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God save the queen, or Jerusalem?

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By Wendy Binnie

One of the best known and best loved English hymns is Jerusalem, with music composed by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and the soaring orchestral score added six years later by Sir Edward Elgar, best known for his Pomp and Circumstance, (Land of Hope and Glory, used at most American graduation ceremonies.) William Blake wrote the sublime and enigmatic words in his preface to Milton.

It is considered to be one of England’s most popular patriotic songs, often being used as an alternative anthem, and is variously associated (thereby holding a rather odd position) with English nationalism, anti-modernism, post-modernism, socialist ideals, and Christianity. Jerusalem is the official anthem of the British Women’s Institute (WI), and historically was used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies.

A delightful film, Calendar Girls, starring the incomparable Helen Mirren, was released in 2003 and is based on a true story about a group of women in their 50s and 60s who belong to a Women’s Institute in North Yorkshire. Usually, to raise a little money for their charities, the ladies produced an annual calendar containing pictures of the Yorkshire Dales.

In 1999, John Baker, a husband of one of the members was diagnosed with leukemia. He unfortunately died but had asked the ladies to plant sunflowers; “I think they trumpet life more than any other flower. It faces the sun and has that big face that follows it,” he said.

“The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire: Every stage of their growth is more beautiful than the last. But the last phase is always the most glorious.” The ladies took the sunflower as their emblem and wear buttons to this day.

John’s wife, and Mirren’s character, spent uncomfortable days and weeks in the local hospital when John lay dying. They decided the hospital needed a comfy sofa and came up with the idea of posing 12 of them in the nude for a different type of calendar. Each month showed one of the post-menopausal women; warts, droops, sags and stretch-marks posing in the all-together with a strategically placed plant, pot, urn, kitchen device, piano and such.

After much embarrassment, shunning by outraged villagers, disapproving husbands, and a summons to the haughty WI headquarters, the calendar became a worldwide sensation, outselling celebrity calendars like Cindy Crawford’s. The scene where the ladies are singing Jerusalem and giggling at some of the photographs is worth the price of admission.

Also worth seeing is the beautiful Yorkshire countryside (Heathcliffe, Cathy and Wuthering Heights) and Ilkley Moor where your writer climbed the same rocks, called The Cow and Calf, as do some boys in the movie.

The unabashed ladies raised a staggering half a million pounds (about $850,000) enough money to not only buy a plush sofa, but to fund leukemia research.

The text of the poem the ladies were required to sing at each meeting was inspired by the legend that Jesus, as a teenager, accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, (a municipal borough south-southwest of Bristol.) There are extensive remains of an Iron Age village nearby and Glastonbury is the traditional site of King Arthur’s Isle of Avalon.

Blake’s biographers tell us that he believed in this legend. However, the poem’s theme or subtext is subject to much debate. The reference to “dark satanic mills,” is not, as many think, a reference to steel or textile mills (which scarcely existed at the time) but a satirical reference to Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge, which Blake thought were satanic. Other interpretations are that the line was a coded jibe at either the established church or the (then) theologically dominated universities at Oxford and Cambridge.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold: Bring me my arrows of desire: Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight,

nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

As for Jerusalem the city, it has always had immense religious and historical importance – occupied as far back as the fourth millennium B.C. and later became King David’s capital around 1000 B.C. It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C., and later ruled by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks and Great Britain under a League of Nations mandate.

Jerusalem is considered a holy city to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike and “ownership” is as contentious now as it was in the past.

The British Women’s Institute is a membership organization with individual Women’s Institutes self-governing and serving particular towns or districts. They are grouped into 70 county and island federations.

Both the individual WIs and the regional federations are members of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. WI members take part in local programs that may include sport, drama, education, cooking and community projects, in addition to campaigning on matters of local, national and international importance including domestic violence, oil pollution, and Aids.

The WI was founded in Britain in 1915 and backed by the government’s Board of Agriculture, with the belief that the WI could play an important role in the countryside, particularly in domestic science and the production and preserving of food. The first meeting of a British WI took place in Llanfairpwll, Wales, on June 16, 1915.

Encouraged by the Agriculture Board, the WIs also played a similar role in the production of foods during World War II. The reputation that the WI earned money as makers of jam and bottlers of fruit persists to the present day, though is now hardly typical as evidenced by The Calendar Girls.

Jerusalem was also used in the superb Academy Award winning movie about the 1924 Paris Olympics, Chariots of Fire. It was played and sung at the funeral service for gold medalist Harold Abrahams. Incidentally, he was the first European to win an Olympic sprint.

Blake, Parry and Elgar would be amazed at how their lyrics and music have become so beloved, to the point that many Britons would prefer it to be their national anthem instead of God Save the Queen. (Our Country ‘Tis of Thee.)

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Wendy England Binnie, a novelist and op-ed columnist, lives in Oak Trace Villas. Contact her at smcnews@earthlink.net.