Who in England feels genuinely represented by ‘God Save the Queen’? Not many of us, I dare say, considering how much moaning we do about how tedious it is and how it should be replaced by ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. As someone descended from the English, Scottish and Welsh and born in Scotland, I’ve never really felt it had to represent me, as I didn’t really know where I was from.
Being a mongrel nationality-wise meant I never knew which team to support in sporting events where the constituent parts of the UK represented themselves. My Auntie Sue gave me a Scottish rugby shirt when I was about eight or nine, which resolved that problem. What to do about football, though? By the time I got interested in it (about 1997) I came to realise that supporting Scotland was not going to be much fun. Or England, for that matter, with the glory long since departed. Wales? *tumbleweed* Anyway, how to decide which team would be mine in the 1998 World Cup?
In my early teens I decided to become a Chelsea fan for the flimsiest of reasons. The 1997 FA Cup Final was on the horizon, and the choice was Chelsea or Middlesbrough. What was my thinking?
- London better than Middlesbrough (I would have said then)
- Blue better than red (I maintain)
- Premier League better than Division 1, to which Boro had just been relegated (now even better, what with Division 1 being downgraded every few years)
- Zola better than Hignett (arguably)
But at this time music was the thing I knew most about, and it was as much on the basis of the FA Cup Final records the teams produced that Chelsea prevailed. Their song was celebratory and harmonically bold, it sounded like London, and it was by Suggs (what a man). Boro’s song was a cover version by Bob Mortimer of a Chris Rea song recorded (so far as I can tell) in a garden shed with a cheap Bontempi keyboard. Anyway, from the moment Di Matteo lashed in from 25 yards, I haven’t looked back. (Actually, I look back constantly, what with the obscene money Abramovich is throwing around. Only about £70m yesterday. It makes one long for the days of Eddie Newton and Andy Myers. Almost.)
So why not choose a national football team to support on the same basis? It would have been around this time that I borrowed from the library a CD of primarily European national anthems played by a military band. To my surprise, some of them turned out to be quite good, not the dreary dirges I was used to hearing before rugby matches. My favourite was Poland’s, the ‘Mazurek Dąbrowskiego’.
But Poland didn’t qualify for the 1998 World Cup (they had the misfortune of being drawn with England and Italy in qualifying), so I went for Norway. Not that their anthem is much more interesting than ours, but they had Tore Andre Flo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer up front and I thought they might create a shock – rightly, as it happened. They beat Brazil in their final group match, but Italy knocked them out in the second round. Prior to the tournament I decided to compensate for their uninspiring anthem by writing an original verse of ‘Jerusalem’ referring explicitly to the Norwegian national team. It’s too embarrassing to replicate my version here, but suffice it to say that it was better than Blake’s.
I’ve been listening to national anthems again recently. Not masterpieces, most of them, but the extent to which they embody the character of the people they represent is interesting. Listen to the beautiful Israeli anthem and tell me it doesn’t sound like centuries of oppression (the text refers to this too). And don’t the French and German anthems sound exactly like the French and the Germans – or have our impressions of the people been coloured by the music? The US anthem sounds like the stereotype of the country – brash and ostentatious. Even Stravinsky’s arrangement has a touch of showbiz about it.
The thing is, I’ve come to realise that I like ‘God Save the Queen’. It’s not exciting, but it’s solid and built on firm foundations. The Winston Churchill of national anthems. ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’? Far too jingoistic.
And happily, perhaps the clincher, the most English thing of all, is that despite all of the moaning we haven’t actually done anything about replacing it. It’s what makes it the right choice. My country expects me to be apathetic, and I can’t be bothered to dissent.