Flag by John Agard

I love this poem. I love the simplicity of this poem. But before you get into it, you have to understand JUST why a flag is so important…

A flag is used as a symbol of pride in nationality. Consider the Dixie Flag, the ‘Confederate’ flag. Millions of homes in the southern states of the USA still have a Confederate flag outside their home. The Confederate army hasn’t existed for over two hundred years, so why do people still use it? Partly it’s pride. It’s a statement. It says you’ve signed up for all the values that the Confederates stood for. It’s a universal V-sign saying ‘Up Yours!’ to the Yankee Northerners with their Stars-and-Stripes flag. So partly it’s pride and partly it’s defiance. Nobody puts a flag outside their house and doesn’t expect some kind of reaction.

When the football is on, England is awash with St George’s flags – the red cross on a white background. People paint it on their faces. They use the flag in bunting. It’s both a symbol of identity: “I’m English and I’m proud of it.” and a symbol of defiance: “We’re going to beat all of you!” – it’s no different with football colours, football scarves. It’s part pride and part antagonism.

The English flag is a great example to talk about, because it’s something we all know can cause arguments and antagonism. Racist or national extremist groups adopt it as a symbol of being racially pure and it engenders discussion about who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t. It’s sometimes used as a taunt to people. Living in France, if I were to put up a St George’s flag, I’m saying: “I’m English and proud!” but I’m also saying: “I don’t want to be French. I don’t identify with you. I’m different. England is superior to France. This is English territory right in your territory! Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” and I’m guaranteed to stir up emotion, mainly from either English people who believe I’m right to be proud of my nationality and to flaunt it in a foreign land that I’ve chosen to live in, or from French people who think ‘well, go back to England or integrate!’

As another example, a house down the road has a Welsh flag outside. Why doesn’t that do the same? Because there aren’t 1000 years of antagonism between the Welsh and the French. That Welsh flag isn’t a threat. It’s someone being proud to be Welsh. It just doesn’t stir up the same emotion.

Go to ‘border’ towns between England and Wales, though, and that flag becomes antagonistic, just like the flag on the Moon was an antagonism to the Russians, just like the Chinese flag is an antagonism in Nepal. Like dogs, it’s fine to piss in your own territory, but when you start pissing on someone else’s territory, they’ll get upset. There will be fights if they don’t want to let you take over their land. A flag brings out the primeval, the animal instinct in all of us.

Firstly, flags were used to make something recognisable – if you’re all in armour or all dressed in army clothes, a flag is a great way to identify yourself and distinguish yourselves. People use flags at big events, so that their friends can find them. It shows who you are, and where you are. After that, they began to take on a life of their own, representing a nation. In some countries, flags are everywhere: on churches, on town halls, on civic buildings. Each tiny village in France has a flag. It’s everywhere. Yet in some countries, like Japan, there aren’t many flags. Here, the flag has become a symbol of war. The Japanese rising sun is not flown in many places. The only place I saw it was at the war museum in Hiroshima. The flag is now more of a symbol of shame because it tells of things that happened in the war – things that should never have happened. National pride is one thing: flaunting it is another. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see so many flags in Japan.

‘Capture the Flag’ was a popular game, and is the name for a series of games on war games as well as a popular paintball scenario. If you take someone’s flag, they’ve lost. That’s how important a flag is.

Comedian Tim Minchin wrote in The Observer about his arrival into Phoenix, Arizona:

“We drive out of the airport past the compulsory orgy of American flags, which despite their quiet fluttering still manage to scream: YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA!

Where am I?

Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

See. Flags mean something to everyone. Even Australian comedians.

Wow. That’s a lot of background to a flag. And a flag means all of these things. It has the potential to spur you on, to bring you to tears, to make you feel patriotic, to mark you. By using it, you’re saying ‘I’m here’ and ‘This is what I am’ and you’re also, potentially, goading anyone who doesn’t feel like you do about whatever the flag represents.

And as you can see, there’s no way on earth a flag is ‘just a piece of cloth’.

You’ll be able to read more about this poem in my ebook on Kindle, which will be up-and-running by the end of the week. In the meantime, feel free to check out my ebook about the Conflict poems from the Literary Heritage

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

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2 thoughts on “Flag by John Agard

    • Thanks… I write in the vain hope that my words might get to some of the pupils (and teachers…) who write that poems are set out like people giving the finger or like waves and who are taught imbecilic things that I then spend my summer marking. I live in hope.

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