When I was a primary school boy (in the sixties), perhaps as just recompense for the half pint of (warm or cold, depending on the season) milk that the crown provided, I was expected to perform certain demonstrations of fealty on a regular basis. I had to say the Lord’s Prayer and I had to salute the flag with the Union Jack in the corner. I had to stand to attention and I had to sing various songs, the most regular of which was the first stanza of ‘God Save the Queen’.
It is well known that Australian boys got a chance at independent practice of drinking habits in the playground with the milk at recess (play lunch or little lunch depending on your state of origin). Boys could polish off the surplus that the more sheepish girls left behind. The duties of the wrist (saluting, sculling) seemed to coalesce in the lyrics of what was then a patriotic song, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, now long since the official anthem: ‘wealth for toil’. Ours truly was a land of plenty, with, often enough, more milk than any of us could drink. Toiling at being a primary school pupil and getting paid in milk was training for life’s later rewards-for-the-diligent.
The theme of guzzling down your entitlement, as a kind of proof of toil and the rights it establishes, were echoed more dramatically in the last lines of that other iconic outback song ‘The Overlander’/‘The Queensland Drover’ (depending on which chorus you prefer): ‘And a full year’s cheque pours down the neck/Of many a Queensland drover’. The milk and the beer: these dreams of, and realisations of, plenty, had in common an unofficial if not subversive element. Here was the chaotic moment at the trough. Here was the repressed bubbling up to be requited. Here was the moment that no convict overseer or teacher could properly control. The picture of a feed (or a drink) as something in common, wrested with difficulty, was an echo of pioneering days that the Depression and the privations of the Second World War had done nothing to diminish.
And ‘God Save the Queen’; I did find myself wondering a few things about this song. From what did this Queen need saving? I am sure that mine was not the only childhood troubled this way. Did she need saving from death? Was a monarch a kind of demi-god; one capable of immortality if only given some moral support? Failing that would the singing thing be generally helpful from the point of view of regal longevity? Who could know? Did she need saving from the foreign hordes? Was she or had she been under real personal threat, in the line of carrying out her duties as it were? As time went on and no news came from the front this seemed less and less likely.
Cynically one might have wondered ifs he needed saving from herself, from her silly situation, from our dreadful singing. Did she need saving from God, being there by his grace, as it said around her head on the back of the coins? The God in the Old Testament would certainly be able to remove her, being the kind who smites and does all sorts of spiteful things just in a day’s vengeance. But on to the New Testament. Saving from sin: that would have to be the guiding theme. The power of redemption is there to save you from sin, from your own sin. And it might seem paradoxical that such an exemplary character would need to be saved from her own sinfulness. Until of course you realised that this was part of her exemplariness: it wasn’t save this poor sinful queen, it was even the queen needs saving.
The lyrics provided an interesting lesson in pride and humility and their mysterious balance. Here we were virtually praying for this person who had accumulated the most remarkable collection of epithets pointing to virtue: gracious, noble. A strange kind of job description for work you inherit. ‘Send her victorious’: that always seemed odd; because the queen as picture-hanging-from-the-wall seemed like the sort of quasi-person who really didn’t need to go anywhere. She was everywhere: her empire, commonwealth, whatever it was, the sun not setting and so forth. I’m sure it never occurred to me that all this singing and saluting might be the trick required to keep up that omnipresence. Singing and saluting were, like the milk and the beer, the ritual facts.
It was much later I realised that inherited work is just the sort that requires the reiteration of a job description: how else to stay on task? Needless to say, this prescription of the loyal lifestyle is more significant for the subjects/citizens it defines than it is for the live-in monarch (equipped with palace and so on). That’s why this song is necessarily the expression not of an autocracy but of a government becoming parliamentary, even democratic. Absolute monarchies do not need, and did not have, songs like ‘God Save the Queen’. But that’s all in stanzas two and three, the exegesis of which, my editor tells me, is not for this humble piece.
Anthems become more official as the meanings they express become more automatised. Perhaps, as both Nietzsche and Mallarmé contended with the image of the worn coin, this is the fate of all words. This is the paradox of ‘anthem quality’ that applies as much to an overplayed pop song as to a hymn: that the more the words are sung and accepted (that is, the stronger the sign they constitute) the less meaning they are permitted to carry. There is an inverse proportion between fervour and the ability to actually mean anything by the expression of it.
For me personally though there was something that brought this queen down to earth somewhat, something that cut her down to size. But it was secret. My father had, very briefly, taught her and her sister to play table tennis when they were just wee slips of princesses. In the thirties, that was, when my father couldn’t really speak English very well. The best thing was: they were no good at table tennis. And I couldn’t tell anyone. But I did.
Image credit: Queensland State Archives