I was recently serenaded by a Canadian friend with the song There’ll Always be an England. He expected me to know the words where he left off. I explained that this is the kind of patriotic song which we’re happy to sing at the Last Night of the Proms, which is perhaps an exercise in nostalgia for an imperial past, but most of the time English people (meaning specifically English people rather than Scottish or Welsh) are uncomfortable being overly patriotic due to post-imperial guilt. Looking around on the web it turns it that this song is a little newer than I thought – it wasn’t from the heyday of the British Empire around 1900 but from 1939, and so wasn’t so much a song of imperial pride justifying subjugation of others but a song strengthening morale during World War II whilst facing the possibility of invasion by a formidable enemy power.
In December, I went to see The King’s Speech, shortly after its release. The King’s Speech is set during the same era. In this instance, it is the power of speech rather than song which strengthens the nation to stand firm against the enemy. Given that this film is about an Australian speech therapist treating the King of England, and there are various references to Britain’s relationship with its then colonies, it was fun that I was watching it with an Australian, a New Zealander and two Canadians. In connection with this, I was both amused and disturbed to read these educational poems from British children’s books of the turn of the 20th century (to which I was pointed by Peter Leithart).
A is the Army
That dies for the Queen:
It’s the very best Army
That ever was seen.
B stands for Battles
With which England’s name
Has for ever been covered
With glory and fame.
C is for Colonies.
Rightly we boast,
That of all the great nations
Great Britain has most.
… and so on.
There is an odd mixture of triumphalistic arrogance and banal statement of the obvious here:
E is our Empire
Where sun never sets;
The larger we make it
The bigger it gets.
Still, there are some kind words for our Antipodean allies in Thomas Stevens, Babes of the Empire: An Alphabet for Young England (London: Heinemann, 1902):
A is an Australian born in the bush,
An A.1 ally when it comes to a push.
He can ride well and choose; his gun and his horse
Are the flower of the Empire’s irregular force.
This afternoon (Saturday) I’ll be getting more history via cinema. I’m going to see one of the opening screenings of Mulroney: The Opera, a comic musical version of the life of Brian Mulroney, Canadian prime minister in the 1980s at the same time as Ronald Reagan was US president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the UK. I have an actor friend who’s in it, playing the Quebec politician André Bissonnette, of whom I had not previously heard. I’m expecting to be educated and entertained.