PETER MORTIMER takes a sideways look at the fading ritual of our ‘glorious’ national anthem.
IT IS drab, it is dreary and most of us these days mouth or mumble the words instead of singing them. I’m talking about that dreadful dirge, the national anthem. Only Chopin’s Funeral March is guaranteed to instil more gloom. Is it any wonder we don’t win more medals and tournaments?
It is time, say I, for a change. While other nations clasp breasts swelling with pride at national anthems we poor Brits are induced by those mournful tones to embrace depressing under-achievement.
Watch closely as the camera pans along foreign teams lined up at international sporting events. Participants from other nations belt out their anthems like opera singers, eyes moist with tears. The Brits’ mumble half-remembered words with the enthusiasm of a sloth. It’s understandable. The tune is awful, the words risible as we wish death and destruction on our country’s adversaries: “Confound their navish tricks/Confuse their politics” goes one of the second-verse lyrics we don’t dare sing any more.
Anyway, exactly what is a national anthem for? Take the Olympics. Because one individual is marginally better at running, jumping or chucking than a group of others we all stand to attention, run up the flags and play his or her nation’s anthem as if somehow this affirms its superiority. And though some anthems may move a person to tears, this only applies to one’s own. There is no record of any Lithuanian being overcome by emotion upon hearing the Japanese anthem.
If we are to be saddled for ever with the damned things, why not make the best of a bad job? For once I’m backing the front-runner: ‘Jerusalem’ may well be associated with the Women’s Institute and shelves filled with home-made gooseberry jam but it’s ‘mumsy’ reputation is ill-deserved. William Blake’s visionary words, written in 1804, are powerful enough to stir the soul despite the slightly jingoistic overtones, while Charles Palmer’s 1916 music, from those stirring opening chords on, lifts our very being onto another plane. It’s music with both passion and dignity.
What of other contenders? Edward Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is as English as roast beef and can certainly stir the blood but the words are somewhat arch. ‘Rule Britannia’? Considering our navy now consists of three rowing boats and a Cullercoats coble this one comes over as slightly ridiculous. It’s harmless enough gracing the Last Night of the Proms but unleashed on the world at large would make us a laughing stock. Anyway, Great Britain never DID rule the waves. The moon alone claims that privilege.
‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, adopted by English rugby fans in a vain attempt to help break the Southern hemisphere’s stranglehold on the glorious game, is beautiful and moving but more reminiscent of America’s Deep South than the outer suburbs of Pinner.
Outsider? I have heard suggestions that David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ be considered, no doubt induced by the wave of grief at the cultural messiah’s recent demise; any number by Adele, our modern day Vera Lynn is the telly crowd’s preference. But I have yet to hear of anyone proposing Benny Hill’s ‘Fastest Milkman in the West’ or The Wurzels’ ‘Combine Harvester’, though each could lay claim to a certain Englishness.
So why has no-one suggested the matter should be settled in a TV challenge, that most potent democratic process known to 21st century Britain? Millions already register their votes for the best baker, the best dancer, the least obnoxious minor celebrity in a locked house, the best singer, or the best gardener, Why not the best national anthem?
By ‘national’ I admit I mean England. Other home nations have slowly distanced themselves from ‘God Save the Queen’, for partly political and partly cultural reasons: ‘Flower of Scotland’ and ‘Cymru Am Byth’, belted out by the Scots and the Welsh at every opportunity, will become their official anthems before too long, I’m sure. Only the Northern Irish (at least some of them) wave the Union Flag with any fervourthese days and even they are said to flirt with that goose-pimpler ‘Danny Boy’,
What IS blindingly obvious is that few people are happy with the status quo, which means, given the speed of our democratic process, that matters are likely to change no sooner than within the next three decades.
In the meantime, God Save Our Gracious Teams!
We are the Voice of The North and we would like to be your voice, too