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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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