Proms queue diversity

Last week when I was taking a look at what people were saying on Twitter about the first night of the BBC Proms, I came across a tweet by someone called Gavin Dixon:

Time, once again, to lament the lack of social diversity in the #BBCProms arena queue. Quite literally #middleclassproblems

As he refers specifically to social diversity, and given the hashtag, the implication is that he feels those queueing for the Proms are overwhelmingly middle class.

Royal Albert HallI should start by saying that in general I feel the Proms have quite a diverse audience, more so than many people realise, and certainly when compared to many other events. When it comes to social class, however, I have to wonder how Dr Dixon determined the class of the people in the queue. Unless he handed out questionnaires, I would guess that it is based on appearance, so for a start that shows some prejudice against people of certain social classes, with the assumption that they dress or behave in a particular way. I would have thought anyone attending an event, from whatever background, would turn out in attire appropriate for the occasion.

Perhaps Dr Dixon’s definition of middle class includes enjoyment of classical music. In that case, it is hardly surprising that the people queueing for a classical concert are “middle class”. The Proms has attempted to introduce some slightly different styles of music in recent years: a Comedy Prom, a Gospel Prom, music from the musicals, “World Routes” artists, and this week even a work by the Pet Shop Boys. Even so, these are still relevant to the Proms and its broadly classical music ethos, featuring orchestras or traditional music of other countries. Changing the programme much further to include an even wider variety of concerts, especially if it meant reducing the number of traditional orchestral concerts, would mean the festival was no longer the Proms but was something else. Ultimately, the Proms is going to attract mainly people who enjoy classical music. Personally, I do not think there is anything wrong if someone does not like classical music. Everyone has different tastes, and one preference is not superior to another: they are simply different, and are catered for by different events. Why try to persuade someone to like something they are not interested in; or why change something many people like just to attract others whose interests lie elsewhere?

Of course, there is always the argument that the Proms are subsidised by TV licence fee payers to the tune of £5-6 million per year, so it has to be more inclusive. This takes us into the realms of arts funding in general, where I do feel public subsidy should be for art forms that would not be financially viable otherwise. Given the sheer numbers of performers on stage, an orchestral concert will always struggle to make money, even a sold-out performance in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall. Besides, many of the people at the Proms have TV licences (although not the diverse overseas visitors!) and the Proms does provide Radio 3′s evening output for couple of months, plus many hours’ television. The money involved is a drop in the ocean for the BBC – in the bad old days, it was equal to Jonathan Ross’s annual salary! While there are often heated discussions about the BBC licence fee in various forums, spending on the Proms never comes up as it is not something most people are concerned about in the grand scheme of things.

Gavin Dixon is a classical music journalist who writes for publications such as Gramophone. I wonder if he ever worries about the social diversity of writers in such magazines? I see plenty of people hanging around in the town centre each day who are looking for jobs, if he would like to step aside. Alternatively, perhaps his column inches in Gramophone could be given over to a rap DJ or some former X Factor contestants.

One group of people I do find over represented in the Proms queue, who tend to be fairly cliquey, are people involved in music, be they critics, students or teachers. Perhaps the real problem with the Proms audience is the people with PhDs on symphonies of fairly obscure 20th century composers. It would be much better to stop over-analysing the music, stop over-analysing the make-up of the queues, and simply enjoy sharing the concerts with all the other promenaders from a wide range of backgrounds, who may have just one thing in common: a love of classical music.

Didcot Power Station gallery

[Didcot Power Station photo gallery thumbnails]

Didcot Power Station was completed in 1968. In 2013, it was closed down. At the end of July 2014, the first three of the cooling towers are due to be demolished. As a tribute to this fixture of the south Oxfordshire skyline that has become synonymous with the town, I have chosen 28 of the best photographs from my collection, taken over the last eight years. As with all my photo galleries, the images are accompanied by a few facts and some trivia about this monument to 20th century industry.

Springfield, Oxfordshire

Opening frame of "Come home to the Simpsons" showing Didcot Power Station

A few years ago, Sky Television ran a viral advertising campaign that featured a live action version of the famous opening sequence from The Simpsons, filmed at various locations in the UK, promoting Sky One as the home of The Simpsons on British television. The animated version begins with the camera swooping over the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. In the live edition, the opening frames actually show not a nuclear power station, but the coal-fired Didcot Power Station. The power station is seen briefly again half way through the clip, as “Homer” swerves across the road in his car.

In just under four weeks’ time, the three cooling towers shown at the start of the film are to be demolished in a controlled explosion. They haven’t produced steam, as seen in the video, since March last year. The remaining three cooling towers, to the north-west of the site, will be taken down at a later date, probably by mechanical means, for unspecified reasons, which may be that they are too close for comfort to the still-operating Didcot B gas fired power station.

Mill House, Sutton Courtenay

Mill House, Sutton Courtenay

But is there actually any link between The Simpsons and Didcot? Perhaps there is one rather tenuous connection. The music that accompanies the title sequence was written by Hollywood composer Danny Elfman. He is best known for his collaborations with director Tim Burton. What is probably less well known is that Tim Burton’s country residence lies in the shadow of Didcot Power Station. The house once belonged to his partner Helena Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather, prime minister H. H. Asquith. Perhaps that’s not much of a link to The Simpsons, but then the house is called Mill House

The uncertainties of independence

The Union Flag and Scottish Saltire flying in front of the Scottish Parliament building, EdinburghYesterday, all three of the main UK political parties came together in a rare show of consensus to indicate that Scotland would not be able to enter a formal currency union with the rest of the UK in the event of Scottish voters choosing independence in September’s referendum. That means if Scotland continued to use the pound, it would have no say in decisions affecting the currency such as interest rates.

Unsurprisingly, Alex Salmond has hit back and said that the UK government would soon change their tune once a “yes” vote had actually been achieved. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.

The main point here isn’t so much that of the currency – important though that is – but rather the huge uncertainty that surrounds many of the SNP’s policies following a hypothetical referendum win. They present everything as a done deal: vote for independence, and this is how things will be in Scotland. Yet they are actually merely the SNP’s aspirations of how they would like things to be. In fact, nothing is certain other than that the UK government would respect the referendum result and Scotland would become an independent country.

The SNP have already decided to fix the date on which Scotland would become independent in March 2016, barely a year and a half after the vote. In that time they would have to successfully conclude negotiations not only with the UK, but with organisations such as the EU (and all the other EU countries) and NATO. Surely the knowledge that the deadline is fixed gives those other parties the upper hand? Salmond wants Scotland to enter a Eurozone-style currency union with the rest of the UK; to join the EU on the same terms as now; to join NATO but be resolutely opposed to nuclear weapons. There is a good chance some or all of those won’t be achievable. The chances would be improved if the date for independence was left open. They could take their time to find the best settlement for all parties. What’s the hurry? Scotland has been part of the UK for over 300 years. What’s wrong with waiting a few extra years, safe in a knowledge that independence is secured, if it means a better deal for the people of Scotland?

Perhaps the answer is that elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2015. I don’t know if these would still take place following a “yes” vote, but maybe Salmond is afraid that if he left it too long, he might no longer be the First Minister, and it would be someone else’s name that would go down in history as the one leading the country to independence.

It’s clear that a vote for independence would mean a huge amount of uncertainty for the people of Scotland. No-one knows what the result of complex negotiations and legal arguments would be, and trying to finalise everything in 18 months makes it highly unlikely everything the SNP’s blueprint contains would come to fruition. It’s difficult to see why anyone apart from those with a strong ideological view of Scottish independence would vote “yes”.

No reason not to ban smoking in cars with children

Baby on board sticker in a car window - Photo by Steve and Sara Emry on Flickr, used under terms of a Creative Commons LicenceOver 700 health experts have urged MPs to vote in favour of a ban on smoking in cars where children are present. The debate is notable for the fact that everyone agrees that smoking in a car when accompanied by a child is wrong, and shouldn’t be done under any circumstances. Yet some people still argue that it shouldn’t be made illegal. One of the most prominent is Nick Clegg, a smoker, who takes exactly this line.

If something really is such a terrible thing to do, and people shouldn’t be thinking about doing it under any circumstances, why would they not want it banned by law? If decent, civil, law-abiding person would never carry out a particular activity, what’s wrong with making it illegal? The only people who would be disadvantaged by the new law are people who are irresponsible, reckless and intent on damaging a child’s health. The only reason I can see for opposing a ban is because the opponent – Nick Clegg, for example – would actually put the so-called “rights” of an adult smoker ahead of the health of a defenceless child. The argument that a ban is illiberal doesn’t hold water. If it’s something that no decent-minded person would do anyway, what rights or freedoms it is taking away? Otherwise, one may as well propose abolishing laws against murder on the grounds that murder is wrong and no-one should do it anyway.

The other argument is that the law shouldn’t be introduced because it can’t be enforced, and that education alone will suffice. It’s interesting to compare this proposed law to the law on wearing seatbelts, where enforcement has much the same challenges. It’s rare now for people in the UK to fail to wear a seatbelt, but that’s due both to public education campaigns and to laws mandating the wearing of seatbelts. No one with a driving licence should be in any doubt that they are responsible for ensuring any children in their car wear seatbelts as it’s clearly spelt out in the Highway Code. A reminder that they should prevent adults from smoking in their car would be useful too. Opponents of the law on banning smoking in cars should logically oppose the law on seatbelts too, but how many of them would actually do so? In the future, we’ll look back and wonder why smoking was ever allowed if a child was present in a vehicle, just as we would find it hard today to imagine the wearing of seatbelts not being compulsory.