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Sunday, September 11, 2005

This green and pleasant land

When leaving Britain on the ferry to the Continent, I 'phoned Aelianus for a running commentary on landmarks with which he is more familiar than I am.

Boeciana: What's the sort of ruined thing just before we get out into the sea?
Aelianus: That's Britain.


Actually the immediate object of my inquiries was this:
viz, Tynemouth Priory. Nonetheless, my co-blogger's remark sadly stands up to some scrutiny. This had been clear in the bombast of various politicians and writers after the London bombings of 7th July, when their enthusiasm for the maintenance and strengthening of British values could only be met with the question, 'What values?' And last night, in the Last Night of the Proms, the matter of Britain arose again.

I don't see the point in being sniffy about the Last Night. I'm not convinced about the ever more spectacular link-ups with parks around the country, at any rate not when it involves hearing Kathryn Jenkins singing Andrew Lloyd Webber in Wales (Wales deserves better!); but there is considerable charm, it seems to me, in an unbridledly patriotic (but non-sporting) British event, particularly given the immense silliness in which British patriotism tends to express itself. But what was I singing about (in a slightly croaky way, from the slightly broken armchair, in front of the television)? My cynical side would consider replacing Land of Hope and Glory with Noel Coward's There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner: 'A likely story! Land of hope and glory! Wait until we drop down dead...' More seriously, Britain may still be mother of the free in terms of her governmental history; but as things stand I can hardly hope for her bounds to be set wider and wider. Legislation and policy are formed with little thought for, or at least little understanding of, true freedom; appreciation of democracy seems to have turned into a crazed populism where right is identified with acceptability to or convenience in modern society. Land of Hope and Glory could very well be sung about Holy Mother Church. If it is to be sung about Britain, it can only be as a prayer that God will make her mighty by restoring a true culture in her.

Rule Britannia is less heart-breaking to sing. It is a simple fact that Britain does not rule the waves as she once did, and I couldn't say whether it is for good or ill. Still, to sing that 'guardian angels sang this strain: Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves' leads one again to ponder what a difficult job our guardian angels and patron saints have (and how little we help them). And while Britons are not slaves in any legal sense, how many Britons are enslaved to false gods and error, because the last half-century has seen the Gospel slip so completely from the public consciousness, and while we who have heard it still fail to live and show the Gospel?

By the time Jerusalem is reached, one is singing with a full heart (if still out-of-tunily in the living room, hoping no one else can hear, in my case). It may name only England, but children of any nation can sing this with sincerity. Yet... how many in the Albert Hall know that they are singing for the establishment of the Kingdom?

And at last, the National Anthem. Having by now shed at least one tear over my country, for possibly the first time in my life, again for perhaps the first time I spontaneously stand up for it. One of the duller national anthems, I always think, but one can hardly disagree with the sentiment: God Save the Queen. No arguments there. Though in the second verse (learnt as a Brownie and never forgotten), 'May she defend our laws, and ever give us cause to sing with heart and voice, "God Save the Queen!"' - and I suddenly realised that the Queen must have signed the Abortion Act. Not a great law to be upholding, there. I have no idea what the legal and constitutional implications of a refusal to sign would have been, but if there were ever reason for a monarch in a mixed government to reclaim some power, that was surely it.

Then finally Auld Lang Syne... which as usual the English sing all wrong... and pointless indignation serves to stiffen the upper lip again...

What we should have been singing:

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether

The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.

- G.K. Chesterton