The other evening I was watching on the computer, a symphony concert, live from the Royal Albert Hall, one in the current series of BBC Promenade Concerts. As the cameras roved in close up and mid-shot around the players in the orchestra – and there must have been sixty, seventy or even more of them – I was struck, and sometimes quite moved by the intensity and the dedication on all their faces. And the conductor, the spell-binding Vladimir Jurowski, was utterly within and part of the music he was interpreting and leading. All those individuals, each one doing their very best with no agenda other than to do as well as they were able – the result was beautiful, often magnificent. We are capable of such extraordinary things if we work together to one end.
The other thing which struck me that evening was the range of ages playing the instruments – men and women in their twenties and thirties blew and bowed alongside men and women in their sixties and every age in between. That mix is so healthy. We’re so used to talking of and reading about ‘the young’, ‘the middle-aged’, ‘the elderly’, ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘middle-class’, ‘working class’ that I think we’re often in danger of forgetting that we’re all human beings before we’re any of those other things and that as such, far more unites us than divides us. ‘Prick me, do I not bleed?’ said Othello. All over the world, in crowded cities, in the countryside, in deserts, in the rain forest, in polar regions and in the dustbowls of the prairies there is one fundamental and common language – that of laughing, crying, loving, hurting. That is how we all live. Those things we all know and understand.
Back in the nineteen eighties I was commissioned to make a film promoting the Metropolitan County Councils of the UK. In one sense, it was made in vain. Mrs Thatcher, who I think had more to do with the general degeneration of ethical standards in the UK than any other single person, had her way and those councils were disbanded. I spent a day with a project in Liverpool which was set up in order to provide free technical training in various disciplines for anyone of any age. And I remember particularly a bench in the electronics workshop where a man in his sixties was working away next to a young lad in his teens. “How,” I asked the man running that workshop, “do you cope with such a wide difference in ages? Is there not a sort of permanent conflict going on between them?” His answer was that the opposite was the case. The very presence of the older pupils – often in their fifties and sixties – tended to keep the younger ones in order; and the presence of those younger ones with their generally sharper minds, their wit and greater readiness to accept the new, kept the older ones on their toes and motivated. The man running it was utterly committed to what he was doing; he had a profound belief in the principle and he’d seen its results. He was also devastated that the Merseyside Metropolitan County Council, along with all the others, was – if Madame Thatcher got her way – going to be wound up. And she did and it was. But as such aspects of it as this free workshop were funded by the European Union – a unique union of nation states committed to ending war between each other – it was no surprise. And her infamous line about, ‘There is no such thing as society, only individuals’, summed up a philosophy which has at its heart, such a profound misunderstanding of life and people that, followed to its logical conclusion, would have the nations of Europe back in the trenches again, tearing out each other’s heart, as we had done for hundreds of years before.
We cannot successfully survive as a disparate bunch of individuals, forever following our own goals, in competition with and trying to be better than, bigger than, more important than the next man or woman. That way there can never be peace for either ourselves or our children. We must become closer, not grow further apart. And that, I believe is – with many a-hiccup along the way – the way we are going and have been going since mankind came down out of the trees. Nor will we stop it. People such as Nick Griffin of the BNP in the UK and the far right Geert Wilders in Holland are as fireflies – here today and gone tomorrow. They have misread history and they misread the deeper currents of today. Faithless and fearful themselves, they nurture and prey on the fearful and those without a voice. They are present day Canutes, standing ranting on the shore. But the tide of history, which has been flowing since the dawn of time is inexorable and will not be put off by them.