One of the great puzzles of British life makes its annual appearance tonight at the Albert Hall: who are these people who wave flags, the union flag mainly, at the Last Night of the Proms? With what sentiment – passion or irony? – do they sing along to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory? Would I like any of them if I met them? Why do I go on watching them year after year, from the time Malcolm Sargent was at the rostrum? Could it be that these sights and sounds strike a fond chord among people who would normally consider themselves immune to, and deeply distrustful of, the charms of bulldog patriotism?
What I hope is honest self-examination leads me to answer yes to the last question. The Last Night of the Proms has a similar spirit to 1066 and All That – something is being gently mocked: not real British history, with all its achievement, conquest and villainy, but a Victorian music hall version that includes barefoot seamen, plump contraltos, and no mention of slaves other than those that Britons shall never, never, never be.
The late John Drummond, who ran the Proms for the BBC for 10 seasons in the 1980s and 90s, wrote that his experience of the evening “moved from tolerant enjoyment to almost physical revulsion”; but to the casual viewer it seems harmless. Many European countries, including Germany, broadcast the show live. The sight of a young Asian music student waving the Japanese flag to Elgar’s imperial triumphalism might be baffling, but the confusion defuses the charge that what’s on display is a noisy celebration of British, particularly English, nationalism.
Tonight that perception may change. After the vote for Brexit, the singing and the flag-waving could be seen as a symptom of a wider public mood rather than as a musical ritual sui generis.
The former Proms director Nicholas Kenyon wrote in the Guardian this week of “a sense of foreboding that this most British of occasions might be hijacked to celebrate the triumph of Little England”, arguing that that would be to “radically misread” its history as an internationalist event, and ignore British music’s immense debt to Europe. To prevent this misreading – which I think means how viewers here and the rest of the world see it – an anonymously organised online campaign has raised enough money to buy 5,000 blue EU flags, which volunteers will hand out to the audience as they queue to get in. Evidence, when waved later, that we aren’t all anti-European jingoists.
Europhobe MPs such as Peter Bone and Bill Cash are scandalised. They fear an opposite hijacking. Cash urged the BBC to prevent the Last Night being “hijacked by an attempted rejection [sic] of the will of the British people”. Bone called it “an inspiring, uplifting British event, not an EU event”, which shouldn’t be hijacked by “cheap politics”. It sounds ridiculous to say so, but there is a danger of flag-clash here: some no doubt politer version of the kind of behaviour that led to flags being banned from Rangers v Celtic games. The truth is that this event has for decades had the potential to embarrass or divide the United Kingdom, and that only the combination of its participants’ innocent high spirits and the BBC’s skilful management has spared it from the axe.
The patriotism that lies at the heart of the concert’s second, “traditional” half is relatively new in a musical festival that began in 1895. Sir Henry Wood, the Proms’ co-founder and first conductor, laid down the core with his medley Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which was composed for the battle of Trafalgar’s centenary in 1905, and included Rule Britannia. The piece became a fixture of the final evening, and the promenaders began the habit of stamping their feet in time to a rhythmic section of it, the sailor’s hornpipe, which may have been the start of the audience participation that marks the evening as a whole.
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (“Land of Hope and Glory”) and Parry’s Jerusalem featured occasionally, but it wasn’t until 1953, the coronation year, that the sea songs, Elgar and Parry became the programme’s three fixed elements. BBC TV began broadcasting the concert in 1947, the same year that Sargent became the Proms’ conductor. Rousing popular music, a lively audience, a charismatic conductor: the concert was ideal material for television. Did it matter that the music had a boastful Edwardian thrust – that what it celebrated was going, or gone?
The modern promenading style was born in that time, when the empire had begun to be embarrassing, even risible, to a generation familiar only with its retreat. As the historian David Cannadine has written, a paradox of the Last Night is that it was created as a “British tradition” between 1947 and Sargent’s death in 1967 when “the leitmotif … was not so much ‘hope and glory’ as ‘decline and fall’”. In school history classes, or at least those I attended in the 1950s and 60s, the empire was a curious absence. Perhaps nobody knew how to teach it – what to say. Our parents’ generation knew about Clive of India whereas we learned the causes of the Franco-Prussian war – and in the evening, first on radio and later on television, heard the mockery of what might be called the imperial manner, the drawl and the stiff upper lip, in The Goon Show and That Was The Week That Was. It seems to me now that the singing of Land of Hope of Glory without meaning it, or without knowing what it meant, arose out of the same uncertain mood, somewhere between nostalgia and satire, that later in the 1960s made the union flag a part of pop culture, a fashionable design.
The Last Night has spawned many imitations at the Albert Hall and elsewhere, concerts where plastic flags are included in the ticket price and audiences hum along to the Dambusters March. These are unquestionably English occasions. The original, meanwhile, has been sustained by a different impulse.
In 1996, two years before government devolution, the then Proms director, Nicholas Kenyon, decided, in his words, “to stop the Last Night being accused of being too ‘little England’” by creating separate open-air concerts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wood’s sea-song fantasia was then adapted to include The Skye Boat Song, Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) and The Londonderry Air; tonight’s television coverage will show the audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when the song appropriate to each nation comes to be played.
The concert in Wales sometimes includes Rule Britannia, with a verse in Welsh, but so far as I can tell neither Jerusalem nor Land of Hope and Glory has ever been included in any Proms concert outside England – the littler England that Tory MPs such as Bone and Cash still somehow persist in mistaking for Great Britain.
I shall watch tonight and monitor my own reactions. Will the Brexit promenaders sing differently, or will that just be my imagination? Will there be a ruck between leavers and stayers? Whatever happens, I’ll see ghosts in the crowd – young men in polo necks and duffel coats, young women in ponytails. My own generation, repeating catchphrases from The Goon Show or lines from Beyond the Fringe; pleased to be at the Albert Hall, thinking ourselves funny, learning to show off – and none of us knowing who did what to whom at the battle of Rorke’s Drift.