DJ Taylor: God save our national anthem

The horrors of a modern, anodyne chant, the Games as societal glue, and how the local press will do anything for an Olympic headline

Share

As the litter is swept up at the Olympic stadium, as the members of Her Majesty's armed forces are returned to their barracks and Lord Coe departs for a well-earned holiday in Frinton, the last rite of the 2012 Olympic Games will begin to be performed. This is the long awaited groundswell of liberal unease over what might be called the paraphernalia of contemporary patriotism.

The Union Jack, a collection of somewhat anguished voices agrees, has been "redeemed" – that is, snatched out of the undesirable grasp of the xenophobic and/or militaristic right and turned into a multicultural symbol. But what of the National Anthem (a "dirge" according to The Independent's Dominic Lawson), which continues to be criticised for its belligerence, religious overtones, neo-imperialism and so on? Should we, as one or two opinion-formers have suggested, commission a new one more sensitive to the realities of life in 21st-century Britain?

Fresh from a sporting event in which we have had a chance to hear some of the other national anthems doing the rounds, I can't help feeling that this is a very bad idea, the worst idea, as a character in a Martin Amis novel might say.

The National Anthem may very well peddle the antediluvian notion that God is essentially an Englishman, but it takes only a bar or two of one of the newer effusions from the Commonwealth to hint at how anodyne a modern, secular anthem would sound, particularly if its overriding aim was less to exalt the country it described than merely to avoid giving offence.

Much the same principle applies to The English Hymnal. All Things Bright and Beautiful is as out-of-date as a cloche hat, but I never met a churchgoer who preferred to sing one of those "contemporary" hymns which have "Copyright Kingsway's Thankyou Music" at the end and are full of arresting couplets of the "Jesus you are very nice/Of course you had to pay the price" variety.

A realist might even wonder why the long-censored verse about frustrating the knavish tricks of our enemies and confounding their politics couldn't be reinstated. As patriotic Britons, surely we want our enemies' politics confounded, and it is hypocritical of us to pretend otherwise.

Along with the stirrings of liberal disquiet over these signs of patriotic fervour, there has also been a great deal in the press about the "unifying" effects of the Games and their secondary function as a kind of societal glue, able to knit together what is not so much a fractured nation as a defiantly heterogeneous one. Much, therefore, was made of the BBC's announcement that well over 20 million people had tuned in to the spectacle of Usain Bolt cruising to victory in the men's 100 metres.

Although not quite as eye-catching as the 28 million viewers thought to have watched England beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final, or the near-identical figures racked up by the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show in the 1970s, this is an impressive statistic from a world of ever-proliferating TV channels and consumer choice. All the same, it makes you wonder what the other two-thirds of the UK population were doing at the time? Watering their bedding plants? Walking the dog? The myth of a collective consciousness, or even the idea that everyone on a specimen high street has approximately the same kind of internal data available to them, is horribly seductive. In reality, you suspect that significant numbers of people get by in the absence of facts that most of us regard as vital to our existence.

Back in the 1980s, for example, at the height of the Thatcherite project, newspaper surveys regularly threw up the information that several per cent of those questioned could not identify a photograph of Mrs Thatcher. Intensely disapproving of this at the time, I now think there something rather heroic about it, a refusal to be dragooned into the routines of mainstream life, a kind of quietism by default, whose underlying attitude – that what is important to you may not necessarily be important to me – is always bracing. As Douglas Dunn put it, in one of his "Terry Street" poems from back-street 1960s Hull, "There are many worlds, there are many laws."

Local newspapers sometimes have a curious notion of patriotism. As George Orwell notes in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, they are generally "so avid" for a local angle that "such items of news as 'Hampstead Man on Murder Charge' or 'Dismembered Baby in Cellar in Camberwell' are displayed with positive pride".

Here in Norfolk, the Eastern Daily Press has been making a commendable effort to give its readers a whiff of the Olympian spirit. On Monday, it managed to turn up the parents of the sprinter James Dasaolu, who run a newsagent's shop in Witard Road, Norwich. By Tuesday, the news that the horse Big Star, ridden to triumph by Nick Skelton, was actually owned by a couple in north Norfolk covered the front page.

All this was par for the course. On the other hand, true East Anglians will have been a little bemused by BBC Look East's lavish account of the jamboree that took place in Milton Keynes to welcome home local boy Greg Rutherford, winner of the men's Long Jump gold, on the excellent grounds that Milton Keynes is in Buckinghamshire.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species  

Save the tiger: Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried