I caught the end of the Last Night of the Proms on television last night. The Royal Albert Hall was once again filled with people, many wearing blue berets with yellow European Union stars, but most waving small Union Jacks from plastic sticks, swaying to Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem as the concert drew to a close. I catch the Last Night every year – always the last few minutes, never the whole concert. I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence towards the occasion.
I used to go to the Proms while married to my first husband, a true devotee. Most of our summers revolved around queueing outside the Albert Hall – or so it felt like to me. And why not? Where else could you hear classical music performed by the best orchestras and conductors in the world for a mere £3? Even if you had to spend hours standing in line, then continue standing in the crowded arena in the stifling heat, shrinking into yourself to avoid contact with the clammy skin of other sweaty classical music lovers, in my case standing on tiptoe half the time to see the performers over several rows of heads. Unless you were lucky enough to be in the front row and lean on the brass rail behind the conductor – but for that you had to start queueing even earlier, especially if a famous orchestra or conductor or singer was on. I still remember my first ever Prom – the first in 1998, as a matter of fact. I stood at the rail, a few feet away from Bryn Terfel as his velvety bass-baritone filled the hall singing the role of Mephistopheles in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust. I’ve always pictured a more Elizabethan, Marlowian Mephistopheles: lithe, mercurial and crafty. Bryn Terfel looked to me like a giant from the Mabinogion. I was in awe of his voice, his magnetism, his presence.
There were the regular promenaders or prommers, who had a season ticket and queued for every concert, standing night after night in the arena. I wondered how they earnt their living, given the number of daylight hours spent debating music on the steps of Prince Consort Road. After the concert, as there was no pub close enough, they would often adjourn to the Imperial College bar, where more music was analysed, more composers dissected, more conductors reviewed, more autopsies carried out on the performance. It was a very friendly, welcoming group, all music worshippers.
There was a strict hierarchy in this group of regulars. The senior members – those with the highest number of promming years under their belt, gave the signal to start the rhythmical stomping after an especially good performance; they appointed the person or persons to place the wreath on the bust of Sir Henry Wood on the Last Night; they also initiated the group shouts to the gallery or the orchestra, or the performers. When Thomas Hampson appeared, the cry rose: Arena to baritone: did you come in a hansom cab? When the grand piano was brought onto the stage and the lid was opened, the arena cried heave and the gallery echoed ho! It might have been the other way around. I wonder if they still do this. I haven’t been to the Proms for about ten years. The last time I went, since I was alone, I went where I’d always wanted to go: the gallery. The atmosphere there was very different. Less crowded, so with enough floor space to sit or even lie on. I didn’t feel the pressure to belong. But perhaps that was because I was much older by then. It was also a lot less stifling. I sat against a pillar, legs outstretched, listening to Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I’ve always preferred sitting high up in a concert hall or opera house. I like the sense of the notes mutating colours as they rise to the ceiling, becoming translucent, acquiring tiny sparks.
That summer in 1998, I must have attended twenty or so concerts. One early Saturday afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a young Italian who was also queueing. He turned out to be a composer called Stefano Curina. He ended up writing the incidental music for my first ever translation: a play by Pirandello, which I subsequently directed.
Then there was the night I had a heated argument with one of the regulars after a divine Glyndebourne concert performance of Porgy and Bess. “If George Gershwin had continued along these lines,” said this particular regular, sipping lager the colour of urine from a plastic cup, “he would have become quite a good composer.”
I am woefully ignorant in matters of music, I can’t read scores and just about manage to get Brigg Fair and Greensleeves from my tenor baroque recorder; I usually bow to other people’s superior training and opinion in the field. But you do NOT touch Gershwin in my presence. Not unless you want to make me into a lifelong enemy. For me there are three composers you cannot name with anything but the highest respect, devotion and adoration: J.S. Bach, George Gershwin and Giacomo Puccini. The first reminds me that the world makes sense, the second makes me happy to be alive in it, and the third gives me permission to feel uncensored feelings in it.
1998 was also the only year when I went to the Last Night of the Proms. The flag-waving, bordering on jingoism in my view, always made me feel uneasy. It’s not jingoism, the regulars insisted. It’s just a bit of fun – no one means anything by it. And Rule Britannia has always made me cringe. Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just tradition. I figured it might be the only time I went to the Last Night,so decided not to be a spoilsport and to join the others in queueing from the night before. We wanted to be in front, on the rail, and the group kindly let me be nominally No. 1 in the queue. Unlike them, however, for a number of reasons, I wasn’t prepared to keep awake for thirty-six hours.
I acquired a tent and a sleeping bag. I brought my pillow, a torch and my Walkman with mini-loudspeakers. I set up my overnight quarters on the pavement just outside the Royal Albert Hall and prepared for a good night’s sleep while my then husband and the others decided that the only way to do it was roughing it properly. I was surprisingly comfortable in my little tent. Only what I hadn’t bargained for was that everybody else would not only stay up all night, but chat, laugh, drink – and sing. Tossing and turning in my sleeping bag, by 5 a.m. I’d developed a genuine hatred of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs in addition to an increase of my existing dislike of Cambridge Footlights-style jokes. I unzipped my tent, bleary-eyed and highly irritable, just in time for someone to take a picture of me.
The rules of queuing for the Last Night allowed a few hours’ break during the day to go home, shower and change into our evening clothes. Our group had opted for black-tie and ball gowns, so I scrubbed my face, applied make-up and put on my silk turquoise dress. As a token of silliness, instead of a Union Jack, I took a hand-puppet raccoon in tails, complete with conductor’s baton I’d made with a plastic straw.
During the interval, we decorated the brass podium with ribbons and balloons. Someone found a Keep Out sign from a construction site and affixed it to the rail.
Thomas Hampson regaled us with Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Sir Andrew Davis turned around and, seeing my hand-puppet, leaned down and conducted it for a few bars. There was the customary comedy weeping while the first violin played Tom Bowling. It was fun in a delirious kind of way. Once the orchestra had left, there was the traditional Auld Lang Syne.
As we all hugged, some cried, and we dispersed, I knew I’d just had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, undoubtedly worthwhile, but one I definitely didn’t long to repeat. Some experiences are special because you enjoy them just once.
Last night, as I watched the general silliness and was moved by Jerusalem and remembered my prommers with fondness, the sight of blue berets with European Union stars filled me with sadness and longing. As for the waving Union Jacks on plastic sticks, they made me feel more uneasy than ever.