Here, fair reader, is a tale of woe, in which I must confess I did wrong. I also turned out to be allergic to culture, which came as more of a shock. So this episode is a cautionary tale of what not to do if you go to a classical concert – specifically the Proms (which run until 10 September 2011).
OK, so the gig is as follows. If you are willing to queue up for a long time, you can go to any Proms concert for a fiver. Every concert has 1400 £5 standing tickets which are not sold until the day of the concert. Indeed, the Proms are named after this phenomenon: one promenades in, you see. As the spouse was off to an allotment committee meeting, I thought I would try to get a standing ticket. Wearing some very stout and comfortable shoes, I went to what sounded like a very boring concert, to maximise my chances of getting in.
Now, the Royal Albert Hall doesn’t make life easy for the standing prommer. I found the box office alright (eventually) and was told I had to find either door 10 or 11 (depending on whether I wanted to find a standing seat in the main auditorium, or in the gallery). I’ll draw a veil over what happened next, but suffice to say I was offered a half price seated ticket for £6, which was still well under a tenner, so I bought it.
I climbed lots of steps and found said seat, next to three posh people in their mid-twenties chatting merrily. They reflected at length about how pleased they were to have bought seated tickets, as while the tickets are cheap by the time you actually get one and the concert is halfway through, you are so tired you no longer care about the music. As they chatted on about the Atkins diet and how to get to Cornwall on a sleeper train, I concluded that the Proms are a cheery, informal affair where everyone gets to enjoy the music at bargain prices, and I took some photos of the glorious surroundings. I hadn’t been to the Albert Hall since Norwegian rock gods A-ha last played there, which had been a similarly jovial affair. Back then, I met and became Facebook friends with a fabulous chap called Nigel. The elderly couple on my right played with their opera glasses and patted their packed refreshments ready for the interval, and I concluded all was well with the world. I hardly noticed a glorious blonde lady sitting down beside me, even though she’d made the whole row stand up to let her through.
Anyhow, the concert began, the world premiere of some modern piece with gusto and a tune. It has been some time since I did nothing but listen to a classical piece, and I wasn’t that keen on this one. I began to wonder how I would manage to keep myself occupied until it finished. Five minutes later, my body had an answer. About a week before the concert, I had had a mild cold from which I had completely recovered. It was at this point it decided to reassert itself. My throat began to hurt. I could deal with hurt, but hurting swiftly turned to determined agony, which demanded to be treated with a firm, decisive cough. Now even I know you aren’t supposed to cough in a classical concert, but the body had different views. I looked left and right. I couldn’t get out without disrupting a lot of people. I was going to cough whether I liked it or not. I rallied, and decided to cough as quietly as possible into the crook of my elbow, which I calculated would most effectively deaden sound. This was a limited success, but the throat kept forcing me to cough again and again, and indeed, across the Hall people were beginning to join in. I spaced out the coughs as much as I could. I aimed for noisy bits of the concert. I went zen, trying desperately to focus on the music, and on my inward and outward breath to distract from the urge to splutter. My throat was having none of that malarkey, and went in with the agony again. I sat there, tears running down my face, trying desperately not to be a nuisance. I turned and apologised quietly to the posh blonde lady sitting next to me. She gave me a really dirty look, and I turned away, surprised. Bizarrely, her evil eye seemed to quell the throat, and I began to breathe again.
Bodily crisis averted, I turned back to the concert. By now a magnificent woman was singing obscure opera, giving it considerable welly. She was great, it was great and all was well with the world. As she finished, I took a photo (the problem with blogging is that you do feel obliged to document the things you do with photos). I scanned the Hall, and wondered if I were to get a standing ticket, whether I’d get one in the main auditorium or in the gallery. I looked up in the Gods, and saw a man leaning against the rail, his frame caught in the shadow of the yellow light up there and the beautiful curve of the arch. Concluding all was quiet on the music front I focused. I could see the blonde moving out of shot, and I moved the camera higher to show that I wasn’t taking her photo. Before I could press the trigger, a sharp whisper rent the air.
“Excuse me, but SOME of us are TRYING to listen to the music, and it DOES say you aren’t allowed to take photos, so please would you just STOP.”
The glorious blonde was genuinely angry. Her eyes, rimmed with heavy kohl stared at me in fury, unblinking and unkind. A thousand things went through my head. I could see it now – I had done wrong, but then I really hadn’t known. I hadn’t seen any signs saying you couldn’t use your camera. The last time I was here, not only was EVERYONE taking photos, most were recording half the concert too. But then, this was a classical concert, and different rules applied. I had thought this was a place for someone like me: who didn’t really do high-brow culture, but would like to try it, every once in a while. It wasn’t my fault I had been possessed by a coughing fit, it wasn’t my fault I hadn’t known. And here, in this fabulous building, I felt really unwelcome, hurt and alone. I thought all these things. The blonde was still staring, in contempt, waiting for me to respond. With all these things to say, I knew an argument would be worse and would disturb folk more. So under her scornful eyes, I simply said, “OK.” I put my camera away, and turned back to whatever the tune was.
Eventually, it ended and the lights rose for the interval. The elderly couple got out their little cool box and drank their wine. The 20-somethings walked away from me to the bar, the blonde swishing her hair. I sat there, debating what to do. In the end, I concluded I was too upset to sit there again with the woman, so I quietly left and caught the bus home, knowing she’d be happier if I was gone. I tweeted about what had happened. My good friend @wingedmessenger mopped me up, agreeing I really shouldn’t have taken photos, but that the lady could have been nicer about it. This helped. I got back in time for Torchwood, and that helped too. I gave spouse a blow-by-blow account of what happened. We concluded the blonde had only gone to be with the person who sat in my seat, she was disappointed that he hadn’t come, and having a disease-ridden, photography obsessed pleb next to her was enough to make her be a bit mean. This helped too.
SO. Deep breath. Yes, I think you should go to the Proms if you can. If you do, my top tips are as follows:
1) Even if you are an Olympic athlete in perfect health, pack water, tissues, Strepsils and ideally some sort of muffler apparatus, just in case. You don’t want an uncontrolled splutter.
2) If you want a cheap standing ticket, go to door ten or eleven to queue, and for goodness sake, travel light. My suggestion is you go to the gallery rather than the auditorium. It looked less atmospheric and very high up, but people can lean on rails or sit on the floor more easily, and fewer people seemed to go that route. There are seated tickets from £7.50, which might be a better option.
3) Don’t take photos. And, more importantly, if you can, go in company. I think this is true of most activities, to be honest, but especially cultural ones. They are just more fun if you have someone to share them with.