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FEATURE Change your tune

Change your tune
3 years ago

I have a complaint. Well, I say a complaint; it’s more of a festering gripe but, as any Yorkshireman will tell you, why bother nurturing a grievance if you don’t share it or, in my case, keep on sharing it to the point at which people start avoiding you at parties? So, yes, I know, I’ve banged this drum before but, frankly, I’m past caring.

Here’s the beef: why does the England rugby team line up before a Test match – as they did yet again last Saturday against Italy – and sing the National Anthem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Back in the day, I used to badger Eddie Jones about this and get absolutely nowhere, mate. Stuart Lancaster – buttonholed after a news conference somewhere during the latter part of his watch – did nod politely and promise to consider the matter but events, cruelly, overtook him: so much for friends in high places.

Indeed, the less traction I’ve got on this issue – humoured, marginalised, mocked, roundly ignored – the more caustic my resolve has become. Should I consider civil disobedience? Do I chain myself to the gates of the West Car Park? My minx of a daughter – God love her – recommends ‘principled non-violence’, a tactic, she says, she used to practise on me whenever I was in one of my ‘fascist’ moods and moaning – ‘yet again’ – about her bedroom looking like the bottom of a canal. But I’m not sure a two-week pout would do the trick.

It’s dated, it’s dire and if you’re an atheist and a republican – and, trust me, there are a few of us left – you get absolutely no bang for your buck whatsoever.

Look, this is hardly differential calculus, is it? All we’re saying is that (a) the England rugby team represent England and (b) the National Anthem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland doesn’t. That’s it. So why, in a nutshell, do the English have to sing someone else’s anthem?

What aggravates the issue, since we’re being candid, is that ‘God Save the Queen’ is 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. 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 – and, trust me, there are a few of us left – you get absolutely no bang for your buck whatsoever.

There’s not even any certainty that the anthem’s 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 surviving an operation to remove an anal abscess – I swear, I’m not making this up – the surgical knife that was purpose-made for the moment now being on display in La Musee d’histoire de la Medecine in Paris. Obviously, the scalpel now being in a museum doesn’t prove anything in itself; I mention it just in case you ever happen to find yourself in the vicinity of the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine on a wet Wednesday afternoon and at a loose end.

Los Pumas
The Pumas always emotionally belt out their national anthem, can the same be said for God Save the Queen? (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Of course, the United Kingdom lumbering itself with an anemic anthem is the United Kingdom’s problem and good luck with it. It has – or it should have – absolutely nothing to do with England or with England Rugby. Yet, alas, it still does. In times past, RFU blazers used to argue that ditching GSTQ wouldn’t go down too well with The Firm given the Queen – now Prince Harry – was patron of the Union. Yes, but hang on a minute. The Duke of Cambridge and The Princess Royal are patrons of the WRU and the SRU, yet I don’t hear the corgis barking when the Principality Stadium quivers to the sound of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ or Murrayfield pipes out ‘Flower of Scotland’.

The other longstanding excuse was that England dumping GSTQ would lead to a complete ‘Balkanisation’ of the rugby kingdom, not exactly a game-changing argument these days given the emergence of Boris Johnson and his witless, self-serving, clusterfuck of little Englanders. But even without the self-mutilation of Brexit, it’s a specious argument. Scotland’s rugby anthem, let’s not forget, defines the entire nation at the explicit expense of ‘Proud Edward’s army’ so, in a 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 an expectant Twickenham? ‘Rule Britannia’? It’s a showstopper, no question, but the obvious warts – surely – are the title and the chorus. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’? It’s very Royal Albert Hall but, perhaps, a touch too much pomp and circumstance? ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’? Yes, well, now you’re being silly.

Let’s stick with the second verse; a green and pleasant land fortified by bows of burning gold and chariots of fire. Imagine, for a moment, if Lawrence Dallaglio had got the chance to sink his teeth into that.

All of which – by a process of elimination if nothing else – seems 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; a green and pleasant land fortified by bows of burning gold and chariots of fire. Imagine, for a moment, if Lawrence Dallaglio had got the chance to sink his teeth into that.

And it’s hardly a leap in the dark. The England cricket team use 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. Indeed, back in 1916, when George V first heard William’s words set to Hubert’s hymn, he said he preferred ‘Jerusalem’ to his own anthem, so it even has royal approval. What’s not to like?

Yes, well, it appears there may be a small flaw. There are ‘Blakologists’ who’ll tell you that their man wrote it not as a celebration but as a ‘stonking 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 helpful. Tough, I would imagine, to put your hand on your heart for an anthem that – potentially – satirises the very cause for which you’re about to bleed.  

Which leaves us where, precisely? Auditioning for something new? Yes, well, what kind of noise are we after? How about something akin to ‘Advance Australia Fair’, which does at least have the country in the title and – quite literally – sings the praises of not just the rich landscape but the youth and vitality of the nation. You could argue the lyrics are a bit Biff and Chip, I suppose, but it’s a decent noise.

Italy anthem
Italy’s Matteo Minozzi sheds a tear during a rendition of ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

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. If you fancy something a little more crimson, how about something like ‘El Himno Nacional Argentino’ – “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 inflammatory? OK, well there’s always ‘Fratelli d’Italia’, which, personally, I’ve always loved; a jaunty, brassy tune guaranteed to leave a tighthead prop in tears.

Look, clearly this is an emotive argument with no obvious, unanimous solution. Anthem-wise, as one leading sociology professor eminently pointed out “there’s a tension between an imperial nationalistic past and the realities of the multicultural present… 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 very well be right.

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

More stories by Graham Simmons

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