A Million Ways To Listen

We just made it!

It was a miracle.

We stepped inside into the gloom with only a few minutes to spare. A softly spoken lady in a black trouser suit and white shirt beckoned us in, as if expecting us. Five pounds each. Cash only.

“Come. Come!” We quickly fumbled for coins, fingers shaking.

She gestured to the stairs, her excited smile spreading to her eyes. “Hurry!”

Adjusting rucksacks, smoothing down crumpled shirts, finger-combing through hair, still damp and matted from the afternoon shower, we began the journey. We ventured up the stone steps. One flight. Two flights. Three. Higher and higher. With each step the rabble from the city became a distant memory. Hoardes of vested volunteers advising and directing locals and tourists alike, the staccato stopping and starting of engines as the capital’s road-network threatened to burst at the seams, the vibrant flash and boom of gigantic screens in the park…

…all consigned to memory for now, like “spirograph” behind eyelids as fireworks dissipate into the night at display-end.

It took half a minute to reach the top. We puffed as we got there, partly exhausted from the previous night’s partying, partly wishing the anticipation would last for one blissful moment longer. And there it was, finally.

An unassuming doorway, guarding the evening’s possibilities.

We pulled it open and walked slowly through into the hushed darkness. A large expanse of smooth polished floor greeted us. Our shoes squeaked against it as we walked.

At first, as it was as if we were alone, but as our eyes and ears adjusted, outlines began to form, the lower murmur of voices began to hum in our ears. People were in almost in silhouette. But features were lit up slightly from a dull glow that came from below. Some were seated on benches that lined the walls, others lay on the floor, propped up on rucksacks, picnic-blankets protecting them from the cold surface. The most prominently-defined leaned against an ornate metal barrier topped with a wooden rail, heads bowed as they gazed below, their backs to us.

There was a sense of being lured towards the precipice edge, a perimeter that separated us, here in the heavens, from the world below, whatever it that world was. We walked towards it, unconsciously holding our breath.

As we reached our destination, our hands clutched at the wooden rail as the eruption of colour, noise and the sheer cavernous magnitude of the space below threatened us with an overwhelming sense of vertigo. Our eyes and ears began their adjustment to sensory overload just as the entire auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall burst into a wave of applause, the members of the orchestra rose from their seats and the conductor made his entrance onto the stage.

The real highlight was about to begin.


Sometimes the most rewarding moments in life are the most unexpected. A train of thought can suddenly propel you on a journey to realisation that you were unaware you even needed to make. A moment such as this happened some way during Mahler’s Symphony no. 10…

… when I turned my back.

Suffering with a stiff neck from looking downwards to the orchestra, I turned to lean against the barrier behind me and face the darkness. I closed my eyes to begin with, to soothe them from the harsh stage lights and from the previous evening’s antics in a Camden bar that were beginning to take their toll.

Then, absentmindedly, I opened them again, not really expecting to see anything at all. Or at least, nothing of significance.

This is what I saw as I looked around:

A petite Asian girl a few feet away from me, crouching down to carefully extract Toblerone triangles from a scrunched up piece of foil protruding from her coat pocket that was slung on a heap on the floor.

Her friend beside her, leaning at a 45 degree angle against the gallery’s wooden rail with the grace of a ballerina, appearing to purposefully carry out hamstring stretches, her eyes closed the entire time.

A middle-aged man in a checked shirt, with a receding hairline and a neat beard, sitting very upright on a bench against the wall, seemingly staring into space, clutching a carrier bag primly to his knees. Lonely. Or simply alone.

A couple, lying beside eachother, arms, legs and torsos touching, eyes closed, their fingers intertwined. Lost in the acoustics. Loving eachother and the music washing over them.

A young girl in her early twenties, with a chaotic mop of curly hair, sitting cross-legged against the back wall, hunched over a notebook, furiously penning her thoughts, as if battling against the devil in some kind of exorcism. Pained.

An elderly man with scruffy white hair in need of a cut, sitting with his legs apart on a bench, his elbows against his thighs, his head in his hands. The day’s sweat patches now drying on his pale, blue shirt. He would have appeared asleep if it weren’t for one little finger, tapping his temple in perfect time with the orchestra. A picture of calm, blissful contentment.

A woman approaching middle-age in black jeans and a coloured cotton scarf. Her back to the auditorium, her hip brushing against a tall, stubbly man who was facing the orchestra. He held one of her hands as her other held a mobile phone switched to silent, her thumb tapping against the screen. A writer, perhaps…

… writing about a moment.


That was it.

That was the moment I saw.

Just a little thing… a realisation… a little snapshot… up there in the cool gloom.

A moment when I had the joy of witnessing, of really seeing, all the reactions that were going on around me. Reactions as ultimately unique as the very people who were having them.

(I may not understand them all, of course.)

I may not want to eat chocolate.

I may not want to tap my fingers.

I may not want to shut my eyes.

I may not want to share everything with someone else.

I may not want to be alone.

I may not want to rid myself of the devil… occasionally I am happy for him to be at my side.

But this moment taught me that the diversity of others’ reactions, their interpretations, had no real effect on me and could exist quite happily alongside mine.

I was merely an observer. In itself, fascinating, and a privilege.

In a world where we try to control our environment, to make others agree with our viewpoint, we judge what’s acceptable, what’s not, what’s right, what’s wrong… “Agree with me!” “Be in my gang!” “Do things my way!”…

… I realised I couldn’t control a thing. And why would I want to?

Up there in the heavens, as Mahler’s Symphony no. 10 continued to permeate the air…

…we all heard, processed, interpreted, reacted…even breathed differently….

…even though essentially we were all listening to the same thing.

This was the best, most beautiful, part of all.

And I felt free.

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