Roll Over Beethoven


So the match is over, the race is run. Nothing else left to do than take to the podium and soak up up the applause, pick up your medal, then face the flag, put your hand over your heart and sing your guts out to the national anthem. Simples, as they say.

If you happen to be British you don’t get to hear your national anthem much – certainly not after sporting events. The soundtrack of my youth would more likely include the East German, USSR and USA anthems than the British one. Throughout the 70s and the 80s being crap at sport was something that not only defined us as a nation but thankfully spared us and the rest of the world the torture of listening to God Save the Queen. My god it’s dull. It’s a dirge and it’s terribly, terribly, boring and tedious and dull, never mind the sentiment in the lyric: asking one bloke I don’t believe in to save a woman I don’t believe in.

The only national anthem slower, duller and less inspiring than ours is possibly “Oh (fuck it’s) Canada”. Were both tunes penned by the same guy? Fortunately the Canadians tend to be as feckless at sport as we are so the chances of listening to their anthem are equally slim. There are some terrific tunes out there, to be sung in the name of sporting excellence and patriotic pride, just GB and our colonial Canucks don’t possess one.

The Italians have a great one – “Il Canto degli Italiani“(The Song of the Italians) – even though it seems to be three songs stuck together. Watching the Italian Rugby team belt it out before an international match, tears rolling down their eyes is truly a marvellous spectacle. The French song is great too – I always well up when that woman sings “La Marseillaise”- halfway through Casablanca. Few would deny “The Star Spangled Banner” is a cracking tune, even if it’s a bit overplayed, and hearing the old Soviet song – the nattily entitled “Gosudarstvenny Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsii” was always a thrilling experience, right up until The Pet Shop Boys butchered it.

“Advaaaaaaance Australia Fair” always reminds me of “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”, but at least it’s a happy little ditty. Brash, short and childlike – sort of sums up the whole nation really. The Germans still insist of using the same tune as was rather popular over there in the 1930s and 40s, they’ve just changed the words a bit. Uber alles, they seem happy with it, so who are we to cringe ?

So it was with some trepidation and reluctance last night that 12 half-pissed and totally knackered European golfers took to the stage to collect the Ryder Cup. The speeches over, they stood as one, faced the row of flags representing their respective countries and drew breath. The PA system burst into life with a lovely rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, from his 9th Symphony.

“What the fuck’s this?” squawked one critic with whom I was watching the coverage.
“Mozart” says I, erroneously.
“Why the fuck are they playing Mozart?” asked another couch-bound pal.
“It’s the European Anthem. This is your anthem” I informed him, correctly this time.
“Is it bollocks. Who voted for that then?”
In truth, I’m unused to arguing over either 18th century music or the voting systems of the EU, but I gave it a go.
“The European government did. Ages ago” (apparently it’s been our anthem since 1985, it’s just few realise it) “It’s a good tune, isn’t it? Better than ours”
“But it’s German !” someone pointed out in horror. Admittedly they had me there.
“Could be worse” I offered “Could be Mahler”
I was greeted with blank Homer-esque looks. I tried again. “Well there are so many different nations, they just chose one which encapsulated the continent as a whole”
“Bollocks !” came a cry from the armchair. Strange, I didn’t remember inviting Melvyn Bragg round to watch the golf.

Back on stage, our golfers were clearly having similar doubts about the music. There they stood, motionless, looking both a little bewildered at what they were listening to and what they were supposed to do. Just one – the great Miguel Angel Jimenez – seemed to be singing along. But what was he singing ? Did he know the words ? And in which language was he singing them ? Or was he just making them up, mouthing nonsense like an English Politician at a Welsh political conference ?

So I looked the lyrics up:

Joy, beautiful sparkle of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium!
We enter, fire-drunk,
Heavenly one, your shrine.
Your magic again binds
What custom has firmly parted.
All men become brothers
Where your tender wing lingers.

Personally speaking I have never entered Elysium’s daughter, fire-drunk or otherwise, but apart from that it seems pretty placid and neutral, doesn’t it ? It’s not a rabble-rouser, it’s not particularly jingoistic and unlike the original words of “God Save the Queen” it doesn’t point out that there are “Rebellious Scots to crush”, even if there are. And it’s a nice tune, so why not adopt it as our own ? Teach it in schools, rugby and football clubs the continent over. Job done.

Or rather it isn’t.

With no Ryder cup to watch any longer, I switched channels this morning to take my first glimpse at The Commonwealth Games. This has always been a bit of an oddity in the sporting calender because, as there are no Russians, Germans or Americans to lose to, we have to make do with losing to Kenyans, Australians and South Africans. It’s also one of those rare sporting competitions when Great Britain splits into its component parts of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the other lot, who compete against each other. Here again “God Save The Queen” is not appropriate as HRH is Queen (apparently) of all the competing nations, and it would be a bit boring (as if it wasn’t anyway) to have to listen to the same turgid song at each medal ceremony. So, the Jocks have chosen “Flower of Scotland”, the Northern Irish “Danny Boy” and the Welsh, well probably “Delilah” or something, but they’re not expecting to get the record out of its sleeve for a while.

England have traditionally gone for “Land of Hope and Glory“, a full-thrusting, ball-breaking sing-yer-heart out sort of number, a million miles away from “God Save…”. And so, having watched the English swimmer Fran Halsall romp home in the 50m butterfly I sat back to enjoy her picking up her medal, stood as she was between the two Strines who were both predicted to beat her. There she was, gold round her neck, as proud as punch and the band struck up. But we were not to be treated by “Land of…” but instead we got “Jerusalem”.

Now Jerusalem is a lovely old song, sung at school assemblies and on rugby terraces throughout the land. But it does have a tendency to go on a bit (remind you of anyone?). But nevertheless, we’re told that there was a national poll in which “Jerusalem”, as recorded by the The Grimethorpe Colliery Band (I’m not making any of this up) won the day by beating “Land of Hope etc” by some votes to some fewer. National poll my arse. Anyone out there asked to vote for this?

So off they went, knocking out a decent rendition of William Blake’s poem. One verse takes a good while to complete. We got both verses of it. And poor old Fran had to grin and bear it. It went on forever. At the start she look excited and a little bit teary. By the end she looked embarrassed, cramped up, bewildered and in danger of nodding off. To win her gold medal she swam one length of the pool in 26.24 seconds. The anthem took 2 minutes 25 (yes I timed it). I emailed the fragrant Clare Balding at the BBC if this was a Commonwealth Games record.

She hasn’t replied, but I suspect it is a record. For now. I’m starting a new “national” competition to vote for England’s anthem for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (which’ll doubtless make Delhi look like Las Vegas). Suggestions so far include “Bohemian Rhapsody” “Bat out of Hell” (extended version) and “Eskimo Nell”. My plan is to find to an anthem longer and more tedious than the 50k Walk. Morrissey albums are exempt on humanitarian grounds.

Elsewhere: The Philippines crack down on anthem abuse

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7 thoughts on “Roll Over Beethoven

  1. “… Glasgow (which’ll doubtless make Delhi look like Las Vegas)”

    Did you drop that in at the end to see if I was still reading?

  2. Too many typos for my liking,spelling slipping somewhat too…
    Had you been drinking? (excessively to excess,that is)
    Fine read nonetheless,excepting the continual Welsh bashing…Though admit to sniggering at the thought of Delilah… and your dismissal of Glasgow was an imperious stroke…

    • Apologies for the typos. Posted it in a hurry. As so often before, I didn’t leave enough time to knock one out. Will be more careful next time.

  3. The riff for ‘Ode To Joy’ first appeared in one of Mozart’s litanies so your first answer about who wrote it was technically correct.

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