Our host, the partner of ein Autobahnkind, throws the Mercedes people-carrier into bends that lead us to Highgate. Looking out the windows, I want to tweet to every Scot who ever said, “I can’t be doing with London,” and fill 140 characters with wide arboretums and bilingual Eurostar stations and urban parklands and Japanese supermarkets and treetop walks.
[Sign up for apoplectic.me alerts and extra personal reflections here.]
Later that day, we’re rolling along the North Circular, and the sky is beginning to pinken. Twenty years after the UK government passed the Criminal Justice Act that gave police officers the power to remove people from events at which music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” is being played, I feel like I’m finally on my way to my first proper open air rave, off of the orbital M25. There are 8,000 of us in this field, waiting for some choons, and the Brie is banging.
Presumably a “Battle Prom” involves couple of small orchestras approaching each other across the covered outdoor stage, clicking their fingers like Sharks and Jets, ready to serve each other with jaunty movements and sassy opuses. But really, I don’t know what to expect. Elgar, apparently. But our hosts are a German and an American, so I’m hoping for more of Elgar the Modernist technician, and less of the “vulgar Edwardian”.
As the English Concert Orchestra lead us through the crowd-pleasers of the first act, the instinctual component of my mostly intellectual Yes-ness is shaken for the first time since the referendum campaign began. I’m singing along to a selection of songs my late mother, a proud Paisley Buddy born in 1939, used to sing to me as a child. Underneath The Arches, We’ll Meet Again and the like.
As the sun drops below the trees, and we move into the classical half of the programme, things take a turn for the deeply weird. Each piece is given a brief introduction by our emcee, a cut-glass blonde whose sequinned Union Flag blouse sparkles under the lights. The 1812 Overture is placed in its historical context of the Napoleonic Wars. The French are lustily booed in the face of the (in this case, Austrian, Prussian and Russian) Allies. I wonder if the two Frenchmen from the park this morning are in the crowd. Not being familiar with the anthem of the Russian Empire, it’s hard to tell from the music how the battle is progressing. So I have to assume either the French or the All You Need Is Love-period Beatles are kicking some serious arse.
Then we’re introduced to Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and the story of how, like a less severe Roger Waters, he scored the piece for 193 live cannons. At the Battle Prom, we get the full complement, using electronic firing devices. The glorious marriage of modern technology and Georgian killing machines.
The ersatzly bloodthirsty crowd roar for the bombardment, and are not disappointed as the night sky is filled by the red, white and blue smoke of the firework attack. A facsimile of industrialised slaughter that the whole family can enjoy.
Beethoven is followed by The Pomp And Circumstance Marches, of course, then Blake’s Jerusalem, as set to music by Sir Huber Perry (not the Billy Bragg version, natch). This is not preceded by an educational capsule regarding dark satanic mills. Danny Boyle hasn’t choreographed the birth of industrial capitalism for us. We’re merely exhorted to sing along to the words of Billy’s visionary antecedent with as little reflection as possible. The woman in front of me, a Britannia gone to seed, waves her flag and tries to jig along, filling time and waiting for the big finish.
The crowd dissolves into waves of Union Jack-coloured sea power as they lustily launch into Rule Britannia and God Save The Queen, and for the first time in the weekend, I feel like I’m in a foreign country. Looking across the crowd, the diversity of North London is a long way away. For all its homogeneity and tendency to Orange Walks along the High Street, the plumes of Scottish Enlightenment rationality that hang in the sky over Edinburgh are every one of 333 miles away.
In the end, it’s a relief to leave Hatfield House gardens. And I can’t help but feel that it might be better for England if my country-folk and I opt out of the United Kingdom. The English men and women we meet at the Commonwealth Games rugby sevens the following weekend are a great bunch, and I’m pleased to note that I’ll now think of Ibrox Stadium as a joyful place, and not its usual bastion of aggressive Unionism. A period of reflection in which our neighbour can reinvent their iconography to reflect the vivacity of modern-day London, design an rUK flag with the graphic impact of its predecessor (but without the baggage), and discover what it means to be English and British feels like the best parting gift we could give them.