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Skimming Stones and Swinging Anthems

November 3, 2012

“I remember when rock was young. Me and Susie had so much fun, holding hands and skimming stones.”

Now, hold it right there…

This  disco anthem – Crocodile Rock – popped into my head on a beach a couple of mornings ago. This was on a part of the coast where there is a plentiful supply of flat slate stones with worn and slightly rounded edges. What’s more, there is shelter from smallish rocky outcrops on both sides, so that there is a period of calm on the surface of the sea when The Tide is High. All in all, a good place to study stone-skimming, and having done so over a number of years I have to tell you that Elton John was wrong: holding hands and skimming stones do not go well together.

Fond as I am of Mrs simonsometimessays – more than fond, in fact – and delighted as I generally am to hold her hand, to do so is to impede the perfect skim. It isn’t her, it’s me: I need to have both hands at liberty if I’m going to take on the sea.

Pitting oneself against the ocean is a tall enough order as it is. Caligula (as related by Robert Graves in I, Claudius) declared war on Neptune to settle an old score; his soldiers hurled their spears into the waves, and collected shells as their plunder when he had pronounced himself victorious. We can assume that in reality, Neptune – being a God – was actually the victor in that encounter. (Incidentally, I am intrigued to learn that Caligula is the subject of a recent stage musical in what is described as a glam-rock style. I dare say Caligula would approve, but I will reserve judgement until I hear Incitatus’ solo number.)

Canute (Cnut, if you’re going to be picky) also proved that going up against the deep is a futile endeavour, demonstrating to sycophantic courtiers that royal authority was not sufficient to turn back the tide. Ruling the waves was not actually given to Britannia (or her monarchs), which would be a lame segue to Rule Britannia, that I shall not follow; instead I shall merely note that Thomas Arne, who wrote the music, also wrote music for a version of God Save the Queen/King; but not the one so frequently heard during the Olympics and Paralympics, whose composer is unknown.

Not everyone agrees that God Save the Queen is actually the ideal choice for a national anthem, being nationalistic perhaps to a fault, and perhaps even belligerent in tone if you go past the first verse. Those who object to it usually offer Land of Hope and Glory in its stead. Seeing that it is musically superior, and embracing sentiments more rooted in patriotism than in the brandishing of weapons, I tend to agree.

But when I think of anthems I first think of Chess, the musical by Tim Rice and half of Abba. The Anthem in question is a short piece sung by a Russian in the 1980s about to defect to the West; it amounts to a hymn to his country, which he regards as something more than an area of land defined by national boundaries. It talks about his relationship with his homeland, and is a powerful, emotive song.

My familiarity with it I owe to Anne-Marie, who played it when we visited her in Lübeck, near what was the border between East and West Germany, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All along the border people were crossing from East to West to explore, to go shopping with West German marks which they had been given for the purpose, and in the most poignant cases to visit family and friends from whom accident had divided them years before. The roads were full of Trabants, the East Germans’ vehicle of choice (though for most of them the choice was whether to run a car, not which to run). And reunification was in the air, even though it probably meant hardship for many – from both sides. A sense of “country” transcended the boundaries which had been in place for a generation and more.

So that anthem felt particularly apt. It has heart, soul and a memorable tune – three potent components of patriotic music. If you need a further example, try Sibelius’ Finlandia while you’re gazing out to sea. Alternatively, listen to Justin Hayward Skimming Stones, and head for Easdale Island next year.


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  1. Sigh. I’ve had a glass or two so all I can think of is how lucky it was that you didn’t confuse the keys when shortening Canute. Or unlucky if you think how many extra visits you may have got via search engines. 😉

  2. Love this one, Si, and not just because I (finally) get a credit!

  3. I was wondering if you’d remember. There are a couple of other things – yet to come – that I have you to thank for. Couldn’t fit them all in in one post!

  4. Fiona permalink

    you write a great Berlin Wall!

    • Thank you! It was a quite amazing time. Musically, Bowie and The Sex Pistols did a great job of telling how it was while the Wall was still up, and I saw it myself in 1980. I genuinely think that,since their music was a powerful influence on me, it added emotional punch,when the Wall came down. There’s loads to tell!

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