A couple of weeks on from the Diamond Jubilee I’m still not sure why it is supposed to have made me feel particularly proud to be British. I’m generally a patriotic sort of chap but the site of hordes of cheap (to produce, not buy) Chinese made plastic flags being held aloft by crowds outside Buckingham Palace didn’t increase this a bit.
I suppose I should say early on that intellectually I am a republican. By that I mean that when I sit down and think about it the idea that our head of state is selected by genetic caprice is logically indefensible. But does Churchill’s old observation about democracy, that it was the least bad option, apply to Britain’s monarchy? I look at the United States where the head of state is routinely despised by around half the population and find the affectionate indifference of most Brits towards Elizabeth Windsor infinitely preferable. I was a fan of the Irish set up until a cross between Che Guevara and old man Steptoe took up residence at Áras an Uachtaráin.
And then there are my fellow republicans. Basing their case on envy as opposed to aspiration and making it with bitterness rather than generosity they truly are the modern version of the “hard faced Cromwellian sourpusses” Alan Partridge spoke about. About 20% of Brits call themselves republicans, a number almost unchanged over the past few decades; decades which have seen traditional structures break down utterly in many other spheres of national life. For its failure to make any appreciable headway with such favourable tailwinds the republican campaign in Britain must go down as one of the most useless in our history.
But still I find no national pride in the monarchy. What makes me proud is the things the people of this great country have done and the people who did them. I feel pride when I see Brazilians and Indians playing games invented in Britain. I feel pride when I hear a record by David Bowie, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones on a foreign radio. I feel pride that we gave the world Adam Smith and free market economics. I feel pride when I travel on a bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I feel pride when I think about the men who flew fighter planes over southern England in 1940. I feel pride whenever Hollywood adapts another novel by Dickens or Austen. I feel proud that so many countries have been inspired by our constitutional arrangements. I feel pride that the theory of evolution came from a Brit. I feel pride in every life saved based on the discovery of DNA by two British scientists.
And I felt pride a week after the Jubilee when I saw an Afghan theatre company perform a play by William Shakespeare. The Rah-e Sabz company was founded in 2005 by French director Corinne Jaber, coming together out of a series of workshops she had run with aspiring actors in Kabul. The actors were immediately attracted to Shakespeare and resolved to make Love’s Labour’s Lost their first production. With no translation of the play in their native language, Dari, the actors work shopped their own, and when the play was premiered in Kabul and toured Afghanistan it was a success.
The production of The Comedy of Errors which I saw before Rah-e Sabz left to tour it round India was a joy. Performed entirely in Dari, captions explaining the action were projected on to a screen. But they were barely needed such was the expressive, jubilant physicality of the performers. With sparse staging they brought alive the setting of the bazaars of Kabul, helped by some wonderful Afghan music played live. Standout performers were Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi, dragging it up brilliantly as Kukeb (the production’s Afghan name for Luce), and Farzana Soltani as a Courtesan who could have come straight out of a modern British tabloid sex scandal.
The infectious joie de vivre was all the more remarkable knowing the company’s background. Thanks to the medievally minded morons of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a dangerous place for performers. Last year Rah-e Sabz missed an attack on the compound where they were rehearsing which killed 12 people only thanks to a last minute change of schedule. One of the company’s female members came home one day to find her husband murdered as a punishment for her acting.
People from half a world and an entire culture away were united during the performance of a story by a long dead Englishman; “tickle us, do we not laugh?” as he might have said. These enormously talented and brave people had risked their lives to perform the plays of the Englishman William Shakespeare. Those Afghans made me proud to be British.
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine