12 October 2019
Although tonight is the night, it was several weeks ago that I crawled home from work, utterly exhausted and too tired for protest, to learn that my lovely mum had talked the teens into going to a Mancunian ‘Last Night of the Proms’. The venue, the Bridgewater Hall, which I love, but ‘Last Nights of the Proms’, well that’s really not my thing!
The annual Prom series, in the Albert Hall, is a terrific event; innovative, varied and imaginative. And 2019 has certainly been no exception. I have watched televised versions of some amazing concerts. My highlight? The stunning National Youth Orchestra Prom, which just pulsated with youthful energy and enthusiam. But above all, the lasting impression of 2019, has been the sheer breadth of music. It’s Shostakovich one night, it’s a ‘Homage to Nina Simone‘ the next, it’s Dvorak, then Duke Ellington, it’s late night bands, it’s early evening talks, it’s Mozart’s Requiem, it’s Warner Brother’s studio music, it’s international, it’s multi-cultural … it’s just incredible. But the ‘Last Night of the Proms? All I can associate that with is flag-waving and a patriotic zeal that I simply don’t relate to.
So it is with a sense of filial duty, rather than excitement that I load the teens into the car, pick up mum and head into town this evening. Inside the Hall, it’s ‘Two free Union Jacks with every programme‘ and I begin to fear the worst. Yet I enjoy the first half; a European tour of some popular and pleasant classics, including some beautiful opera arias. There’s an extremely polite, very British queue for the bar at the interval and replenished and refreshed we settle down for the second half.
All is well until the final few items. ‘The Dambuster’s March‘ is the signal for the flags to come out. I am sorry to be a party pooper, and I know there’s a much loved film about it, but over 3000 civilians and forced labourers were killed in that raid. Is it really still, in 2019, a cause for patriotic flag waving? Thereafter ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ and ‘Rule Britannia‘ ensure that the flags stay out! It’s a sea of Union Jacks. Prom-dress daughter looks shocked and mouths ‘It’s like a cult!‘ On the front row a lone EU flag makes a brave bid for a nationalism that’s about something nobler, a proud shared identity rather than a backward looking nostalgia trip though brutal glories of World Wars and arrogant Empires. But it is swamped by the excesses of red white and blue, and the concert ends in a riotous chorus of ‘Britain never never never will be slaves!‘
Out in the car park the politeness of the ice-cream queue is also a distant memory; and the fervour of the hall seems to have spilled over into the scene that greets us. One car is blocking the exit barrier with ticket issues. As the passenger of this vehicle implores the other drivers to reverse, allowing them to move out of the way, the stirred up motorists just honk their horns, rev their engines and edge every closer.
‘She want us to reverse,’ one woman screams at me ‘ but we can’t! There’s too many cars in the queue for that!
‘Well none of us are going anywhere until we do‘ I reason in reply, turning my engine off, pulling my car into a bay, unfastening my seat belt and getting out to sort it all out.
I spend the next 10 minutes directing traffic. It’s actually a lot easier than the queue in the school canteen and, mostly drivers are just relieved that someone has a plan that is going to get them home. A calm, orderly and moving queue is re-established and in no time at all we are all on our way. Is being British just about being follower, I ponder? Following everyone waving flags and singing words without thinking about whom they may offend? Following others in the car park, honking horns and flapping arms, even though it leaves us all at a standstill? I don’t think it can be, but tonight, sadly, it feels a little bit like a Land of Hopeless Followers…