Essay: The horses and the music are terrific. But what's it all for?

June is military-band season in the Royal Parks; but only tourists turn up these days. By Richard Gott
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The Independent Culture
'We did Diana's funeral," says the officer from the Royal Horse Artillery with some pride, as he helps the women soldiers move the stackable plastic chairs on to the Army lorry. The musicians take off their exotic military tunics, strip down to their pop-culture T-shirts, and clamber back into their bus, hired from Brentons of Blackheath, "UK and Continental Tours". Since they are trained as paramedics, next week's tour could be to the Balkans.

The time is midday last Wednesday, and the scene is the great grass parade ground in Hyde Park, London. The occasion, according to a noticeboard propped up near a tree, is a "Royal Salute, fired by the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, on the occasion of ... ". The Artillery do this sort of thing quite often, and the space has been left blank. Eventually someone brings the appropriate painted board and slots it in: "Anniversary of HM the Queen's Coronation."

June 1952, June 1999: 47 years, nearly half a century under the rule of a single sovereign, a woman who, in the words of the Army's publicity leaflet, personifies the nation state. Yet most of the time we barely notice the small rituals of the nation state that regularly surround us: the "picture opportunity" provided by the state opening of Parliament; the "Changing of the Guard" at Buckingham Palace; the "Royal Tournament"; the ceremony of "Trooping the Colour" in Horse Guards Parade. This June and every June, these events fall like autumn leaves, with the Princess Royal on the saluting base last Wednesday, the Prince of Wales on Thursday, the Queen next week. Just how much do we care?

Our vaunted "civil society" knows little about the military. How ignorant we are of their rituals; how rare it is for our paths to cross. Soldiers flit through the pages of fiction in wartime, when universal conscription enforces a mutual understanding, but our culture takes little account of army matters in times of peace. There are surprisingly few locker-room novels about National Service, few plays about the dismantling of empire after 1945, no social realist fiction about Army housing estates in West Germany, or barrack life in Belfast, not even an airport novel about sex and violence at Nato headquarters in Brussels. We learn more about our Army's rough trade from court reports than from novelists.

In Hyde Park the band strikes up, and a troop of uniformed horsemen emerges from the mist, dragging wheeled cannon. The horses canter across the grass, and the park echoes to the sound of gunfire. Smoke-clouds billow round the soldiers in their ancient and expensive battledress. The spectacle is quaintly charming, but to the cynical eye it looks more like a rehearsal for a television costume drama than a re-enactment of some significant moment of imperial history. Military salutes were once commonplace, and in India the British used to shoot mutinous soldiers from the mouth of the cannon. The prisoner would be tied to the gun, with his neck and shoulders blocking the barrel. When the gun was fired, his arms would drop off and fall to the ground, while his head would bowl away. We often forget why mutinies were uncommon.

Although it is half-term, and small children might once have quite relished this free display of military expertise, times are different now. Barely 50 people are present: just a handful of perplexed foreign visitors, and a few men in black bowlers and brown trilbys who might have escaped from a racecourse. Some of them are accompanied by women in sub-Ascot kit.

When visiting other countries as tourists, we notice and are amused by their quaint pageantries, the flaunting of the tricolour or the Stars and Stripes. Last month I witnessed the nightly re-enactment of the colonial curfew on the walls of the Cabana fortress in Havana, as an ancient cannon fires a shot to warn cavorting sailors to return to their ships. Yet at home this flummery passes us by. It exists for the tourist industry or as an occasional colourful footnote to the television news. It is no longer part of our seasonal life.

We tend to forget that our state is putting on these performances, apparently for our edification and possibly for our enjoyment, and certainly at our expense. Economists point out that the Ministry of Defence spends as much on military bands as the Department of Culture spends on symphony orchestras; and there is nothing wrong with that, you might think. The armed forces provide working-class boys (and girls, nowadays) with a musical education, and some of them move on to work in civilian orchestras. Yet this often sounds like special pleading. Would a rational allocation of the resources available for culture put so much money into martial music?

On Wednesday evening, under a lowering sky, I paid pounds 10 to sit in the stands erected in the Horse Guards Parade for an hour's performance by some of Britain's most famous military bands. It is an agreeable if mindless spectacle: black horses ridden by gold-uniformed soldiers playing the trombone and the tuba; immense white shire horses with shaggy socks bearing silver kettledrums; grown men shouting and saluting; the Princess Royal sitting respectfully on an isolated and covered dais in front of the statues of imperial generals of a hundred years ago.

Yet is this a state occasion or a musical evening for the tourists? Ostensibly the event, entitled "Beating Retreat", is similar to the one I observed in Communist Cuba: a recently re-invented tradition celebrating the curfew at the end of the day, designed to be popular with tourists. Yet clearly this is also a rehearsal for the coming week's state occasion when the Queen will be present. It is a genuinely musical performance as well. The man sitting beside me, a visitor from Canada, is here to listen to the music rather than to admire the military quadrille on the parade ground.

Much of Britain's military music is German, partly because the tradition started with our German monarchs, and partly perhaps because the bands have spent so much of the past 50 years playing in Germany. We occasionally get a "British folk medley" or an "Irish jig" but these are outnumbered by Der Hohenfriedberger Marsch, the Fehrebelliner Reitermarsch, and the Radetsky march.

It you like this kind of thing, the armed forces are happy to provide it for you. It revives memories of that great chunk of British culture whose adherents were once catered for by the BBC Light Programme. Colliery bands used to mine the same seam. Yet what remains today except an overwhelming sense of nostalgia? The coal-mines have gone, and their surviving brass bands have to secure funding where they can. The Army too has dwindled, and the military bands as well, and, to judge by the Horse Guards' performance, the audience is fading too. Several large blocks of seats stand empty. Native Londoners are largely absent, hardly a black face in sight. The foreign visitors who make up most of the crowd, once the "English-speaking peoples" of empire, seem attracted more by ancient loyalty than by hopes of genuine enjoyment.

For the moment, the armed forces go their own sweet way, untouched by the modern skills of marketing and audience research. Yet the annual pageant of the Royal Tournament is to be abandoned for lack of interest, and some of these other shows will surely go the same way. Our modernising Government may well be quietly delighted, for these parades are a relic of the days before "Cool Britannia". The windows of Downing Street overlooking the parade ground remain firmly shut.