Tuesday, 24 March 2009

St. George's Day doesn't have to be all about football and skinheads

I was struck the other day by an extraordinary, though admittedly rather odd similarity between two characters that will be familiar to Britons of all ages. Giants of popular culture; they're both yellow, rather portly, a little thick, have an obsession with snacking, and manage to be somehow both annoying and lovable at the same time. Who could I possibly be referring to? Yes I'm afraid it's my old friend Winnie-the-Pooh. And Homer J. Simpson.

Well don't look at me, I told you it was odd. But it does go beyond them both being fat, stupid and yellow... trust me. Consider this. Like Homer, Pooh's gluttony frequently gets him into tight spots (such as Rabbit's rabbit-hole), and he often breaks off, mid-conversation, to fantasise about or look for food. In Eeyore Loses a Tail (1926), for example, Pooh is in Owl's house, who is devising a plan to help find the missing appendage...

"We write a notice to say that we will give a large something to anyone who finds Eeyore's tail".
"I see, I see," said Pooh, nodding his head. "Talking about large somethings," he went on dreamily, "I generally have a small something about now - about this time in the morning," and he looked wistfully at the cupboard in the corner of Owl's parlour; "just a mouthful of condensed milk or what-not, perhaps with a lick of honey-"
"Well then," said Owl, "we write out this notice, and we put it up all over the Forest."
"A lick of honey," murmered Bear to himself, "or - or not, as the case may be".

Pooh then proceeds to follow Owl's conversation without a single clue over what is being said, giving generic responses along the lines of 'yes' and 'no' intermittently. Remind you of anybody?

In another story, Piglet and Pooh decide they are going to catch a Heffalump, using the last of Pooh's honey as bait in the trap they have set. In the middle of the night however, Pooh decides that he can't take it anymore and proceeds to get his honey back. Finding the jar, he realises that actually, he'd eaten most of the honey anyway so sticks his head into it to get to the bottom. The next morning, Piglet goes to check on the trap, believing he could hear a Heffalump inside. Scared, he calls for Christopher Robin, who in a fit of laughter realises that - in typical Simpsons style - the 'Heffalump' is in fact Pooh, ramming himself into a tree root, desperately trying to remove the honey pot from his head.

Am I seriously suggesting, I hear you cry, that Matt Groening subconsciously stole Winnie-the-Pooh's character? Perhaps. Winnie-the-Pooh was probably fairly popular in America to have been adapted at all. Pooh is, of course much more well-spoken than Homer, despite also being, by his own admission, "of very little brain"; but then that's because he's English, not American. And that's just the point isn't it? The world may be more familiar with Walt Disney's corruption of Milne's creation, but this giant of children's literature, in his original form, encapsulates so much of that traditional Englishness. Bumbling, well-mannered, a bit on the cheeky side perhaps but overall a lovable scamp... Not entirely unlike the current Mayor of London in fact, who I incidentally have already compared to Winnie-the-Pooh on these very pages.

Yes, you were right to have faith. This piece had to be moving somewhere. Boris Johnson has of course announced that he's going to give St. George's Day a proper send-off this year in London with a boon of official events celebrating hundreds of years of English culture throughout the week. And it's about time. We seem to be curiously cautious about our identity here in England at a time where our fellow islanders in Scotland and Wales are seeing a renaissance in theirs. And yet, in doing so we've enabled the crazies and the ruffians to hijack this rich and diverse tapestry, and in no way more than the cross of St. George itself. The English flag may adorn the top of every single Anglican church in the land, but somehow we've allowed it become more representative of football hooligans and knuckle-scraping racists. The very fact that even Billy Bragg is in agreement with me here demonstrates the urgency with which this needs to be addressed.

In fretting over ridiculous things such as whether muslims might be offended by a symbol of the crusades (which frankly, has to be offensive to the good sense of English muslims) we've forgotten that England, and its flag, can be just as much about Winnie-the-Pooh and Gillray, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, Christopher Wren and Charles II, Jeeves & Wooster, Gladstone & Disraeli, Dickens and Darwin, Morecambe & Wise, John Lennon and Jarvis Cocker. Not only is England the absolute mother of all parliaments, not only did we bring trade and prosperity to the far corners of the earth and risk it all to free Europe from tyranny (twice); but it's hardly a stretch to say that we damn well have the finest comedians and musicians on the globe right now. The Americans would certainly testify to that - English bands and sitcoms have seldom seen such a enormous wave of popularity in the States, in a climate which we've become far more accustomed to it being the other way round. Cultural hegemony my fanny.

So I say break the habit of a lifetime everybody and stick St. George's Day on your calendars this year. It's April 23, which you'll of course already know happens to be William Shakespeare's birthday (I knew none of these things before today). After all, England's given a hell of a lot to the world, and we've very openly received a lot in return. So I think it's about time we started to feel good about the fact. All of us. And maybe even have a barbeque or something to celebrate. Yeah, barbeque. Cumberland sausage, anyone?


  1. paul maybe you're thinking a little too deeply about winnie the pooh! something that perhaps should be pondered is the gender of Rabbit - what's going on there?

    i'd be interested to know your views on PIG FLU. all i've heard is a great deal of apocalyptic hype and some brilliant, but obviously quite offensive, jokes on the subject.

  2. one can never think too deeply about winnie the pooh!

    haha I have not heard any jokes apart from the jade goody one, which is hilarious because she was and still is scum.

    personally I think it's all bollocks. remember when we were all going to die of bird flu?