Except this time people actually celebrated it. Gone were the weak discussions about whether we should celebrate it or even whether the English have a separate cultural identity ("is there anything between British at the top and regional -Yorkshire, Somerset- at the bottom?").
Can we attribute this to the looming Scottish nationalist referendum? Is it an identity forming because of the further othering of the Other? Or are there other factors? Is it just because this is a year of ghosts?
Every year it is remarked that St George is an odd choice for patron saint, especially for a country with so many domestic ones to choose from.
But they are often odd or, at least, disconcerting when examined too closely. As my bus goes through Notting Hill, it passes a beautiful statue of Saint Volodymyr, which is currently covered in flowers and pictures of Ukranian family members. (Folk magic is always just under the skin.)
It is an arresting reminder of the state of the world each morning. Saint Volodymyr's children are going through what they are going through largely due to the machinations of Saint George's children and grandchildren.
And so that brings it back to what it is that we might be celebrating with the (welcome) return of Saint George's Day. Because there is no getting around the fact that we are the bad guys. No sense in taking it personally, dear readers, but we really should look at it head on.
This bifurcation of identity -whether cultural or... gasp... even political- is a deeper consideration than it first appears. Above is my local riverside pub, currently appearing sans river. Most famously, Charles II wooed his mistress Nell Gwynn here. But it was also a regency writers and artists hangout.
Rule Britannia was written here:
Sitting on the balcony enjoying the brief sunshine over the weekend, I think on this. And then I think on Crowley.
Specifically, I think about the Tobias Churton biography, which I have reconsidered my opinion on. It is now the best Crowley biography you could read if you have already read at least three others. He probably does a better job of tracking the Beast's spook connections than Secret Agent 666. I think Churton sees spies everywhere, but most other analyses see them nowhere. Reality, I suspect, is closer to Churton, but not the whole way there. (Taking a girl band to Russia and then hanging out exclusively with diplomats and known intel asset handlers is an obvious op I hadn't seen before.)
What all of this means is that there is yet another contradiction in this most contradictory of men. He builds a belief system around freedom from slavery that is so iconoclastic that it all-too-easily gets co-opted by the Far Right, he refers to England as 'Shitland'... and yet he repeatedly risks his life and consistently destroys his own reputation in service of Shitland. Crowley personally and spiritually disliked the head that wore it, but was willing to die for the Crown. He would come to say he was an aristocrat at heart and an anarchist in the head.
From the Churton biography:
Crowley declared he was 'quite prepared to die for England in that brutal, unthinking way. Rule Britannia gets me going as if I were the most ordinary music hall audience. This animal is prepared to use its brains and its force as stupidly and unscrupulously as the Duke of Wellington.' Crowley knew England was often wrong, patriotism often poppycock, but he would serve her to the last drop of his blood.
Since finishing the book a couple of months ago, I have been going over what it must have been like to be flayed in the gutter press for things done whilst in service to the Realm, and to be abandoned by your handlers when you ask for their assistance in the fight. Basically, Crowley's answer to patriotism is 'Anthem' from Chess.
There is a sophistication in Crowley's attitude to his national culture... a pragmatic bifurcation of the bad and the good. Typically, we don't like to acknowledge the bad. We like to separate our extremely bloodstained hands from those that make ale or pick elderflower from secret spots by country lanes. Don't blame me. I didn't personally invade Iraq. Well, you did. You paid for it. If you sing Rule Britannia you did.
Crowley not only acknowledged the bad. He called it out. He actively subverted it. And when the stakes were high enough, he even worked with it. Not to save the bad, but because at that moment the bad was the only thing standing in between the good on one side and something much, much worse on the other.
And so Saint George emerges as a wondrously appropriate patron saint. You may call it chicken and the egg if you like (Did choosing a complex warrior saint give birth to a complex militant culture, or does a complex military culture choose a complex warrior saint to explain itself?)
Given that this seems to be going around lately, it is probable that Saint George never existed. The site of his shrine in Lydda was originally dedicated to "a man of the highest distinction". It would be a few centuries later -centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire- before the site was dedicated to Saint George. We may assume this was the tomb of a celebrated local chieftan but there is nothing to connect whoever the original occupant of the long-vanished tomb was with the later story of Saint George. The connection, like so many others at this time, is presumably typological. So George is a type of a saint -a warrior saint- that serves as a receptacle for older ideas, older thought forms.
Although mentioned as a martyr by Bede, he only grew to prominence on these shores with the crusades and only became England's patron saint in the fourteenth century. If he was prominent around and during the crusades then what that actually means is that he was important to the Normans... who had by that point only very recently invaded the country.
On my various visits to Wales and the Welsh Borders last year, the remains of the Norman keeps are still hugely visible. These were superweapons, Death Stars of their day. We also know that the Normans had an odd, parapolitical vision of themselves, their destiny and the Roman Empire. And even just a few centuries before, the high born Britons continued to look back at Roman times and associate themselves with that perception of culture and success.
So, in the complete absence of any other explanation as to what Saint George is doing here, I put it to you that we are looking at a piece of high born hoodoo. George was a soldier in the Roman army... the military wing of a highly successful invading empire that viewed itself as culturally superior to the locals. That's quite Norman. It's also quite good magic. As for why George was chosen over any number of other Roman warrior folklore saints... well... The Normans were also having more than a little trouble with those pesky Welshmen... the people of the dragon.
By the time George was declared patron saint, the English court had actually only been speaking English for a generation. The 'us' and 'them' divide was still firmly in place. My suspicion that he represents a psychic image of the glorified days of the empire may help in understanding why so very many places have ended up with George as a patron saint. The Roman empire was not a small place and local peasants are revolting everywhere.
Inevitably, Saint George resists a functional explanation just as much as the imperial culture that adopted him. There are layers and complexities to the archetype that invite us in different directions. Firstly, there is the dragon's invitational presence in the iconography, beckoning us under Welsh hills and into other dark places.
Then there are the lesser known components to the Saint George story that offer up a hugely significant opportunity. The lazy equation of Saint George with Michael or similar protective folklores may be a bit presumptuous.
Consider this excerpt from an old book I found in a dusty secondhand bookstore on my high road, Saint George: The Saint With Three Faces (which I read next door at the George IV, my actual destination that afternoon).
The 'seven' years is an obvious astrological reference, and the otherwise unnecessarily-specific 30,900 people is in the ballpark of precessional numbers point very strongly at some underlying astrotheology. That's the boring bit.
What about that bit where he is cut up into pieces and descends into the underworld (via a well) after drinking a magic potion a wizard gave him? There is some Mystery School shit going on here. Let's add some alchemy. He's filled with lead, rendered over a fire and then 'split into two'... which would be the base and subtle elements. If any of this reminds you of Mithras -and it should- then you need to remember that Saint George is Syrian. And a Roman warrior.
Saint George isn't a warrior god, he is the god of the warriors; the hidden, initiatory, astrotheological god of the warriors. He's replaced the bull with the dragon -both stellar asterisms anyway- and thrown in some Osiris for flavour but it is all simply... there. A fuzzy, quantum amalgam of warrior Mysteries... the perennial red pill of the men of an aggressive, expansionist imperial project... their ticket to reconciling a life of bringing death with the realisation that it is not the end when it comes.
Do you think the Normans and their descendants knew about Mithraism? Do you think they were aware that their newly captured capital of London is dotted with Mithraic temples? The answer is almost certainly no. If they did know, then history just got a lot more magical with a continuous survival over further six centuries of a Mystery warrior cult. If they didn't know, then history just got a lot more magical with a great, stonking synchronicity.
How interesting that this is the year that Saint George announces his earnest return. Huddling outside pubs in Fitzrovia last night, vainly trying to stay dry from the typical April weather, listening to people using Saint George's Day as the excuse for staying out till past midnight (ooops!) on a school night, my mind begins the palimpsest. Dragons, warrior mysteries, empires, Crowley, guilt, blood, identity, heraldry.
And so the route into Saint George and his Day is the Crowley route. The Mystery is one that is set to the side of the business of nationhood. Yes, the hands that enact it are the same hands complicit in some very dark deeds, as were the hands of the Mithraic initiates. (Let's be clear: it was a drug cult open only to professional killers.)
Saint George is a complex spirit presiding over a complex journey. The land he presides over, however, is anything but complex. His land is one of infinite simplicity, whose only borders lie around our hearts.