Wednesday, 30 May 2012

This way up!

So then. Her Majesty the Queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, as are many of her happy subjects. This means that flags are flying wherever you look. And this disturbs me. Not because I don't agree with flag-flying - the town I call home is looking very festive - but because so many of the flags I've seen have been flying upside down.

I read somewhere the other day that 99% of British people are oblivious to the fact that it is possible to fly the Union Flag the wrong way up. But possible it is. As my husband says, it is typically British to have a flag that is so complicated and so subtle, and so easy to hang upside down.

The history of the Union Flag is the history of the United Kingdom, and helps explain its complicated design. The current design dates back to 1801 and the Act of Union, which merged Great Britain and Ireland. Up until this point, the flag had consisted of the red cross of St George, representing England, and the diagonal white cross of St Andrew, against its blue background, representing Scotland. With the Act of Union, the red diagonal cross of St Patrick was added, to represent Ireland.

In heraldry terms, the flag is blazoned Azure, the Crosses Saltire of St Andrew and St Patrick, quarterly per saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St George of the third, fimbriated as the saltire, which is lovely, isn't it?

Here is the Union Flag the right way up:

The crucial thing about the flag is that the broader of the two white diagonal stripes should be uppermost when attached to a flag-pole. Simple. It follows that the broader of the two white stripes should be on the left when the flag is, say, hung in a shop window (Hexham sweet-shops, opticians, takeaway bakeries, purveyors of objets d'art, pubs and travel agents - this means you!).

This is the flag displayed upside down:

It is a subtle difference, but doesn't it just somehow look... wrong?

Traditionally, flying the flag upside down was a distress signal. It is also seen as 'lèse majesté' (from the Latin laesa maiestas, meaning 'injured majesty'). In other words, it's just not good manners. The shop-keepers who are flying their flags upside down as a mark of patriotism are, strictly-speaking, being a little rude to Her Majesty. If we're going to get all patriotic, surely we can at least do it the right way up?

I have been wondering about solutions to this problem, and ways of ensuring our national flag is always displayed correctly. I came up with my own design. Here it is:

The upper half represents the usual colour of our sky, whilst the lower half represents our green and pleasant land. Simple, honest and easy to get right.

I'm joking, of course. But one thing that did catch my eye yesterday as I walked through town was a string of Union Flags with a picture of the Queen in the middle. Aha. You'd have to be a real idiot to hang those the wrong way up. So, between us, my husband and I (!) have come up with this re-design of the Union Flag, as a fool-proof alternative to the current one. A small change. Effective though, I think.

Whatever you're planning to do on the forthcoming special Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend, I hope you have a festive time, and get to eat lots of cake and drink lots of lemonade, and, most importantly, that the sun shines on you!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Shine on... Stan and Ollie

Our household was blessed with good fortune last Christmas, when Santa Claus delivered a boxed set of Laurel and Hardy DVDs. My husband was already familiar with a lot of their work, but I must admit that I - to my shame -  knew very little about them. This stain on my character has now been well and truly erased, and how grateful I am.

The breadth and versatility of their comedy is brilliant. Much of it is pure slapstick, but watch closely and you realise how well-planned each move was - everything looks like an accident, obviously, but it must have been carefully choreographed to have achieved this effect.

And there is a cartoon feel to much it, too. It comes as no surprise when, for instance, Stan tries to light a fire in Ollie's fireplace with a can of petrol and a match, that, rather than being blown to smitherenes he emerges with a few patches of smoke on his face. Like Tom and Jerry, the pair are indestructible.   

Even if some of the devices they use become familiar - the car/boat/piano which we know will be reduced to a mangled wreck before the end of the scene; the bar of soap/chunk of ice/carpet sweeper on the floor which we know someone will step on and be thrown across the room or down the stairs - they remain funny. In fact, being able to anticipate what is about to befall the hapless but well-meaning pair, just adds to the enjoyment.

But what has touched me most in learning more about them, is the depth of their friendship. According to Stan's daughter Lois, the pair were closer than brothers, and would even celebrate Christmas twice - once with their own families and then together! Every action, and reaction, every expression and every look to camera, is so well-timed it could only have been achieved by two people who knew, respected and loved each other thoroughly.

Stan and Ollie have been a pretty constant presence in our lives for the past two months - it's a big box of DVDs! - and so what better way to spend my birthday last week than to visit the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, Cumbria?

The Museum started life as the private collection of Bill Cubin, and was originally housed in one small room. The collection was occasionally opened for private viewings, and the Museum first opened to the public in 1983. As the collection grew and grew, it was decided that larger premises would be needed. And so the Museum opened at its new home - on the stage of Ulverston's Roxy Cinema - in 2009.

Now the Museum is run by Mark Greenhow, Bill Cubin's grandson, one of whose earliest memories is of watching 'The Flying Elephants' on his grandad's old cine projector.

Mark offers a very warm welcome to what he describes as 'the family business', and the first thing he invited us to do when we arrived was to watch a film! He led us to a cosy, 15-seat cinema and we happily settled down to watch 'Towed in the Hole'.
In the cosy cinema

The Museum is an absolute treasure trove of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia. Through information panels, photographs, letters, and even furniture rescued from Stan Laurel's birthplace when it was renovated, we can follow the lives of the pair, from childhood right through their careers.

Posters, letters and a wealth of memorabilia

This gem of a museum has been beautifully and lovingly put together, and if ever you're near Ulverston, do consider a visit. I think there is a strong possibility that you'll come away with a smile on your face.

And while you're in Ulverston, there is also a Stan Laurel Trail, a short walk around Ulverston, which takes in, amongst other sites, Stan Laurel's birthplace at 3 Argyle Street, and Graham Ibbeson's beautiful bronze statue of the pair - complete with Laughing Gravy the dog - outside the Coronation Hall. A trail leaflet is available from the Museum.

Graham Ibbeson's statue of 'The Boys'...

... complete with dog!  

There is lots more information about Laurel and Hardy on the official Laurel and Hardy Website. It pretty much goes without saying that this site is well worth a visit. Letters from Stan is a fascinating and touching site, too.

Before I go, I'll leave you with this YouTube clip. It features the impromptu dance sequence from 'Way Out West', to the music of The Avalon Boys.

I think this is exquisite. I like the improvised yet precise nature of the choreography, and the casual expressions on The Boys' faces - they seem to be dancing for their own carefree enjoyment, not for our entertainment.

But most of all, there is an unmistakeable affection that shines out here, a palpable sense of contentedness, of two close friends enjoying the simple pleasure of each others company. This, for me, is the essence of Laurel and Hardy's timeless appeal.