Virginia Barton

28 April 2017: Baa baa black sheep


28 April 2017


Did your parents embarrass you? I’m ashamed to admit that my children were often embarrassed by me. Having sung to them from babyhood as we all do, Mum carried the habit further and sang in the queue at the supermarket, the bank, or on the school bus. I still do it but nowadays the mezzo has morphed into a gravelly baritone.

I can’t remember not singing. As a family we all sang, even those that couldn’t; my dad groaning like a grampus. But in appropriate places, like church. Never in a bank, perish the thought.

It cheers people up, singing, and it’s good for the lungs. A singing group has started where BH and I live and it’s immensely popular. Cleverly, the music chosen is familiar; tunes remembered from long ago in the school choir, or at Guides round the campfire.


All of which puts a person in mind of the Proms. The season begins again on Bastille Day, but the schedule is out already. These concerts are held at the Albert Hall in London, a majestic building with questionable acoustics. There are concerts every evening until the first week of September, and BH always gives me the programme which makes glorious bedtime reading – rivalling the Lakeland catalogue.

(For those of you sad people who don’t know about it, Lakeland started as a mail order company in the mid-Sixties about 25 miles from My Dream Pad in the North, selling plastic kitchenware. It’s huge now, with many outlets and a wide variety of stock. Don’t you find Retail fascinating?)

But back to the Proms. These were intended to bring first-rate music played by top class orchestras and soloists to a wider audience; hence the involvement of the BBC. That august body broadcasts every single concert every evening, and often in the mornings, afternoons and late into the night. An absolute feast of listening. Nowadays the programme is varied: open it at random and there’s the Latvian Radio Choir performing Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil -Vespers, The John Wilson Orchestra, and Oklahoma! And lots of John Adams to mark his 70th birthday.


The “Last Night” is rife with tradition. The Prommers, stalwarts who stand, night after night, in a sort of corral close to the stage, crown the bust of Henry Wood, the Founder, with a laurel wreath. They give white buttonholes to the Conductor and every member of the orchestra and catapult streamers, balloons and flowers towards the platform.

It was Sir Malcolm Sargent, pin-up conductor for twenty years, who popularised the Proms and particularly the “Last Night”. This concert has to include a post-Interval selection of traditional music: British Sea Shanties, Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem. (Mercifully leavened this year with Adams, Kodaly, and a composition by Sargent himself called An Impression on a Windy Day.) Complaints of jingoism are brushed aside and woe betides any new Director of the festival who attempts to change this hallowed tradition.

It’s rather endearing and very British.





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