sweet chariots of fire?


I’ve asked Eddie Jones and I’ve got nowhere. Stuart Lancaster – in fairness – did give the matter his consideration a year or two back but events – cruelly – overtook him: so much for friends in high places.

Where now, then? Do I consider civil disobedience? Direct action? Perhaps I should try something ‘suffragette’ – chaining myself to a Twickenham railing or even running onto the pitch and throwing myself under the feet of a rolling maul – anything, absolutely anything, to stop England Rugby from playing ‘God Save the Queen’ ahead of its Test Matches. Peaceable man that I am, I am teetering on the verge of a random act of violence.

This is not differential calculus. We are not revisiting the Schleswig-Holstein Question. All we need to grasp here is that (a) the England Rugby team represents England and (b) the National Anthem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does not. That’s it. So how it is that English rugby supporters have to sing someone else’s hymn before their team kicks off at Twickenham?

What aggravates the issue is that ‘God Save the Queen’ it’s such a gormless tune. In fact – treasonable though it may be to say so – it’s a ghastly, bloodless, plonking composition, which – presumably – explains why no one’s ever admitted to writing it. As far as can be told, it took root sometime around 1745 – when the Jacobite clans were gathering and the monarch looked like he might need the deliverance of a deity – and it’s just carried on from there. Like much of this country’s ceremonial infrastructure, its official status derives solely from custom and use, arguably the only sense in which it might – just – be considered truly ‘English’.

There’s not even any certainty that the anthem is Anglo-Saxon. A French Marquise once claimed that the tune – in his words, ‘Grand Dieu Sauve Le Roi’ – was actually written by one Jean-Baptiste Lully to celebrate Louis XIV – bear with me here – surviving an operation to remove an anal abscess; the surgical knife used in this procedure now being on display in ‘La Musee d’histoire de la Medecine’ in Paris. Obviously the scalpel ending up in a museum doesn’t prove anything in itself; I just mention it in case you ever happen to find yourself anywhere near the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine and at a loose end.

The perfidious French aside, what’s indisputable is that the anthem’s not even exclusively ours. Liechtenstein uses the same melody, which is why – confusingly – the one tune was played twice before the Euro 2004 qualifier between the two countries. Indeed, the only time GSTQ has ever truly resonated was when the Sex Pistols covered it for HMQ’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Otherwise, it’s dated, it’s dire and if you’re an atheist and a republican, it’s thirty seconds of your life you’ll never get back.

Indeed, it’s so dusty it has two further verses no one even knows, let alone sings. The second verse actually says:

‘O, Lord our God arise, scatter her enemies, and make them fall. Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on thee our hopes we fix, God save us all.’

Rarely – if ever – has rhyme been stretched quite so close to breaking point.

The UK lumbering itself with so anemic an anthem is the UK’s problem and good luck solving it. It has – or it should have – absolutely nothing to do with England or with England Rugby. ‘But the trouble is, old boy,’ as an RFU blazer once explained to me, ‘HMQ’s the patron of the bloody union. It might not go down too well with The Firm if we were to ditch her song.’

Yes, but hang on a minute. HMQ is also the patron of the WRU and I don’t hear much gnashing of teeth down Buckingham Palace Road when Cardiff close-harmonises around ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’. And while you’re there, Brenda’s also the Head of State of both Australia and New Zealand, neither of whom entreats the Almighty to send her victorious before rugby matches or, indeed, before anything else.

So when are the – we – English going to wake up? Toby Perkins MP (Lab. Chesterfield) did once try to bring in a Private Members’ Bill laying an English anthem on the statute books at Westminster but, bless him, he ran out of time, confounded by buffoons such as Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Con. NE Somerset) who said, and I quote: ‘what greater pleasure can there be for a true-born English man or true-born English woman to listen to our own national anthem?’ curiously ignoring the fact that the English – true-born or otherwise – don’t actually have one.

(And how is it – while we’re in the neighbourhood – that a man can be educated at Eton and at Trinity, Oxford, get himself elected to the House of Commons and still not grasp the difference between the United Kingdom and England? This, though, is the same indefatigable Jacob who in 1997 contested the socialist enclave of Central Fife for the Tories and who – reputedly – toured the constituency (a) in a Bentley and (b) with his nanny as one of his door-to-door canvassers. Not for nothing is the man known to Parliamentary sketch-writers as the ‘honourable member for the nineteenth century.’)

Rees-Mogg aside, opinion polls are unequivocal; indeed a ‘YouGov’ survey found that a stonking 73% of England has had enough of ‘God Save the Queen’. Obviously, that leaves 27% who fear that giving England its own tune would somehow ‘Balkanise’ the United Kingdom, a specious argument which conveniently forgets that, for example, ‘Flower of Scotland’ defines one entire rugby nation at the explicit expense of England. In that sense, Edinburgh has been the capital of the Balkans for some time now.

So if it’s not to be GSTQ, what do we think would bring a patriotic tear to the eye of a teeming Twickenham? ‘Rule Britannia’? It’s a showstopper, no question, but the rather obvious warts – surely – are the title and the chorus. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’? It’s very Royal Albert Hall, I grant you, but perhaps a touch too much pomp and circumstance? ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’? Are you serious? It’s an American Negro spiritual, for heaven’s sake. Sharpen up, will you?

All of which – assuming we’re not going to run with Billy Connolly’s mischievous suggestion of using the theme from ‘The Archers’ – would seem to leave us with William Blake’s words, Hubert Parry’s music and the second verse of ‘Jerusalem’. Forget the first verse, what with its ancient feet, its divine countenances and its dark, satanic mills – far too outré – and let’s stick with the second, which says:

‘Bring me my bow of burning gold. Bring me my arrows of desire. Bring me my spear, o, clouds unfold. Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease, from mental fight. Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand. ‘Til we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

Now that’s a noise to stir the juices, so much so that, apparently, the Oscar-laden ‘Chariots of Fire’ was all set to be called ‘Running’ until screenwriter Colin Welland found himself in front of ‘Songs of Praise’ one Sunday evening as the congregation gave a rousing rendition of Blake’s second verse. No question, it’s an inspiring tune.

Indeed, the England – and Wales – Cricket team uses it, the England Rugby League side sings it, Labour Party Conferences end with it, Women’s Institutes can’t start a meeting without it and it’s a hardy annual at the Last Night of the Proms; in other words, it covers a broad church without once – thank God – mentioning Him. When George V first heard William’s words and Hubert’s hymn back in 1916, he said he preferred ‘Jersualem’ to his own anthem, so it even has royal approval. What’s not to like?

Yes, well, it appears there may be a flaw. ‘Blakologists’ will tell you that their man wrote it not as a celebration but as a parody of English nationalism; as one put it, it’s a poem ‘laced with the resentful irony of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony’. I have no idea what this means but, clearly, it doesn’t sound good.

Another sceptic wrote that Blake, who was charged with sedition in 1803, was preoccupied with what he saw as the suppression of individual spirit and ‘concerned with building a utopia that would appeal to ‘proto-atheists’ and ‘proto-socialists’, which I’m also not sure I quite understand. Mind you, I understand enough to wonder just how many of each you’d find in the West Car Park at Twickenham on any given Saturday in November. My guess would be no more than three.

Which leaves us where, precisely? Auditioning for something new, perhaps? Yes, well, what kind of song are we after? How about something akin to ‘Advance Australia Fair’, which does at least have the country in the title and does also extol the virtues of the landscape, namely a ‘beauty rich and rare’? Then again, it does also say that the nation is ‘girt by sea’. Girt? Who is Girt? In fact, on reflection, perhaps we should forget that one. It’s a bit Janet and John.

Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika’ is as beautiful a hymn as you’ll ever hear but we can’t really have an anthem in three languages. How about something a bit more Latin such as ‘El Himno Nacional d’Argentina’, – ‘let us live crowned in glory or let us swear in glory to die’ – or even the magnificent ‘La Marseillaise’ – ‘let the impure blood of our enemies drench our furrows’ – both of which are a shiver in search of a spine? Too purple for you? Okay, well there’s always ‘Fratelli d’Italia’, which personally I’ve always loved, a jaunty mixture of fife and drum guaranteed to leave a tight-head prop in tears.

Clearly, this is a ticklish one with no obvious, unanimous solution. Les Back is a Professor of Sociology at Goldsmith’s College in London, who believes that ‘there is a tension between an imperial nationalistic past and the realities of the multicultural present and that’s where the heat is in this debate.’ He goes on; ‘I think all this is about a much wider crisis concerning the place of nations and national identity in a hyper-connected globalised world’ and, as far as I have a clue what he’s talking about, he may well be right.

But, frankly, I don’t care if the England rugby team stand shoulder to shoulder and sing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, just as long as what they’re singing is ours. Is that really too much to ask for? C’mon, England: give us a tune.


06 November 2017

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