Why are so many people pretending they care about the Proms?

Have you ever been to the Proms? I haven’t.

I was born and raised to a working class family in a remote English location; I didn’t even know what the Proms were until I was in my 20s.

Since then, the event has never spoken to my identity as a British person, or as an occasional classical music listener (see, I’m not a philistine), or as a license fee-payer.

(Side note: the mere definition of a ‘prom’ is off-putting enough: ‘a classical music concert at which part of the audience stands’. So, the cheap seats at the back, but… seatless. My legs ache just thinking about it.)

It’s not just me. While I can’t speak for everybody, I can speak for everybody I know.

Young and old, 90% would agree the Proms are an antiquated, fusty and exclusive affair that needs a facelift – if it’s ever to resonate with anyone other than the very specific section of society that it already does, that is.

My point being, if so few people care about the Proms – and I believe it in my bones that most don’t – why has a furore arisen (at one point, 52k tweets in an hour) over the festival’s decision to drop the lyrics to Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory from The Last Night of the Proms for uninteresting reasons?

Two words: manufactured outrage.

Some context. The row started after a Sunday Times report of concerns at the BBC and among key orchestra members about the songs’ (frankly undeniable) associations with colonialism and slavery, in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the resulting propulsion of the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to the report, ‘Dalia Stasevska, 35, from Finland, who is conducting the Last Night, is among those said to be keen to modernise the evening’s repertoire and reduce the patriotic elements.’

They quoted a BBC source as saying: ‘Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change.’

Ironically, BBC Proms have now confirmed the songs will be performed but without singing, indicating the Last Night ‘reinvention’ is due to Covid-19 restrictions, with a spokesperson adding in a statement: ‘We very much regret the unjustified personal attacks on Dalia Stasevska… made on social media and elsewhere’ – more on that in a moment.

BBC director general Tony Hall added: ‘It’s very, very hard in an Albert Hall that takes over 5,000 people to have the atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms and to have things where the whole audience normally sing along – it’s quite hard creatively, artistically to make that work.’

What is truly, inescapably embarrassing is that Rule, Britannia! lyric, which dates back to 1740. You know the one

Finally, a BBC spokesperson clarified: ‘For the avoidance of any doubt, these songs will be sung next year. We obviously share the disappointment of everyone that the Proms will have to be different but believe this is the best solution in the circumstances and look forward to their traditional return next year.’

So there you have it. My reading is that the decision was informed by the same boring logistical safety concerns impacting all live music, and there’s no need to defend the lyrics – yet – because they haven’t gone anywhere.

Nevertheless, the horse had well and truly bolted. People I am utterly convinced have never been to or watched BBC Proms, including MPs, are suddenly its most passionate defenders. The festival is front page news – something unimaginable a week ago.

At the time of writing, 35,000 people have signed a petition for the lyrics to be reinstated, while Laurence Fox (yeah, him again) is spearheading a protest campaign to send the late Dame Vera Lynn’s version of Land of Hope and Glory to number one, and it has just topped the iTunes chart.

While hardly equating to the majority of the country, these are stats to be taken seriously. And I’m sure there are many sensible arguments out there as to why these emotive songs, beloved by many, should be preserved in their original form, even from a currently nonexistent threat.

But the thousands of bigoted tweets directed at Stasevska have already contaminated the debate for me. They remind me of the abusive bandwagon-jumping that occurred in mid-June when racist trolls suddenly came over all protective of a certain city centre statute they’d previously never have looked at twice.

‘I guess we found this b***’s Twitter. Have at it people!’ said one commentator of Stasevska, as another added: ‘Who the hell are you as a foreigner to try and dictate to us that our customs are wrong?’

‘Stay home love,’ said a third. ‘We don’t actually want you or your lot destroying our culture.’

Elsewhere, on the Change.org petition, one person commented: ‘I’m sick of hearing about Black Lives Matter,’ while another said: ‘I am disgusted how a once great country is being dictated to by a minority who think they over rule [sic] our past history and celebrations. If they are not happy with the country they have chosen to live in and our way of life, then jog on’.

It’s only a song. Haven’t we got more important things to worry about? And yet, even Prime Minister Boris Johnson is getting involved.

While evasive on other, bigger issues of late, he demonstrated a vested (or yet again, feigned?) interest in this yesterday, saying: ‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.’

What is truly, inescapably embarrassing is that Rule, Britannia! lyric, which dates back to 1740. You know the one.

We can debate this now, or in 12 months, or 24 months, but it’s no mystery to me why the words: ’Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ are hurtful to some and shameful to others. A reassessment is inevitable.

While you can’t cancel a song, I for one would be uncomfortable singing it in public – but, admittedly, I would never go to the Proms.

Then again, maybe I would, if the event fine-tunes tradition, becomes more inclusive and steps into the 21st century.

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