Earlier this year I awoke to the exciting news that one of my favourite bands had been asked to compose a new national anthem. According to the Classic FM website, Radiohead revealed they were “stoked” to be given the responsibility of creating a replacement for God Save the Queen.
Once I had looked up what stoked meant –“being in an enthusiastic or exhilarated state” – I glanced at the date on my phone. April 1st of course. Fooled again.
Earlier this week I awoke to see “William Blake” trending on my Twitter feed. Now it just so happens that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and many other musical heroes of mine, has been inspired by the artist, poet, printer and revolutionary. And so my thoughts turned, once again, to the idea of a new national anthem.
Blake was trending because he was born on November 28 1757. It is incredible – and heartening – to think that the great man, largely ignored during his own lifetime, is so venerated 261 years after his birth. In particular, wonderful Romantic poems like The Tyger, The Sick Rose – and anything, really, from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – are testimony to his unique contribution to English literature.
He is best known, though, for Jerusalem. Which really should replace God Save the Queen as our new national anthem.
“I leave you with a complaint,” Billy Connolly ended a famous sketch. “Now, the country is in a terrible state, and you’ve blamed it on a number of things: unemployment rate, the value of the pound and all that. Well, it’s because the national anthem is boring.”
Exactly. Would we have had such poor housing, education and health – not to mention the great Brexit fiasco – if Jerusalem, or another stirring tune, had been belted out on the occasion of a Royal birth or death? Of course not.
I have to confess, at this point, that I suffer from anthem envy. Scotland has the mesmeric Flower of Scotland. Wales has the poignant Land of My Fathers. I even feel deeply moved by Star Spangled Banner, especially the Jimi Hendrix version. The best, by a country mile, is Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa).
But we English must put up with the slow, repetitive, banal dirge which is God Save the Queen. It’s nothing to do with being anti-patriotic, anti-monarchy or anti-religious. It’s everything to do with being anti-boring. And, having a grandmother who was born north of the border, a slight objection to the line about crushing rebellious Scots.
What we need is a tune which will stir our feelings of national pride, not send us to sleep.
Jerusalem would be a perfect anthem. Taken from the preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton, and set to music by composer Sir Hubert Parry, it would unite our divided, fragmented nation.
It is sung, with great gusto, by northerner and southerner alike. It is sung in churches and schools, at the Women’s Institute and the last night of the Proms, by Tories and socialists. The magnificence of Blake’s opus is the one thing both Remainers and Leavers can agree on.
It is open to many interpretations. Some see it purely as a theological text, Blake pining for a Second Coming. Others interpret it as some kind of hippy-ish, anarchistic, anti-industrial lament.
To me it’s an expression of an idealised England. On the morning I saw Blake trending I read the sad news about the death, aged 95, of the anti-poverty activist Harry Leslie Smith. In Harry’s Last Stand, the beloved campaigner wrote: “Lately, in the mist between sleeping and waking, I hear in my mind Blake’s ancient hymn, Jerusalem, sung during the war by me and my brethren.”
So I’d be stoked if, 261 years after the birth of one of England’s greatest writers, Jerusalem succeeded God Save the Queen. It is already bellowed at sporting events. In fact, eight years ago, in a public vote, itwas backed by a 52 per cent majority to be used as Team England’s national anthem at the Commonwealth Games.
And nobody has called, as far as I know, for a second referendum.