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Half a mind sings

AT THE end of the splendid film How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Richard E. Grant recites a version of the hymn "Jerusalem" which is a satirical paean to the values of  middle England. As an example of the ennoblement of the bland, it could hardly be bettered.

Billy Bragg and Martin Linton's revision of "I vow to thee, my country" comes dangerously close. From the first line - "We vow to build a country Where all can live in health" - to - "From each by their ability To everyone their due" - it reads like a New Labour mission statement with the bullet points missing. I know nothing of Martin Linton MP, but Billy Bragg should know better.

The ambition behind this unleaded version of the famous hymn by Holst and Cecil Spring-Rice - as we heard in Soul Music (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) - was to provide a poem full of the same inspiring patriotism as the original, but without the militaristic or Christian sentiments. That it fails suggests that both those elements are bred in the bone of the song, and without them it is nothing.

That is certainly the opinion of the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, who brought a deluge of abuse upon himself when he suggested on the Today programme not so long ago that the hymn should be banned. With obvious relish, he recounted how he had received hundreds of hateful letters.

Controversies of this kind - as frequent as they are ephemeral - overlook that most people sing such hymns with only half their mind on the literal import of the words. The other, more significant, element in the hymn is Holst' s magnificent tune, a melody that seems to unpack like a telescope so as to provide for the two final lines that seem tagged on to an otherwise straightforward four-line stanza.

The tune Vaughan Williams used for the poem - though beautiful in its own way - shows up the awkwardness of marrying musical and poetic rhyme in this case, and it is to his credit that he recognised the miraculous synergy between the text and Holst's Jupiter tune, from The Planets.

It is hard to imagine that Holst composed the tune without any idea that it might eventually set a text, still less one from the British ambassador to the United States. But admirers of early performances of The Planets remarked on its song-like quality, and many assumed Holst was quoting some ancient folksong or sea-shanty. And Holst himself seems not to have been displeased with the association, even if it meant that during subsequent performances of the piece, audience members would stand up during Jupiter and sing.

"And soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase." It is an image of the Holy Empire which would have warmed the cockles of David Livingstone's hard heart. In This Sceptered Isle: Empire (Radio 4, Monday of last week) Christopher Lee turned his attention to the contribution missionaries made to the extension of the British Empire.

With the help of Christopher Eccleston and Juliet Stevenson, he provided a factual and evocative portrait of Livingstone's celebrated expeditions. "Clothe mankind, and it will be ripe for conversion," declared the Church Missionary Society. Now that's what I call a Mission Statement.

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Lecturer in Biblical Studies

New Zealand

THE COLLEGE OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST LECTURER IN BIBLICAL STUDIES (known as 'The Sir Paul Reeves' Lecturer') St John's Theological College (An Anglican Seminary of the Province of Aotearoa, New ...  Read More

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