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Man of the cloth: Tim Marshall on the battle for the flag

Running from Saturday February 25 to Sunday March 5, Jewish Book Week is much more than just a celebration of literature that is linked in some way to Judaism. ‘It is a festival of arts and ideas,’ says the event’s director Lucy Silver. The likes of Rebecca Front, Hugh Dennis, Henry Goodman, Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood will appear at the two venues – Kings Place in King’s Cross and the JW3 centre in Finchley Road. Here, Dan Carrier highlights two guest speakers: Michael Rosen and Tim Marshall

24 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Tim Marshall. Photo: Sky News

IT is, according to author Tim Marshall, one of the less eye-catching flags in the world.

Austria’s nation state is represented by a simple red and white number, with two banks of red and a white stripe through the middle.

But in his new book, Worth Dying For, Tim reveals how it came about – and it is rather gory.

“The story goes, Duke Leopold V was so busy hacking away in a battle during the siege of Arce in 1189 that his tunic became completely splattered with blood,” says Tim.

“After a hard day’s crusading, he removed his belt to reveal a white band where the blood had not reached.”

It became a lasting symbol for the region, and after the Second World War became the country’s official flag.

His latest book considers why we set such store against what, he reminds us, is essentially a piece of painted cloth. He looks at its symbolism and delves into the historical reasons a nation, group or movement chooses to represent itself in such a way.

“I wanted to think about identity,” says the journalist whose career spans more than 25 years of being a foreign correspondent – a job that has seen him cover front line conflicts in the Baltic States, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Such a background makes his fascination with flags understandable.

“This is the age of identity politics, sexual politics, race and nation state politics and I thought what better symbol of identity than a flag? It represents hopes, aspirations, history and what we are.”

The book is approached geographically. Starting in America with the story behind the Stars and Stripes, he moves through Europe and into the Middle East before tackling Africa, Asia, South America.

“I wanted to see how flags are vehicles to explain a history, how it has a clear meaning and through that the emotional reasons that are felt when people see their flag,” he adds.

And it isn’t just those of nations that are explained – other global symbols are studied.

“The rainbow flag representing the gay community is interesting,” he adds.

“It came out of San Francisco in the 1970s. Originally, they had wanted a rainbow flag with a pink band added. It was a way of reclaiming the colour from Nazi Germany, who made gay people wear pink in concentration camps.

“But when organisers went to buy a job lot for a civil rights demonstration and asked for a price to include a pink strip, they were told pink paint was expensive, so they instead chose a rainbow flag. It stuck.”

Others that we all know include the Jolly Roger, and it sent as clear message on the high seas.

You may expect a pirate ship closing in on another vessel would try to hide their sinister plans until they were close – but instead flying the skull and crossbones gave their quarry a clear choice.

“It would let others know if they surrendered, everyone on board would be spared,” he says. “If they fought, then they had to take whatever was coming, and if the tried to flee, then there would be no mercy.”

Perhaps his favourite – part from that of his home town football club, Leeds United – is that of Macedonia. When covering the wars in the Balkans during the 1990s, he came across the Macedonian flag – a yellow sun on a red background with rays shining out – and how much trouble it was to cause between Greece and Macedonia. Arguing over land, they also dispute where Alexander the Great hailed from: Greece claim the conqueror as their own, while other say he was a Macedonian.

“It looks amazing, and the story behind it is so unusual,” adds Tim.

“There is nothing like it in Europe. Upon independence in 1991, the first flag was similar, but with 16 rays. But that symbol was used in the fourth century BC by Alexander the Great – who both Macedonia and Greece claim as their own. As the Greek region of Macedonia has nothing to do with the country of Macedonia, Athens took extreme umbrage at the use of what they claimed was a Greek symbol.” It led to the Greeks imposing an economic blockade and lobbying the UN to not recognise the flag.

“They even registered a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organisation,” says Tim. “It worked – in 1995, it was redesigned to have just eight rays.”

Other nuggets include why Holland no longer use orange for their flag – they discovered that it faded quickly when tied to a mast of a ship, though the colour, representing William of Orange and the nation’s Protestant past, means it is still the go-to shade for cultural identity in the Netherlands.

As he describes, flags have a long cultural importance: Tim mentions that in pre-history, tribes would have symbols that they gathered round.

“They were proto-flags that defined one group from another,” he says.

And this tribalism has not declined due to globalisation.

“Flags are still loaded with meaning, and that is what makes them so interesting,” he concludes.

• Worth Dying For. By Tim Marshall, Elliott and Thompson, £16.99
Tim is speaking at the Jewish Book Week on Tuesday, February 28, at 8pm at Kings Place.
For more details see


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