REVIEW: Flagging up rising nationalism - capacity LitFest audience hears about flags' enduring power & their politics

Written by Matt Gow on .


LitFest:  Tim Marshall - and flag (Photo copyright Ben Phillips - with thanks)LitFest: Tim Marshall - and flag (Photo copyright Ben Phillips - with thanks)If you've ever wondered why there are twelve stars on the European Union flag (it's actually the Council of Europe's flag) or mused over why there is a chakra wheel centred in the Indian flag or even why there is an AK 47 rifle on the Mozambican flag, then Tim Marshall's latest book Worth Dying For: the Power and Politics of Flags will provide you with all the answers and lots more too.


Based on his book, Tim Marshall, former Diplomatic Editor at Sky News, introduced the core themes of his book by providing enticing facts that would have appealed to many pub quiz enthusiasts.   

He also explained several features of chosen flags with a colourful slideshow and a video clip which succeeded in engaging a near capacity Town Hall audience at the Marlborough LitFest - many of whom would have undoubtedly forsaken their Sunday roast to attend this lunchtime event.

What they missed in calorific intake they more than gained in intellectual sustenance.  It's not easy to make flags interesting, so I imagine that if there is a real life vexillogist (expert in flags) at one of the ancient universities, he is not nearly as entertaining as Marshall.

Marshall, it turns out, has the stage presence and the life experience to furnish the anecdotes which bring flags fluttering to life in an engaging narrative - both in person and on the page.

As a veteran reporter of both the BBC and Sky News, Marshall's previous book Prisoners of Geography topped The Sunday Times Bestsellers list.  It was hailed as intelligent, accessible and entertaining - a difficult combination to pull off.  The recipe for this follow up volume is much the same.

The book comprehensively explores the political, historical and geographical origins of flags from all the regions of the world as well as what Marshall terms 'flags of fear' (Islamic state, Hamas, Hezbollah etc), 'flags of freedom' (designs of flags as an outcome of liberation) and 'flags of revolution'.  

Dates for the 2018 diary...Dates for the 2018 diary...And a final category:  'The good, the bad and the ugly' - where he outlines the provenance of flags such as 'the Jolly Roger', the white flag of surrender, the black and white checkered racing flag and also those of global bodies like the UN and NATO.  All of these have fascinating back stories which read like urban myths.

 With the world becoming increasingly unstable and national identities seemingly becoming more threatened, people are renewing their faith in nationalism and clinging to familiar symbols more than ever.

Flags, as Marshall argued strongly, are the most powerful symbols we have to either unite or divide us.  In these troubled times, his book will serve as a useful reference point for those trying to understand and navigate the complexities of modern current affairs.