According to Wikipedia: “The Proms are concerts which are part of a big music festival. “Proms” is short for “Promenade Concerts”. The Proms are organized by the BBC, so they are called the “BBC Proms”. They take place in the Royal Albert Hall, in London from mid-July to mid-September every year… There is a Prom every night (i.e. every evening) for two months during the summer. The last concert is called the “Last Night of the Proms”. It is very famous and millions of people can watch it on television in lots of countries all over the world. Some people who go to the Last Night dress up in funny clothes and wave flags. They hear a piece of music called “Fantasia on British Sea Songs”, written by Henry Wood in 1905. It is based on sailors’ sea shanties including a ‘hornpipe’. The dance that gets faster and faster and the audience clap along, trying to keep up with the orchestra. It includes the song “Rule Britannia”. The orchestra always play Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no 1 which has the tune Land of Hope and Glory. The concert finishes with Parry’s hymn Jerusalem. The conductor also makes a speech”.
I have been a fan of the Proms, and especially the Last Night, part 2, with its inclusion of old favorites like: “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Rule Britannia” and “Jerusalem”, for as long as I can remember. The event has often struck me as being quintessentially British and an important one in our yearly calendar, displaying what is best in British life, allowing good music to reach the masses and bringing together people who would not normally do so. Having just sat through yesterday’s recording of “Part 2” of this year’s proms, all these feelings were reinforced, although I recognize that sentiments like “land of hope and glory”, “Britannia rules the waves” and “we shall build Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land” have at least an element of sentimental slosh and nationalistic jingoism, and is based more on past romanticism than present realism. But it is all great fun and one does leave feeling good and hopeful for the future.
One of the stories, which should not detract from the excellence of this annual musical extravaganza has the title: “EU flags waved at Last Night of the Proms in anti-Brexit protest” and tells us: “Concertgoers at The Last Night Of The Proms have shown their solidarity with the European Union by waving EU flags during the performance. In the run-up to the finale of the annual classical music event, it was reported that anti-Brexit campaigners were trying to drum up support for a twist on the usual union-jack-waving opportunity by handing out the EU banner to those in attendance instead”. Not to be outdone, Leave.EU posted on its Facebook page today: “Thank you to everyone who helped us hand out 10,000 flags outside the Royal Albert Hall yesterday, helping to ensure the Last Night remained quintessentially British!” Watching the television footage, it seemed there was lots of Union flags being waved and a few EU flags, but ideological point scoring hardly came into it and did not detract from yet another enjoyable occasion.
It did make me think though of the place of the Proms is British life and how this relates to how I feel as a British citizen and soon not to be EU citizen. The first thing I should say that even though I was an avid “Leave” supporter (and have the scars to prove it), I would not want to take sides on the waving flags issue and would rather concentrate on the music and an event, which were superb. I see nothing wrong with being proud to be British as long as it does not degenerate into xenophobia and misplaced jingoism. I grew up in the tail end of an era where doing one’s duty, being proud to be British and being deferent to those in authority was the norm. Now it seems this has been replace more by notions like fulfilling one’s potential, rejection of deferred gratification and giving equal rights to all. At that tail end was a sense there was a national consensus concerning British values based around Christian ones. Now we are less sure what these are and, whatever they are, Christianity comes far less into it. While we can be wistful about a golden past, which likely has never existed, we should also be prepared to move on.
But we should not forget the past or fail to recognize some of that past helps to inform some of our values in the present and our hopes for the future. It would be a sad day if the Last Night of the Proms were to be consigned as a relic of the past that we can now discard given we now know a lot better. The better way is to keep that which is good from the past (and there is a lot) and add to it what is good in the present, which is why I especially enjoyed the performance of the Latin American tenor soloist, reminding us, as if we needed it, that we all share and should celebrate we are part of one common humanity. This time next week, I will be taking part in the Southend Community-in-Harmony Event, which I played a part in starting. Here we can celebrate both our diverse society and our Britishness.