Billy Connolly once joked that the dirge-like pace of God Save the Queen would cause the British Olympic team to be lapped during an Olympic opening ceremony. Whilst Lord Coe and co are sure to have more important matters on their mind in the build up to London 2012, it’s hard to deny that there is an element of truth in the comedian’s assessment. Its lyrics make no mention of the country it supposedly celebrates until the fifth verse, (which is never sung) and the only surprise in racing driver Lewis Hamilton’s criticism of the anthem’s length this July, with the tune still ringing in his ears following a grand prix win in Hockenheim, was that he felt it was too short and not too long. Yes, the general consensus seems to be that as far as national anthems go, God Save the Queen is pretty bad.
But it wasn’t always this way. The inaugural performance of the world’s first ever national anthem took place in London in 1745. God Save The Queen went on to become, in the words of Nicholas Smith author of Stories of Great National Songs, “the most potent national anthem in existence” and was adopted at one time or another as the national song of countries including; Germany, Russia and Switzerland. But over time each of these countries abandoned the tune in favour of something less derivative, much like teenagers turn their back on embarrassing and short-lived musical crazes. Great Britain however, along with poor Liechtenstein, who continues to emulate an older relative who has long since ceased to be cool, are yet to grow out of it.
Let’s face it, on the modern international stage any glory the anthem may have once had, has long since faded. Compared to the call to arms of La Marseillaise, God Save the Queen is toothless. Compared to two merged songs and five incorporated languages which comprise post-Apartheid South Africa’s hymn of reconciliation, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, it is characterless. Not that we have to look abroad to feel inferior about our anthem. The English among us have the pleasure of being doubly discriminated. Unsatisfied with mere international embarrassment, lucky England gets the dubious honour of using God Save the Queen when competing domestically against the other home nations in most sports. And while en masse singings of Wales’s Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Scotland’s Flower of Scotland, raise the hairs on the back of your neck, God Save the Queen induces barely stifled yawns. No wonder English football fans are famed for their booing of foreign anthems, they’re clearly hoping to provoke a retaliation of catcalls that will spare them the humiliation of listening to another mind-numbing, uninterrupted rendition of their own.
Maybe though there is a degree of appropriateness about our national anthem. Perhaps like governments, countries get the anthem they deserve. After all, we are British, it is not just our climate which is temperate it is our temperaments too. Keep calm and carry on, that’s what we do isn’t it? Every now and then the wind of change threatens to blow, but it always dies down. We’re hardly going to decide to ditch a ditty we’ve had for over 250 years just because it promotes an antiquated social order that few of us believe in now are we? No, we should take inspiration from the stiff upper lips of our millionaire footballers, so proud that they are visibly moved to muteness as possibly the worst national anthem on the face of the planet is played out. Why, it almost brings a tear to your eye.