by Barry Edelson


In the Distance, Strains of Harmony

Other Cultures Look Less Fractious Than Our Own

A friend recently sent a link for a YouTube video, showing the magnificent Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel singing "Rule, Britannia" at the last night of the Proms a year or two ago. [For the benefit of the unfamiliar, the Proms are an annual classical music festival in London, dating from the late 19th century. By tradition, the final night culminates with the singing and playing of several patriotic songs. A ticket to the last night of the Proms is a very hot commodity indeed.] As Internet viewing tends to go, this one video led to the viewing of several more from the Proms of recent years, most notably (and movingly) the perennial offering of "Land of Hope and Glory." With the advent of live satellite broadcasting, vast crowds throughout the British Isles — in Hyde Park, Swansea, Belfast and points in between — are able to watch the concert on huge outdoor screens, and we see them in the video singing, in unabashed patriotic fervor, in unison with the audience in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall in London.

It is a profoundly moving image, though it is difficult to fathom why. There is no cultural event in America that compares. The BBC, which sponsors the Proms, estimates that 16 million people watched the Proms in 2008, which is a bit more than a quarter of the population of the U.K. Can you imagine one in four Americans glued to their TV screens to watch classical music, followed by "America the Beautiful" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever"? In fact, there is a national concert in Washington every Fourth of July that hews fairly closely to that script (not to mention local concerts in quite a few other places), and while many people must watch, in no one's wildest dreams is this a truly national spectacle that draws the widespread attention of the public and the media. Such audiences pale next to the proportion of Americans who watch the Super Bowl (about 90 million, or 30 percent of the U.S. population) or the 600 million around the world who are estimated to watch the Grand National, an annual English steeplechase that has been held since the 1830s. While it would be churlish to suggest that neither of these sporting contests qualifies as a cultural event, there is one major difference between them and the Proms: betting. By any reasonable estimate, the Proms are stunningly popular for an event that features mostly classical music, and no wagering.

This British tendency for large numbers of people to focus on the same thing at the same time has been observed before. About a dozen years ago, while visiting friends in London, our hosts were held up for the start of a dinner party by the late arrival of all the guests. Every one of them, unbeknownst to the others, was watching the same thing on television just prior to leaving home. And what was this riveting program? The premier of a new "Wallace and Gromit" cartoon. Quite apart from the superlative quality and deserved acclaim that Nick Parks' films have received over the years, the truly remarkable phenomenon was that all of these people, unprompted, were glued to their television sets at precisely the same time.

Skeptics may note that, before the arrival of cable and satellite TV transmission, not to mention the Internet, television viewing in British homes was limited to four terrestrial broadcast stations. Such rationing of the airwaves inevitably led to more concentrated cultural focus. It wasn't very different in the United States of 20 or 30 years ago. Everyone of my generation can well remember growing up with only a handful of TV stations. Even in the crowded New York media market, there were only seven stations on the dial, including the affiliates of the three major networks, which thoroughly dominated the arenas of broadcast news and original entertainment programming. Still, it's been quite a few years now since our British friends have had access to a wider choice of televised fare, and yet the cultural fragmentation in this country appears to have been far more rapid and pronounced. Perhaps we can say the same thing about almost any pervasive change: that it always seems to go farther and faster in the U.S. than almost anywhere else. Millions still tune in to an event of singular importance, but they do not see precisely the same images, or even watch them at the same time. Who knows how many watched the twin towers burning in 2001, or how many saw President Obama being sworn in a year ago last January? The reality is that we just don't know. Television ratings for the presidential inauguration were about 38 million, but countless more watched on line, not only here but around the world. And how many saw it not in real time, and not in its entirety? And on how many different TV news outlets and websites? Seeing the world unfold on a staggered schedule and through the lens of many disparate filters, each with its own natural bias, is simply not the same thing as everyone watching the same thing, all together, with the same commentary. Say what you will about the artistic merits of the Super Bowl halftime show, but it looks exactly the same on everybody's TV set.

A lot of Americans remain extraordinarily attracted to English culture and tradition. It is hard not to be moved by the sight of all of those people singing together, amidst all of those waving flags. This is not so remarkable, considering our innumerable ties of history, language, government, literature, film and music. It is still a bit strange, though, considering that the ancestors of the majority of Americans living today were not even Americans at the time of the Founding Fathers. In the late 18th century, most of our forebears were probably peasant farmers somewhere in Europe, Asia or Africa. That even we, the children of immigrants, profess a British patrimony is often ascribed to the lack of ancient traditions in our own culture. We look back into our history and can see only so far; there is no America over the distant horizon, only the England of pre-Colonial memory. But it seems as if more is at work here than just a vague regard for the Magna Carta and a lingering intrigue about the royal family. If our eyes well up at the chorus of a patriotic song from the Mother Country (whichever Mother Country captures your devotion), it is because it comes without the complications of our own land, none of the ambiguities and doubts, none of the political dissonances and social discomforts. For all of the intertwined history between America and Britain, the words of "Land of Hope and Glory" do not evoke in us the deprivation and fear of the Blitz, which is clear in the memory of many still living. We are unaffected by the particular divisions of class, region and race which still afflict British society and politics, and fester in the hearts of those joyous, and momentarily unified, throngs. For us, it is only the simplified England of our imagination for which we shed a tear, a tear that flows easily and costs us nothing.

June 7, 2010


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