Saturday was my mum’s birthday. It was also the date of one of the greatest uniting examples of Britishness: the Last Night of the Proms.
For the uninitiated, the Proms are a summer-long series of public concerts, run by the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall. They have run each year since 1895, and are designed to bring classical music to the masses. The Last Night of the Proms is a British cultural institution. But more than that, it is quite wonderful.
The Last Night has traditionally had a rather fixed programme. Or rather, the first half changes every year, but the second half is an almost-set programme of British patriotic music. In the last couple of years the programmers have played with the format somewhat, but despite the (truly deplorable) absence of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, we still have a wonderful set that includes: Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (ending with the singing of Land of Hope and Glory); Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia; and Parry’s Jerusalem.
Lets be clear: this is a programme of ‘classical’ music of the Victorian period, and comprises the singing of some of the most jingoistic verses in support of the greatness of the British Empire. Yet what makes the Last Night so wonderful is that the hall is full of people from all over the world, waving their national flags. Despite the words sung, the effect is the most open and inclusive display of harmony you could imagine. It is, in reality, the whole world joining together and irreverently celebrating what used to make this country great.
You can’t help but watch this (and millions of people around the world do) and be happy. It really is an uplifting experience. And it is a wonderful reflection of our national character. We were great; we did rule the waves (and the world). We don’t any more – we don’t even aspire to – but the British remember that once, longer ago than anyone alive can remember, we ruled the world. The wonderful thing is that we, and millions of others in other nations, can celebrate this fact together, and somehow share in that faded glory.
It’s giving me a warm glow just thinking about it [or is that the G&T?].
There is a sort of pessimism amongst the British about Britain and its current achievements. Some of that is undoubtedly deserved – our political class have not quite woken up to the reality that we are a once great power, rather than a great one – but I think on occasion we do ourselves down. The Olympics is a great example. There is a pessimism about our ability to deliver: can we build it on time; what will be the legacy; what on earth will we celebrate at an opening or closing ceremony?
Well, on the last point, I think we don’t have to worry too much. Yes, we built the huge white elephant that was the Millennium Dome. But we also run the Proms. And, as far as an inclusive celebration of Britishness goes, I think we could do far worse than repeat the format of the Last Night. Just imagine, the closing ceremony 2012. All the medal winners standing together, waving their national flags. Singing Land of Hope and Glory.
That’d work, wouldn’t it?