Back in the 1960s, the producers of the Tonight programme had a running joke for linking the show’s segments. They would use lines like: ‘And that item commemorated the 23rd anniversary of….’ Or: ‘On Tuesday Mr Jones would have been 73.’ There is something about anniversaries, however audaciously crowbarred in, that always gives the illusion of order amid the chaos and relevance among the accidental.
But today anniversary-itis has not only stopped being a gag. It has become a bore. What are, after all, merely accidents of the calendar have in some places become the dominant factors in our national life.
Sometimes it is anniversaries of major world events, at others a coincidence of an individual birth, marriage or death. What may be significant for a living monarch does not automatically matter for a dead artist.
For some years the BBC Proms have led this trend. Still the world’s best festival of classical music, they are nevertheless increasingly clogged by this laziness of programming.
For instance, apart from the 50th anniversary Prom for Doctor Who, the current season’s programme has paid special tribute to Richard Wagner. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, this year’s Proms programmed a whole Ring cycle as well as complete performances of Tristan, Tannhäuser and Parsifal.
Aside from the fact that none of these works are being heard and seen as their composer envisaged — as fully staged dramas — that is one-tenth of the Proms season taken up right there. Which is not to say that the performances have been bad — most have been excellent so far — but why the hook and why the glut? It is not as though Richard Wagner has been doing badly prior to his 200th birthday.
It is the same with Verdi, whose 200th also lands this year, and Benjamin Britten, who would have been 100 had he not — like Verdi, Wagner and everyone else — died. This means a similar glut on these artists at the Proms and for the rest of the year across the rest of the country. There is no especial harm — indeed there is some pleasure — in that, but it means that plenty of other works and composers simply won’t be heard this year. And concerts get lined up not by sympathy of programming but by accidents of birth. Again, Verdi and Britten, like Wagner and Doctor Who, have hardly been going through a reputational slump of late.
In publishing, centenaries and other anniversaries sometimes seem to be the only reason anyone still publishes books. Biographies and new editions come out in gluts around the anniversaries, whether they add anything or not. Having only ten years ago had the centenary of Evelyn Waugh’s birth, the industry is now heading seamlessly into commemorations of the half-centenary of his death in 2016. Again, Waugh’s reputation needs the assistance of neither.
But the hook that is omnipresent for individuals is naturally even greater for world-historical events. Publishing houses and broadcasters are not alone in currently gearing up for next year’s start of the centenary of the first world war. The government is sponsoring numerous special schemes and commemorations. Yet however bleak your view of history teaching in our schools — where the first world war should be taught in any case — it can hardly be said even now that the 1914–18 war is a forgotten conflict. Will any of the shelves of books due because of this accident of date much add to, let alone supersede, the masterpieces already in print? Is there anything that will add more widely to our store of knowledge because of the coincidence?
If the government-approved initiatives are anything to go by, it would seem not. The approved commemorations will reportedly aim to ensure that no blame of any variety surrounds the anniversary: particularly not anything suggesting the Germans started the whole thing. That is another thing with anniversaries. Someone, somewhere, always thinks that their way of celebrating is the correct one and appropriates the unspeaking dead for themselves.
Of course, there are occasions when a coincidence of the calendar can be employed for good reasons. Underrated composers, authors and artists sometimes need to be rediscovered, and any hook — even a date — can be forgiven for being used to reclaim them. It is the same with genuinely forgotten or under-remembered battles and wars. But otherwise these things have a natural cycle of their own — a rise and fall of their own that refuses to obey such straitjacketing.
Reputation and relevance have their own rhythm. For instance, the years immediately after any creative figure’s death — more so if they have been acclaimed in life — often see a slump in reputation. If the person is celebrated too fulsomely before the natural cycle has been gone through, then the whole thing can go awry.
Trying to force things into the straitjacket of centenaries is sometimes destructive. And it is almost always lazy. Our current obsession with anniversaries has become not a spur for reflection and thought, but a replacement for them.