Managing Editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Winter 2016 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has opted for Adam Collins’ exploration of a well-loved hymn.
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Jerusalem. You know it’s a better tune than God Save the Queen but are a bit unsure what it’s all about and why we sing it, right? Well, Aussie writer Adam Collins give us chapter and, quite literally, verse. Turns out that the story of how William Blake’s poem came to be belted out before England took to the cricket field involves WWE, the WI, Clement Attlee, the Barmy Army, and Jonathan Agnew’s Desert Island Discs…
Matt Thacker, December 2016
WAS JERUSALEM BUILDED HERE?
Adam Collins unearths the fascinating story behind our non-national anthem
The coin was tossed, the players gently strolled out, the Test match would start. Just like that. No fuss. No fanfare. The only venue to play any sort of song was Adelaide, where tradition dictated its Tests began with national anthems on Australia Day. Other music, from the steel drums of the Caribbean to the brass band of Port Elizabeth, was a happy accident. It was a different world, and not that long ago.
This included in England. Especially in England. Graham Gooch said in the mid-1990s that he liked what he saw in Adelaide and wouldn’t mind it becoming a ritual. But it never happened. By the early 2000s, as the ECB tinkered with start times, the first ball of a Test would be bowled in front of half-empty grounds. Thousands missed Dominic Cork’s first-over-of-the-day hat-trick for England against West Indies at Old Trafford in 1995.
The soft opening was a source of frustration for npower after it assumed primary sponsorship responsibilities in 2001. Kevin Peake, then marketing tsar for the company, was anxious about his investment. Sure, cricket was conservative, but did it have to be so damn drab? “They just kind of trundled on; there was no sense of oomph,” he recalls. “I was starting to wonder what I had done signing a three-year contract.”
This is where Peake’s background – far from a cricket man, he says himself – was an advantage. While the contrast between Lord’s and Wembley has been forever the case, what about Lord’s and, say, a professional wrestling ring? “At the time my son was into WWE quite heavily,” he explains. “I went to one of those nights with him and saw how the wrestlers came out and I just thought: ‘Wow! This is fantastic! Why can’t we do this in cricket?’” A bit of arm-wrestling and this nonconformist idea had won the day. There was a consensus inside the ECB that the song had to be “stirring” but distinct from football terrace anthems.
“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!”
Did a young Jesus Christ spend some time hanging out in Glastonbury with his uncle proclaiming later that the rolling hills reminded him of his home town? Look, probably not. But it has never mattered for the popularity of the pastoral-cum-industrial anthem “Jerusalem”, 100 years since it was put to music. Think royal weddings. Think the bookend scenes of Chariots of Fire – a film named after the song to begin with. Think the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Think state funerals. Think your grandparents’ funerals.
The song’s centenary prompted some parliamentarians to push for it to be adopted as England’s formal national anthem, something David Cameron as prime minister – a man who admitted to shedding tears to the tune when Wills and Kate tied the knot – was open to.
In 1803, when William Blake – a mischief-making son of dissenters – penned what later became known as “Jerusalem”, he was in the dock for sedition after getting into an altercation with a military man. Jump forward a century or so to the dreary World War-stricken year of 1916, and the nation’s poet laureate Robert Bridges commissioned composer Sir Hubert Parry to put music to the words. Music that would lift the nation through its war weariness; a quintessential clarion call. From the moment it was played at the Fight for Right campaign at Queen’s Hall in London later that year, it was precisely that.
In peacetime, it became the hymn of the Women’s Institute. And after the Second World War Clement Attlee expressly promised to build the proverbial “New Jerusalem” if elected Labour prime minister over Winston Churchill’s Conservative government in 1945. Attlee’s government was a pioneer of the welfare state but also something else: “Jerusalem” had been claimed for politics, and since then all three major political parties have used it for their own ends.
As author Peter Silverton wrote in the Independent to mark the 100-year milestone in 2016: “There’s something in it for everyone. For believers, an evocation of the possibility of a second coming. For socialists, the horror of dehumanising factories. For nationalists, the notion of England as God’s chosen acres. For conservatives, nostalgia for the days when those acres didn’t have theme parks and roadside litter trails. For feminists, it’s the battle anthem of the Women’s Institutes.” Or as another left-wing agitator and master lyricist Billy Bragg said, singing it is the “one time I do actually feel pride being English.”
Why the “Jerusalem” 101? To illustrate that this is an inescapably popular ode. But now back to our story. Back to the cricket.
“And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”
But it’s a Barmy Army thing, right? That may have been your response to that wrestling tale. And you would be right, to the extent that the Barmies were all over this well ahead of the formal adoption of the song as England’s cricket anthem in 2003.
Graham Barber – or “Big G” as he is lovingly known – remembers the ill-fated Ashes tour of 1998–99, when the words were taught at the end-of-tour bash after members of their crew had taken to belting it out while England were in the field. Indeed, they sang it the day Dean Headley ran through Australia at the MCG to win their only Test that summer.
“That was when it became our standard,” says Barber. “To start with, it wasn’t brilliantly received as people thought it was a bit too public-schoolish. But since then it has grown and grown and grown.” A bit too public-schoolish. We’ll return to that later.
They prefer “Jerusalem” to the national anthem. For starters, they already repurposed that to mock Australia’s antiquated constitutional arrangements with the number “God Save Your Queen.” But there’s more to it than that. “It is an English national anthem rather than a British one,” Barber says. And nothing else will quite do – “Rule Britannia” is a bit insensitive when touring the Caribbean, while “Land of Hope and Glory” is just too long – whereas with “Jerusalem”, he says, “the words sum up how we feel. That we have built Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land.”
It’s that last line, the green and pleasant land; that’s what hits the spot. Doubly so when England play away, when the song is “owned” by the Barmy Army. For those minutes, the corner of turf marked by the tourists does feel palpably English. Perhaps never more so than as England waltzed to Ashes-winning victories at Melbourne and Sydney in their 2010–11 pasting of the locals: a result beyond the wildest dreams of Gooch in Adelaide 15 years earlier.
It’s a tour tradition that continues. It’s what the Barmy Army does. Always after the first ball of the day (always). Never as back-up singers to the formal version at home (never).
“Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!”
- You get wistful pangs just saying it out loud. The greatest summer of them all. The Greatest Series Ever™. And, for our purposes, the summer inextricably linked to “Jerusalem” for ever after.
But it was a summer that also asked plenty of questions about identity beyond the boundary. A national election that was an early referendum on Britain’s involvement in Iraq. The brutality of the 7 July London terror attacks, killing 56 and maiming scores more. A similarly-themed further attack of the Tube – mercifully ineffective – taking place on the day the Ashes series commenced. Then the wrongful death of a Brazilian national the following day in the panic that ensued.
At the cricket, on the other hand, the national team sniffed an opportunity to do something profound: to beat the world’s best, who had tapered off ever so slightly with age for the first time in a generation. To achieve something bold that would instil a sense of national pride the way that sport has a healthy knack of doing irrespective of how tough times are in the real world around them.
“I’m not sure if you remember Edgbaston?” asks Shaun Ruane, the opera singer who provided the musical backdrop to the summer through his multiple live performances of “Jerusalem”. I assured him that, as an Australian, I really do. During Edgbaston’s thrilling fourth innings the Barmy Army were urging their compatriots home with the song, Barber describing it as the best finale he has seen anywhere, with an atmosphere to match.
When England squared the series, the Ashes motorcade moved to Manchester. Having seen what had happened in Birmingham, the CEO of Old Trafford, Jim Cumbes, asked Ruane to sing “Jerusalem” live for a bit of added kick. He says the ECB weren’t that keen on the idea, as on-pitch singers had not previously hit the mark. “Trust me. I am an opera singer, I am a performer, I have been doing this for 15 years,” was Ruane’s retort. So they agreed.
The response that first morning was so strong they asked him to stick around and do it again at lunchtime. It was a pattern that repeated as the momentum built. From Old Trafford, to Trent Bridge and ultimately, memorably, to The Oval for the decider that Andrew Miller at ESPNcricinfo described at the time as the nation’s biggest sporting event since the 1966 World Cup final.
Meanwhile, npower didn’t miss a beat. Peake ordered thousands of CDs to be pumped out, with lyric sheets at the ready. Stories – again reproducing the two verses – appeared in newspapers across the country urging Brits everywhere to down tools at 10:25am to joining with a national rendition of the song as their side took the field. The skipper Michael Vaughan was into it, observing that “the whole country singing a hymn as emotive as ‘Jerusalem’ is something that will get the boys stirred up just as we come onto the field.”
While there is some conjecture about just how ferocious that opening-day chorus was (Miller describing the “bout of typically English antipathy,” as the rendition “descended into a moderate burble of fluffed notes”), it continued throughout the match with “countless renditions,” according to Wisden, both formal and crowd-inspired, before the fifth-morning crescendo.
On a BBC programme devoted to the song’s 100 years, Jonathan Agnew (who listed the song first in his “Desert Island Discs”) gave his own evocative retelling of what he says was an “extraordinary” final day at The Oval: “Shaun Ruane was only a few feet away from me. We looked at each other and we gave each other a little nod – and bang on queue he started,” he said. “My hair was on end.”
When it was over, the team stood arm in arm linked in Trafalgar Square, Ruane once more on the mic. They sang it again. As it had been designed to do decades earlier, in this tangential way “Jerusalem” had again become a rallying call for solidarity in a time of national uncertainty. And its place in English cricket hasn’t been questioned since.
Ruane has been a staple of every home Ashes contest since, with his tailor-made recorded version used as the team run-out every morning. In 2009 the ECB, said Ruane, “wanted the song to get under the skin of the Aussies” due to the association it had with their previous failed visit. But they hit a bit of a problem: Australia were waiting at the top of the stairs until the song was over, sung as it was after the five-minute bell was rung. “So it was decided I wouldn’t sing it until three minutes to go so they would be on pitch when it reached its climax, and they had to hear it on pitch. A little bit of gamesmanship.” Never hurt anyone.
“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”
For all the disparate threads of British society who have at one time or another latched onto “Jerusalem”, it doesn’t escape a considered critique of its appropriateness, principally when taking a closer look at the lyrics. It’s an examination that anthems don’t always measure up well against. The French? “La Marseillaise” (stirring as it is) pledges to “Let impure blood water our furrows.” Ouch. And that bit in the (admittedly arcane) second verse of “God Save the Queen” about crushing the rebellious Scots? Probably not ideal for Andy Murray after winning a gold medal for Great Britain.
The evaluation of BBC commentator Daniel Norcross (a history scholar in an earlier life) is stirred by lyrics in “Jerusalem” inconsistent to the intent of the original author. Namely, the “satanic mills” referred to at the first stanza – accepted as a direct reference to oppressive conditions experienced by workers during the worst of the industrial revolution. “I detest the appropriation of Blake’s words by the very people he would have despised today. Blake was a non-conformist who hated the subjugation of the working masses to the pecuniary interests of a factory-owning elite who worked hand in glove with the established church to repress social justice,” he says. “As a keen supporter of both the French Revolution and Napoleon, he would be baffled and aghast to see the suited middle classes bellowing his words without irony as if it were a paean to the inherent and enduring superiority of Englishness over all others. In God’s name, what in hell do they think the ‘dark satanic mills’ are?”
Similarly, the Spectator’s Kate Maltby wrote that the “fantasy” of a New Jerusalem in England is “widely understood by anyone who studies Blake to be a stonking parody of Napoleonic era nationalism. Even in 1804, no one sung and danced about their own ‘mental fight’ and expected to be taken seriously.”
Current editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth, is another “not wild” about the song’s status as England’s official cricket anthem. “It has bugger all to do with cricket,” is his first point. He continues: “Cricket isn’t the kind of sport where people need revving up at the start of the play, like rugby or football.”
It is a view that counters that of the marketers who suggested the innovation. But a sedate start for a more sedate game has its own persuasiveness. Especially when overdone to the extent of the opening 2015 Ashes Test, where huge herald’s trumpets with flags bearing the ECB insignia were blown during the song, lyrics rolling on the scoreboard like a karaoke bar (in a match being played in Wales, no less).
Booth’s final point is where he hits hardest. “It strengthens the prejudice, in England, of cricket being a sport for toffs: ‘Jerusalem’, let’s be honest, conjures up images of Saturday-morning chapel at public schools, or the Women’s Institute AGM. It doesn’t suggest cricket is a sport for the people, when cricket’s history suggests otherwise.”
With three Muslims in England’s South Asian touring party at time of writing, the underlying Christian nature of the song – a hymn, after all – is worth questioning. Of course, being Muslim doesn’t preclude someone from adoring the song. But in the same way that Fawad Ahmed vetoed one beer brand for his Australian uniform (and was racially vilified for it) and Hashim Amla’s refused to have the Castle logo on his South Africa shirt, awareness begets inclusivity.
Returning to Norcross, it’s his own final comment that highlights the conundrum here: that “Jerusalem” is, in his assessment and that of a great many others, “a cracking poem set to a great tune which is more stirring than our dirge of a national anthem.”
It’s a position Ruane readily agrees with: that musically, first and foremost, it is without peer for the task at hand; that the words, by and large, come second. “It’s something you can get your teeth into musically and sing, and there are quite a few lines in there that are very powerful,” he says, before launching into verse. “But the tune is wonderful, so that’s first.”
Which brings us back to the start. What is an anthem? Why do they work? You needn’t be a jingoistic nationalist to burst out of your chair when “God Defend New Zealand” comes on the loudspeaker. And if you haven’t gone on a YouTube deep dive to watch grown men cry when the Welsh national song “Land of my Fathers” comes on before a rugby international, you really haven’t lived. For my part, I’ve watched the Euro 1996 semi-final rendition of “God Save the Queen” countless times, and I’ve spent most of my adult life campaigning against my country having a monarchy to begin with.
The point is that anthems act in different ways. “Advance Australia Fair” isn’t winning any awards for inspirational scores, but it’s our song and so it works for us. Especially in front of 80,000 at the MCG. Then it really works. And in a world that’s so crippled with division and hate and worse, maybe stopping for a moment and bringing plenty of people together to sing is OK. Not perfect. Not awful. But pretty OK.
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