Yesterday, I decided to take on St. George’s Day in full force. My approach: to immerse myself in the day’s festivities and absorb as much English tradition as possible, all the while remaining in tourist “stealth mode”—i.e. no white sneakers, no camera flashes, and only soft-spoken enquiries, so as to draw minimal attention to the good old American accent.
What better place to go, I thought, than to London’s South Bank, home of lively street performances, history, art, culture and oodles of bustling pubs/cafes?
I started off at what I presumed would be a central hub of activity—a sacred edifice dedicated to the man of the day: St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark.
George, was I wrong! The cathedral was virtually empty when I arrived 15 minutes prior to the “special” guided tour. Where were all of the church-goers? The pride-filled locals? The curious tourists?
I glanced down to notice a tiny flier: the Dean of the Cathedral would be unveiling a new painting of St. George—a contemporary interpretation by artist Scott Norwood Witts—at the start of the tour. Surely people would show up for this milestone event?
Finally, a dozen or so interested church members began to trickle in, along with three journalists and a shameless, aggressive photographer, who basically staged and directed the entire unveiling: “can I move this table here?” followed by “let’s point the lights this way?” and, my personal favorite: “could you stand slightly to the left, tilting your head at a 20 degree angle whilst looking at the painting curiously…and using more natural arm gestures…that’s it, that’s it…” Seriously, I know the story is important, but let the man speak…
In the midst of this distracting mayhem appeared Canon James Cronin, Dean of the Cathedral, who introduced the artist, blessed the painting and informed us of its controversial nature: Witts had chosen to depict Saint George as a contemplative, compassionate man, rather than as a crusader.
As the paparazzi team disappeared and the tour commenced, I suddenly realized that I was the lone “outsider” among a handful of dedicated congregation members. Was I even allowed to be there? I tried to remain incognito, speaking as little as possible and taking sneaky, flash-free shots with my digi cam. There must be hundreds of church members—no one would notice, right?
Wrong. My fellow Americans, however hard you may try, there is no hiding your tourist-ness in a foreign country. Even in England, where you think you might have a shot at blending in, it’s nearly impossible. As I absorbed the fascinating history of the cathedral, which was originally designed by the high-profile architect Pugin (who collaborated with Barry on the Houses of Parliament), subsequently destroyed during the Second World War and reconstructed in the 1950′s…I noticed a middle-aged woman peering at me out of the corner of her eye.
We were approaching a statue of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini—the “Patron Saint of Migration” and first American citizen to be canonized in the Catholic church—when she firmly pressed on my shoulder. I shot her a wide-eyed, questioning glance. She pressed me again. Lady, are you serious? I’m trying to identify with my patron statue, alright?!
“Do you belong here?” her stare was piercing.
“Nope.” I stared right back. There, satisfied?
She nodded her head in knowing wisdom. Whatever, lady on power trip, I’ll always have Mother Cabrini (and some fantastic photos of stained glass!).
Though I was touched by the cathedral proceedings, and even moreso by the actions of the, ahem, dedicated defendress of Patron Saint territory, I decided not to brave the afternoon mass. It was time to take my homage to the streets!
I thus carried on to the famous Borough Market to witness a festive performance of “The Ballad of St. George and the Dragon”—a 500 year old tradition, adapted and enacted by The Lions part (a professional theatre group that does frequent shows in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre).
The show began and ended in a swift, intoxicating, and colorful blur: I was, all the while, struggling to peek through the crowd and catch glimpses of the elaborate costumes. I finally squeezed my way to the front for a few snapshots, just minutes before the performance ended. And, eek! The ferocious dragon immediately charged towards my camera:
Another close call, indeed….
My last stop of the day was perhaps the most festive of all—the Old Thameside Inn Pub (the perfect spot for a summer afternoon drink!), where a some enthusiastic locals were “properly” honouring St. George over some pints of Bombardier.
How excited was this guy?
Cheers to England, Saint George, and festive tradition.
What an amazing day—I’ll certainly be back next year!