Last Night at the Proms and the tenacious nostalgia of Britannia.


Last Night at the Proms and the tenacious nostalgia of Britannia.

Recently I had the utmost pleasure in witnessing a spectacular recreation of the annual Proms held in England here in Bangkok, Thailand. The recreation had it all; grand orchestra, epic choirs, flamboyant conductors, magnificent musicianship, bunting and of course the mix of young and old coming together to celebrate something.

Like the Proms in England, the people who go to see it in Wembley, the ones that watch it on television or even listen to it on the radio they enjoy and celebrate many aspects of this annual festival. Most importantly is the music on display, Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Karl Jenkins, James Thompson all thoroughly rehearsed to deliver the passion and power designed to wring out the emotion and excitement of the audience in the performances.

Brochure and tickets for The Proms. 

Brochure and tickets for The Proms. 

Throughout my whole life, as I remember, I was brought up hearing not only classical radio or the Beeb talk about how much the Proms is a magnificent spectacle, but also from the mainstream media. Newspapers raving about the proms every year. Special editions in The Independent, full section reviews in The Guardian and worship of Britannia in The Mail.

Facebook and Twitter gets in on the act also. Many people giving their thoughts and reviews about their favourite pieces. Even the music they would never in a million years listen to they still manage to watch something of the proms. It should happen soon that if you didn't see anything of the Proms then you are part of the crowd that never watches viral videos on Youtube. Yes, I think the Proms are considered cool. Personally and objectively.

As I sat through over two hours of sublime musicianship, listening with exalted glee the highly talented musicians playing a fabulously put together setlist of material, I was amazed. As the Principal of Shrewsbury School Stephen Holroyd put it, “we have stuff for you headbangers and you lovers of Mozart”. Indeed they did. The audience was given a gift of Haydn, Minoru Miki and Led Zeppelin. Fabulous stuff. It really was the Proms but right here in Bangkok.

I find myself wondering though, what is the Proms really all about? I for one celebrate the music that is donated to my ears. Music that I rarely or never even listened to before. I feel more cultured receiving it and that is literally the essence of my celebration. But, objectively it's a different thing. I look around and observe bunting draped down from the ceiling, nothing like a political Republican conference but adequate to display celebration. I see the crowd with British and even Thai flags clutched in their hands in eager preparations to wave them like a fanatic at the opening ceremony at the Olympics. Fireworks also, but this got cancelled as Thailand is in mourning. So we are given props and cues to celebrate. For me its the music, the celebration is the fact that the music written over those hundreds of years ago is being heard and not lost forever. But the bunting, the flags and fervid flag waving... what more is there to celebrate?!

Of course... now I remember.

Like Last Night of the Proms, ninety-five percent of the the concert is like other classical music gigs. Silent apart from the occasional muffled cough and the feeling you cant make a noise or else... The Last Night of the Proms is not considered as such only because of it's flamboyant dress sense of their audience patrons, but essentially that is all the difference.

But the other five percent, that is where the celebration comes in and it hits the audience members harder than Celebrate Good Times by Kool and the Gang. I am speaking of  the dreaded Audience Participation time! Rule Britannia, Pomp and Circumstance and Jerusalem sung with forte and gusto.

Shrewsbury School, Bangkok presenting their 10th anniversary of The Proms.

Shrewsbury School, Bangkok presenting their 10th anniversary of The Proms.

Cue the flags going mental! It is like watching hundreds of people maniacally trying to guide a jumbojet into it's taxi bay.

It is easy to get carried away, especially with bunting to sing loudly and wave your flags until you have carpel-tunnel syndrome. But, I feel the audience also thinking and asking the same question I am “What is up with this quick fire round of celebration?”

I hear people singing the lyrics to Rule Britannia and clapping fiercely to Pomp and Circumstance. It sounds like the true “metalheads” have woken up, but I see no Diablo signs being thrown. But the majority of British audience members are trying to work some things out. I don't want to overly politicise the Proms or the performances. I loved every minute of the concert, but take Rule Britannia. The audience members sing the line, “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. Firstly, Britannia ruling the waves, maybe in the time of  Trafalgar but now the Navy is considered too small and too inadequate to protect Britain. (And that comes from a considered Lefty Beeb.) Irony perhaps? No I'll chalk this down to nostalgia. Secondly, Land of Hope and Glory. The lyrics are filled with sentiment and pride but with the current ideas set by many is that Britain's path is now a guilty until proven innocent rule and definitely not a fortress as I stated in the irony of Rule Britannia. A.C. Benson, a genius of poetry would laugh until the next millennium if he had foresight of what we are now and the irony of these lyrics. I think Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore would have been more fitting end as at least that didn't make us behave so seriously.

Lastly Jerusalem, based on the introduction to a long poem by William Blake, as the "English" anthem and usually the grand spectacular to finish the night off. But the passion is lost in the irony of what the words express. Written during a time of imperial hubris and gallantry it is hard not to look at the lyrics and not feel sorry for the predicament Britain is in right now. At least in the time of Elgar they had gin and songs to help keep King and Country close to their hearts but now Britons need more than that. Empty ironic lyrics and deep nostalgia is not enough. I heard it in the voices of the audience, mixed also with them being tone-deaf, the lack of passion and belief that Briton is not what the lyrics say we are.  “and in those feet in ancient times” is a reminder to us that the Briton we are celebrating in the Proms was a long time ago. The words meaning nothing to our time, predicament and generation.

Maybe I am wrong and I welcome people to tell me that they are joyful and proud of what Briton is. There are people out there that are serious patriots and devout to Queen, God and Country and I regard your dedication. They are the first to raise the flag when someone from Briton wins at a major sporting event, they are the ones to buy and collect trinkets and merchandise from Pippa Middleton and they are the first to line the cold, wet streets of London to get any sort glimpse of a royal birth.

But currently I, the probable majority of people and the patrons watching The Proms, we would believe Britain is more fitted and in common with the musical connection if the lyrics of Jerusalem be changed to....


“For we have not built Jerusalem,

because of Health and Safety rules”.

Dave LockieThe PromsComment