Sunday, 20 September 2015

songs of praise

Last week, the newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was roundly criticized in the British press for not singing the national anthem at a service to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the Battle of Britain. I didn’t join in the criticism, because I’ve never sung the UK’s national anthem either, although I suspect that my reasons for not doing so are not the same as Corbyn’s.

I’m not a republican—imagine having a mountebank like Tony Blair as head of state—although I don’t have a sense of fealty to the monarchy either. I do have a problem with making a supplication to an entity that probably doesn’t exist, although I can happily sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen at Christmas—because it has a stirring tune.

This is my objection to the national anthem of the country where I was born. It’s a dirge, a tune that without its words would not be out of place at a funeral. I probably haven’t heard all the world’s national anthems, but God Save the Queen is easily the worst that I have heard. A revolutionary anthem like La Marseillaise would be a big improvement, but we haven’t the same revolutionary history as France, even though we did once cut off the head of a king.

And I wouldn’t want a sentimental ditty about my country’s flag, like The Star-Spangled Banner. In fact, a national flag is only slightly less pointless than a national anthem. We even have a national drink, the very idea of which is ridiculous. And I would have chosen bitter beer rather than tea. As for our recently named national bird, the robin, which was selected by popular vote, I would have chosen the peregrine falcon. Most of those who voted have probably never seen one.

If we are to have a new national anthem, then there are three candidates, all of which have superior credentials for the job. We can probably discount Parry’s Jerusalem because of the overt references in Blake’s words to England rather than Britain, so it would have no more legitimacy as a national anthem than Flower of Scotland or Land of My Fathers.

However, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major, popularly known, in this country at least, as Land of Hope and Glory, would be a good choice, except that as a relatively recent composition, it has been appropriated in the USA for graduations and similar solemn but secular ceremonies, which has the unintended effect of trivializing it.

Rule Britannia may seem unduly boastful, but if Germans can sing Deutschland Über Alles, then a little in-your-face nationalism can surely be justified for the British, who at least until 1945 had more to boast about.

Whichever anthem we choose, the one thing we must avoid is bombast, as exemplified in the past by the anthem of the Soviet Union and in the present by that of China. If only someone could come up with a tune as good as Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika, which is the national anthem of no fewer than three countries. Of course, I have only the vaguest of ideas as to what the song is about, but I imagine the citizens of Tanzania and Zambia will be just as puzzled, given that the words are in the South African language Xhosa. If we did have a brand new anthem, perhaps we could get a Geordie choir to sing it, complete with Geordie dialect words and accent.

Finally, perhaps I can offer a few words of advice for Mr Corbyn:
Sing the bloody song Jez! It doesn’t mean anything.


  1. I would vote for Jerusalem (with Britain instead of England) but it might remind us of Israeli oppression

    1. I’ve never really understood how Jerusalem has become a kind of proxy for the celestial city (you can check out my views on Israel here).


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