last time, and instead went for a “focus on bold logos and patriotic emblems.” As a result, there is a splattering of red, white, and blue throughout the apparel being used by all 600 British Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and they are further linked by similar logos, GB embroidery, and a new coat of arms.

     The coat of arms is probably the most striking feature of the kit; they were specially commissioned by Adidas via the College of Arms, who designed them for use on just about everything for the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association from 2016. At their heart is a shield which features the floral emblems of the UK – England’s rose, Scotland’s thistle, the leek for Wales, and the flax (as opposed to shamrock) for Northern Ireland, which are all linked together by four central chains representing the four years of an Olympic cycle.

Representation of Team GB's new and specially designed coat of arms. Image Credit:  BBC

Representation of Team GB's new and specially designed coat of arms. Image Credit: BBC

     On either side supporting the shield are lions, which symbolize strength and athleticism, and are regularly seen on various UK iconography at home and abroad , and they hold Olympic torches and are crowned with the Olympic laurel wreaths. Atop this is a crest containing a smaller lion holding a torch within a crown of gold, silver, and bronze medals, with relay batons between them to represent teamwork, continuity, and shared responsibility. Along the bottom is the Latin motto IUNCTI IN UNO, meaning “Conjoined in One”, which refers to the separate Olympic sports, the Olympic and Paralympic teams, and the four UK Home Nations competing together as Team GB.

     It is very much a more traditional look set against these uniforms which are certainly in the 21st Century, but of course, this is what Britain does all the time – honoring tradition while adapting to current needs and looking to the future.

     This is symbolized, along with the fact that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all critical to making the UK what it is – a multinational nation-state which celebrates the cultures of its various parts, which in turn contributes to the overall culture and society of the United Kingdom has a whole and the concept of being British.

      Indeed, without the sum of its individual parts, there can be no Britain, and the symbolism of the new Team GB kit shows the UK is not just about England, or London, or [big, bad] Westminster, or the [evil] Tories. There is a social, cultural, and perhaps even, a spiritual element to the UK that I believe gets lost in the debates about the constitution, the Barnett Formula, and etc. It was that element of the UK that was truly in danger two years ago, and continues to be at risk – that element which helps to bind the people together into one as they fuse into a common culture with shared values and beliefs, and participate in many of the same things, while also maintaining the elements that make them distinct from each other.

     We saw this four years ago during the Summer Olympic Games on home soil in London as Scotland’s Sir Chris Hoy led Team GB during the opening ceremony with the Union Flag in hand. He would go on the become the UK’s greatest Olympian and so many others who followed him that night set new records and achieved so much for themselves and their country over the next several weeks as the Games were underway. We shall see it again this year when Team GB heads to Rio.

     London 2012 heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, who will be competing in her second Olympics this year, was among the Team GB athletes who took part in the design process and upon the unveiling of the kit, she remarked that it was "an amazing design and I think it will give British athletes a massive sense of pride and give us an edge in Rio." Indeed, this year's kit is 10% lighter than last time around, so it is hoped that the edge which Ennis-Hill speaks of will be functional as well as aesthetic.

     In this regard, it was swimmer Tom Daley's rather small trunks which got much attention, but he insisted that it was all about getting the best result possible. Daley, who also had a hand in the design, further stated stated his belief that the 2016 kit is "going to be iconic" in terms of being than 2012 and expected the coat of arms to be use in future competition for Team GB.

     All of this is a real-life display of the symbolism contained within the new pound coin and Team GB kit – that while the UK is made up of different parts and its people have multiple identities, they also come together as Britons to fuse their individual talents into a national synergy which paves the way for the achievement of great things like the incredible medal haul at London 2012 and in this year, may result in Team GB winning more Olympic medals away from home than ever.

     It certainly shows that Britain is hardly a clapped-out and washed-up former imperial power; her old Empire has been successfully transformed into the Commonwealth, and the country itself had carried on in modern times. It still has much going for it when the people believe in themselves and are willing to join together in common efforts to advance the country and themselves; objects such as the new pound and the Olympics kit act brilliantly as powerful symbols of this unity and togetherness.

Two Flags, One Special Christmas Ornament

     As Christmas approached last year, I searched the web to find a suitable ornament featuring the Union Flag and Stars and Stripes (or some kind of US-UK symbol) for our Christmas tree, and though there were some good selections from which to choose, they were either too expensive or not what I was really look for…or both.

     While at my job (and with time running short till Christmas), I began thinking about making my own ornament and took some time thinking about its size, materials, and feasibility as something that I could do on my own.

     From an arts and crafts store, I purchased a set of thin balsa wood slabs, glossy model paint for three colors (red, white, and blue), paint brushes, and enamel thinner/brush cleaner. Also purchased was a tool kit with a wood cutter and a small hand drill bit for drilling a hole for the ornament hook.

     Even then, and later when I got home, I had no real plan for making the ornament. There was only the most general of ideas of how to do it, and I more-or-less figured things out as I went along.

     First, I researched to find the correct dimensions of the Union Flag, including the measurements for each of the three crosses contained within the flag for St. Andrew, St. George, and St. Patrick – the patron saints of Scotland, England, and Ireland respectively. These were scaled down proportionally to the size of the balsa wood slabs, with their short side used a reference point. The long side being too long for the project, it was cut to size on one of the slabs.

     With the dimensions accounted for and the slab properly sized, I drew the outlines for the respective colors of the flag so that the painting could be done properly and an as cleanly as possible. For extra security, it was decided to use painter’s tape – a form of masking tape – to cover over the areas not being painted at a particular time and thereby ensure a smoother and less messy job.


     The project got properly underway with the painting of St. George’s Cross using glossy red model paint.

     After I had allowed this to dry for a few minutes, it was followed by the painting of the blue field derived from Scotland’s flag. This was done in stages in accordance to the placement of the painter’s tape, and to speed up the progress, I painted in two areas at once – usually in the opposite quadrant from each other after the paint had dried in the other quadrants.

     The final bit of progress made on that first day of the project was the painting of the white border (or fimbriation) around St. George’s Cross, which is derived from the English flag and divides it from the blue field. For this, several pieces of tape were used to prevent the white paint from bleeding over into the other colors, and with white being a light color, these areas required several coats of it to fully cover the vanilla of the balsa wood. After completion, this was left overnight to dry.

     On the next day, I further touched up on the white paint from the previous night, and after I was satisfied, I removed the tape to reveal the Union Flag taking shape quite nicely on the balsa wood.

     Now it was time to work on the diagonal crosses – or saltire’s – of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, which are “counterchanged” so that the position given to the white St. Andrew’s Saltire in one quadrant is the same as that given to the red St. Patrick’s Saltire in the diagonally opposite quadrant. This counterchanging, or pinwheeling effect means that the UK flag is not symmetrical, and is therefore the reason why the flag cannot be flown or drawn in just any way which does not respect the correct positioning of the two crosses.

     Since Scotland – along with England (and Wales) – became part of the Union at its inception on May 1, 1707 and Ireland did not join until nearly a century later, St. Andrew’s Saltire is placed uppermost in the northwest quadrant near the flagstaff, which is also known as the hoist end of the flag and considered the most honorable position in heraldry. St. Patrick’s Saltire received the second most honorable position – being uppermost in the northeast quadrant, the fly end of the flag. St. Andrew's Saltire leads this pinwheeling in the clockwise direction

     For this project, six spaces were created between the lines in each diagonal of the flag in accordance to the actual dimensions of a standard flag. In each diagonal, four of the spaces are painted white and two are painted red, with the result that the two crosses sit side-by-side along the center lines of the diagonals and a fimbriation is formed to prevent St. Patrick’s Saltire from touching the blue field.

     So first, I painted the three white spaces which form St. Andrew’s Saltire in each quadrant, and after several coats, it was left to dry for much of the day until I returned to remove the tape.

     Then I proceeded to paint the fourth white space, and following several applications of the color, it too was left to dry for several hours.

     Upon the removal of the painter’s tape from here, St. Andrew’s Saltire and the fimbriations around it were complete.

     Now came the time to paint St. Patrick’s Saltire of Northern Ireland into the remaining space within the diagonals. This was left overnight to dry.

     Upon the beginning of day three, a final coat of red was applied to St. Patrick’s Saltire and the tape was peeled away to reveal a finished Union Flag!

     With this half of the project completed, I moved on to the Stars and Stripes.

     As with the Union Jack, I started work on my country’s flag by researching to find the correct dimensions – including the measurements for the thirteen stripes, the blue canton in the upper left corner, and the fifty stars within the canton. With the measurements being accounted for, they were scaled down proportionally to fit the size of the balsa wood slab, and with this completed, the real work could begin.

     First came the drawing of the stripes, followed by the upper left canton.

     Paintwork was then commenced on the stripes representing the thirteen British colonies which became the first states in the Union in 1776. The red stripes were painted first – with the first, third, fifth, and seventh stripes being painted before the second, fourth, and sixth due to the constraints via the painter’s tape. Upon completion and drying out, the tape was removed to reveal seven near-perfect red stripes.

     Now it was time for painting the white stripes, which were done a bit more quickly because I had found a way to sufficiently cover the whole of all of the red stripes as I painted the white ones between them. After several coats, this was left overnight to dry.

     On the next morning, day 4 began with the unpeeling of the painter’s tape to show the completed thirteen stripes. Following this was probably the hardest part of the whole project: the fifty stars representing the fifty states of the Union today against the upper left blue canton.

     The stars themselves would be quite tiny and required precise locations in order to make the overall flag look right. To this end, I drew lines down and across the canton in reflection of the measurements on an actual flag, and once this was right, I drew in dots at the relevant intersections as placeholders for the stars. As one can see, there was a significant amount of erasing going on as I worked to get the placement as accurate as possible.

     Next, I proceeded to paint the fifty white stars. With no realistic way of trying to paint through a cut-out of the stars or anything of that sort, I resorted to painting them one by one with varying degrees of success to say the least.

     Following this was painting the blue canton around those stars. This proved quite tricky since I was trying to negotiate around the stars that were already painted, and as it was, I did mess up on some of the stars, but pressed on with the painting.

     After allowing this to dry overnight, day 5 opened with the retouching of the stars that had been damaged by the blue paint. What ended up happening was a back and forth battle between getting white stars and the blue field as accurate as possible. This alone took a whole day to do because in some cases, I had to allow one paint to dry before using the other paint, lest the colors mixed and created a bigger mess!

     Finally on the sixth day, the project was complete. The hand drill bit was used to drill a hole at the top in order to place an ornament hook through it, and a spot on our family Christmas tree was found for the newest addition among its decorations!

     One year later, and I must say that I am still very much proud of producing this special ornament which celebrates the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. It beautifully graces our tree in a position where both sides are prominently featured and can be appreciated for being a work of art and craftsmanship. Indeed, it shows what can be done when a person puts their mind (and patience) to it.

     During the Christmas season, I hope that all of us will certainly have a mind for being with our families, giving to others, and counting our blessings. It’s unique time for joy and celebration under any flag, and we’ll do well to remember the importance of striving towards “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”

     Merry Christmas!