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ago a well-known English author argued that ‘because no one cares about the Queen anymore’ the old national anthem is ‘no longer applicable’ and should be replaced by a song that is more representative of England and the English.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
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.)
Schools where everyone is valued
The skies – and especially the might and mystery of the clouds
Engineers and inventors
Wilfred Bion, John Heron
Sigmund Freud coming to London
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.)
Walks along the cliff top, walks through woodland, walks across heath-land, walks …
The Fine Art departments in Art colleges
Investigative journalism e.g. the Guardian
The Open University
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.)