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After the Royal Wedding – Proud to be British?

May 4, 2011

In the end, I couldn’t resist. As I anticipated in a recent post, I spent the day of the Royal Wedding playing golf, badly. Back at home, my wife had recorded the highlights. So we sat together that evening, me in a weary heap, she still enthused by the day’s proceedings, and watched it.

And that strange feeling came over me that always seems to descend like an emotional mist on state occasions – whether memorials, weddings or funerals. The same feeling that had me welling up at Diana’s funeral. I had no strong emotions either way about the woman, yet the manner of her send-off triggered a response over which I had no control.

State ceremonies are theatre. And if there is a tradition that brings more people to London than any other, it is our love of spectacle. Other countries have scenery equal to ours – beautiful cities, majestic landscapes – but few can match our ability to put on a show.

Perhaps it is because theatre is so ingrained in British culture. From early childhood, we have taken part in theatre of one sort or another. We have dressed up, shown off and sometimes cringed with embarrassment. At school, as reluctant shepherds in the nativity play, or as triangle players in the end-of-year show. At home, as princesses, cowboys, aliens and terminators. We have all been directed or choreographed – in church, on playing fields, in parades or school assemblies.

And few countries can boast of a theatrical heritage that includes Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Pinter, Lloyd Webber, Brenton and Hare. The Globe, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. And the Royal Ballet, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even if we’ve never been to the theatre, the chances are that we’ve seen movies with British actors and directors, with casts of thousands and sets designed at Pinewood and Shepperton.

TV coverage of a royal wedding or funeral ticks most of the boxes for successful entertainment. Not too short and not too long. Spectacular uniforms and ridiculous hats. Precisely choreographed activities. Celeb close-ups. An element of reality TV as we wait for someone to lose control or forget the script. An opportunity to sneer or swoon. The aaah moment as the bride moves up the aisle or the coffin enters the church under the shoulders of six solemn men. The occasional dramatic intervention or unscripted moment, like the applause for Earl Spencer’s tribute to Diana, or William’s struggle with the wedding ring.

But the two elements that bring me out in goose bumps are the settings and the music.

Westminster Abbey so reeks with history that you can almost feel the ghosts enjoying the ceremony. A nine hundred-year-old church that houses the tombs of kings, queens, admirals and poets. Medieval altarpieces and ancient arches. And on this occasion decorated with the green trees of England and a hanging garden of plants and flowers.

Great churches are built for choral music. On this occasion, we had motets and hymns, led by one of the finest choirs in the world, singing the words of William Blake and the music of Parry and Rutter.

Without an ancient setting filled with music, such ceremonies would be little more impressive than a parade ground exercise interspersed with the occasional speech. And for me, the occasion doesn’t even have to involve people at all to hit the emotional spot. I have had the same feeling when stumbling upon an organ recital in a near-empty cathedral in Bruges, and a choral concert in a crumbling Venetian church.

I suppose that the obvious thing to say about the Royal Wedding is that it instils a feeling of national pride. But I find it hard to take pride in something that I did nothing to create, and of which I am a part only through the accident of birth.

But I can admire, and I can feel fortunate.

I admire many things about my country, exemplified by Westminster Abbey and the music that filled it last Friday. I admire our poets, playwrights, composers, philosophers, architects, engineers, scientists and explorers. And yes, many of our monarchs, politicians, statesmen and soldiers, as well as the common decency of generations of ordinary people who are not buried in the Abbey.

And despite the many imperfections of British society, I feel lucky to have received a superb education in the English countryside, to have grown up in a green and pleasant land, to be able to think and speak freely without fear of persecution. I also feel fortunate that when I am sick, I will be treated without reference to my ability to pay, that nobody can lock me up and throw away the key without due process of law, and that there are people who are prepared to give up their lives so that I can live in safety.

I don’t feel protective about our cultural heritage – it is part of something much larger, a patchwork of cultures, each unique yet interrelated. We have taken much, and we have given much. We have destroyed as much as we have created.

But as I looked at the theatre playing out in front of a sizeable portion of the world’s population last week, I thought to myself that there is no other country I would prefer to have nurtured, educated and immersed me in its culture.

And wherever in the world I happen to be, when I visit Britain, I am coming home.

From → History, Social, UK

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