If ever there were a place to truly appreciate the zoomorphic nature of people, it is among the human bats and pigeons drifting round the galleries of the Royal Albert Hall.
For anyone who doesn’t know (I am ever mindful of my foreign and colonial readership), the Proms are a series of concerts that run from July to September at the Albert Hall, where I have still never encountered Hitler’s other bollock. Pretty much every night during this period you can go and see world-class musicians perform to packed-out halls, yet for a classical music festival there is something gloriously proletarian about the Proms.
Tickets in the cheap seats are only a tenner or so, and if you turn up on the day there are hundreds of standing tickets for just a fiver each. Get there half an hour beforehand and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in, even for a sold-out concert, which is something few music events of any genre can boast.
Of course, with that many concerts, they can play new music and rarities, but they don’t shy away from the popular hits. This shows a refreshing lack of snobbery, but can occasionally be a double-edged sword. The other night, for example, was Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Lying stretched out on the floor up in the gods, you try desperately to appreciate its emotive mix of wholesome American frontearjerker poetry and the finer touch of corrupt, old-world Continental delicacy. You try to take it for the quite lovely piece of music that it is, but overshadowing all its merits, dancing in the foreground of your mind like the cavorting spectre of James Brown, is a Northern pensioner banging on about how he had to cycle to the top of the hill on his bread round, but it were alreet on’t way down. Damn you, Hovis.
Sidetracked, as ever. If you turn up as a ‘prommer’ (that is, on the day, for a five-pound ticket), you have two options:
You can stand down in the arena, which despite its intimidating name is substantially less crowded than your wretched journey to South Kensington will have been. The sound is good, and there is a faintly festive feeling to things. It has a peculiarly English aura of standoffish camaraderie, and there is a notion that you are among people who will happily stand for the better part of two hours for the love of the music. You are definitely at the heart of things.
Then there is the gallery. Right up at the top of the building, on a wide, circular balcony with doors that open in the intervals to let in a little polluted breeze and the soft evening light, you find the lotus-eaters. They lean against the railings, sit with their backs propped against the walls, or lie on their backs on rugs on the floor. Some of them make a nest by a pillar and settle down to read their books with apparent disinterest through the entire performance.
On one side of me last night was a Spanish-looking lady who spent most of her time writing very slowly in a notebook, while on the other side a youngish, bespectacled fellow who wore his hair and shabby suit with the air of a man unafflicted by vanity, lay on a thin wool blanket with his eyes closed. At one point he started quietly to snore, then to my alarm began unconsciously to pluck at his own crotch, but fortunately a surprise chord in the Beethoven piano concerto that was playing jerked him drowsily awake.
On a few specially-placed chairs a short distance away sat a row of watery-eyed old-timers eking out their pensions. Just in front of them the slim, recumbent figure of a girl in her twenties lay in the attitude of an artist’s model, that tightrope between languor and innocence, while her friend, in hippy uniform of linen trousers and a baggy woollen thing off one shoulder, sat cross-legged, hands resting on knees and palms skyward in studied meditation. A man in a rugby shirt and tight jeans jerked his head in a cockeyed way to the more vigorous movements like he might have been a baby bird wanting its supper or a psychopath listening to David Bowie in a petrol station he was about to rob. A bearded young man in a slouch hat padded past him barefoot.
It’s almost like a quiet patch of grass in a sleepy park on a summer afternoon, punctuated by the rise and fall of the music: the increase of activity brought on by a fast movement and the rough slicing of massed strings, or the moment a pianist can freeze an audience of a thousand mid-breath by holding back a note a fraction of a heartbeat.
Some day I will tire of London. But not just yet.