Tom Mills is a lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. In his short, but most interesting and quite provocative book, “The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service”, Mills relates the story of an incident in the experience of John Reith, the BBC’s founding father.
Mills writes of the day, 12th May, 1926, when, as Reith was reading the news on the BBC’s lunchtime radio news bulletin, he was handed a note telling him that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had called off the UK’s first and only General Strike. The strike was in support of the mine workers and had lasted for nine days.
Reith and the BBC, in supporting the government of the day, were opposed to the strike and, in a later radio announcement, John Reith stated: “Our first feeling on hearing of the termination of the General Strike must be one of profound thankfulness to Almighty God, who has led us through this supreme trial with national health unimpaired.” Clearly, for Reith, God was on the side of the government and the establishment of the day, including the BBC. It was unthinkable that the Almighty could be on the side of the striking workers!
Mills tells us that John Reith, later to become Lord Reith, finished his radio announcement with what he called “his little thing” – a personal contribution to the celebrations. This “little thing” was, in fact, a reading of William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times”. This poem, in the form of Hubert Parry’s patriotic hymn “Jerusalem”, had become popular during the Great War. As Reith read out the words of this poem, Parry’s hymn played in the background.
When Reith had finished his recital, the BBC choir sung the final verse of Parry’s hymn, “a rousing call to arms for the Christian peoples of England”. One wonders whether they would have been joined in this singing by the “ragged trousered philanthropists”, the poor and downtrodden of Edwardian England, whose forsaken lives are minutely, intimately and superbly described by Robert Tressell in his book of the same name,
John Reith believed that, during the General Strike, it was the role of the BBC to “announce truth”, to be on the side of law and order, to support the government, therefore, to oppose the mine workers. Blake’s poem and Parry’s Hymn, in the form of the song “Jerusalem”, were subverted and used in order to serve this purpose.
This was not for the first time, as a review by the journalist, Warwick McFadyen, reminds us when he says that “the music, Jerusalem, stands the test of time. It began life in service to its country. It was a soldier for Britain during the First World War…, when the scales of optimism were falling from British eyes to the reality of the horrors, it was felt that the public and the fighting men needed their spirits bolstered.”
It can be argued that, as such, the combination of the poem and the hymn in what is now known as the song, ”Jerusalem”, has been used ever since in the attempt to inspire English, if not British, patriotism, loyalty, service and effort. However, the song is not what it seems.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” will familiarise the reader with the words of the song. The song-writer Jeff Beck considers that “the song has something for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.” But the identity is with England, not the United Kingdom.
Yet, despite its popularity and the lack of protest over its words, the use that has been made of the song – from state funerals to sporting events, even at the London Olympics in 2012 – has never enabled it to become England’s specific national anthem. The English continue to use the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen”, as their anthem.
The words of the song have been described as “pure fantasy”; some might even suggest that they are nonsense. Did Jesus ramble through the green hills of England or be seen on England’s pleasant pastures? Has Christianity ever made any worthwhile or lasting difference to the lives of England’s working classes, during the dark days of the industrial revolution or since? Did John Reith give even minimal thought to the actual words of the song when he thanked the Almighty for the victory of the ruling classes, political and social, over those who worked in the “dark satanic mills” during the early part of the 20th century?
However, attempts at a literal interpretation of Blake’s poem fail to understand its somewhat cryptic nature, its critical comment on the nature and conditions of life in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. John Reith clearly misunderstood and misapplied Blake’s poem, with or without Parry’s music!
As he recited Blake’s poem against the background of Parry’s hymn, what genuine interest did the future Lord Reith and the BBC have for those who worked in the coal mines of the countryside and the factories of the cities, those who laboured for the wealthy owners of industry and a government which controlled the conditions of that labour?
It is the view of some critics that when he wrote the words of his poem, Blake was “away with the fairies”. Perhaps the same may be said, and more pertinently, of John Reith when he added his “little thing” to his radio broadcast on that fateful day in 1926. It is unequivocal, therefore, that the song, “Jerusalem”, is not what it seems.
It may have varying interpretations and be presented by a variety of artistic talent. In this respect, the words of the electric guitarist Jeff Beck seem apposite, “No doubt this recent resurfacing will fade, the mental fight will ease, the chariot of fire will pass behind the dark satanic mills.” Yet, “like all great works, it stays within one, breathing slowly and quietly in the background. It is part of you” – at least if you are English!