The roar of the crowd

On Wednesday night, I went to a whole new kind of event for me. It was very exciting, and I’m ashamed to say, the first time I had ever seen one live. I went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear Neil Gaiman read from his newly-published Norse Mythology. My first ever book-reading and discussion.

Two thousand people, or thereabouts, whooped and cheered as Gaiman came out onto the stage – itself a thing that left me rather choked up, knowing that these people, in an age that commentators routinely bemoan as being so internet- and image-dominated that Good Old-Fashioned Healthy Pastimes are being eroded, loved him and his books enough to greet him like a rock star. He took the podium, read us a chapter from Norse Mythology, and then sat for a Q&A with Gaby Wood, and took further questions from the audience to end the evening. The book was wonderful (I left clutching my signed copy, which I’m much looking forward to reading), and Gaiman’s conversation interesting and witty. But I found myself oddly distracted by something which I had not even anticipated. Quite simply, I was in a venue I associate first and foremost with classical music concerts, and no one was behaving as I expected them to.

So, being me, I thought it might be interesting to study what was different. For a start, latecomers were allowed in when they arrived. There seemed to be a lot of them, but I think it was more that they were almost invariably sitting in the middle of rows, so the disruption they caused was quite considerable. And because the first thing that happened was Gaiman’s reading, they were effectively coming in during the most ‘performance’ like part of the event.

Cheering crowd at a rock concert

Then there were the people chatting, the people playing on their phones, the people taking photos (we’d been told these weren’t allowed although Gaiman himself didn’t seem bothered), and the man sitting somewhere off to my right who kept yelling ‘Yeah!’ in a vaguely Viking-like manner every time there was even the smallest excuse to cheer. People brought in drinks and knocked over their cups, the sound of plastic tumblers bouncing down steps reaching us every ten minutes or so. People wandered in and out, for reasons unknown (unless a weak bladder was a requirement of ticket purchase – and I can’t say I noticed it on the booking screen – I find it hard to believe they all went out to the toilets). And finally, about three-quarters of the way through the audience questions, when I could feel myself getting tired and liable to be far more irritated by any of this than the situation actually warranted, I slipped out of the back door and went home.

Much as a French scholar turning up at a Particle Physics conference might find it just bizarre that certain things are discussed and organised in certain ways, the book reading experience was fascinating and weird for me in equal measure. And above all, the two things that I really struggled with were the idea that it was ok to interrupt a ‘performance’ – that is, Gaiman reading so brilliantly from his book – with latecomers… and the fact that the full event lasted nigh on two hours without a break. Which no doubt accounted for a goodly amount of the fiddling, chatting, coming-and-going, drink-kicking and so on.

Then again, if I’d invited ten people from this crowd who only ever came to literary events at the RFH, and took them to a Philharmonia concert there, what would they think? Would they be affronted at any shushing neighbours they happened to meet? Would they find 45-minute sets too short or too regimented and concise, rather than the relaxed potential for meandering through an ‘in conversation’? Would they find it odd that no one on the stage actually addressed the audience?

We are conditioned (of course) by what we know and are used to. As a lively student debate a few weeks ago amply proved – and I managed to curtail it at ‘lively’ before it descended into downright argumentative – format, etiquette, and so on at classical events (including the use of phones and social media) is still an extremely hot and emotive topic for many people. What is perhaps worth remembering, and I am aiming this as much at myself as anyone else, is that ‘different’ is not the same as ‘wrong’ in these instances, because ‘right’ is a relative, historically and socially conditioned concept. There doesn’t have to be a concert paradigm in terms of how we sit, or when we clap, just as I’m sure book readings can vary wildly in their set-up and audience response. At the root of all of this is the simple fact that the audience, like it or not, are also part of the event. That might be irritating from time to time, but it’s also worth embracing. Even if I would probably have gagged the shouty Viking man if I’d had the chance, let’s be honest: between that and the many interesting happenings and people present, it makes for a far more memorable evening than a night of impeccably controlled behaviour alone, in front of the telly.

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