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Jeremy Rose: God Save Us From National Anthems

One of the things that makes me proud to be a New Zealander is how few of us know the words to our national anthem.

I like the fact that we’re not a hand-on-heart-swear-allegiance-to-the-state sort of place.

So it was with a sense of distress that I listened to my six-year-old announce that the new principal at the state school she attends in Wellington had introduced the singing of the anthem at Friday assemblies.

When I asked whether she knew why, I got one of those answers that seem to make sense to six-year-olds. “The new principal likes cricket,” she said.

Now I’m not the world’s greatest cricket fans, but in the days of free-to-air broadcasts I enjoyed watching New Zealand in action. And I seem to remember enjoying their occasional victories more than their defeats. Which I suppose is an acknowledgement of some sort of pride in the fact that our nation can produce 11 men capable of beating a cricket team from one of the dozen or so countries in the world that take that oddest of sports seriously.

But that strangely irrational pride doesn’t extend to a desire to hear our national anthem being sung in school assembly halls. It’s not just that it’s a bloody awful song, full of whingy exhortions to a God many of us don’t believe in that bothers me. The singing of national anthems outside of national and international events gives me the creeps. Period.

I am, I’ve come to realise, allergic to most displays of overt state nationalism. I once counted more than 200 American flags during a short drive around suburban Boston before giving up in disgust. Now some would argue that the flying of flags is simply a manifestation of a patriotic people showing pride in their nation. And maybe it is, but I can’t help but think the owners of those flags would share George Bush Jnr’s simplistic “You’re either with us, or against us” analysis of world affairs.

The line between patriotism and chauvinistic nationalism is a thin and slippery one. Show me a dictatorship without wall-to-wall flags and anthem singing school children and I’ll show you a major capital city without a McDonalds.

Things could be worse. At least we singing our own national anthem now - even if it is in desperate need of replacement. At 36, I’m just old enough to remember not standing for God Save the Queen at the movies. (I was with my older brothers and sister who knew our parents would disapprove of us standing for either God or the Queen.)

Although with the Sunday Star Times last week dedicating its whole front page to the death of the sister of the Queen, who New Zealanders use to so loyally ask God to save, it seems not everyone has moved on.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want New Zealanders to celebrate the many things there are to love about our Free Land. It’s just that we should celebrate things that are worth celebrating. Having one of the world’s most inane national anthems isn’t one of them. There’s no shortage of New Zealand songs worth singing, and no shortage of occasions worth singing them at. Late last year standing with thousands of other Wellingtonians outside the Embassy Theatre, at the Australasian launch of the Lord of the Rings, I was delighted to hear my daughter singing along to the Muttonbirds while they played that Kiwi classic Nature. (Yes, she learned the song at school)

Now that’s the type of celebration of our culture that makes me feel proud to be a New Zealander.

Jeremy Rose is a freelance journalist based in Wellington. He can be contacted at jeremy.rose@clear.net.nz

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