London — Like the Brits themselves the weather on the last weekend of the BBC Proms—the biggest and longest-running music festival in the world—couldn’t make up its mind.
Blistering temperatures gave way to humid showers. Fog lay over the horse paths of Hyde Park Corner not far from where crowds would gather in front of the big screen for this past Sunday’s Last Night celebrations, that orgy of nationalist song and flag waving done all in good fun, of course. When you turned around again the low-lying mist had been burned away by the sun, and then the clouds quickly returned.
I know it’s a cliché, but the climate of this island nation, one that once ruled the world if not its weather, uncannily parallels the cantankerous, contrarian attitude of British people. True, the climactic conditions across the English Channel and the North Sea—over in what the Brits call “Europe”—aren’t much different, but that won’t stop these islanders from claiming that relentless drizzle parsed by snatches sunshine is the source of their toughness: their weather gods are mavericks and so are they.
Across the weekend there was talk not just of weather but also of a battle of the flags. Some who’d voted to remain in June’s referendum planned to wave the European Union’s golden stars on a blue background instead of the Union Jack. This threat elicited grumblings from the other side that the Last Night was a ritual above the pettiness of politics: the Proms should be about fun not faction. To prove that point Aaron Banks, the multimillionaire UKIP donor and co-founder of Leave.EU, promptly bought 10,000 mini Union Jacks and had them distributed at the Albert Hall and Hyde Park Corner.
Whatever colors were being waved, would the crowds gathered in the park for the Proms finale be dowsed for the temerity of voting to leave Europe or would their collective, if divisive decision be blessed with clear skies? In this first post-Brexit Proms season, the nation and the world were watching.
As the weekend began, I was admiring the English countryside from a privatized train still on the tracks in spite of an “industrial action” (i.e., a strike) elsewhere on the lines. Ah, Sussex! You promise escape from overcrowded, multicultural London and its pro-European majority.
I’ve been visiting my mother-in-law here in the English countryside for some twenty-five years. I can only once remember seeing a dark-skinned person in her village. My mother-in-law is an expatriate Dane without a British passport. Nonetheless she’s all for Brexit and for the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, whom my mother-in-law venerates nearly as intensely as she once did Margaret Thatcher. That May won’t guarantee the residency rights of Europeans in the U. K. until Europe does the same for Brits on the continent doesn’t worry my mother-in-law one bit. The important thing is to get free of Brussels and to keep the immigrants off of Albion’s shores, herself excluded.
In the old days, before Brexit, I used to love flourishing some brightly colored Euro notes at the local shop and watch the cashier jump back like a vampire confronted with a crucifix. Also amusing on trips to Sussex from Berlin where we were then living was speaking German with our daughters in the back garden on Saturday afternoon in summer. The clink of ice in all those gin-and-tonic glasses unseen on the other side of the high hedges would suddenly stop and all would go quiet as if the Wehrmacht were goose-stepping down the lane.
These hijinks have lost their appeal. It used to be fun to rub the noses of the Brits and even of the resident Dane in the reality of the European project of which they were a part. But now they have got, if not the last laugh, then the loudest one.
With rain again threatening the Sussex evening we enjoyed supper of Romney Marsh mutton and wine from local Baronet’s estate. Vineyards are sprouting up all along the South Coast and the local petty aristocrat got in on the front end of the trend a decade ago. My mother-in-law plays the electronic organ for Sunday services in the small Norman church on the Baronet’s estate and as a Christmas bonus each year gets some gratis bottles of his over-priced grape juice.
Eat local and vote local were the initial themes of our supper conservation. From there my mother-in-law extolled the prospects of the New Britain and pilloried Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon.
I tried to concentrate on the live Proms broadcast emanating from the nearby radio. Nikolaj Znaider was soaring through the Beethoven Violin Concert with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Znaider was born in Copenhagen to Polish-Jewish parents. I thought about mentioning this inspiring live testimony on the merits of immigration and cultural uplift to my mother-in-law, but she had turned her wrath on European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, that hard-drinking symbol of corruption and arrogance, who a few days later would blame Brexit on forty years of lies from British politicians.
After enthusiastic applause crackled from the radio Znaider went from the bombast of Beethoven to an encore of the intensely intimate Largo from the C Major Sonata for solo violin by J. S. Bach. In the intermission that followed there was an interview with the conductor of the Staaskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann. As the Bismarckian maestro banged on about his beloved Germanic titans—the Richards, Wagner and Strauss—I felt myself in the crossfire of dueling filibusters, both dark with nationalistic fantasies. I ducked for cover with these internal questions: Does music transcend difference? Does it encourage harmony among peoples or is it more often an agent of discord? That purveyor of musical brotherhood Beethoven penned what would later become the European Anthem (yes, the Ode to Joy), but also wrote piano variations on Rule Britannia. How would he have voted?
Rule Britannia happens to be one of main nationalist attractions sung during the Last Night of the Proms. Later in the program comes Land of Hope and Glory, Parry’s setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem, and, at last, God Save the Queen. Parry’s work was composed one hundred years ago, as Last Night conductor Sakari Oramo, a Finn, informed the crowd. Its appeal seems stronger than ever in the twilight of nostalgia and decline that marks the post-colonial, and now post-European, period. The sweep of the melody is heady stuff even through a rainstorm in Hyde Park.
But there was no rain: Sunday night was hot and clear.
It fell to Peruvian tenor Jan Diego Flórez to sing Rule Britannia, and he did so sumptuously dressed as the last Inca King, Atahuallpa. It was a surreal bit of exoticism, a vanquished ruler of the New World hymning British might and unswerving dedication to liberty, at least for themselves. The prospect of the subjugated lauding the subjugator may have raised some eyebrows, not least Flórez’s when he went for his high Ds, but the spirit of Proms play trumped all such reservations. Besides, Spanish colonial crimes were far worse than British ones, or so it is often claimed here.
When it came to the pomp of Parry and Elgar, the crowds sang as one, the power of these melodies and their words triumphing, at least in the moment, over Brexit divisions. Only a few European flags clouded the sea of red-white-and-blue.
The stars, invisible beyond the glare of the night-time city but presumably still up there somewhere, blessed the people as they sang Blake’s lines to “England’s green and pleasant land.” The Proms were over for another year.
By the end of the week, after record September temperatures, there were thunderstorms and flash floods in London. Britannia may have once “ruled the waves” as the Inca King sang on Sunday, but in the climate of the future the island kingdom may well sink under them.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)