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Vexillology

I learned this word two days ago. It means the scholarly study of flags.

This is how I learned it. For some reason my wife and I got talking about the “Confederate Flag” which I held was rightly the “Confederate Battle Flag”. The Confederacy had a few flag changes in it’s short tenure so it’s complicated. Seeing as there was a laptop in the living room at the time this lead to the Great Arbiter – Wikipedia and this lead (as Wikipedia does) to other things. In this case US State flags. I have long held they are almost all entirely awful. I have long held the only one I have any time for is New Mexico (BTW what’s happening with Gary Johnson – the only runner for the 2012 elections I could – if I were American – bring myself to vote for*).

Anyway, I got a lovely surprise because it turns out that for once a learn’d society agrees with me absolutely.

According to a 2001 survey by the North American Vexillological Association, New Mexico has the best-designed flag of any U.S. state, U.S. territory, or Canadian province, while Georgia’s 2001–2003 state flag was rated the worst design.

This is the flag of New Mexico:

This is the 2001-2003 flag of Georgia:

For the true horror of it look here.

The New Mexico flag is a simple, striking Native American design in two colours. It sure as hell works for me. That two year Georgian mess – they now have something much better – looks like it was done by kids with clip-art. And herein lies the rub in general. A flag ought to be something that can be drawn by a primary school child but not look like it was designed by one. If you look at the full rogues’ gallery of US State flags then you ought to be struck by the number that proudly emblazon the name of the state on them. For me that is a failure. I am given to understand the art of story-telling is to show rather than to tell and I’m of the opinion this applies to flags as well. As far as dreadful national flags are concerned how about the flag of Rwanda between 1962 (independence?) and 2001:

That is sheer class that is. I know I’m in favour of abstraction and a tricolour is pretty ultimate in those regards but if a country feels the need to stick a bloody big capital letter centre-stage then God help ‘em. I personally don’t like tricolours. It’s like so done and done.

Aside: Round Grey’s Monument in Newcastle (I was having a fag whilst my mother toiled in the mines of TK Maxx’s glorified jumble sale – US readers – same as TJ Maxx) and there was a bunch of hard-lefty students “protesting”. They had flags – mainly Cuban (a reasonable flag) but also a Venezuelan one. Well, I had to tell them they were flying the flag of the People’s Republic of Hugo Chavez upside-down (an international distress signal – I internally chuckled). It’s got an arch of stars and they were running it as a smile of stars if you see what I mean. The lass I chatted to was very nice (pretty good looking too – she’ll hopefully grow out of it). My wife took her to task over the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba. Our interlocutor said it was, “much better than before”. Yeah, right, whatever – I can imagine the skirling outrage if gays and lesbians were being persecuted in England like that but in a worker’s paradise it’s a mere glitch… She also asked me what capitalism had ever done for us. In the heart of a major city on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed here.

Grey Street was built by Richard Grainger in the 1830s with the aid of several architects, including John Dobson. The whole of the western side of the street was designed by two architects from Grainger’s office, John Wardle and George Walker. Dean Street, which continues south from Grey Street was constructed earlier, in 1749. Grey Street contains the Theatre Royal designed by John and Benjamin Green, the southern entrance to Monument Metro station and the Central Arcade. It is renowned for its Georgian architecture, and was in 2002 voted ‘Best street in the UK’ by BBC Radio 4 listeners.

Sir John Betjeman said:

As for the curve of Grey Street, I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even Regent Street, even old Regent Street London, can compare with that descending subtle curve.

[It's not that "subtle" a curve if you've been to the Bigg Market on the swally and are part of a hen "do" and in heals and going to the Quayside for porpoises...].

It is magnificent and one of the few parts of central Newcastle not utterly fucked over by T Dan Smith and pals.

T Dan Smith was a Communist (and I mean that with the capital “C”). The Georgian heart he and his cronies ripped out of Newcastle was built by very different people from him.

An aside to the aside. She also offered me the chance to buy a CD of the Hamas male-voice choir singing songs of revolution. I politely declined. As with the homosexuals she seemed a complete irony-free zone on this. What would Hamas in Gaza have made of an un-hijabed woman talking freely to a non-mehrem man in the street about the need to over-turn the status-quo?. Talking shite in Newcastle is one thing (it happens all the time – mainly about the FA Cup) but talking shite (or even shi’ite) in Gaza is a whole different game. One that doesn’t end with a polite declining to buy a dreadful CD.

The asides seems to have taken over the post. Sorry! No I’m not – I wanted to say them. There isn’t – by definition – anything to say about flags (apologies to the North American Vexillological Association). The whole point of a flag is it’s instant recognition factor. Our current government is spending a small fortune (only because they don’t have a large one) on re-branding the country to attract tourists. The adverts stress our contributions to the arts, sciences and sport and stuff. It’s terribly un-British of the cads and blighters. Do we really need to badger foreigners about Sir Isaac Newton or William Shakespeare or Bobby Moore? As I said, show don’t tell. Anyway from my experience London in summer is packed to the rafters with tourists getting ripped-off by every Del Boy in town who claims to be a direct descendent of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. God knows what will happen when they have their 20 billion quid sports-day next year. I guess David Hilbert and Associates will have to get cracking with building that hotel. I love that veridical paradox because everyone gets it (not like Monty Hall – I have seen professional mathematicians in tears over that). To be fair it goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Flags do though matter when it comes to the fighting. You gonna risk life and limb for a dismal duster? Someone round my way once did for a fine flag – or rather to paraphrase General Patton – the other poor bastard did. That would be Legh (of Lyme Park – where Mr Darcey took a dip) had a coat of arms (quite literally) which depicts the severed arm of a Frenchman. During some battle of the Hundred Years War the perfidious Frogs seized our standard and Legh waded through the melee and got it back by the expedient of hacking the French fella’s arm off. The arm remained attached to the pole (limbs can do that if it ain’t a clean cut). Flags, like language (or arms), have history. They have to mean something in themselves and not just say it which is where that short-flown Georgian flag went wrong. That and it’s just dreadful. It is a fundamental failing of the EU. Britain, France**, The USA – those are flags worth fighting for because they have history and meaning and have blood and iron behind them rather than committee meetings in Brussels.

And here endeth the lesson. Sorry I roamed. For my penance I now have to tag it.

*Basically a fiscally sound Republican who isn’t of the “religious” right – he’s even vaguely anti the “War on Drugs”. I guess there is a Libertarian candidate but… Well I was going to mention cats in Hell but knowing my cat… He’d have Satan himself off to the shops to buy kibble.
**Well, not France, obviously. “Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion.” – Jed Babbin. Frequently attributed to General H Norman Schwarzkopf.

13 Comments

  1. Thornavis says:

    Fascinating subject flags, they’ve always appealed to me. Of course with regards to US states Hawaii has the best flag of all.

  2. Pavlov's Cat says:

    I’ve always liked in a ‘take that Septics sort of way’ the Hawaiian state flag because it still has a Union Flag in the corner.

  3. NickM says:

    The rest of it looks like a bed-sheet mind.

  4. View from the Solent says:

    Everyone gets Hilbert’s hotel, but not Monty Hall? I’m surprised. A couple of minutes of explanation using pencil and paper should be enough to show a sentient being that it works. Hilbert’s OTOH is tricky. The non-mathists (in my experience) find infinities weird and scary.

  5. NickM says:

    VftS,
    Not my experience. Monty Hall is properly counter-intuitive whereas bijections of the set of natural numbers seem to come easily to folk. For example it is obvious to most people that the set of x2 has the same cardinality as the set of natural numbers. People are at home to that being infinite anyway (you can always add 1). Therefore the idea that the set of even numbers is “the same size” as the set of numbers is obvious. It is obvious because (not to strew mathematica all over the place but I shall) the bijection is obvious. Monty Hall is obvious if you play it by the maths but is deeply counter-intuitive. When I first heard it I got it immediately but then I am a physicist by training. Some of the faces my mathematical comrades pulled cannot easily be described. This is why infinite set theory goes back (in this instance) at least as far back as Galileo and Monty Hall dates to a ’50s game show. BTW the best “explanation” of Monty Hall I ever read (and I got stonking firsts in 2 modules of discrete maths* at Nottingham) is in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. It also has something very interesting (and wrong) to say about the logarithmic growth map. I’ve been meaning to blog on that for ages.

    *People did misunderestimate me (as George W Bush might say) and ponder what I meant. They thought I meant “discreet maths” which would be a fish of a different colour. Others in the know called it “maths without limits” which is kind of a joke. Not, I have to confide, a funny joke. Nowhere near as funny as QMech with it’s “ket” and therefore “bra” vectors. I was supposed to be feeling the spirit of Richard Feynman on my shoulder but instead got Sid James. To be fair mind both had an eye for the ladies. One won the Nobel Prize** and the other shagged Barbara Windsor. I have done neither.

    **When pigeon-holed by the press Richard Feynman was asked to explain his Nobel “in simple terms”. He replied, “If I could explain it in 5 minutes it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize”. There is a wonderful photo of him in James Glieck’s biography “Genius” of Feynman with a smoke looking exactly just how someone who has just won the Nobel Prize for physics ought to look.

  6. mike says:

    They’re all naff – but the flag of Oregon has an appealing euphemism on the back!

  7. Sam Duncan says:

    Not all, mike. Alabama’s is okay: a simple heraldic saltire, gules on argent. (Oh yes, I knows my tinctures. That’s red over white to you unwashed plebians.) And Maryland’s might look odd and garish to modern eyes, but it’s deeply historic, being (Alabama notwithstanding) “the only state flag in the United States to be based on English heraldry”. I like it.

    The rest range from not-really-trying-yeah-that’ll-do (most of ‘em) to downright awful, though. Arizona’s looks positively Communist; Ohio is obviously on drugs; and Rhode Island is clearly more of a yacht club than a sovereign state.

    Coincidentally, I was reading just the other night about Glasgow’s own T. Dan, Robert Bruce (no, really). Fortunately, he never rose above the rank of City Engineer, so his Report was never implimented in full. But enough was – tearing a motorway through the centre, for example – to change the city almost beyond recognition.

    Grey Street is bloody magnificent.

  8. Laird says:

    Sam, I don’t care if it is “the only state flag in the United States to be based on English heraldry”, for my money Maryland’s flag is the worst of a sorry lot. I suspect a that it could cause migraines if looked at long enough. I like Texas’ and Tennessee’s best: simple and striking. And whateve the vexilloligists might think (and you have to seriously question the judgment of any group whose avocation bears a name containing both “vex” and something that appears akin to “illogical”), New Mexico’s is just plain weird, even sinister. Looks Aztec to me. Didn’t they practice human sacrifice and kill people by pouring molten gold down their throats?

    Oh, and as to Gary Johnson, I’ve given him a fair chance but frankly he’s just too much of a wimp. Plus he lacks sufficient relevant experience (and we’ve all seen what that gets us). Check out Jon Huntsman instead. His resume reads like a combination of Mitt Romney and George H.W. Bush (real business success plus serious political and diplomatic experience), and he really is a libertarian.

  9. View from the Solent says:

    Nick, OK. Our experiences are different. Of course, and to be celebrated.
    Yes, I know the photo; great man, great loss.

  10. Tim Newman says:

    South Carolina’s looks like that of some imaginary Middle Eastern dictatorship.

  11. Laird says:

    Agreed, Tim. I’ve always thought that and I live in SC. To be fair, though, it’s very old and has historical significance. The crescent motif dates back to flags flown in the 1760′s, and the Palmetto tree (the state’s official tree; it’s plentiful along the coast) was instrumental to an important defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, as cannonballs couldn’t penetrate a fort made of its logs.

  12. Tim Newman says:

    Laird,

    Thanks for that bit of trivia. I should say I love SC (and NC). I have a good mate from a small town called Lancaster just south of Rock Hill, but in SC. And I have driven down the Outer Banks, it was a lovely place.

  13. T.K. Tortch says:

    Another S.C. native, here. I’ve always loved the S.C. flag because it’s so cryptic. Flag of — What?! Who?! Masons? Shriners? And it could be the flag of a middle eastern dictatorship – but then it would probably have a green background.

    Laird’s correct about the Palmetto; it was used to construct Ft. Moultrie outside Charleston, and apparently did absorb and even repel cannonballs. If you ever sawed one up you would see how this could be so; the wood is a dense, spongy but firm pulp.

    However, I’m not sure anybody knows for sure what the crescent’s all about. A three-crescent flag was apparently used at the time of the Stamp Act; could be that it was derived from the gorgets some military officers wore at the time as a sign of rank; could actually be a heraldic reference to a prominent S.C. family of the time, could also be a reference to the Greek goddess Diana, as the “Huntress”.

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