On flags

Katherine Stansfield

Tonight, for the first time in many years, I’m missing the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest. I will also miss the final itself when it’s broadcast in a few days’ time. The annual musical gathering of nations is a highlight of my year (in all seriousness – I love it), and whilst I’m not convinced it really is the celebration of song it makes itself out to be, Eurovision does offer a fascinating glimpse into the construction of national identity. And a big part of the identity of nationhood is, of course, a country’s flag. Flags are everywhere at Eurovision: on screen as each entry plays, with the phone numbers when it’s time to cast votes, and in the audience. Of the thousands of people who will watch the final live, most of them will be waving flags (or at least that’s what it tends to look like when I’m watching from my sofa in Aberystwyth). But this year, Eurovision has not been without its controversy, flag-wise.

In the run-up to the semi-finals, headlines appeared claiming that the Welsh flag had been banned from the Globe Arena in Stockholm where the final is being held, despite the fact that one half of the UK’s entrant is from Wales. A number of other flags were also on the banned list, including that of ISIS. This decision resulted from the Eurovision Song Contest’s flag policy which restricted flag presence to those of contest members and UN states. A spokesman for the contest told WalesOnline that, ‘The European Broadcasting Union aims to ensure that the Eurovision Song Contest is free from political statements’, and so flags other than those on the approved list were banned. The resulting outcry over the Welsh flag’s absence forced a hasty policy re-think by Eurovision organisers who will now allow ‘national, regional and local flags of the participants’ to fly at the final, including that of Wales.

What intrigued me more than the media’s click-bait conflation of the Welsh flag with that of ISIS was that Eurovision believes itself free of political statements when flags themselves are inherently political. Allowing the union flag but not the Welsh flag is political because it excludes a separate cultural and political identity. The Pride flag is permitted at Eurovision but audience-goers are asked (according to the Western Mail) not to wave their flags in a political manner, for example during Russia’s entry. Presumably this could be construed as a protest about Russia’s horrendous record on LGBTQ rights, which suggests Eurovision organisers do recognise the Pride flag is a political statement. As these examples show, flags can offer a helpful short-hand for identity, they can define an idea or a movement, but they can also, of course, be reductive, and very often divisive, depending on whether you’re waving it or having it waved at you, designing it to represent your own identity, or having that of someone else imposed on you. Whatever an individual flag’s intended purpose, flags are never without politics, despite Eurovision’s policy wording.

A fear of flags could be termed ‘vexiphobia’, given that vexillology is the study of flags, stemming from the Latin word vexillum, meaning flag, but the internet is vague on whether or not this is a recognised term. I like the word so chose it as the title for a poem which, on the face of things, is concerned with the materiality of flags: their size, the sound they make on a flag pole. I’m not afraid of them, but people online are very happy to share the contours of their own fear and the poem makes use of some researched specifics, including terror of flags that are very high up, too high to be controlled by people. That surprised me. Being smothered by a flag was a threat I could imagine; being made uneasy by the height of a flag wasn’t.

But the poem is about another kind of fear, too: the fear of the power of flags – their political power. This is the ‘turn’ of the poem, and though I’m thinking about Eurovision and its flags tonight as I write this post for The Lonely Crowd, the idea for the poem came much earlier: from news coverage about a decision made by Belfast City Council in 2012 to fly the union flag at city hall only on designated days. This sparked violent protests: Nationalists wanted the flag removed altogether while Unionists felt it should continue to fly as it had done before. The ‘designated days’ vote was a compromise that seemed to please no one, and the resulting scenes outside Belfast’s city hall were terrifying. The anger and hatred found expression in the flag: a symbol of different things to each side, a symbol of centuries of fighting, and in the midst of the tumbling bodies were hundreds more union flags. Flags that could kill. These ideas come together in ‘Vexiphobia’.

You can read ‘Vexiphobia’ and another new poem, ‘Fog’, in our new issue, which may be purchased here.

k stansKatherine Stansfield’s poems have appeared as The Guardian online poem of the week and the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre’s weekly poem, as well as on The Writer’s Hub at Birkbeck, Ink Sweat & Tears, in Magma, New Welsh Review, Planet, Poetry Wales, Poetry Cornwall, The Lampeter Review, and The James Dickey Review. Playing House, her first collection, was published by Seren in 2014. The Visitor, a novel, was published by Parthian in 2013 and won the 2014 Holyer an Gof Prize for Fiction.

Copyright © Katherine Stansfield, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.