Down and out in London

Like Boudu the tramp in Renoir’s film, I like to take advantage of the generosity of my hosts

This is a melancholy time of year: the sun no longer blesses the Hovel's terrace in the afternoon, the cricket season is winding down, the end of the Proms approaching . . . And I never thought that it would be this last that I find particularly affecting. Although a big fan of what is loosely called classical music, I am not wild about concerts, where people frown at you if you bring in a bottle of wine or a book or a cigarette. (My father, unafraid of convention, would always bring the Telegraph crossword with him when he went to one of the concerts in which my mother sang. He would also change into his swimming trunks and dressing gown before driving us all to Barnet swimming pool, his reasoning being that it saved time.)

So I didn't think much of or about the Proms until one day, not long after I'd become the Independent on Sunday's radio critic, the phone rang. The caller claimed to be Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3, and would I like to join him in his box at the Royal Albert Hall for a Prom? Pull the other one, I said, that one's got bells on it. (I was not in a good mood.) After a while he convinced me that I was not the victim of a practical joke. Anyway, a Prom?

Depends which one, I said grumpily. I did not want him to think that this was going to be the prelude to my giving Radio 3 an easy ride. (I was and am absolutely incorruptible as a critic, and that matter of the dinner party with Antonia Fraser that Private Eye made such a meal of has been cleared up to everyone's satisfaction.)

Also, I didn't want to be stuck listening to a composer I can't stand, such as Liszt or Handel or Rachmaninov, or someone ghastly and Classic FM like that. I may not know a lot about music but I have impeccable taste.

“Um, Pelléas and Mélisande?" he said.

“I suppose that'll do," I grunted. I think he had been expecting a reply more along the lines of “Gosh, how lovely of you". (Actually, I was delighted, because I adore Debussy, but I didn't want him to think I was a pushover.)

The concert was great fun. For some reason, I thought it would be amusing to take my most beautiful female friend instead of my wife - whose aversion to classical music is a matter of public record; she wouldn't have gone if you'd paid her - a tradition I upheld every subsequent year, in a childish and mischievous attempt to inculcate envy and stir up gossip. I wonder if it worked. There were some real corkers. Becky from the Crown and Sceptre. The au pair who never locked the bathroom door. Aita, who silences whole pubs simply by walking in to them.

I think it did work, for when I went on my own Roger made a point of seating me next to the likes of Jenny Agutter, who needs no introduction to the members of a certain generation, and the wife of that evening's conductor, Leonard Slatkin, who made me go all faint. When she mentioned she was having childcare problems during the holidays and I airily suggested that maybe we could sort something out together, she gave me a basilisk glare and Roger, who had heard everything, loudly asked if I could do some babysitting for him, as I seemed to be available.

The snag with the first Prom was that I had forgotten that Pelléas and Mélisande is long, and the bits between the intervals are long, too, and alcohol is a diuretic. There is free wine and smoked salmon in the controller of Radio 3's box and, like Boudu the tramp in Renoir's film, I like to take full advantage of the generosity of my hosts. After all, one never knows when the next chance will come along.

I suppose I must have inclined more towards the wine aspect of the buffet than the salmon, and the boy Yniold's voice was going right through me, and something had to give; so I decided that the most dignified thing I could do was wait for a noisy bit and climb over Roger Wright - he had generously seated me at the front of the box - and head for the gents. Not very dignified, but considerably more so than the alternatives, even when I remembered that there are very few noisy bits in Pelléas and Mélisande during which the noise made by climbing over a BBC radio controller can be masked.

As it was, Roger was very nice about it and has since invited me back every year, even after the lickspittle new editor of the Independent on Sunday, whose name I will not sully these pages with, dispensed with my services.

But Roger is unflappable, charming, a gracious host and, like all civilised men, no mean cricketer. And as you might gather, I may be incorruptible as a critic, but as a columnist - that's another matter.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?