I meant to write about my first visit to the BBC Proms, on Saturday 17th August, shortly after it happened, but I mislaid my programme for a few days and then decided that I’d wait until I’d watched the televised version of the Last Night before posting this account.
The two events had in common that they were conducted by Marin Alsop, a female American conductor who is one of the very few women to have penetrated her almost imperviously masculine profession and the first woman ever to have conducted the Last Night of the Proms concert. She referred to this herself when she gave a short but eloquent speech after the Last Night performance, saying that when she told her parents at the age of nine that she wanted to be a conductor they always encouraged her and that her message to other young people, especially musicians, with ‘impossible’ aspirations was ‘Never give up.’
Almost inevitably, male reaction to her appointment ranged from the overtly hostile (the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko called her a ‘cute girl’; since she is twenty years his senior, I can only conclude that he was suffering from a small prod from the green-eyed god) to the vaguely patronising (although it’s understandable that newspaper accounts emphasised the fact that she was the first woman, less commendable was innuendo from some of them that she was very good ‘for a woman’), compared with Alsop’s own business-like declaration that Sir Henry Wood would have felt that her selection as conductor demonstrated ‘natural progress to more inclusion in classical music.’
All I have to add to this is that she was brilliant. It’s an over-used adjective, but the only one that fits. She conducted both the concert that I attended (No. 47, which featured works by German composers Brahms and Schumann and was also distinguished by being performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose members use only genuine period instruments, and the Choir of the Enlightenment) and the Last Night with an energy, fluidity of movement and grace that was more evocative of the performance of a distinguished ballerina than that of a conductor. She obviously lived every note of the music with passion as it was played under her tutelage. It was clear, also, that the orchestra loved her, and she quickly struck a rapport with the audience, too. I particularly admired the way she greeted us, with her hand on her heart, and the understated clothes that she wore (sober tailored trouser suits with just a touch of colour). She was elegant without being flamboyant, a genius imbued with genuine modesty. She also had a sense of humour, and clearly enjoyed conducting Nigel Kennedy as he treated the Last Night audience to his rich repertoire of improvised and impeccably-timed virtuoso antics.
Finally realising my ambition of attending one of the Proms in person and making my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall was even better than I had anticipated. The Hall itself is a monument to Victorian hubris, yet it is impossible not to revel in its magnificence. Above all, it stands as the symbol of hope in an age of expansion and continues to represent the best of culture that civilised society has to offer. The famous portraits of Albert and Victoria in their youth which hang in the foyer have a lightness and optimism about them which would later be all but eclipsed in memory by his early death and her dour widowhood. The Albert Hall was a sumptuous place for those who could afford to go there, yet it was Sir Henry Wood’s dream to make classical music available to all and he certainly, at the Queen’s Hall, enabled a much wider stratum of society to enjoy the performances. This still obtains today: those who are prepared to risk disappointment and don’t mind standing throughout the performances can still pick up tickets at short notice for only a few pounds.
The tongue-in-cheek jingoism of the second half of the Last Night never ceases to delight me, though it becomes more anachronistic year by year (and, worryingly, some of the audience seem to embrace it without quite enough irony). That it has become a meeting of nations, whose flags swirl colourfully, is the ultimate irony. I particularly enjoyed all the solos by Joyce DiDonato. Apparently her costumes were by Vivienne Westwood, which strikes me as very appropriate. However, for my money, it was Marin Alsop herself who stole the show.
Over the road from the Royal Albert Hall stands the massive gilded statue of ‘Royal Albert’ himself. I’d never seen this before, and found it quite disturbing. There’s nothing playful or democratic about this. It’s a construction intended to awe and impress, a monument beyond ostentation that celebrates the British Empire and this scion of its imperial family and, much as if he belonged to some ancient Egyptian dynasty, implicitly raises him to the status of demi-god. Sir Henry Wood may have brought fine music to the petit-bourgeoisie of his day, but at the same time others were busy building and legitimising the British Empire, carefully both ignoring and concealing the fact that it was being constructed on the labours of a British industrial class that could barely afford to feed its children and dependent on the suppression of many other fine civilisations throughout the world. It is difficult to believe that this was happening only three or four generations ago, that Britain only began the long road to true democracy with the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918 and, yet more surprisingly, that it only ‘gave back’ most of its overseas colonies within living memory.
Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday. Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892. If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded. I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.
My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died. Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life. She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses. Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match. She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house. People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays. She had standards.
You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events. Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria). She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family. Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches. She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike. She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.
These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them). Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born. It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:
- Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
- Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
- Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
- The General Electric Company was founded.
- The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
- An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
- The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
- Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
- The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home. It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
- Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
- It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid. Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.
The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s. There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned. When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone. Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride. In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.
All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.