Singing along

On Classic FM, the Queen v Blair and what flags mean.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Radio ga-ga

More than a quarter of a million Classic FM listeners have voted The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams the best British classical composition of all time. Others that featured in the Top 10 include Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis, and Holst’s The Planets Suite.

Classic FM is famed for these kind of meaningless surveys, which are little more than exercises in market research: ‘You vote for Vaughan Williams, we’ll play him more.’ At the same time, the results reflect Classic FM’s repetitious playlisting which informs the listeners’ tastes in the first place. ‘Because we keep playing The Lark Ascending, it becomes your favourite tune.’ Classic FM’s entire strategy is caught in a tedious loop.

Although it plays the finest high European classics, Classic FM plays them to death. There’s only so many times I can sit through Barber’s Adagio for Strings, The Radetsky March, or the cancan. Also quite bizarre are Classic FM’s attempts to show that classical music is very everyone, by playing telephone requests from truckers and the like. ‘This is Dave from Basildon and I’d like to hear Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. No, not the pony third one or his fourth, which is well-rubbish.’

My patience really wears thin when I’m constantly told to ‘relax’ to Classic FM’s ‘smooth classics’. This suggests that classical music is not to be admired for its excellence or for getting the blood rushing, but to function as therapeutic muzak that you listen to after ‘a hard day at the office’. Being ordered to ‘chill out’ all the time really makes you want to strangle Henry Kelly.

But what is the alternative? If you’re not a complete connoisseur of classical music, there’s simply no point bothering with Radio 3’s diet of Finnish anti-compositions, futuristic minimalism and Aztec tribal chanting. Imagine the musical equivalent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and you’ll get some idea how unlistenable and confused ‘progressive’ classical music is.

Caught between esoteric didacticism and monotonous populism, classical music fans are not a happy bunch.

  • Enlightened despot

Speaking as spiked‘s token monarchist, I am slightly smug at the rapturous reception given to the Queen on Monday. It should antagonise all the republicans no end. Not that there is anything intrinsically flawed about republicanism. Other countries seem to do it well. It’s just that rarely has there been a worse time to abolish the monarchy.

At no other period in the history of Western democracy have politicians been despised the way they are today. Do we really want more of them? No politician today – except perhaps one who has led a country to victory in war – could get a million people turning out to celebrate his or her life.

In recent times, the nearest any politician came to matching the size of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations was Tony Blair’s reception at Downing Street after Labour won the general election in 1997. That, however, was not a spontaneous celebration, but a characteristically choreographed piece of spin. No – politicians are there to be heckled and jeered, to have eggs and flour thrown at them, to be punched in the face. Think Margaret Thatcher at Hampden Park, or John Prescott in Rhyl.

More than anything else, it is the spectre of Blair that is the biggest argument against a presidency. He barely consults his cabinet, let alone parliament (does he actually know where it is?), and his only big constitutional breakthrough remains transforming the old, dusty undemocratic House of Lords into a shiny, new, modern undemocratic House of Lords.

Blair is not an evil man. He’s just a dim-witted Christian who thinks that we should all agree on matters and that argument (ie, democracy) is counterproductive. This anti-democrat is not someone we should entrust with changing our constitution.

Surrounded by unelected sycophants and henchmen, ennobling subjects as a way of returning favours, while at the same time protesting his modern approach to the world, Blair resembles an eighteenth-century enlightened despot, fit to be king only of the Habsburg empire.

  • Flying the flag

It is rare indeed to see the Union Jack flying in the streets as much as it did over the Jubilee weekend. (There were also a large number of St George’s Cross flags, no doubt being waved by football fans.) For me, the whole thing stirred up memories of the loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast.

I first went to Northern Ireland when I was 11, and like most English people I found Ulster loyalism way over the top. Union Jacks mean something different over there. If you take the train from Dublin to Belfast you’ll know what I mean. When you approach North Armagh, those Irish tricolours you had become familiar with suddenly disappear, and you are confronted with hundreds of Union Jacks. These act as territorial declarations that read ‘no Fenians’ and this ‘this is UFF country’.

It wasn’t as scary as it should have been, because in Dundalk and Crossmaglen, the Irish flag goes through a kind of semiotic metamorphosis too. While the tricolour in most parts of the Irish Republic will have you thinking of Ireland’s rambunctious football fans, Father Ted, and pints of Guinness, in Northern Ireland they act as threatening tribal markers conjuring up images of men in masks with armalites.

There is a morphological difference in Northern Ireland too, in that the orange on the flag – not surprisingly – tends to be rendered a kind of urine yellow. The Union Jack will also mean different things if you fly it in Burnley (anti-immigrant), Glasgow (anti-Celtic), Kent (anti-EU), or as a kind of motif on your leather jacket (pro-twat). It is not ‘a racist symbol’ as some will insist. Flags are contextual – and their meanings unstable.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Royal revisionism, by Jennie Bristow

One world, one tongue, by Patrick West

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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