Sunday, 8 September 2013

British Traditions

Yesterday evening was the ‘Last Night of the Proms’, the end of a season of promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I watch some of the prom concerts on TV, although not all. The ‘Last Night’, however, has been a tradition for me, for almost as long as I can remember.

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)


  1. Well said, Paula. I agree with every word.
    Yes, I think it terribly sad they no longer do the "hornpipe" at the Last Night of the Proms, stems from that lousy conductor who had L of H and G at the beginning, forget his name - egotist!

  2. I thought they'd reintroduced the hornpipe, Margaret - but obviously not. But even without it, the Last Night is still wonderful. I've always said Land of H and G should be our National Anthem, but of course it's too 'imperialistic' now.

  3. It has to be said that when the Irish got our own independent state, we borrowed a lot from our neighbours! And in return you guys got. . . Westlife. Sorry about that ;)

  4. LOL, Ellen. Don't mind too much about Westlife, and my daughter loves Boyzone, especially Ronan. Could maybe do without Louis Walsh though ;-)

  5. I appreciate your defence of our sceptr'd isle, Paula. It's more than time we stood up to all the people who want to use us and sneer if they can't do so. You mention many ancient traditions but as I read the list, I thought of how many we've lost. We need to protect them and stand proud - to be British is something very special.

  6. Beth, the one that really offends me is the 'Happy Holidays' (and 'Winter Lights) instead of the age old 'Happy Christmas' etc. Our ethnic friends don't object to this at all, it's just the 'politically correct' army who seek to destroy our old traditions 'in case' they might offend someone.

  7. I agree with your original post and your comment to Beth oabout the PC Brigade.

  8. Recently returned to live in the UK, and am loving being back. The Prime-minister is correct with his response.

  9. Thanks, Jacula - 'Britishness' is something to be proud of, not ignored or denied.

  10. Glynis, so glad you're enjoying being back here. :-)