Edmund Burke stated that the most important revolution was not in politics but in the sentiments, manners and moral opinions of the citizenry. As Alex Massie recently wrote in The Times, the old have won the policy battles but the young have won the culture wars. These partial victories have polarised sentiments with the distance between the poles increasing. The Right has become more identitarian and the Left progressively more, well, progressive. This has led to a nasty tribalism, instead of seeing a fellow citizen each sees an enemy combatant. We have somehow instead of ending, simply internalised the conflict between the West and the USSR. We seem to be missing any sense of a unifying purpose that both can hold in common.
During a recent trip to the V&A, I noticed the artefacts on show for the non-European cultures were often things that are still commonly seen in their countries of origin. Bodhisattva statues are still used to consecrate newly built skyscrapers in Bangkok; swastikas blithely appear at road junctions in India unperturbed by their European connotations; a Japanese woman can wear a kimono unaffectedly while jumping on the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. These cultures seem to be able to mesh their past and their present and live them without any seeming contradiction. Britain, by contrast, seems to have embraced modernity by entirely divesting itself of its past.
I think this leaves a space for a rediscovery of our own traditions, particularly our traditional hymns. We human beings are musical creatures. As the late neurologist Oliver Sacks put it in his book Musicophilia “What an odd thing it is to see an entire species – billions of people – playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’”. As this revival is entirely unlikely to happen within the context of the Church – there would be no need to write this article – it would need to be promoted from a secular perspective.
Jerusalem would be the perfect place to start. A once obscure poem of William Blake’s set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, during the height of the slaughter on the Western Front, it managed to raise spirits at a time when European civilisation was busy annihilating itself. It did so by offering a transcendental idea in a simple, accepted and eternal medium. It was a national prayer. A prayer that was joined in by all of society, from Left to Right, from the lowest to the highest.
In the same way that certain ideas capture our collective consciousness – Brexit, Corbynism – certain songs define their moment, capturing the past in phonographic crystallisation. They offer that past up to each generation and create the chain by which they are joined to, and made intelligible by, the present. They act as anchors, so that when someone further along the chain pulls, they can feel its solidness holding the collective memory in place.
This is why tradition is so important. Traditions provide roots. They are the source of any attempt at a first person plural. The more widely they can be shared with our continually expanding concept of “we” without losing their relevance, the better. As Simon Barnes in a recent Spectator column noted: “It’s a complicated world, full of aeroplanes and people and politics and religions and money and races and nations. The reality of nationality has shifted drastically while ancient ideas of what nationality means live on in pre-articulate forms deep within our unconscious”.
This is true, and quite beautifully put too. We face many challenges that our ancestors never faced. The underlying problem, of being human, however, remains very much the same. It is because of this that many old truths, many tried and tested solutions remain the same too. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton refers to traditions – as that is what these are – as answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.
This is where Jerusalem can play a very important role. Its personal calls to “not cease from mental fight” until “we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” is loaded with imagery that can, and has, been adopted across the political spectrum. The transcendental idea of the word made flesh, the “holy lamb of God” appearing on the “pleasant pastures” and “clouded hills” and “mountains green” of our home, even if we have forgotten whose “feet in ancient time” are meant, is apparently enough to make even Billy Bragg feel proud to be an Englishman.
Having a collective culture as a means to grasp the transcendent – with its commonly held imagery – is not chauvinism. Who can tell me that after the Grenfell fire this – along with the outpourings of love and material donations – would not have gone some way towards making sense of the tragedy? That Jerusalem was indeed “builded here among those dark satanic mills” of the burnt out tower. To those that scoff that this is nonsense, remember that the song ameliorated an even greater national tragedy played out in Flanders fields. That the survivors of Grenfell could know that they are connected to that long chain of our national attempt of overcoming adversity. Together. This is just as important as a blanket.
It’s also the messaging that Theresa May needed to give but lacked the sentiment to articulate. Poetry, including as song, helps us to articulate the unarticulatable. T.S. Eliot said it best, “poetry certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what”.
(George Carter is studying for an MA in Philosophy under Professor Sir Roger Scruton at the University of Buckingham. He is the son of a black cab driver and native east Londoner. He currently works in the technology sector for an Old Street-based start up.)
(Image: John Pannell)