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An English National Anthem: a song of patriotic prejudice or an opportunity to do better?

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An English National Anthem: a song of patriotic prejudice or an opportunity to do better? Empty An English National Anthem: a song of patriotic prejudice or an opportunity to do better?

Post by Jill Segger Fri Feb 05, 2016 9:45 am

England apparently needs its own National Anthem. Toby Perkins, the MP for Chesterfield has introduced a bill in Parliament to that end, which is to have its second reading in March.

Mr Perkins points out that Scotland and Wales have their own anthems and that God Save the Queen is in fact, the anthem of the United Kingdom. It is arguable that the poverty of both its music and words are actually the greater problem, but his argument is worth attention, if only because it may provoke some discussion on what a National Anthem is actually for.

The anthems of the constituent nations of the UK are largely sung at sporting events where their purpose seems to be for blood summoning and sinew stiffening. This works well for the Welsh and the Scottish, who respond fortissimo, con fuoco, while the frequently half-hearted mumbling of our dismal royal-praising galliard has a lesser effect. English cricket fans have taken this into their own hands by adopting Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's Jerusalem, while rugby crowds express their emotion by singing a spiritual which has its origins in a time of slavery.

The words of many National Anthems are bloodthirsty and may have elements of racism. Their lyrics, and those of other popular patriotic songs, carry historic references which, even if known and understood, have little meaning today. A memorable tune can also cover many deficiencies. The marching rhythms and simple harmonies of La Marseillaise make an immediate appeal to the ear which tempts us to overlook the appalling words. Blake's poem Jerusalem was a protest against the industrialisation of England, but it is its skilful melodic and harmonic structure which have really made it appealing to groups as diverse as the Women's Institute, the UK Labour Party and cricket's Barmy Army.

So here are two questions: must a nationally emblematic piece of music be an 'anthem' – that is to say, something to be sung? That may appear counter-intuitive, but music which speaks to 'Englishness' could serve a different function to the rather chest thumping pre-match jingoism which is the accepted norm. Something which required listening and made space for reflection might serve our athletes, teams and sporting crowds differently if the generation of an adrenaline rush were not seen as its principal purpose. Two pieces come to my mind: Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending – the evocation of a sound Gerard Manley Hopkins described as “too old to end”; and the orchestral rhapsody, The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth – a work built around the English folk song of that name but which develops the sunny melody with a dark tinge, somehow presaging the slaughter of 1914-18 in which the young composer was to lose his life.

This is probably a minority view which is unlikely to gain much traction with those who decide such things. But here is my second question: might we not commission a poet to write words which are neither calls to battle nor chauvinistic denigrations of the 'other'? Post-apartheid South Africa did this so well by adopting Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika with its words of peace, fraternity and love of the national landscape. A well-known melody would probably be needed. Greensleeves or the Leaving of Liverpool, are just two possibilities. It would not be beyond a poet and a musician to combine in creating a song which was of the nation without being nationalistic. And Flanders and Swan's wonderful Song of Patriotic Prejudice ("The English, the English, the English are best. I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest") could serve as their tongue-in-cheek Cautionary Tale.

This blog first appeared on Ekklesia and is reproduced with acknowledgement. www.ekklesia.co.uk


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
Jill Segger
Jill Segger

Posts : 35
Join date : 2012-01-30

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