Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Flanders & Swann

Definitely cheating with this one - but then, the whole eight disc thing has gone out the window already, hasn't it? So I don't actually have any compunction in calling up for my next selection, Kirsty, the two live albums of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann - At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat.

Growing up, my musical influences missed these chaps. I knew of some of the songs, but I didn't know how they were connected, or who they were by, and I was wholly unaware of the concept of musical comedy - or should that be comedic music?

I did sort of come into contact with them, or come under their influence at least. My school friend Chris was definitely au fait with Flanders & Swann and he and I spent a long time collaborating on our own songs as a result. I can't in all honesty say that I knew we were emulating anyone, however, when we rattled off such classics as "I Had a Drawing Pin" and "The Mole Song". As far as I was concerned it was just what we did. Sadly, no recordings survive from this period.

So having unknowingly stumbled into the environs of Flanders & Swann, I unknowingly stumbled away again. It wasn't until after I left university that I re-encountered them, and when I did, it was through my wife.

Very early on, early enough that we were both still trying to simultaneously impress and size up the other, we got onto the subject of the laws of Thermodynamics, this being exactly the sort of thing that two arts graduates talk about in such a situation. I got excited, but only really because the Second Law is referenced heavily in the final Tom Baker Doctor Who story 'Logopolis' and consequently I felt confident enough that I could bluff my way through a conversation on the subject.

What happened next stunned and delighted me: this strange woman started to sing and click her fingers. Nobody sang. I had never had anyone sing at me in the middle of a conversation before. And she was singing a song about.. well, it was this:

So that was that.

The years that followed saw us do a lot of motorway driving and those two CDs got listened to an awful lot as we went. It turned out I had been missing out on quite a lot. They are wonderful performances. Funny, clever, even moving, they are an unambiguously English slice of mid twentieth century wit.

Here a few of the stand out tracks.

The Hippopotamus Song. I won't link to it here. It is easily their most famous song. It's also the one I have tired of most as it is the one I have sung so often (probably hundreds of times); for several years now it has been the 'bedtime song' that I have had to sing to my children. I'm letting the tradition slide a little now but I'm sure I've got many more renditions left to do...

The Slow Train. Exquisite and not at all funny, it is a lament for passing of the local railway stations and branch lines following the Beeching reforms of the early Sixties. Rather like film footage from before the First World War, it presents a picture of a England that has now vanished, overrode by modernity.

Which brings me to my last pick. "I don't know if you've ever thought of this," intones Michael Flanders, "but England hasn't really got a national song." He's right - God Save the Queen/King is really a British anthem - and, having dismissed other contenders (Jerusalem?), the pair offer this modest ditty.

Typical English understatement indeed. Nothing so perfectly captures the dilemma of English nationalism, torn as we are between an instinctive contempt for vulgar jingoism (at once both beneath our dignity and a shameful reminder of our past crimes) and our inherent and private conviction that we really are best after all. What rotters we are.

I've often wondered if there is an existing song that could be pressed into use as an English national song. The criteria are challenging, but if I think of any I'll mention them in passing. In the meantime I think we can agree that it shouldn't be this one.

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