on finding yourself in the belly of the beast
‘Ohmigosh, what was it like? Did you have a great time?’ Actually, it was surreal. discombobulating. I had a great time, but I felt really weird about it. Those aren’t the answers people want to hear, not mostly. They listen, and they nod, and a lot of the time the people who are asking, people I know, they get it - but it wasn’t a simple ‘Yes!’ I went and complicated it on them.
On Saturday night I went to The Last Night of the Proms. It was a wild and weird experience.
For a start, it’s an all day palava. Even if you don’t do the full roll call experience like I did, it’s still a ‘be there by early afternoon to get a decent spot’ business. I trotted up to South Kensington for 10 am in the damp, spent my morning in a coffee shop with a book, went back to the queue, took a tour of the V&A with a fellow prommer who knows about art, went back to the queue, went and hid in the RAH cafe, out of the rain, and then back to the queue for the last time - felling distinctly underdressed among all the bow ties and dinner jackets. Then it’s up to the gallery (oh the stairs on this side feature green paint!) and around to find the bay that your friendly advance guard have pledged to secure and have already decorated with a pink Union Jack and the freebie EU flags.
Yes. A pink Union Jack and the freebie EU flags. That was us. Bay Sure We’ll Have Union Jacks But Some Other Flags Too Please. (I got brownie points for knowing the St Pirran’s flag) Bay We Really Enjoy The Proms and Love the Music But Ugh The Words.
I went to the Last Night of the Proms because I had a season ticket. I got a season ticket because I knew that this year I’d be around for the Last Night of the Proms. I’ve watched The Last Night since I was about 12. I rarely watch the first half, which is usually an exercise in balancing music that will please the crowds who actually tune in for this one and the people who go regularly to the Proms and have Opinions about classical music. I watch the second half because I am a creature of habit who really really likes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and really really really loves the Fantasia on British Sea Songs. And because I still remember the year that Jeremy Irons sang Noel Coward songs with a glass of champagne in one hand and it was SO delightful. Do that again, sometime, Proms.
I watch it and I enjoy the singing and the flags, even though I’m generally uncomfortable with rowdy national displays no matter how good the tunes, because it’s all good fun and no-one really takes it seriously. And if they do, it’s not like anything really happens.
And then this year happened - and my comfort level with expressions of nationalism fell through the floor and is currently to be found residing somewhere south of hell.
Here’s the thing about The Last Night of the Proms. It turns out to be impossible to maintain an amusedly fond of the tradition ironic approach to many of its festivities when you go ‘inside the television’, as you were. When you find yourself standing in a hall surrounded by people singing and waving flags as a really good orchestra with an organ rolling out the Elgar it is really hard not to want to sing along, and suddenly you find the lines, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,’ coming up your vocal chords. My bay-mate described it as “Surrey goes to Nuremberg” and, I’m sorry, Surrey, but he’s not wrong. It’s really easy to get involved in Nuremberg.
I can live with having positive and negative feelings about a thing at the same time. But I don't feel like I can be blasé about the thing's implications any more. Not after a year of Brexit and Trump.
Land of Hope and Glory is the worst offender. I mean, no one really knows all the lyrics to Rule Britannia, apart from the chorus. I can live with being vigorous about not being conquered, and I can definitely live with an Inca Warrior (Juan-Diego Flores was so great) singing that song as the voice of the British people - it has the potential to do positively stretchy things to our embrace of what might be included as ’British. Jerusalem has metaphor and mystery (and probably drugs) going for it in undercutting the rampant Awesomeness of Us-ness. Plus I’m positively in favour of building better world in the place we inhabit, which is the essence of Jerusalem. But, ooof, Land of Hope and Glory. ‘Thine Empire shall be strong.’ No thanks.
But I still really. really. like the music. Maybe it’s time to rewrite the lyrics. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and what have you. I'm not inclined to be Little Miss Tear Down the Borders All National Identities Are Terrible. I do actually like being British, and a lot of things that signify Britishness - and I like the Last Night’s national sing-along-ness. It just needs to have rhetoric that doesn’t make us feel all enthusiastic and nostalgic for a past that really wasn’t as awesome for most people - including most of British people - as we sometimes like to think it was.
So, can we have a competition for new Land of Hope and Glory lyrics.
(Prize: you get to contribute to building a better tomorrow today)