Promming: Part 1 – in the queue

I had never been to a Prom concert, but they do look wonderfully exciting on TV.  In the interests of ticking off one of the many things on my list of ‘things to do before I die’ I set off on Tuesday (3rd) to find out how it all worked.  For my dry run, I deliberately chose a concert I didn’t care too much about, just in case I messed up in some way.  If I were to go with Will (my highly critical son) next week, I wanted to avoid the humiliation of screwing things up in front of him.  Also, I rather enjoy doing things on my own and at my own pace: with a whole day in London I could go to the National Gallery and then on to the prom.  Delightful.

What did I discover?  In summary (if you don’t want to read the whole report), I found that promming has a whole set of quite rigid protocols and conventions that have set over the years.  I also found, unsurprisingly, that queueing is tedious; that one meets a lot of friendly people in a prom queue who love to talk, and some of whom seem to be pick-up-able; that human beings are various; that there are still nice men out there; and that I still really don’t care for Elgar; more technically, that there is a massive social gulf between the ‘day’ tickets and the ‘season’ tickets and lastly, (and rather importantly) that there are (still) no trains home to Leamington after ten past ten at night.

But I want to put in everything – not just a summary, but all the richness, the variety, the irritation and the boredom, the exhaustion, and the thinking – and above all, the people.

The vast bulk of the experience is not of the concert, but of the trappings surrounding it.  Getting ready felt a little like preparing to go camping: snacks, books, water, warm top, anti-histamines and epipen, cash, map, mobile.  I wore my wonderful new linen skirt from Jigsaw, which makes me feel slim and super-cool, and then ran like a dervish for my train – just made it, sweating and panting slightly, only to find that I had accidentally jabbed the ‘single’ option on the ticket machine instead of ‘return’.  Less than cool, and not a good omen, but people are kind to Senior Railcard holders – “I won’t punch this, just take it to the desk at Marylebone.”  A short queue later they charged me a mere 35 p to add the return.  We’ve all heard of the return fares that are cheaper than singles (urban myth?) and the thought flashed through my mind that they might pay me to travel back.  Thirty-five pence is about as close as you can get to that.

With the day in front of me, I planned to check out the Albert Hall first, and then catch a bus back up to the Gallery for a couple of hours.  Actually, though, it became clear that queueing was what I was going to do – even though I was quite early, at one o’clock-ish there was already a scattering of folk sitting around on the steps: the makings of a queue.  Time to kill therefore, by having lunch before joining it.  What you do is, you choose your queue: Arena or Gallery.  I chose Arena because the word sounded gladiatorial: bouncy and confident.  Fellow prommers explained that Arena is closer to the music, while in Gallery you can sit down, but you are miles away.  I could tell I had made the approved choice: sitting is for wimps, their tone implied.  Next, you queue until a steward comes out unpredictably, but maybe about three o’clock and gives you a raffle ticket, whose number tells you your place in the queue.  This number entitles you then to go away for half an hour or so, and come back to your place.  It turned out that it had a much greater significance even than that, for this number determines the order in which people actually file into the hall, and we care about this because the earliest people get the position that they covet.  Everybody has an idea of where they prefer to stand – some right at the front, others to the left to see the pianist’s hands; others at the side where there is a railing to lean on. 

Later, around five, stewards would come out and sell the £5 tickets to “about the first hundred or so” in the queue.  The others would go in via the box office.   And yes, it would be fine to go to the pre-concert talk over the road at the Royal College of Music, come 5.45, because the queue place was secure (and by then I would have my actual ticket). But I precede myself.  All I knew then was that I had a rather satisfying number (100) and when someone asked the steward what number they had started at it turned out to be 81.  So I was nineteenth in line for the Arena – a powerful position, if only I had any idea of my own preferences.

Elsewhere there were similar queues for the Season Ticket holders – all wanting a low number, to bag their spot.  And ‘bag’ is the right word, because the whole atmosphere was like nothing quite so much as a jolly hockey sticks school story from the fifties – except for sophisticated musical grown-ups.  People were there with their chums, they knew the ropes, they had brought their picnics and folding chairs – in one case, her knitting – they gossiped about conductors and orchestras and composers, and anyone who didn’t have the gumption to endure a long wait on stone paving was clearly not going to fit in.  I fitted in – oh boy, did I ever fit in.  I’ve seen this kind of social grouping before, and I had a whale of a time.  The key difference between these and school cliques, is that they were amazingly friendly and chatty.  Apparently when we were finally marshalled into the Arena the ‘Season’ people would be allowed in from the other side, and we would all rush to get the choice spots.  They could be very determined.  It was all starting to sound unlike any concert I’d been to before.  And I was seriously overdressed for sitting on a pavement, or clambering up onto the concrete balustrade – but a strong linen skirt can cope with these challenges, and so can I.  It is a delight to feel that blend of mild transgression and pleased achievement that goes with perching high up on a formal stone wall, gloriously surrounded by iconic architecture. 

After about twenty minutes of that one’s back starts to complain and the thrill passes.  The charming octogenarian on my right who loves Elgar and the youth composing a choral work on my left have been pleasant and informative company.  The three ladies further down who met in Libya in the seventies (ah, the seventies, they riff, but don’t go into detail) are all expatriates like me, and I could talk with them about that, but they are having too good a time.  One is Australian, one German, and one unidentified with a slightly francophone accent who keeps telling the world that she is a ‘Proms Virgin’.  I think she finds the phrase stimulatingly risqué.  They admire my cheeky little stick-figure gilt earrings (and, truth be told, so do I).  They laugh richly together.  I could be friends with these cheerful women – but their circle is fairly tight, and it’s awkward to stand, towering over seated people.  So I go away now for a stroll, and immediately spot a post box (outside Imperial College) for my letter to Josie and my completed TLS Summer Acrostic (maybe posting it in these cultivated surroundings will bring luck).  Next, still in holiday mood, I find that no-one stops me from taking my ice cream into the display of Polish[1] posters and graphic design in the Royal College of Art.  Quite the reverse: the reception desk has a scrawled note on it ‘gone to lunch’, and the security guards are collusively outside on the stoop, enjoying their fags.  The world is a delightful, gilded and smiling place where all my wants are supplied easily, and surprises charm me at every turn.  At this moment I love promming.

Maybe I brought the wrong book to read.  Maybe I should have brought my knitting; or a cushion; or more sudoku.  Anyway, time began to drag.  I had used up my stock of waiting-capacity and few mental pains are more excruciating than boredom. 

Was it then or was it earlier that the Byronic chap came over?  He had been sitting on the ground further down the queue, and drinking out of a bottle in a paper bag.  There was something skew about him, something tangibly out-of-place.  Compact and lean, he seemed more tightly-wound than other people there.  He could have looked glamorous with the eagle-like nose and the dark curly hair, but his face and hands were a little grubby, his black t-shirt and loose jeans looked seedy and lived-in.  I felt wary – he seemed unpredictable.  He fixed the teenager sitting on the wall next to me with an intense look and began to speak with great conviction of his famous connections and his plans to take poor children off the streets and offer them a transforming experience through orchestral concerts and fabulous meals.  There was something aggrandizing about this, something Napoleonic and impractical.  I don’t like strangers who touch – and he was one.  He patted the kid’s leg once or twice – hmmm.  When I suggested that an outdoor event would allow people to feel more safe he tapped me on the arm and thanked me fulsomely for the idea, as if it was previously completely unheard of.  I exchanged a covert wink with my acquaintance on the wall to my right.  Now, I am not that young man’s mother, but he had told me that he was just going into year eleven – in other words he was fifteen, rising sixteen.  But he was out in the world, and he has his own decisions to take.  As a representative of the Big Society, therefore, I thought that a little information might be useful to him.  After Byron had gone, I said ‘Ever been chatted up before?’ – ‘Nope’ he answered. -‘Well, I think you have now.’  And we talked about how much information the guy had about him, and how easily he had obtained it. 

(to be continued)

[1] Roman Cieślewicz exhibition

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: