Ban ‘Jerusalem’? Yes: long overdue

The BBC can’t get anything right these days. The flurry today may have been an exercise in misdirection, but it showed up the angry divisions in society, as if we needed to be reminded of them. I love the patriotic songs lifting the spirit, but Jerusalem I would lose without hesitation.

The BBC organise the Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and have done every peacetime year since Henry Wood founded them. Today’s scandal broke from unofficial sources; a claim that the Beeb were to ban forever the famous patriotic songs which characterise the Last Night of the Proms. All hell broke loose. Actually this may have been a fake story, a softener before they revealed that the music would be there but not sung, because of the possible coronavirus risk.

A year without Rule, Britannia at full volume is unthinkable, and we must have Land of Hope and Glory belted out with gusto in the Royal Albert Hall or there has indeed been a revolution against us, the right-thinking people of the nation. They are grand, patriotic songs wrapped in the Union Jack that lift the spirit and remind us, in spite of all the vandals are trying to do, that Britons are a great nation and that we shaped and continue to shape the world and we can feel very glad about it.

(I saw this evening that Land of Hope and Glory sung by Vera Lynn has reached Number 1 in the download charts: it might restore my faith in the taste of the public.)

However one of the Proms songs, Jerusalem, or And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, should be ditched forever.

It is not one that comes under the usual woke condemnation: it is not imperial or racial or whatever other boo-words they usually use to tag things that might make them think. It has a soaring tune by Parry – one of his best, and it is a cracker to listen to because of that tune. However the words – they pretend to be a hymn but are a disgrace to theology and although Jerusalem is a very popular song and has been used as a hymn ever since it was set to music, it has been banned from many churches because its words are blasphemous nonsense.

The words are a poem by William Blake, one of the weirdest of 19th century poets and painters. He was considered mad in his own age: the calm consideration of his legacy in later years does nothing to dispel that. His ideas were both radical and irrational and he grasped for a spirituality receiving an inspiration unlike that for a prophet and more like that received by the Gadarene Swine.

The poem he wrote which has become the famous ‘hymn’ is based on a mediaeval legend invented to fleece pilgrims out of cash in Glastonbury: the monks, to ‘prove’ how ancient their establishment was claimed that Jesus himself, as a child, came to Somerset and founded the abbey. The story takes the Lord’s name in vain in a most scandalous manner but it drew gullible pilgrims in droves. Blake took that blasphemous legend and made it into a poem, and that is what gets sung at the Proms.

This has been characterised as the only hymn in the book consisting of questions the answer to all of which is “no”. And did those feet..? No they did not. That rather knocks out the whole conceit of the piece.

There is a lot to be set for inspiring listener and the singer to exertions to bring about a paradise on Earth, and the confused mixing up of images from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and from the Book of Kings and from Blake’s fevered imagination has a breathless quality that for that moment makes you feel you can achieve – but it is built on that fatal, ill concept so that to get to the soaring verses about whacking people with swords we are made to sing blasphemous nonsense about Jesus as a bairn in England.

One should also object politically: it sings of England, not Britain. In Blake’s time the word ‘England’ was used to mean the whole of the British isles, but it sits ill today and suggests “there is a special blessing for all who live south of the Tweed – not for Scots though”.

Jerusalem the city has a long history in metaphor, and Hobbes looked at this in the scriptures in forensic detail (and if I every get round to it I will write about that). Blake’s poem though has none of that: it is heretical nonsense and should be cast out at once.

I will enjoy Parry’s tune without the words. If a poet can write better words, freed from Blake’s phrenzy, he may make something which is worthy of Parry’s triumph.

Dane-geld

I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

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I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Another day draws past, undistinguished from other days, and weeks pass. Is this what retirement is like? But I am not retired and I work, now from home, and occasionally London now that this is smiled upon with an askance look.

Day runs into day, hour into another coffee waiting for the dishwasher to fill – that is how time runs.

This cannot be any new normality. It is a collective coma. If I become despairing, what must it be like for those who suffer mental stresses? Many new MPs of a few months ago (it seems forever ago) spoke to say their major concern is mental health, which is as worthy a cause as one can find (and I will write about Hobbes’s observations on the subject before too long), but of all the things to do, this lockdown is a mental health disaster, and for years after the last coronavirus patient has risen from their bed, the trauma of confinement will haunt many, many in their homes, leading to rash actions and choices, and worse disasters ahead. For the sake of sanity it must end.

Another week looms though, unreleased. I can stretch my legs, and take long, long walks from home, but I have to work proper hours, distracted, staring at the work to be done in the garden – and remembering how fortunate I am to have a garden when many are confined to two-room flats. How must they be at this time?

I have long since lost track of time, the weeks, which day it is sometimes, because there is no familiar rhythm beyond the call of the stomach, which is dangerous so close to the cake cupboard, and with loss of time comes the temptation to head out to clear my head in the fields – and each time I think of those who do not have that luxury.

Lethargy loses its charm soon enough. End the lockdown, please, Mr Johnson. I would rather get the disease, even if it is as bad as you had it, then last through more of this. I am resolved though never to retire if this is what it is like.

Another coffee. Another coffee spoon. Whatever the time is, I do not know any more but by counting the used spoons in the bowl.

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Scarcely a street, too few houses

Silence, even in the edge of the suburb. There’s a big town nearby, but R S Thomas comes back to me again, the silent village. “This last outpost of time past”.

I am as far from Lleyn as I could be in space and form but not maybe in mood. Here the once busy local streets (never called streets here – too urban a word – but no shortage of houses), are silent as of the tarmac were no more than one “that leads nowhere and fails at the top”.

I wander in my mind back to those little places, scarcely villages, which the poet wandered amongst, away from any road, where I automatically, without thinking switched to speaking in Welsh, before realising that I don’t actually speak Welsh enough to complete a coherent sentence, but there is no other way to speak of the bracken-clad hillsides wandering down in their own time to the cliff and the inevitable sea.

There are houses here, and neighbours, and the way between the one tavern and the one shop, both shuttered, but stillness in the way.

So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.

Take me back to Lleyn and its embracing sea.

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Waiting for the storm

I keep coming back to R S Thomas, and to the landscapes he described. These days remind me of his Abersoch, and every day of uncertain suspension of life it whispers itself.

I have trodden in his footsteps amongst the timeless crags of Lleyn and the little, ancient villages clinging to the coast endlessly more ancient. I have only walked there though in summertime, while he, the poet and pastor, served all year, in bright summer, industrious harvest and punishing winters and he saw more than a passing visitor may.

I remember Abersoch. It was not as he described it, but I was there in the summer, and the whole little town had been transformed by summer visitors. The fishing boats were there are the men working on their nets, but bustling all over the streets and beach were families in gaudy holiday clothes with buckets and spades and beachballs, speaking English. There was no gathering storm – it as bright and sunny. A clamber round the cliff presented a little more of what it must have been like, and as the wind began to rise, I remembered the Abersoch only read about in those pages.

Elsewhere on Lleyn I wanted to find the village of another poem “Scarcely a street, too few houses” or the places where he found the universe and all of history wrapped up in the stillness of the village church. In Abersoch though I wanted to find “that headland, asleep on the sea, The air full of thunder” and imagine the girl riding her cycle, hair at half-mast, as a carefree symbol, but found families busying themselves into misery with their determination to enjoy the day.

Instead, I found it at home in these recent weeks, enclosed but for long, daily walks, waiting for the stroke while might fall or not, or for the return of normality, or knowing that a release to familiarity may still be followed by the clasp of the deadly disease.

….. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break

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