Friday 16 September 2011

Pink Night of the Proms

Last weekend was the Last Night of the Proms. I have always enjoyed watching it, ever since my childhood, and the thing I remember most vividly from those days are the flags. That may be the reason I became a vexillologist (that’s a studier of flags, by the way). In the past few years I’ve noticed a distinctive flag being waved in the audience. There were 3 large ones being waved enthusiastically just in front of the conductor this year. It’s this one
This is called the Pink Jack. It is becoming very visible at lgbt events worldwide. It was first used by London artist David Gwinnutt in 2005 for an exhibition he put together on what it meant to him to be British and gay. He felt he didn’t identify himself too well with the rainbow flag. Not long afterwards David began a company called Pink Jack which produced all sorts of merchandise with the flag on it – badges, t-shirts, mugs, and of course the flags themselves. The Pink Jack became very popular quite quickly. Probably the first time it was used to symbolise the lgbt community in an international setting was at the opening ceremony of the first World Outgames in Canada in July 2006 by the British team.

But back to the Proms. There are several rousing moments in the concert when the whole audience joins as one in singing a patriotic song. The one which has been used by an unofficial national anthem is “Land of Hope and Glory”. Everyone talks about Elgar writing the music, but few can remember who wrote the words. They were written by Arthur Benson (1862-1925), a member of a family that included 3 gay sons (including Arthur) and a bisexual mother (wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less).

Arthur Benson was first and foremost a teacher. He was a schoolmaster at Eton and Fellow and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. But he loved writing essays and poetry, becoming an unofficial poet laureate to Queen Victoria. It was this connection that led to an invitation to write words to Elgar’s music for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

Benson’s sexuality was influenced by his moral Christian upbringing. He undoubtedly had romantic feelings towards men which, as if often the case with people form a background similar to his, began with a crush on a fellow pupil at public school. But Benson always advocated a celibate platonic relationship, which was perhaps very wise considering in later life he was surrounded by schoolboys and young men. Twice he suffered from serious bouts of depression, the first brought on while he was an undergraduate after his boyfriend left him to have a physical relationship with another undergraduate.

A new name I came across this week in connection with the Proms is Mrs. Rosa Newmarch (1857-1940). She was a musicologist, specialising in the classical music of Russia. Between 1908 and 1927 Rose wrote programme notes for the Prom concerts. But what caught my attention this week was a reference to Rosa Newmarch as “the first truly queer poet in English literature”. At a time when human sexuality was beginning to be separated, named and defined, Rosa’s poetry showed a pioneering attitude to the new views of sexuality and same-sex desire in literature. I must confess I haven’t read any of her work, but I’m going to read her biography to find out more.

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