Sunday, 3 June 2012

Distressed or 'in mourning'?

As we are entering the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Union Flags are appearing all over the country.  This is not normal in England, where most people quietly get on with the inconvenience of being British without having to demonstrate it to each other.

The unaccustomed national pride belies a certain level of national ignorance that I find to be somewhat surprising.  It seems that a large proportion of British 'subjects' (for we are not honoured with the title 'citizens') are ignorant of the traditions surrounding our flag.  See whether you can spot the difference between this:

Upside down or not?

and this:

Upside down or not?  One of them is wrong.

Can you see it?  The first is the right way up and the second is upside down.  It is all to do with the diagonal white stripes.  At the flag pole, the wide white stripe is above the red diagonal, and the narrow white strip is below the red. The flag really is not symmetrical as a mirror image about either the vertical or horizontal centre-line.  It is rotationally symmetrical, but that is little help when flying it, as the lanyard is at one end.

Driving through a local market town, Abingdon, last night, I was delighted that I did not see a single flag that was the wrong way up.  Sadly, that is not the case everywhere - and YES - I do notice! 

If you are not British (and perhaps even if you are) you might not have known that there is a right and wrong way up, but the fact that not many people notice the error has been useful in history.  It meant that ships could fly a Union Flag (sometimes incorrectly known as the Union Jack) upside-down as a secret sign of distress.  Other British sailors would immediately spot the faux-pas and know that it could not possibly be a mistake.  They might take that as a warning that there was a possibility of an ambush, but the ship's captors would have no notion of the message that had been sent.

If you don't believe me, then in a sense it proves a point.  If you have parents like mine (thanks to my ex-Girl-Guide mother!) the orientation of our flag is so important that it is almost physically uncomfortable when it is not correct.  I am learning to live with this affliction, but it appears to me that a lot of other people have been more successful than me.  Driving around 'loyalist' areas of Northern Ireland where these flags are much more common, I find myself continually irritated by the ignorance of the thugs who have climbed lamp posts in order to fly a flag incorrectly.  How could they be both loyal and disrespectful?

A couple of years ago, one morning as I entered a government site, I spotted that the flag was upside down.  I mentioned it to the site manager whose office was close to mine.  Naturally he denied that it was even possible.  He said that the lanyard was longer on the bottom of the flag than the top, and asked whether the flag had been right at the top of the mast.  His reasoning was that if it had been at the top, then it could not be upside down.  As it happens, I had not noticed how high the flag had been.  However, by coincidence, when I next saw it at lunch time the error had been corrected. 

No more was said about the subject for a few months, but when it happened again I took a photo of the flag with my phone.  I e-mailed it to the site manager saying that, since the flag was both upside-down and at half-mast, I was struggling to tell whether we were in distress or in mourning.

History does not record his reply!

Small note:  With any luck, in two years time, Scotland will achieve full independence from UK (and bankruptcy), and the flag will have to be replaced by another design. 


Anonymous said...

Who gives a flying flag?

Derby Sceptic said...

Pleased to see that I am not the only person who notices when the flag is flown upside down. Also that the correct name is Union flag.

Tony the slightly unstable genius said...

I believe that the flag is referred to as the Union Jack when flow from the "Jack Staff", a pole on the bow of a ship, on British ships. The use of the term "Union Jack" is widely used in the navy.

RosaRubicondior said...

Went to London on Thursday. When we got off the Oxford Tube at Marble Arch and walked round into Oxford Street, my first thought was, "how did they know we were coming?"

Turned out the flags weren't for us though.