A man waits outside the Royal Albert hall during the BBC Proms. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
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Why every progressive person should sing the Proms' praises

An image of elitism still hovers around classical music - but the Proms have a democratic history that ought to be celebrated.

My earliest memory of going to concerts is not of music, but of vomit. When I was a child, we weren’t well-off enough to go to the Royal Opera House or the Royal Festival Hall, but several times in a summer we could manage an adult and a child ticket at the Proms. As the last piece on the programme drew near its end, we would sit teetering on the edge of our seats like sprinters on the blocks, ready to make the breathless dash down Exhibition Road, heading for Charing Cross and the last, slowest train out of London to Kent that night.

Our musical excursions took place on Friday evenings, so the train was always crammed with office workers and City slickers who had been celebrating the end of yet another week. Once, two people in our carriage threw up before the train had even jolted beyond the M25. One of them was the man sitting at the table opposite me. Helpfully, his vomit went all over the crinkled copies of the Evening Standard on the table between us, so after he got off at West Malling it was easy for my mother to scoop up the whole mess and put it underneath the seat he had vacated. We had heard Holst’s Planets that night, a piece that has always seemed a little green about the gills to me ever since.

It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I worked out why I was only ever accompanied by one of my parents on these outings. Two tickets still cost less than three, even if you sit near the ceiling. Yet long before I realised this, the whole enterprise still felt precarious, like every time we nearly missed a train or got sick on our shoes one or both of my parents might decide they had had enough. Of course, I know now how lucky I was to have parents who would give up their time and money and comfort in order to indulge my childhood obsession with symphonies, and that we lived within a couple of hours of a city where the best music in the world can be heard. That said, I still remember the savage fear that gripped me, aged thirteen, when my father fell asleep during the overture of Verdi’s Nabucco. I spent the next three hours convinced I would never hear it again because it had bored him into unconsciousness.

At the Last Night of the Proms, just after the interval, a laurel wreath is placed on the bust of Henry Wood. I watch this on television every year and get a bit tearful as the audience in the hall applauds. It’s an awkward little ceremony that happens right before the flag-waving portion of the concert and is a reminder of the origins of the Proms, before the series grew to encompass over a hundred concerts in eight weeks and feature musicians from all over the world.

When the Proms began at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place in 1895, Henry Wood was there to set the tone for what would come - as conductor, but also as programmer, enshrining early on the low ticket prices, informal atmosphere and commitment to mixing contemporary and underperformed works with popular choices that still characterise the series today. The bronze bust of Sir Henry was recovered from the bombed ruins of the Queen’s Hall in 1941, and even though the man himself died in 1944, he still watches over every season from his perch below the organ.

On the cover of the New Statesman in January we called the elitism of Britain’s cultural establishment “the class ceiling”. It’s a natty expression that conveys the many different pressures keeping people who aren’t from privileged backgrounds from getting involved in the arts, as either performers or patrons. A hundred years ago Wood used the Proms to combat cost and snobbery, but now to those barriers we have to add the high cost of living, the withdrawal of public funding, the London-centred life of the UK and the nebulous-yet-pervasive sense that classical music is a preserve of the posh.

In a speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards in May, the Royal Opera House music director, Antonio Pappano, spoke of his fear that while Britain has historically been excellent at training the next generation of musicians, we are poor at training audiences. He’s right - if it had not been for my early experiences at the Proms, chances are I would not have grown up into someone who saves up for concert tickets, and there must be thousands of others like me. The way ticket prices and sponsorship deals are going in the arts, it is just getting harder to get new people through the door in the first place.

The Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek described the Proms as “the world’s most democratic music festival”, an epithet that is hard to dispute when you survey the audience on any given evening at the Royal Albert Hall. There are bankers on hospitality jaunts, drinking champagne in boxes. The well-heeled set from the Home Counties fork out to sit in the stalls. Then there are students and pensioners and people with only a few quid to spare who pay five pounds to “prom” – that is, stand in the gallery or down in the central arena (where the sound is at its very best, incidentally).

People chat, eat, sit down, lie down, hug, dance and clap: everything we are made to feel you aren’t supposed to do at a concert. And somewhere up near the ceiling, there will be a little girl staring down in wonder at the orchestra – as small as Borrowers to her – each with their own miniature instrument, making a sound big enough to sing inside her head for weeks afterwards.

The 2015 Proms run from 17 July to 12 September, with every concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3. For more information see www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist