Jerusalem: Hymn of England

Today I played at Beamish Museum in a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Beyond doubt, it’s worth a blog post. (Side-note: I can’t seem to keep a consistent tone in my writing today. I hope it isn’t horribly noticeable.)


I’ll begin with its history. Set the scene: 1916. For two long years, war had decimated the youth of Europe. Ypres. Verdun. Loos. Arras.


On Thursday I spent half an hour at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The number of graves–and the number of those unmarked–…

Poet Laureate Robert Bridges had recently edited an anthology of patriotic verse, and rediscovered in it the sixteen lines which serve as a preface to William Blake’s epic poem ‘Milton’. Though passing unnoticed at publication in 1808 and throughout that century, these lines Bridges now gave to the composer Sir Hubert Parry, requesting that he set them to music.

The tune was written, arranged, printed, sung at a campaign meeting by various choral societies of London. The women’s suffrage movement took it up, as did public schools such as Elizabeth College in Guernsey—they speak of it with more ardour than most teenage boys display towards anything (with the possible exception of FIFA). The famous composer Edward Elgar wrote his own orchestration, and so its popularity soared, and became a symbol of English morale.


The Western Front 1916

In 1918, the war ended—and Parry passed away. Since then, Jerusalem has been used by all the major political parties, adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Institute, rugby teams, the hymn book, and the Proms.


I’ve found so many articles about Jerusalem that are focussed almost entirely on Sir Hubert Parry. In the first place, it seems counterproductive to esteem a composer for a single work. I, for one, know none of his earlier music, but since he died two years after Jerusalem became the Georgian equivalent of a number one hit, it rather eclipses the entirety of his previous career. In the second instance, I find it far more interesting to discuss the words of Jerusalem, chiefly because they’re steeped in controversy.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain 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 those 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.

The most common interpretation is a religious one. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Jerusalem is a standard metaphor for Heaven in Church of England jargon. This is explored in the two verses: the first Jerusalem, and the second Jerusalem.

The four questions in the first verse are a speculation drawing upon an apocryphal story, in which Jesus visits England during his early years. It follows that if this visit happened, Jesus would have ‘brought’ Heaven to England, representing the first Jerusalem.

Progressing to the second verse, it’s easy to derive parallels from the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of the glorious second coming of Jesus, just as Blake writes of a new Jerusalem taking root in England.


Angel of the Revelation: Blake was also one of the leading visual artists of the Romantic era.

But was it so idealistic as it sounds? ‘Dark satanic mills’ is often attributed to the Industrial Revolution sweeping England inside out—but, more deeply than that, Blake is attacking the bondage of institutions, organised religion, education, and the corruption inherent in Victorian society.

Does that negate any religious intent? Blake was committed to social change, and he held staunch revolutionary views for which he was at one point charged with treason. But though intensely religious, the real irony lies in the usage of his words, rather than their interpreted meaning: originally defaming the ‘institutions of repression’, his poem has become a symbol of national solidarity and patriotism. It appeals somewhat to the English humour.


Nevertheless, I believe something of Blake’s original intention is yet preserved. The bourgeois generals sending thousands of men to their death in the Great War are analogous to the social shackles of Blake’s Victorian England. Today, the bonds of capitalism and social class loom still on the minds of the English people.

When I watch the crowds of tourists filtering through Beamish Museum stop by the bandstand and pour their voices into the hymn, knowing the words as if writ on their hearts, singing of the Lamb of God though many may be atheists, and ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ though they won’t admit their patriotism even to themselves, I can’t help but think that this song has touched them. Its stirring words, its iconic tune: no wonder they’re trying to make it our national anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’, as MP Toby Perkins argued earlier this year, is the anthem of Britain, but as of now, the country of England has none to officially call our own. None but this one.


If you want to read more about Blake and Jerusalem, here’s a great article.



Prayers Sell Houses

Yesterday we sold our house.

Let me begin from the beginning. In September 2011 we finally paid off our mortgage (when I say ‘we’, I mean my dad). By March 2012 our house was on the market. My family had lived there twenty years.

Dem old house blues :(

Dem old house blues 😦

Last August we moved. It was quite an uprootal, I’ll admit, but the change of scenery brought my general mood out of the shade, so I’m grateful for that.

Anyway, for the past seventeen months we’ve been trying to sell our house in a floundering market. No movement anywhere. Plenty of viewings, but nothing consequential. An exceptionally bad time to be an estate agent, round here. Value may have dropped twenty percent in the past year, but no one has even the eighty percent which our house should’ve been worth. Calamity all round, basically.

In order to hold two properties at the same time we used a bridging loan. High interest. High stakes if we couldn’t sell at a reasonable price. Due to monetary concerns we dithered too long on the house we really wanted, so when that was nabbed from under our noses we had to seize choice two.

And then the market deteriorated and there’s been virtually no movement for months.

How on earth did we sell our house, then, in such a situation? That, my friend, is down to a prayer.

Last week we got an offer. Which is amazing. But it was £60,000 down on what our house had been valued at (houses cost about three times more where I live than they do in most parts of the UK), and it wouldn’t even pay off the loan we took out (never mind the mortgage!).

The next morning the people who’d put in the offer lowered it by another £15,000. The bank had withdrawn its original loan, due to the awfulness of the market. But we thought we might have to take it if we ever wanted to sell the house.

We wanted the family to have it… A young couple with a small boy and another one on the way. Loved our house seven months ago and haven’t had another viewing since. And the boy liked the mirrors. Under the lowest bookshelf in the old playroom. My brother used to line up his matchbox cars and look at them in the mirror.

You can just about see the mirrors under the lowest shelf, I think? And don't trust these lying cameras. This room is SMALL.

You can just about see the mirrors under the lowest shelf, I think? And don’t trust these lying cameras. This room is SMALL.

Then my mother found a ‘Novena to St Joseph for Selling One’s House’. A Novena is a nine-day prayer course, in which you follow a given prayer format, pray a few Our Fathers and Hail Maries and Glory Bes, and leave it to God. St Joseph is the saint to which our church is dedicated, and a Novena for selling a house addressed to St Joseph seemed just exactly what we needed.

For the past six days my mother, brother and I have been performing the Novena. It only takes five minutes or so–seems almost too easy, and my mum doesn’t like it because she thinks it’s like making a bargain with God.

But then…

St Joseph

St Joseph

Yesterday morning during the part which in the programme says ‘insert exact request here’, my mother said something like, “I pray we sell our house for a comfortable amount of money that doesn’t mean we have to dig somewhere else to pay off our loan. If you could change the bank’s mind, and get a bit more money from somewhere. Not for money’s sake, but where we plan to put it. I don’t know how feasible that is…”

A direct prayer directly answered. She thought she sounded greedy the first time, asking for more money, but I told her we weren’t the ones to judge whether we were greedy or not. Evidently, says God, we never meant our plea out of greed.

My old writing base in the very far corner. Fond memories...of other people reading over my shoulder. I got paranoid.

My old writing base in the very far corner. Fond memories…of other people reading over my shoulder. I got paranoid.

Two hours later we got a call to say the buyer’s bank had upped its offer again, and my parents accepted.

Of course, it may fall through before long; but after so much trouble, it can’t be a mere coincidence. If God didn’t lever that offer to the satisfaction of all, I’ll eat my birthday presents (not merely the edible ones).

The 'new house'. Feels like a new start all over again.

The ‘new house’. Feels like a new start all over again.

All this means I have to share my birthday celebration with a house sale. And do you know, I can’t think of anything better!

I Just Received a Letter From Myself

I just received a letter from myself.

I just received a letter from myself!

At the end of September last year I attended Celebrate, a Catholic conference held in various places about the country every year. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

The previous March my wonderful youth group went to Flame, a massive Catholic youth event in Wembley Arena. It was incredible! The singing and dancing…miraculous testimonies…God and the Olympics…drama, a glee flash mob, appearances from David Wells, Jason Gardener and Fr Timothy Radcliffe, among many others…and the silence! I’ll bet Wembley has never before seen eight thousand teenage Catholics joined in silent prayer.


(My youth group was inspired by this to hold a long service of singing and silence every three or four months. We market it as ‘loud praise and silent adoration’—and we’ve kept it up ever since. There’s nothing like it for restoring passion to faith.)

I’ll never forget the comment Alex posted on my Protagonize profile two days after the event: ‘…the sign. ‘8000+ people; who have you met before?’ Me: umm…this looks like nobody. In retrospect: Bazzzz!!’ (Baz being another of my internet names.) She was sitting in the block behind mine. No; we didn’t run into one another—heck, we’d only met over the internet!—but the marvel is there.

We were so pumped after this experience (though the hotel in which we stayed in Piccadilly was recently closed down for its atrocious quality!) my youth group determined we’d go away together more often.

The epic praise-song singalong! And this photo was taken from halfway down the arena!

The epic praise-song sing-along! And this photo was taken from halfway down the arena!

So in September last year we went to Celebrate. And that was completely different. Kind of like a summer school sort of thing, because we overran the top floor of a school building and did all sorts of awesome things linked to God, and had Mass both days, but we actually got to talk to the other people there.

It was much smaller than Flame—only twenty or thirty people in our age-group (Years7-10). Yes; I was too old for it, but the two girls I’m most friendly with in my youth group are younger than me (though rather more spiritually mature, I might add!). So I made some wonderful and gorgeous friends, Catholics like myself, who go to Celebrate every year and only meet one another then. So strange—but so lovely!

One of the activities we did there was writing letters to ourselves, which they promised to send us sometime in the next year. I’m not sure how seriously I took it; I don’t even remember writing the letter, not to mention expecting it back.

But this morning I received two letters. One a birthday card…and the other an envelope addressed to me in a green felt-tip pen, in my own handwriting!

I wondered if I’d sent one of my cousins an envelope with my address on it. But when I ripped the back off and slid out the letter, that, too, was penned in the green felt-tip, and in my writing. Eesh, I thought, this person is good at imitation.

‘Dear Lillie’, it began, and so I read.

The flyer for this year.

The flyer for this year.

It was my work without a doubt. The phrasing, the imagery…and the letter-writer knew things about me that I’ve never dared tell anyone. I mean the writing was flowery and awful, but still.

I expect I scribbled whatever first came to mind and just shoved it in the envelope as soon as I’d signed it ‘Yourself’ at the bottom.

But every single line I wrote is exactly what I need right now. ‘Can’t I implore you to remain adamant in all you love and believe in now? Keep love as your stimulus, Jesus your nucleus. Be good and patient so that Jesus can be seen in your soul—through you!—yes, you’re worthy when he’s shining inside you.’

I won’t give you any more; the letter is, after all, addressed to me, and is accordingly very personal. But how can I express what this means to me?

Was I wiser last September than I am now, to write such things that would help me in months to come? I may claim I’ve existed in the same way these past three years, but there’s no doubt I’ve changed. We’re constantly processing fresh and powerful emotions, and as we do we forget the old mantras. There are some which may stay with me forever; others fade.

As me ten months ago tells me now, ‘old wounds don’t hurt forever’. Since I’ve no experience of forever, I can’t vouch for that, but to be sure, some things grow less as we learn to forgive those who perpetrated them—myself included. My letter tells me to forgive myself. And today, that’s what I’m going to do.

Flame logo:

Flame in action:

Celebrate poster 2013: