Archive for the ‘proms’ Category

promming: the end of the story

August 17, 2010

 Interval, and I found a glass of wine in time to drink it by being just a little assertive at the bar.  The time passed very pleasantly in unmemorable conversation with a white-haired chap, who seemed glad to go when the interval was over. 

I had asked the beekeepers whether you are allowed to move around (my dream of a promenading prom) – ‘Oh no.  Something would quickly be said if people tried to move forward,’ they assured me, with that gloriously depersonalising usage of the passive voice so beloved of a particular caste of the middle classes.  Most of the conventions they articulated proved to be a little less than rigid.  This time, as the audience was re-settling themselves, the eagle man picked his way back to his seat a few feet away on my right, leading by the hand a slender crop-haired woman in a bright red dress and a sleeveless denim jacket.  Perhaps the amorous eagle wasn’t after young men at all – throughout the second half he distractingly caressed the woman’s hips through her slippery silky dress.  She seemed entirely unmoved – neither welcoming nor rejecting. 

Nicola Benedetti played ‘The Lark Ascending’ with an icy abstraction which felt utterly beautiful.  The Guardian’s critic (writing in next day’s paper) disliked the effect, but I found it intensely moving, as if the lark had risen to some heavenly sphere, beyond all earthly concerns.  For the first time ever I heard Vaughan Williams showing us not just a lark, but Keats’s skylark speaking through this music ‘from heaven or near it’.  It is so unusual to hear a crowd-pleasing classic as if for the first time – and for that experience I would willingly walk miles, queue for hours and spend a small fortune on taxi fares.

After that, the Elgar sounded mechanical to me, like a formal exercise in composition, yet people around me looked intent and blissed out.  The amorous eagle was conducting with his head, anticipating the high points with rhythmic nods, and jerking his shoulders, while the beekeepers had their eyes closed.  The concert ended with raptures from all.

A man came up to me asking ‘How early do you have to be to get a chair?’  ‘I’ve left my wife’, he proceeded ‘and I’m bringing my first internet date here next week.’  I felt a little amazed – it’s not obviously a risk-free first choice for a more-or-less blind date.  Was he chatting me up, I wondered, as he escorted me to my bus. ‘I’m asking everybody this: which is more important, duty or living your own life?’ 
‘Some would say that you have a duty to live your own life.’
‘So you’re a philosopher too.’
‘As well as what?’  I was feeling quite confident and bolshy by then.

Catching the right complex of buses back to Marylebone in time for the 10.50 train was my project, and he seemed to detect that my heart wasn’t in the conversation.  The wonderful Season Ticket holders on the bus were endlessly helpful, and saw me on my way in the right direction, as if I was one of them, while chatting amongst themselves.  There’s something rather awe-inspiring about being helped to find my way home by a blind person, who hopped off with me at Marylebone, saying ‘Run for it now, I can catch any of these trains.’ 

And so, pelting and awkward in my flapping sandals I lurched into the station, checked the board, and found . . . . that there was no 10.50.  Madness. Insanity. Rage.  What is going on?  I railed against the online timetable, spoke to a friendly station official in a bright yellow vis jacket, and identified an 11.20 for Birmingham that would do.  And so, with time to spare, we chatted about – I forget what – but it turned into a conversation about being an expatriate (again).  ‘You play cricket?  Well, who do you support?’  ‘Pakistan against England, always Pakistan.’  ‘But what if it’s England against India or England against Australia?’  ‘Hmm.  Well I support the side that plays best.  If they are rubbish they don’t deserve my support.  If they play badly – noooo.’  I considered putting the case for supporting the underdog, but conversation had swept on.  He was telling me about the cricket team he plays for.  ‘Batsman?’ I asked, trying to work out what his slight physique might best qualify him for.  ‘No. Bowler. I used to be a fast bowler, but now I bowl spinners.’  I hmmed sympathetically – my husband tried to make the same paradigm-shift, but could never resist flinging one down really hard, and wrecking his shoulder all over again.  This guy was perhaps more canny.  We got on like a house on fire.  He showed me his card, and told me his best bowling figures.  And gradually the conversation ended, as all conversations must.  I looked at the board for my train and almost howled with rage: that 11.20 was on the Arrivals board.  There really was no train home.

Partial solutions rushed through my brain: phone my daughter and sleep at her place? (but she would be long asleep, and anyway I didn’t want to reveal myself as less than competent) catch the train up to Oxford and stay with my son? – (but no – those trains go from Paddington, and the same issues apply.)  So I angrily bought myself an unnecessary panini and a coffee, burnt my mouth and, full of doubt and anxiety, grimly took the 11.38, terminating in Banbury.  Did my home-based son have a friend who could drive down to Banbury and collect me? (No problem in that age group about driving about in the middle of the night, and no shame attached to being in an undignified situation.  But no – friend with car has gone on holiday.) I was going to arrive in Banbury after one in the morning, and would have to go to a B&B or else get a taxi home (if there were any taxis at that hour).  The train wore its way, creaking, through many, many small commuter stations, and I was filled with boredom and tiredness.  The number of passengers fell off by ones and twos, leaving the sour-smelling carriage as a Sartrean blankness rattling through its eternal night.

Banbury however rose brilliantly to the occasion.  There were rows of taxis, bright lights, and a welcoming driver who quoted me £40 to drive to Leamington.  Such relief – it was possible, even normal, to do a twenty-mile trip at that ridiculous hour of night.  And it was cheap, compared with my private estimate of fifty quid.  ‘Do you take cards?’ ‘No, but we can go round by a cash point.’  The man was all heart, and he knows Leamington well because his in-laws live there, so can easily find a cashpoint.  We negotiate the route and I explain that I have driven it to Oxford often, so I know the road.  (He’s not going by any silly long routes, I think.)  And we chat in the luxurious warmth of the car.  ‘My son is waiting up for me.  These students don’t mind sitting up late.’  ‘What is he studying?’  ‘Philosophy.  Not very practical,’ I apologise.  ‘Oh no.  In my family we don’t believe that study should be practical.’  I am amazed.  He tells me at some length about his father who has an MA in Econometrics, and his brother with the MA in something else.  So finally I find a way of asking how come he’s driving a cab (How did I ask that tactfully?  ‘Are you the failure of the family?’ surely not.)  He too has an MA, in computing: was a computer programmer until he got RSI in the shoulder.  ‘But surely steering must make that worse?’  ‘Oh no.  It is good to keep it moving.’  Another expatriate – and we talked about living so far from home.  ‘Did all your family come out here together?’  ‘No – I am the only one here.’  His father is still in Pakistan, his brother lives in Australia.  ‘Which city?’  The inevitable question, but a surprise response: ‘Canberra.’  I am struck with the delight of the unexpected: ‘I know Canberra well.  I was at University there.’  I feel warmly towards him, for having a brother in Canberra, for living calmly in England, for taking life easily.  ‘But don’t you miss your brother?’  ‘Oh no.  We all meet in Pakistan for big family get-togethers.’  And so at length we reached the cash machine, and then my home, where the outside light was on for me and my son was still up.  The meter said £43.50 – ‘Just forty will be fine,’ he said.  He told me his name – Abdul – and we shook hands.  It’s not every day that the taxi-driver gives you a tip.

More on promming

August 14, 2010


The Royal School of Music auditorium is very fine, with vast organ pipes.  For the BBC, however, a forty-foot wide plastic hoarding had been added:


The organ pipes rose up behind this the oddly out-of-key (con)temporary background.  It felt as if a corporate event had been inserted into a cathedral. 

Charming though they were, the speakers seemed artificial, too, as their main goal wasn’t ours: they were making a programme which purported to be a recording of a talk, but in fact making the recording was manifestly dominant.  Odd.  The effect reminded me of the commonplace that taking photographs distances the photographer from the event they are photographing – but in this case a more extreme distance.  I will hear radio audiences differently in future.

There was no rush for places as we filed in– one helpful guideline exploded.  The Albert Hall (if you’ve never been there) is a grandly beautiful space, yet with a sense of intimacy, I think because the seating looks very close, and low-raked.  This can’t be quite true, though, as I once sat in the gods there, and they did feel pretty high up in the air.  In the middle of the Arena was a circular pond with a little fountain and artificial flowers: a celebration of naff.  Prommers had responded to this by adding a toy elephant and a rubber duck to the pond – ironizing by exaggeration.  Surprisingly, there were a few chairs set around the pond – of course, it would mean not being in the front row – a quick decision, and I felt lucky to get one.  Prommers set up their little camps: a pullover on the floor, or a bag, marking out their personal territory.  I met the some Season ticket holders – even more Blyton-esque than the queue.  These folk wore casual, workmanlike clothes and were in the course of attending dozens, even scores (he he) of concerts.  They were musically very well informed indeed.  Although there was that indefinable whiff of the in-group, there was also a strong sense of welcome.  An excessively friendly young man with BO and a slightly Aspergers manner sat on my left.  He was down from the North, and (very credibly) camping out for the duration of the proms – he was kindly, and keen to inform me about the protocols of promming.  A couple standing nearby told me about their beekeeping in slightly superior tones, until I dropped a couple of key phrases (‘hive collapse’, ‘my friend who keeps bees in Warwickshire’) at which they warmed considerably.  And just there – over there, to my right – was the eagle-man from the queue, looking squiffy and scruffy.  Oh dear.

The BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra was conducted by Donald Runnicles, a Brian Cox lookalike with flowing white locks. 

Here is Runnicles as Brian Cox:

And here is Cox as Donald Runnicles (though Runnicles generally looks more cheerful):


First, came the John Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’: very pleasant, even impressive (or dynamic) in places.  Some folk rocked slightly on their feet, some stood firm, closed their eyes perhaps in a state of bliss?  Then came the wonderful Vaughan Williams ‘Serenade to Music’ (which I confess I didn’t know before) with a tiny group of maybe sixteen singers, all fabulous soloists.  The words alone would have endeared it to me, but the performance was incomparable.

 Just for my own delight, here are the words for the Vaughan Williams, from ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho, and wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
Music! Hark!
It is the music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it.
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion,
And would not be awak’d.
Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

the pre-concert talk

August 10, 2010

At the Royal College of Music, the BBC record a twenty-minute talk which they will broadcast to fill in the interval.  Entrance to the talk is free – so one queues, just in case it is crowded out.  In the queue I have another wonderful encounter – an American woman, dressed in a casually stylish fine olive-green pullover, who is over in London for the birth of a grandchild.  She is briefly free for long enough to come to this intellectual discussion, and we share experiences of foreignness.  This works especially well as I have a friend whose daughter is having a baby in New York in the early Autumn.   She talks fascinatingly about her work with legal guardianship of  children and we exchange thoughts on the expectations of employers and the nature of diaries (we are about to hear a discussion of Samuel Pepys).  Queueing can be like a particularly good party.   

This evening, the discussion features Max Hastings (not a dodgy publicist, it transpires, but an eminent historian/journalist ) and Jenny Uglow (to whom AS Byatt dedicated her recent The Children’s Book, and who is also a distinguished writer in her own right – what busy lives people lead).  We were warmed up and compered by poet and comedian, Ian McMillan. (  The discussion itself felt quite pleasant, but very conscious of time constraints and rather underdeveloped.  I was thinking about how much pepys dislikes muddle and the illogical, and how much he uses rationality and factual research to wipe  that away.  His organisation of the Navy and of its bureaucracy has always struck me most forcefully.  (like Ste Sévère, of whom another day, he could be the patron saint of efficient organisation).  Hastings was irritatingly emphatic about the level of fear that Pepys was experiencing throughout the diaries, and after the recording finished I found the courage to make the point  that Pepys may be afraid, but he also always has a plan that will get him out of this fear.  Uglow -making  the best point of the evening – quoted Claire Tomalin’s view that writing the Diaries is  in itself a technique for taking control of chaos, and of the fears that chaos engenders in Pepys.  A subtle and intelligent insight – as my new friend agreed. 

PS I’ve just googled Max Hastings, and I think I can see why I blocked him from my memory.

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