Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

'Wider still and wider, may thy bounds be set, ' the ecstatic throng sang at the Last Night of the Proms.

They were partying like it was 1902, even though it seemed like the moral territory occupied by hope (not to mention glory) was growing narrower. Perhaps it has been ever thus, but it seems apparent that there are two versions of Britain on offer right now: Britannia Promlandia and Tate Britain, as in Catherine Tate: the commonwealth of 'Am I Bovvered?'

Promlandia's celebrations were cued up this time by David Cameron's St Petersburg impersonation of Hugh Grant, schoolboyishly ticking off all things Bright and British - footie, Shakespeare and, er, One Direction. It is a feelgood Albion, perpetually basking in Olympic summer. In Promlandia, the transatlantic relationship is forever special, the conductor (Marin Alsop) leading the orchestra in the hymn of imperial expansiveness and the soprano belting it out both unproblematically American.

The anthem of Promlandia, Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1', is rooted in a particular moment of transatlantic comity: the Edwardian zenith of imperial heft and missionary righteousness. Elgar composed it for Edward VII's outlandishly over-the-top coronation in August 1902, with A.C.

Benson recruited to write the lyrics. But there was always an Anglo-American subtext to the chest-beating. In that same year the viceroy to end all viceroys, George Curzon, moved into the residence at Calcutta along with his American wife, Mary, and Cecil Rhodes's will was published, endowing the scholarships that were to bring gifted (and preferably strapping) young Americans to Oxford to tie the bonds of Anglo-American friendship ever tighter. But now 'Pomp and Circumstance' is just oompah and a Sikh turban at the back of the chorus can be coloured with the Union Jack without its wearer having to report for duty in the Khyber Pass. The robe Vivienne Westwood made for Joyce DiDonato's performance diluted the colours of the flag into postcolonial pastel.

Is it this chummy Promlandia Britannia which greets the new American ambassador, Matthew Barzun? Or is it the fatalistic yawns of Am I Bovvered Britain?

In a statement last weekend, choking on his own diplomatic granola, the ambassador put the best face he could on Parliament's stunning repudiation of Obama's call for a military response to the chemical massacre at Ghouta. …

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