Wednesday, 25 April 2012

God save the what?


I was roused from my slumber this morning by the ghastly sound of my iPhone, like some kind of electronic cascading waterfall. I lay there for a few seconds assuming it was simply my alarm going off, but as I reached over to throw it at a wall, I realised there was a number flashing up on the screen... BBC York! Shit! I’d agreed at some point yesterday to do a telephone interview with them about our National Anthem on their breakfast radio show. I’d set myself a reminder, but plainly slept through it.

You have about three minutes from the time they call you, to the time you’re on air. Three minutes to wake yourself up, to remember your name, to drink a gallon of water to stop your mouth feeling like foam, and to work out what on earth you’re going to say, live on air, about a topic about which you know very little. And so I ran around with the phone glued to my ear, knowing in any second I’d be thrown into the lion’s den, and still not sure I knew my own name...

As it happened, horror of horrors, I was peeing when they threw me to the studio. There’s usually some kind of long intro and maybe a snippet of music related to the subject before they say “and I’m joined now by the composer of A Symphony for Yorkshire...” But this was a morning wee, and it was lasting forever, and I couldn’t make it stop. Simultaneously, the phone started beeping in my ear to inform me that the battery was low. I didn’t know if our landline even had reception in our bathroom...

So, as I started talking to the Nation, or at least to Yorkshire, I was still peeing. The sound of urine splashing into the pan was almost deafening. I was mortified.

The question they were asking was whether we should have an English national anthem. We tend to use God Save the Queen for both British and English occasions, when the Welsh have the beautiful Land of My Fathers and the Scots have the theme from Braveheart, or whatever it is they use when they’re getting all anti-union. The answer is, very clearly, yes, we should have an English national anthem, but surely, we already do? It’s called Jerusalem, which I happen to think is one of the greatest melodies ever written. I don’t care that the lyrics are dark. They’re by Blake, for God’s sake!

I’m not going to lie. I’m ashamed of God Save The Queen. It’s not about England – it’s about God and the Queen, which for a republican atheist is a bit like asking a patriotic Christian to sing “Jesus was a Fag. Bless the Devil.” More importantly, it’s a rubbish melody. A really rubbish melody. I said on air that I always refuse to stand up for it, more on musical grounds than because I’m an atheist, although apparently a series of texts immediately came in to the radio station saying; “send the bastard to the tower!” Happily, if that’s the biggest crime you can commit...

I actually think it’s the reason English people don’t sing as well as the Welsh. The Welsh National anthem is massively rangy. If you’re singing that every day in school, or every time you go to a rugby match, you’re being forced to stretch your vocal chords. If you’re Welsh, more often than not, you are hugely proud of the fact, and there’s no better way to demonstrate this, than by singing the National anthem... in tune. It even has a decent set of words all about soldiers and poets. If your National anthem is a dirge like ours, which barely covers a major sixth, no one needs to try very hard to sing it properly. No one wants to sing it properly. It doesn’t surge. It limps. I reckon it’s the reason why so few English people make the octave leap when they’re singing Happy Birthday to You! The American anthem covers an octave and a half, twice as many notes as ours... ditto with the French one.

The presenter asked if I’d like to write an English national anthem, and I spluttered a bit – which is what always happens when someone asks you a curve-ball question live on air. I suddenly forgot the difference between assuming and presuming – and then my cloudy head couldn’t remember how either of the verbs declined, so I simply said; “I think we’ve already got an alternative. Jerusalem...” Actually I should have said that only the people can chose a national anthem and it’s a process which happens over the course of time. I’m sure plenty of patriotic songs have been commissioned and written over the years. My Grannie’s cousin, Leonard Carrington, for example, wrote a song called “Ring Out the Bells for Jubilee” but that didn’t exactly catch on! Commissioning a composer to write a national anthem is pointless. The one thing I’ll say about the English is that if you tell us we’ll going to like something, we invariably won’t!

Pepys spent the day 350 years ago milling about in Portsmouth. No one seemed to have any idea when the future Queen of England was due to arrive in the city. Pepys bunked down with Dr Timothy Clarke once again. In those days, it was considered absolutely normal for two men to share a bed. In fact, it was quite a sociable thing to do, Pepys describing himself as “much pleased with his company.” This particular diary entry ends with a chilling line:
I was much troubled in my eyes, by reason of the healths I have this day been forced to drink.

Pepys blamed the alcohol, but something was wrong. Over the next few years, his eyesight would deteriorate to the extent that he was no longer able to write his diary. He genuinely thought he was going blind, and was incredibly distressed by the situation. I was lucky enough to see (and hold) Pepys’ diaries a couple of years ago, and was particularly upset to notice that the shorthand he wrote in got larger and larger and more and more messy as he reached the point at which he was forced to give up writing.

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