Long ago, my friends and I at boarding school in Africa used to listen to the BBC World Service, especially on a Saturday afternoon for the football scores: Saturday Special with Paddy Feeny. For expatriates and millions of anglophones worldwide, the “This is London” signature followed by Lilliburlero was a comforting thing and a reminder for many of the good things about Britain; of course those things were – and are – different, depending on who you are. For me, it was all about my roots: at the first opportunity I came and made London my home.
The next encounter with this deeply pleasing ditty was in Stanley Kubrick’s wonderful Barry Lyndon.
Lilliburlero was a popular folk tune of the late 17th Century. Its origins are uncertain, but some believe it came from Ireland. It soon became a standard regimental marching song in His Majesty’s armies. Most famously it was used – possibly for the first time – by William III’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 – James II’s last stand. Hence it became strongly associated with Protestant hegemony. But Lilliburlero rises above all this: a good tune is a good tune. You’ll find a joyful rendition of it by the Chieftains, hardly likely to be apologists for “King Billy” (though their version is tempered by The White Cockade)
In 2005, Boris Johnson wrote:
… there are countries all over the world where the sound of Lillibullero still means liberty, and people who still believe in the absolute ability of the BBC to give the world the truth.
So imagine the distress of many when a few years ago the World Service dropped it as their main signature. Whether this was an act of political correctness, anti-patriotism or just bad judgement is an open question. Well, if the BBC doesn’t want Lilliburlero, it has warm place by the fire at London Historians.
And so, at a pleasant pub session on the Thames a little while back with Emma Curtis and Andy Maginley of The Frolick, we hatched a plot to record Lillibullero, just for London Historians. And here it is. Lovely. Those swirling strings! I hope you love it as much as I do.