Had I returned to London any year before this one, reacclimation would have been easier, perhaps instant. For seven years after I lived here for a mere summer, I had looked back on London as ‘my city’ with all the fervor of a spiritual home: in which the people are far better educated, more polite, friendlier, funnier, than any other place I’d ever been. Hell, maybe it’s even true.
I could far easier make a claim for ‘my city’ to be Baltimore,
Washington DC, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, perhaps even New York or Bethany
Beach, Delaware and not have to be one of those stupid Americans who
thinks of Europe as a kind of magic dreamland which exists completely
apart from reality. On the other hand, London really is my kind of town
to a degree no other city has ever been; not even New York or Boston.
All the cultural amenities of America - the TV, the movies, the music,
are thriving here with a public that boils with enthusiasm and make
themselves present to a degree that would cause any American to feel at
home. But on the other hand, there’s the old-world veneration of those
things about which so many Americans have completely forgotten: old
music, straight theater, the written word, Art with a capital A.
Certainly some American cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, San
Francisco, have those qualities as well, but none of them feel built to
house both in tandem to nearly the same degree which London does.
Perhaps Paris will, but whatever Paris holds, it will reveal some very
different things from London. For me, London stands as the cultural
watchdog between Old World and New, meanwhile becoming a playground for
the best of both. Now if only I had unlimited amounts of money....
this London, ‘my’ London, seemed almost absent for me on my first day.
By the time I arrived early yesterday morning, my bleary-eyed self had
barely slept in 24 hours. I spent the plane ride reading about France,
failing to finish movies, and being woken up by crying babies and
it was the lack of sleep, but the alarming truth was that I spent an
entire day in London without it entirely hitting me that I was back
(poor me..). It was shocking how absent the frission was of seeing the
city’s omnipresent green spaces, being back in the tube, walking around
South Kensington, standing next to Royal Albert Hall... it was as though I’d
completely forgotten what once thrilled me about this place. It just
just like the sense of entitlement a college student feels to see a
place which resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale and decide that
such a place is his birthright. But my first reaction was a sort of
deadened hilarity at how homogeneous English people are. Certainly there
is a large Middle Eastern and Indian population, but at first glance,
the white population seems so secluded, so segregated from that
population that it seems to affect them not at all - at least in America
whites interact with blacks and hispanics by forcing them to serve as
a country so well known for its class system, today’s England is
strikingly casteless. Interacting with today’s Englishmen feels not
unlike interacting with the Americans of two generations ago. To a
contemporary American, it can seem like a relic of the perfect (or
perfectly dead) society which we will never know in which everybody gets
a stunningly high base level of education, to a point which no cliques
seem to have formed with each holding their own values and ‘languages,’
and everybody seems to interact one another with such security that
nearly the entire country seems like an extended family. The different
parts of English society have so successfully, seemlessly blended that
there is hardly a melting pot of which one can speak. Compared to
America, today’s England seems so secure, and so shielded from conflict,
that it can almost deceive you into thinking it dull. Is this a sign
that the country is on the precipice of an explosion, or a sign that
it’s about to have half-a-millenium of uninterrupted peace?
was only around 7:15 yesterday evening, upon us ‘prommers’ being led
into the gallery of Royal Albert Hall after roughly hours of standing in
a queue, shepherded into the most crowded imaginable space like Muslims
on the Haj into the Grand Mosque to see Daniel Barenboim conduct two
Beethoven Symphonies and a ‘modern’ work by Pierre Boulez, that I began
waking up to an overwhelming sense of culture shock.
was standing exactly four rows behind the conductor’s podium. And
around me in that gallery was a panoply of ages, and at least half a
dozen simultaneous conversations about classical music, all
knowledgeable and completely audible. Two rows behind me was a young man
talking up a beautiful woman and seemingly trying to impress her with
his knowledge about Charles Mackerras’s career. One row behind me to my
left was a man and a woman clearly on a date, both in their late
fifties, and telling each other about the most memorable orchestral
concerts they’ve seen in the last few years. In front of me was an older
gentleman, telling an older lady about how Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven
stacked up to all the other Beethoven cycles he’d seen. My friend, The
Harris, and I struck up a conversation with another guy there; in his
fifties, my height and vaguely Jewish looking (we were the only two
people there under five-and-a-half feet tall) and spoke about Barenboim
for some minutes. Near me was a German couple in their thirties, and
from whatever little German I have I picked up that they were very
excited for the Boulez. Next to me was a still more beautiful woman than
the other who seemed to have come to a Proms concert completely alone.
Near me another guy, early twenties and looking like an American
popped-collar frat boy, standing completely on his own. Another guy in
his twenties stood alone, and was reading some sort of music book.
Clearly the older generation seemed more knowledgeable on the whole, but
here was a city where classical music still clearly has a future.
was only at intermission that I worked up the nerve to do what I barely
had the nerve to do eight years ago - I spoke to nearly all of them.
The kid reading the music book was a doctoral fellow at Kings College in
Medieval Literature who hated Wolfram von Eschenbach. The ‘jock’ was an
enthusiastic amateur violinist who loved playing Beethoven in semi-pro
orchestras. The beautiful girl standing alone was a French girl with
barely any English, but she played Beethoven on the piano and wanted to
hear the symphonies. The German couple were jazz music lovers who wanted
to determine if Boulez sounded like free-jazz, or if free-jazz sounded
like Boulez (they also gave me some delicious olives). Of the couple on
the date, I learned that the guy had been going to the Proms every year
for thirty years and had been going to concerts of the Liverpool
Philharmonic since he was a child, and of the woman I learned that she
has a personal, not musical, hatred of Roger Norrington.
Proms is the greatest music festival in the world. Period. There is
nothing in any other genre in any city which compares to the
coordination it takes to assemble a different orchestra from a different
part of the world every night for two months in a venue that can house
six-thousand people with standing room 5 pound tickets in the front of
the hall. It is now in its 117th year, and the seasons show only signs
of growing in size and scope - there’s even an additional chamber music
festival now at Wigmore Hall.
America, a festival like this is utterly unthinkable. In order for The
Proms to happen, there needs to be a massive government subsidy from a
national broadcasting organization (in this case the massively funded
BBC) which thinks classical music is in itself a public good - and they
therefore produce, distribute, and advertise the concerts throughout the
entire world. The whole idea that classical music, or even music
itself, is a public good would cause many Americans to laugh themselves
senseless - and perhaps rightly so. There is very little evidence that
much good is done for the public by putting a hundred or so classical
concerts. But ultimately, that is why The Proms are so awesome. Artists
thrive on risk, and the best art is neither made when artists have too
little money nor a too stable source of income - neither situation
inspires people in the arts to their best. What inspires them is that
tenuous middle ground where the funding to survive can be taken away at
any moment - and they therefore must beg, borrow, or steal the money
they need to fulfill their dreams.
music lovers in the UK protest the fact that the Proms, and the
organization who produces them, are being irredeemably dumbed down (how
spoiled can you be?). But unlikely as it sounds, should the economy of
Britain crumble to the ground tomorrow, what program will be hacked up
first? The Proms or the National Health Service? Its the very
fragileness of a festival like the Proms that makes it such a miracle.
I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I believe in The Proms.