As a child, I watched it (on black and white television) with my parents, and the finale format has stayed very similar ever since then. Tonight, a soprano sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and not the statuesque alto I remember from my teens. They’ve dropped the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’ from the finale now (shame – that was always fun), but Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance is the real highlight of the night. The music and words always get to me, and I sing along, probably with more enthusiasm than tunefulness, but who cares?
Land of hope and glory,
Mother of the free,How shall we extol thee,
Who are born of thee?
I may not be an admirer of our present Prime Minister (for various reasons), but I do agree with his recent defence of Britain when it was allegedly dismissed as a ‘small island’. He said: “Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart, or greater resilience.”
I’m proud of the history and traditions of this small island. Our system of justice goes back to the Magna Carta of 1215, and our democracy to the summoning of the first parliament of elected representatives in 1264. Many of our traditions go back centuries –the crowning of a monarch in Westminster Abbey, a tradition begun in 1066; the Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London, created in Tudor times; the more recent tradition of the Remembrance Day festival at the Albert Hall, followed by the service and parade the following day in Whitehall on the Sunday nearest to November 11th; and the local traditions too – Whitsuntide walks, Preston Guild, rushbearing processions in country areas like the Lake District, and other local customs, many of which date back to the Middle Ages or even earlier. One only has to think of the midsummer ceremony at Stonehenge to appreciate how far back our traditions go.
As a historian by profession, the history of this small island has always fascinated me. Not all of it is good, of course, but after singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ last night, I’ll agree with John of Gaunt’s words in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle…
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
(With apologies to the Scots and Welsh who were ruled by the English at the time of John of Gaunt, and the Irish, who have their own very special small island)