THE spectacle of smug-faced young Tory ministers urging the BBC to play the UK national anthem every night before News 24 airs is of course excruciatingly painful. But remembering the times when it actually happened releases at least a decent flood of memories.
For TV-age families like ours, the nighttime performance of God Save The Queen meant our daily mass hypnosis was over (although with the Test Card appearing onscreen then, not the strangeness). I remember watching the original Planet Of The Apes until noon, ending with Charlton Heston sweeping up a shattered Statue of Liberty. I thought the wobbly air that followed was a Pythonian commentary on the vanity of nations.
READ MORE: Scots suggest songs BBC should play instead of God Save the Queen
I also smile, remembering an instrumental version of God Save The Queen coming out of my late mom’s bedside radio, well after midnight. She had become a total fan of Radio Four – especially its late-night poetry shows – but only died after the anthem was fully played. No doubt to dismay his Republican offspring, grinding their teeth downstairs.
Memory sometimes adds up too much, gilds the lily. I read with some surprise on Wikipedia that BBC2 and Channel Four had (and never) played God Save The Queen, as well as Thames and some ITV stations in the North. I also fondly imagine that I once watched the Sex Pistols denounce “its fascist regime” on television in 1977. However, historians tell me that the single and its video were banned from all media channels.
(On the Pistols’ version, here’s an intriguing detail. The Tory backcountry MP who called for the restoration of God Save The Queen this week, Andrew Rosindell, has a form on this issue. However, the last time ‘he made the request, on November 3, 2016, that night’s Newsnight ended with Kirsty Wark saying they were “incredibly happy to oblige.” From the Pistols’ line of footage live on stage, spitting their way through their classic. Unthinkable behavior from the Beeb, these days …)
Fortunately, I have managed to avoid too many public occasions when the hall rises to honor the national anthem. A few times I got trapped, but I saw it coming. So I either responded to a sudden urgent call to nature, or I sat like the teenage anti-monarchist that I am. Rock’n’roll deafness protected me from the hissing comments of the most flowery at the table.
However, even my light research revealed that I now have an alternate strategy: I should substitute the lyrics for something a little less cowardly reverent. The best option is a 1794 version, written by American Republican and French citizen Joel Barlow. Try it!
God save the guillotine
Until the king and queen of England
Its power will prove:
Up to each named button
Offers mowing job
Don’t let no vile halter fly
A little on the nose? As even street dogs know, the second verse of the official God Save The Queen lyrics hardly opposes elite resistance to Republican sentiment:
Lord our God, arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And bring them down:
Confuse their policy,
Outsmart their mischievous tricks,
On You our hopes we fix:
God save us all.
There is a wrinkling verse from the October 1745 edition of Gentleman’s Magazine, which takes a somewhat partisan line on Jacobite politics of the time:
Lord, grant Marshal Wade,
That by your mighty help,
May he be silent
and like a torrent,
Scots rebels to crush,
May God save the king.
So yes, I do (and will remain) a part of the population of these islands who literally feel oppressed whenever we hear the first sounds of that appalling, passivity-inducing death-song and reverence for the elites.
The definitive author of the world’s national anthems, Alex Marshall, hates God Save The Queen. “It has absolutely nothing about Britain today,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic. “Most hymns are at least meant to say something about your character. At the very least, they’re meant to say your hills are beautiful.
Marshall notes – as I have already done in these pages – that Jerusalem by William Blake and Hubert Parry (increasingly sung at events with a strong English context) is far preferable, full of hope and vision. . “I will not stop fighting mentally, / My sword will not sleep in my hand either: / Until we have built Jerusalem / In the pleasant green land of England.”
Wow. Low that. (I always hear Bob Marley echoing these lines: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / No one but ourselves can free our minds”). I remain jealous of the opportunities the Scottish Indy will bring to Jerusalem, like the English national anthem. Especially in comparison to the kitsch ragbag available in Scotland.
READ MORE: Tory MP doubles down on ‘God Save the Queen’ call with Kate Garraway
Bring me my brilliant separate currency plan, bring me my realistic Scottish EU-Brexit border checks, of course. Establishing a decent and lasting Scottish national anthem is low on the to-do list. But the proposed stuffing of God Save The Queen in our throats at the end of each day at least has the merit of clarifying what kind of anthem you might desire.
You would think it should be about the power of the people – and human emancipation. The sheer silliness of a national anthem that’s so, so happy with the longevity of the hereditary monarchy… sure, that’s the lowest of the bars.
And again, Blake’s Jerusalem has the advantage. Imagine having a song where the green and joyful utopia of its title is explicitly opposed to dirty industrial capitalism, these “dark satanic mills”?
Is Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come A ‘Ye competitive enough? I love him, always. And in an increasingly “waking” world, where the planetary and human debts of the Imperial West are becoming explicit, the anti-colonial and anti-militarist sentiments of Liberty can label it as deceitful. It is a surprisingly far-sighted text, a true testament to the Scottish left (although its melody is always a little diabolical to sing).
However, I will admit that I need more assertiveness and collective aspiration in a Scottish national anthem. In this I do not think we are well served by Flower of Scotland.
Does that mean we will forever sing of the heather glory of pre-modern wars, sending ‘the English’ ‘home again’, eager to be ‘a nation again’ – even as we hammer down the halls? from Brussels or New York, pursuing complex strategic objectives? Will it really help things?
To be fair, it’s not as if the national anthem in general isn’t a steaming pot of primitive clichés. Reading Marshall’s book on hymns (Republic or Bust!), Regular invocations of “homeland” and “homeland” from continent to continent would give you heebie-jeebies.
It’s delicate. Maybe we need something brand new – Blake level lyrics, brought to life with a melody for the ages. In the meantime, sentimentally (and especially because of young singer Rianne Downey’s Twitter performance), I envisioned Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia as a contender.
Caledonia you are all that I ever had
Happy New Year 🏴🤍 pic.twitter.com/ACD2TIQrfC
– Rianne Downey (@riannedowney_) January 1, 2022
It would certainly be functional. Caledonia is the ultimate siren call to the global Scottish diaspora – or at least the choir is. For me it’s a bonus that the verses are troubled, quarrelsome, emotionally mature: “I moved and kept moving forward / Proved the points I needed to prove / Lost the friends I had need to lose / Found others on the way ”.
But perhaps this is just one to put in the purse – and perhaps a repertoire of national anthems tailored to the context is the way to go.
Finally, a respectful suggestion to the hon. Members for Romford and Croydon South. If their goal for GSOQ’s nightly television broadcast is to restore “the unity and pride of our nation”, the consequences may be … not as expected.