I didn’t mean it to happen – but for a short period, around the age of 18, I think I was an English Nationalist. I liked to go shopping for bad clothes and bootleg tapes in Kensington Market, and one day chanced upon a stall piled with books, pamphlets and pictures that had a beguiling whiff of Albion about it. Albion looked cool, in a fuzzy sort of way. I was hopped up on Blake, enamoured of the martyrologies of Burford, Peterloo and Tolpuddle – I couldn’t get enough of books with titles like The English Revolution, The Making of the English Working Class, and A People’s History of England. Among the literature, the stall had a small stock of badges. I wasn’t sure about some of the symbols, but a neat little St George’s Cross lapel pin looked just the thing. To me, it said Jerusalem – radical promise, utopian affirmation, the memory and hope of a world turned upside down.
I stopped wearing it a couple of months later. Pausing at a table in a pub where an old friend sat chatting with some blokes I didn’t know, I said hello. To my surprise, one of them froze, then recoiled: he was staring at my badge. There was fear, anger, and confusion – it was all hugely embarrassing. If the badge spoke of England, it clearly wasn’t the millennial England I’d been carefully confecting for myself. (With hindsight, I suspect my crew cut, nine-hole docs and MA1 weren’t helping either.) The incident grew a moral or two – that words and symbols couldn’t just be made to mean what I wanted them to mean, damn them, and that the emblems of nationhood had a distinctly unnerving power. It wasn’t a power that could be innocently invoked. My utopian imaginings ought not to be knitted into a dream of England.