The Proms: Britain’s classical music festival and celebration of British culture have been, for obvious reasons, a little bit different this year. But time waits for no man and September the 12th will see the culmination of an 8-week programme of music with “The Last Night of the Proms“.
An annual sing-a-long ritual usually with 20,000 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall and we invoke the spirit of great Britannia and her lion (an extremely British creature no doubt) to come down from the green pastures of mythical Avalon to ward off the evils of socialism and communism. However, some people won’t be singing two particular songs (though instrumental versions will be played) to a live audience of zero with half an orchestra so naturally there’s outrage. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on in the current times it’s that patri-oke at the Last Night of the Proms is an institution that a pandemic and concerted effort for racial equality can not mess with.
Rule, Britianna! Rule!
Of course, the best way to view the reasoned opinions of any political topic is through the emotional succubus that is social media and such is the modern day Tory that a history spanning hundreds of years with complex geopolitical consequences and a legacy that is still felt today can be summed up into a single tweet:
God forbid a nuanced take or at the very least an acknowledgement that the empire was founded upon profiteering, expansionism, and the subjugation of indigenous people worldwide. Because to point that out would make you “woke“. Thankfully this is just an opinion of your average man on the street, someone who hasn’t really had an interest in world history or politic—
You can be both proud of some aspects of the empire—among other things the economic prosperity Britain enjoyed and cultural enrichment that made Britain the melting pot it is today—while being absolutely ashamed at the mass murder, rape, and pillaging the British practised and refined to a sickeningly high level in the name of empire.
It’s imperative to note that the positive effects for us were intrinsically linked with negatives for others. While the British were enjoying the new fangled Indian spices; Indians, on the other hand were seeing the repression of their language as the British used Babus, a civil servant class of Indians who acted as translators and intermediaries between the British rulers and those being ruled. On the face of it, it would seem a common-sense approach to further the spread of the English language to enable more fruitful discussion and bring a sense of commonality. Noble goals, it couldn’t possibly be anything sinister like suppressing a cultur-
We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” – Secretary to the Board of Control Lord Macaulay, 1835
There’s a certain irony that the British also took words from the Hindustani language with one of the earliest being ‘loot‘ which I guess came about because two British officers, knee deep in India’s natural resources; had decided that saying they were plundering over and over was too taxing on their delicate voices and looting was three letters shorter. Hurray for efficiency!
So. What about the song? Should the BBC commit this and other patriotic banger “Land of Hope and Glory” to the musical rubbish bin?
I don’t care.
Would I sing it? No. Do I care that people want to sing it on a night of pomp & parade. Also no. For the most part every article from the right-wing press and some of the left don’t actually care if it’s being sung either. For the right it’s another sabre to rattle in their ongoing quest to proselytise about the ‘culture war‘ and how to rise up against it (stop oppressing us, the dominant culture!) and for the offenders on the left it’s today’s outrage that’ll be gone tomorrow. My interest, and I think, those that have a genuine interest in the fight for equality would rather focus on is the conversations that have sprung up from this affair. The complicated relationship between our past, our present, and where we’re heading in the future. The feelings for me as someone with caribbean & white heritage are complicated. I am a product of the empire. I would not exist without it. So am I to blindly love a country who only until a couple of generations ago saw me as lesser, a commodity, an invader? Can I question that complex background without being called woke? Or be faced with the pernicious questioning tone that everybody was empiring in those days so no biggie.
If you were one day idly spending your time in a park—at least 1.5m away from others and quietly judging people who keep touching their masks, the utter bastards—were told: “Hey mate, your father was a serial killer. He bashed in the heads of millions of people with a golf club.” I don’t think the first thing to come into your mind would be yeah but I didn’t see him bop anyone’s noggin with a Callaway Big Bertha B21 Driver and who doesn’t love a bit of golf? A lot. A lot of people don’t like golf, you hypothetical sociopath.
Anytime a Will from Chelmsford tells you to not be ashamed of the empire or a Boris from New York says we should stop “our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness,” they’re saying that you, by virtue of nothing more than being born on the right piece of land and at the right time are better than the other. That what your forefathers did couldn’t possibly be wrong and it should never be questioned.
It’s nationalism wearing the mask of patriotism and while I’m not a fan of either one, the latter at least lives and dies within the internal nature of a country. If you’ve ever witnessed a bunch of British ambassadors—read drunks—shouting the spittled battlecry of “Enger-land” and dancing to Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping in a sweat filled bar in Magaluf you could soak up the mix of disgust and pity from everyone else for days.
The former is a particularly odious concept that usually seeks to deprive others of the liberty and standard of living that the nationalist enjoys while being in constant fear that it’s being stolen from underneath him.
In short, you have inherited that pride so you darn well best be unquestionably proud of the British Empire and all it did.
But doesn’t that mean we should also inherit some of the shame too?