At last, a woman takes centre stage at the Proms

At the Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night, I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were.

When, late in the evening of Saturday 7 September, it was time for Marin Alsop to speak with her voice rather than through her hands, the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms did what every successful sports star knows is a sure-fire route to spontaneous applause – she praised her audience. You might even call them her fans.
She also thanked her parents for creating an environment in which music was ever-present when she was growing up in the United States and reminded all those who’d doubted a woman should be conducting the Last Night that – and I paraphrase – it was absurd that we should be speaking about firsts for women in 2013.
Her point was well made and her performance was first-rate, serious yet sympathetic to the occasion, both sombre and frivolous, and to the expectations of the 6,000-strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall, there to participate as well as listen (those standing had paid only £5 for their tickets and wanted to be entertained; many others who wanted tickets were turned away at the door).
I’ve long felt ambivalent about the Last Night of the Proms. As a boy, when there were only three television channels, I resented how it clogged the Saturday evening BBC1 schedule and delayed the start of Match of the Day, invariably beyond my bedtime. Later, I was irritated by all the exaggerated pomp and circumstance – the flag-waving and the Union Jack hats and waistcoats, the jingoism and post-imperial hysteria.
I’m more forgiving now and understand the Last Night for what it is, the culmination of a summer-long festival of live classical performance, which this year included the first ever complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Proms, with Daniel Barenboim conducting – one more of the cultural glories offered up by Mr Putin’s irrelevant small island.
There were some thrilling performances on Saturday evening, notably from Joyce DiDonato, the radiantly blonde mezzo-soprano from Kansas. She mixed canonical works, such as the aria from Rossini’s La donna del lago, with the popular songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the mournful anthem of Liverpool football club, which had the woman in front of me weeping.
As much as I admired DiDonato’s vocal power and glamour, I most enjoyed the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as soloist. Alsop trained under Bernstein and spoke afterwards of her delight to have discovered that his son was in the audience for such a special performance.
The Last Night crowd enjoys celebrity and the punk violinist Nigel Kennedy, less ubiquitous nowadays than he was in the 1990s, was on hand to provide it. He performed Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” with diligence and feeling, his eyes closed, his neck strained and taut. He returned later, dressed in an Aston Villa shirt (Kennedy liked football long before it became obligatory to like football), to make mischief in a scattergun performance of Monti’s “Csárdás”. Alsop conducted Kennedy with amused tolerance, indulging his egoism and erratic reinterpretations without ever allowing him to slip completely free from her control.
From here the audience of flag-wavers, the so-called Prommers, took over as Alsop led them – or should it be us? – through renditions of “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem” and the national anthem. I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were, especially as nearly as many foreign flags as Union Jacks were on display.
Watch the Last Night on BBC iPlayer until 14 September 
Radiant medley: Joyce DiDonato delivered a selection of arias and songs

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.