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A new national anthem for England

Good things of England: Triumph sports car

The red sports car

It’s a hot day in July. The bees are making friends with the deep green clover; the daisies are turned towards the bright sun; The sage is full of soft-mauve flowers, the climbing rose is ablaze – in crimson eyepaint. This is England. I’m looking around and thinking about the country …

Not long ago a well-known English author argued that ‘because no one cares about the Queen anymore’ the old national anthem is ‘no longer applicable’ and should be replaced by a song that is more representative of England and the English.

I like the idea of determining a new national anthem. I’d got used to switching the television off whenever I heard the laborious ‘God save the Queen’. In fact, I’d reached the stage where I preferred anyone but the Brits to win sporting events just so I wouldn’t have to hear the ponderous dreary sounds of the national anthem.

The English author who puts the case for a new anthem is Nick Hornby. The book in which he nails his alternative colours to the mast of progress is entitled ‘31 songs’. It’s a book that is mainly about Hornby’s appreciation of rock and pop music compositions and therefore, I had not expected the book to touch upon something as subversive and exciting as junking ‘God save the Queen’ – but junk it he does in Chapter 22.

In this chapter Hornby tackles two separate but ultimately related subjects. They are ‘big’ subjects: The first is an invitation to the reader to consider in what music we ‘hear’ the character (the distinctiveness) of England. The second is the case for abandoning the old national anthem in favour of an anthem that references both the reality and charm of England.

Hornby begins by surfacing the idea that it is possible to hear England through words and music. And this idea is related to something very grand and profound i.e. that you can deduce or infer a culture – its values and particularities – from the artefacts that it brings into being. I shall set this general point aside because it has been thoroughly investigated by cultural theorists and simply focus on Hornby’s text.

Correctly, I think, he begins by dismissing the notion that we can hear England in the kind of classical music that is often associated with the idea that England is a green and pleasant land. It isn’t. As Hornby writes:

You’ll never hear England by listening to Elgar or Vaughan Williams … too much has happened since then.

So, what has happened since the time of Elgar? Hornby cites ‘the lager-fuelled violence’, the lip, the self-deprecation, the lethargy, the irreverence and the jokes. And he reminds the English that the odds are ‘you’ll eat a curry more often than you’ll see an ascending lark’. (In fact, Hornby alludes to some of the shifts in culture that have taken place in the UK – changes that were foreseen by, for example, George Orwell and wonderfully captured by Ken Loach in his documentary ‘The spirit of ‘45’’)

Then Hornby identifies a song – and a sound – in which ‘there is something uniquely English’. The song is ‘Reasons to be cheerful: Part three’ by Ian Dury.

There are essentially two things in Dury’s song that cause Hornby to identify it as something uniquely English:

First, Dury’s generation was not afraid of the past nor of popular culture. And ‘Reasons to be cheerful’ expresses this – just as it’s impossible to escape the fact that Englishness is permeated both by versions of History and the varied tastes of the ‘man-in-the-street’.

Second, and most importantly, ‘Reasons to be cheerful’ is a list of things about which the English might be cheerful – AND, as Hornby remarks, ‘the list is curiously representational’ of a certain kind of Englishness because ‘it consists of a great many things that are not English.’

I think he is right to underline the fact that a part of being English is to appreciate non-English things. That’s not surprising: the English were/are an island people and a colonial people who have, for ages and ages, enjoyed the fruits of difference and who, in some sense, know, that a host of good things lie beyond the coastlines of Britain.

Horny also finds that ‘Reason to be cheerful’ delivers on a criterion that is essential for a national anthem: it is capable of inspiring pride. And at this point in chapter 22 he becomes genuinely and excitingly radical: he announces that the Prime Minister should ‘tell the Queen that since nobody cares about her’ we ought to get rid of ‘God save the Queen’ (it’s no longer applicable). In its stead, he proposes, Ian Dury’s composition.

He bolsters his argument by turning to reflect upon what the English (or British) have to be proud about. And, for him, the answer is ‘not much’ although he appears to limit his focus to that which is manifested in music. (To his credit he does applaud the caustic critique rendered through Punk.) He rejects the deceptions intrinsic to the ‘Merchant Ivory’ (conservative postmodernist) retro-versions of the UK and he rails against the alternative ‘Cool Britannia’ falsehoods that were peddled by the unprincipled marketeers during Tony Blair’s premiership.

‘No,’ he says: England is neither of these. But something of England can be found in Dury’s list – such as in National Health Glasses (and the NHS) , our appreciation of the Bolshoi Ballet, the anti-apartheid movement, Smokey Robinson’s voice – and perhaps most powerfully, in the fact that, in England, we have the chance of ‘something nice to study’. He underlines the fact that self-study and self-improvement, and initiatives like Penguin books, are amongst the good things of England.

Overall, I agree with Nick Hornby – although I think we have several alternative  images and narratives that are trying to tell us what is uniquely and decidedly English. Certainly, if one were to ‘hear’ England in a song it would have to say something about class, class-identifications and class differences. In fact, it would have to ask how far we have travelled since Orwell wrote, in 1947, his essay: ‘The English class system’ and his perception that a classless being had emerged in the immediate post-war years. We’d have to ask whether or not we have arrived at a far more classless culture.

However, whilst I’d be pleased to jettison ‘God save the Queen’ I wouldn’t choose Ian Dury’s song as a new national anthem. I’d try to create a work that references more of the good things of England. But since I’m not sure what they are I, too, have started a list (see below) – from which, I hope to write a new national anthem.

Footnote: Here’s my list. It’s not complete but it’s a start. So, these are some of the good things of England that, ideally, a national anthem might include:

The language (so often beautifully spoken by non-UK nationals)
Oaks and bricks and riverbanks; Apple blossom too.
Rationing and allotments
Fruit and veg.
Mayhew and Orwell, Bronte and Peake, Coleridge and McGough
Gimme shelter’, ‘Strawberry fields’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Pretty vacant’, ‘Wish you were here
The films: ‘Brief encounter’ and  ‘Threads’.
When the wind blows’ by Raymond Briggs
Ban the bomb marches
Oxfam
Charity shops
Weather forecasts (which are usually accurate)
The Poll tax riots
Florence White’s book: ‘Good things of England’ It’s about food!
John Stuart Mill
Time-tables, administration (in the main the English do a good job organising things.)
Diplomats
Radio Caroline
Schools where everyone is valued
The skies – and especially the might and mystery of the clouds
Hop fields
Engineers and inventors
Wilfred Bion, John Heron
Sigmund Freud coming to London
Kipling’s ‘If’
Ken Loach and his documentary The spirit of ‘45
The cathedral close in Salisbury
Vintage cars (the Triumph TR4, The MGB, the E type Jaguar.)
Hollyhocks
Walks along the cliff top, walks through woodland, walks across heath-land, walks …
Satire
The Fine Art departments in Art colleges
Investigative journalism e.g. the Guardian
The Open University
Vivienne Westwood
Bilberries on Crooksbury Hill (Surrey) or near Whitby (Yorkshire)
The right to protest – to demonstrate – more or less peacefully
The turbine hall at Tate Modern
Hornby Doublo Train sets, Britains’ Swoppets
Shakespeare (and the Globe Theatre, old and new)
Malling Jewel raspberries
Dansette record players
Streets full of superb German cars
Third prize in the dog-with-the-waggiest-tail competition in local fetes
Winnie-the-Pooh and the places in which his story was told
The covers of Penguin paperback books
Having-a-go at making a welfare state work. (With luck, we’ll try much harder in future to make it a success.)

Farnham in Surrey: it’s on the skids

'Let's sing another song boys - this one has grown old and bitter'

‘Let’s sing another song, boys – this one has grown old and bitter’

At around 4 in the morning on 3 July 2013 I was having a dream – a good dream – about my father. Actually I was running away from my father because I’d done something wrong and I didn’t want to face the consequences. Before the dream reached its proper conclusion I almost fell out of bed and, in so doing, I was awakened from my sleep. I lay in bed for a minutes thinking about the afterlife and how, in a sense, my father, who had died a few years ago, still lives. Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an alarm.

The alarm sent out a piercing screech, a screech that repeated its unnatural cry every few seconds. Where was it coming from? Was it a car alarm, or a garden-shed alarm or a house alarm? I got out of bed to have a look but all I could see was a cyanide-blue light – a stroboscopic kind of light – throbbing away and lighting up the nearby gardens. After fifteen minutes the alarm stopped sounding. But I was disquieted: was there a burglar or a ne’er-do-well at large?

A few minutes later the house trembled as some kind of heavy goods vehicle – a blitzkrieg of a lorry – thundered by. And then I heard the ‘clank clank clank’ as the lorry unloaded whatever building material it was carrying in the nearby Art College. Another lorry followed – but this time the building materials were for the local school.

I began to feel cheesed off.

After a while, after wondering about how much worse life was going to get in Farnham, I managed to get to sleep.

Upon waking I heard the disagreeable sound of a neighbour’s chickens. (Quite why the neighbour installed a hen-house in her back-garden I don’t know – but I could do without the hoarse, repetitive, strangled and unpleasant sounds that the hens make.)

But the really infuriating moment of the day was yet to come: I settled down to begin typing an article at 8.30 in the morning. I did my best to ignore the gathering crowd of people that was assembling on the pavement immediately opposite my house. They assemble there because a primary school is situated on the other side of the street and the parents are not allowed to take their children into the school until 8.45 a.m. So, they wait with the children. Then, once the gates are unlocked, they all file into the school playground. HOWEVER some parents attach their dogs to the railings outside the school – and then leave the dogs waiting. Dogs are dogs and some get disturbed by these moments of separation; they begin barking. Sometimes the barking goes on for 10 minutes. The sound waves of the barks pass across the playground and strike the school-buildings and get amplified – with the result that I am driven mad. It’s impossible to work – to think – when an incessant barking is going on. I have developed an irrational hatred for these dog-owners and I have started to have terrible phantasies involving machine guns …

AND these aggressive phantasies are fuelled by the repeat performance that takes place when the parents come to collect their children in the mid-afternoon. BARK BARK BARK. (I’ve had to consult the Borough Council to find the best way of trying to do something about the problem: as a first step, I’ve written to the headteacher of the school alerting her to the issue, and urging her to intervene appropriately.)

In fact, these episodes reflect the fact that the living environment in Farnham is being increasingly degraded. Most of my neighbours are beefing about the degeneracy that all of us have to endure. The biggest concern is with the changing behaviour of the people. Something has happened in Britain and Farnham is not immune to the problem. There is less and less respect for the older social norms that emphasised consideration for others. There is less empathy. And sometimes you feel as if people simply ‘have it in for you’. (It’s clear to me that the people who leave their dogs to bark have either a complete lack of imagination or a certain disregard for others (or both).)

I’m reminded of a general observation made by a Polish girl who had sought work in the UK as a result of the EC privileges. She said that whilst she was very pleased to have a job she ‘didn’t think much of the people.’ She didn’t think much of the British: ‘The people,’ she said, ‘only think of themselves. They’re careless and thoughtless.’

In Farnham we see this in a micro-behavioural way: If you walk down the street you simply do not know if people will adjust themselves in such a way that all parties can move freely along the pavement. And, as you walk, you step over discarded paper and packaging, you avoid empty wine bottles, you see beer cans chucked into front gardens. People spit insouciantly in the street. They mouth obscenities into their mobile phones. Cars are parked carelessly with their tyres on the pavement. (And when the people do park their cars there’s a kind of resentment on their faces.) Dogs’ muck is left here and there.

Since I’ve lived in Farnham my garden shed has been burgled four times. My splendid car – a scarlet Volkswagen – was stolen and never recovered. (That’s partly why I get into a bit of a state when I hear alarms going off in the middle of the night.) Another car has been vandalised – on at least three occasions. Things left in my car have been stolen.

EVEN MY HOLLYHOCKS HAVE BEEN DECAPITATED.

And, just the other day I passed one of my neighbours who was working in his front garden: we stopped for a chat. He wasn’t in a good mood because he’d been woken up in the middle of the night by ‘some idiots’ who’d been out drinking. Our street is subject to periodic bouts of drunkenness; we often get disturbed during the nights by shouting and the occasional punch-up.

Farnham certainly isn’t nirvana. It’s on the skids. And if ‘they’ increase the population of Farnham there isn’t much chance that the town will retain any charm: there will simply be an increase in this dismal and disagreeable behaviour.

Trafalgar Square: a song

If you could read my mind

‘If you could read my mind.’

Trafalgar Square in London is softened by the almost transparent air of summer-time England.

An artist – a portraitist – readies himself for the day. He sits on the northern rim of the square. Who will happen along and ask him for their portrait?

He waits.

Soon a girl, a girl from far-away lands – from somewhere to the east of Eden  – appears. She asks the artist if he might draw her portrait.

She is so beautiful, so graceful. She’s like a golden topaz on soft grey velvet – a wisp of fragrance in a white and crystal world. Words give way to silence. Nothing can catch the edges of her exquisite presence. She sits in front of the artist.

He is transfixed by her beauty.

He cannot move his crayon.

He holds his head in his hands: the pleasure of despair.

He closes his eyes and remembers a lecture he once heard at art school; he remembers hearing how the great philosopher Kant declared that the most supreme beauty was only to be found in nature. He thinks: ‘Here, in the cherry-blossom girl, is a beauty higher than art.’

He opens his eyes and stares beyond the prism of the girl into the infinite.

She waits. She waits and waits. Shyly, she looks at the ground.

No words are spoken.

Together they wait in silence.

From within, the artist hears the melody of an old song; he hears the line: ‘If you could read my mind.’ At that moment he feels a terrible sadness.

She waits…