A new anthem to chew over

The Weekend Australian, Saturday 25 January 2003.

Where except in Australia is it possible literally to make a meal of both of our national heraldic emblems in one sitting? I first did so during the mid 1980s, at table with Cheong Liew, probably the most influential master chef in the evolving Asian/French crossover in regional haute cuisine. The kangaroo tail had been marinated and served with oyster sauce, if memory serves, and emu livers provided the basis for a pate.

There was a strange frisson to the event, like not standing up in darkened ′60s picture theatres for God Save the Queen during a bout of adolescent republicanism. Even though neither species was endangered - and disinformation still abounds on that score - the sense of delinquency lingered.

For the bolshier of my friends, the kangaroo and emu as national emblems were just a joke (like nationalism itself) and eating was all they were fit for. An alternative line was that we were at last learning from the Aborigines, both practically and culturally. Like them we were consuming totemic creatures, with appropriate reverence.

Having seen the unsentimental way the Pitjantjatjara butcher and prepare kangaroo, I found the latter argument an urban fancy (far harder to swallow than bush tucker) though sometimes wanting to believe it.

These days all but the bolshiest of my friends have changed their tune about nationalism. The too often shambolic character of the UN is more transparent and diluting domestic sovereignty is a clear abrogation of responsibility. The fantasy of world government looks every bit as anachronistic as our federal coat of arms but where one is sinister the other is harmless and hallowed by time.

Far more hallowed by time and association with war and sacrifice is the flag itself. Where Ausflag and activists like Harold Scruby see cruciform irrelevance, most find a multi-valent, living symbol. Perhaps the best evidence of its potency is the varied range of visceral responses it aroused when draped around Pauline Hanson′s shoulders. More insidiously, wherever home-made, secular ceremony is called for, civil marriage celebrants, funeral directors and municipal bureaucrats exploit a similar tactic, because it works.

The flag will almost certainly remain beyond the reach of those who itch to ′refurbish′ national symbols, usually in their own image. However when it comes to our Johnny-come-lately anthem I′ve been persuaded that the case not merely for refurbishment but replacement is overwhelming and that the solution is almost as obvious as the problem.

Think of teams in the opening moments of any international sporting event. Australia′s sons (until some inclusive language busybody changed the words to "Australians all") seldom seem to know the first stanza. Worse, they won′t or can′t usually sing it. Put that down to the laconic tradition in the national character if you will. I think they find the words as embarrassingly banal as the music.

Compare it with the Marseillaise. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle composed the music and wrote the lyrics, allegedly in a single night. Though since tinkered with by other hands, it has passed the test as a real national anthem; so much so that French monarchists devised alternative words to the tune.

The sentiments are, of course, deplorable - all that impure blood being ploughed into the fields in the name of a middle-class revolution. It′s worth noting that Rouget de Lisle was appalled to learn of the king′s death, became a royalist, was imprisoned and narrowly escaped the guillotine himself.

Whatever their politics, French team mates don′t seem diffident in public about being enfants de la patrie and celebrating the fact with gusto. The Welsh and the Americans are similarly fortunate, and blessed with more than one national anthem for such occasions. The New Zealand haka works too as an indigenous, cultural-crossover ritual chant. But our athletes are left tongue-tied, like most of us.

Does it matter? Emphatically, yes, because people need symbols that capture a collective sense of our best selves and serve as a vehicle for patriotic instinct. The Australian′s recent editorial was right to describe Advance Australia Fair as "not compelling" but mistaken in claiming that people have taken it to heart. We accept it merely because it′s there.

Fortunately the armed services, firefighters and other emergency agencies have developed cultures of their own, designed in part to fill the symbolic gaps so evident in the tumultuous years of identity politics. How important they are in maintaining esprit de corps seems certain to be brought home to everyone else, nightly with the network news, on a variety of fronts.

I doubt that a folksy aberration like Waltzing Matilda or Carl Linger′s pedestrian Song of Australia still have the capacity to stir up spirits, if they ever did. What′s needed is an Australian equivalent of Cecil Spring-Rice′s much-loved wartime hymn:

I vow to thee my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best,
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

The tune it′s sung to is the Jupiter melody from Holst′s The Planets. Cunningly, the Labor Party tried to appropriate it as "the true believers′ theme" during the Keating years, as though one party had a historic monopoly on patriotism.

Holst′s music is beyond that kind of narrowly political enlistment. Nonetheless, because the theme is nobler than anything yet written by an Australian composer, living or dead, there′s a strong case for appropriating it for the nation, as Germany did with Haydn′s anthem for the Austrian emperor.

Liberals inclined to squib at me-tooism in the face of Labor′s pretentions to cultural hegemony might ask themselves the old question "why should the devil (or at least our opponents) have all the best tunes?" Besides, Jupiter lends itself to the metre of Dorothea Mackellar′s My Country, one of the best, fondly remembered poetic evocations of the spirit of the place.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains;
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me.

All that would be needed is that single stanza and to turn its last two lines into a refrain:

Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me.