Unless we want our athletes toppling off the podium laughing, best put the knockers on this bright idea now
With the 2012 Olympics just around the corner, the racing driver Lewis Hamilton has put his finger on a problem the giant athletic boondoggle’s organisers have so far overlooked: our national anthem is too short.
“When you’re growing up and you see Olympians standing on the podium, you dream of yourself being up there and having the national anthem playing,” Hamilton told the BBC.
“When I stand up there and Felipe [Massa] has won, [the Brazilian national anthem] is 10 minutes long – and when I’m standing there it lasts half a minute. I would urge the UK to make our national anthem longer.”
That last sentence – with its statesmanlike tone of advocacy – is killingly brilliant, isn’t it? It makes him sound like a backbencher with a bee in his bonnet about traffic calming measures being listened to with polite tolerance at prime minister’s questions. But actually, what he’s saying is much better than that.
To paraphrase: “When I win my vroom-car races, our annoyingly short national anthem means that my period of standing up on a big platform, bathed in the love of millions of people goggling at how stupendously great I am, is limited to only 30 seconds or so. I think we can all agree this is a problem that bears looking into, and the solution that I would humbly suggest is that we pull together as a country to make the national anthem, in service since the middle of the 18th century, longer.”
To which, he might add: ” … ” and then “What … ?” and then “No: what? Why are you laughing? I’m serious!”
But Mr Hamilton’s remarks do point to something that bears considering. That is: the experience of top athletes listening to the national anthem must be almost unique among physiological and aesthetic experiences of music. Here is this powerful tune messing up your brainpan, at the same time as your entire body – either on the brink of an event or coming down from having won one – is racked by the endocrinal equivalent of one of those home counties slumber parties that ends up in the Daily Mail after the Facebook invite goes viral among Hell’s Angels. Thirty seconds of that would make an all-night Prodigy gig seem like an evening sipping Earl Grey and reading Anita Brookner. No wonder it has gone to Hamilton’s head.
And let’s give him a chance. It wouldn’t do to be caught on the hop by a European anthem-length harmonisation directive of some sort. It’s been noted that one can extend God Save the Queen by singing the second verse, but it takes only a quick read of it – humming, perhaps – to see why this isn’t a good idea. “O Lord, our God, arise,/ Scatter her enemies,/ And make them fall./ Confound their politics,/ Frustrate their knavish tricks,/ On Thee our hopes we fix,/ God save us all.”
Forcing “enemies” to rhyme with “arise” seems positively virtuosic in the context of an attempt to rhyme “politics”, “knavish tricks” and “hopes we fix”. Unless we want our athletes toppling off the podium laughing, best put the knockers on that one.
That is the risk of producing more words. Any rhyme scheme that demands three consecutive feminine rhymes is essentially asking for comic verse. “So, Lewis Hamilton:/ When the Grand Prix you win/ Sing this aloud./ Spraying your Moët from/ Some sort of podium/ On to the lower one/ Makes your mum proud.”
God Save the Queen, in its one-verse version, manages “stately”, which is more or less by definition what an anthem should do. Other tunes usually proposed as alternatives don’t cut it. Jerusalem, for instance, is the stirring setting of a rather unusual poem. The question of what exactly William Blake was on about has yet to be settled, but it probably didn’t include a moist-eyed reverence for the settled institutions of church and state.
Then there’s I Vow to Thee My Country, which ticks the box marked “mournful sonority” but, again, presents problems when it comes to the words. The first two verses sound appropriately patriotic, though perhaps laying too much emphasis on the idea that “the service of my love” involves going overseas and being shot to bits. But the third verse whams in with “another country”, namely heaven – thus not only annoying those of other religions (and none), but implying that sublunary patriotism may be subject to overrule by the man upstairs. Also, to anyone who saw Another Country, it conjures the image of a young Rupert Everett licking honey out of the notch at the base of an adolescent boy’s neck: very nice, but risky for athletes wearing flimsy shorts on the podium.
So the status quo may not be the worst of all worlds. But it is capable of improvement – and as no less an authority than Wikipedia tells us, we in England don’t actually have a national anthem. It is only by custom that Mr Hamilton sprays his fizz to God Save the Queen rather than Fat Les’s Vindaloo. So if he cares to take the cause up properly – to campaign rather than just urge – who’s to say he won’t make a breakthrough? Come on, Lewis: there’s everything to play for.