My old silver 4.2 Jag nosed confidently into the wild copses and thickets of undulating Sussex, following other cars of the same species to what might have been a clan gathering in black and white. Once through the entrance, the old girl bumped gently over the sleeping policemen, joining a kind of conga of Jags dancing our way to the immense car park.
Their human occupants clutched hampers of all sizes, baskets, fold-up chairs and tables, wine coolers, blankets, a whole panoply of paraphernalia. Like refugees on the march, except all wearing the mandatory penguin suits (some had white jackets, much more elegant), they made their way down the hill to an endless variety of entrances.
To my horror I saw that I had committed the gravest error. I was the only man not wearing black tie. Ye gods] I had worn an elegant cut-off jacket, a kind of bolero number that grazes the hips, some shiny narrow pants and some semi-Cuban heels - but with a black shirt] I felt totally out of sync among the bland languid miens all dressed in the correct uniform.
My friend Estella had said to meet at the 'ha-ha'. Since she has a strong South American accent, I deduced that she was saying 'garden'. So I followed the happy stream in that direction, passing a large hall filled with tables, several of which already had hampers and cutlery set out for the interval. I laid the tartan blanket my friend had asked me to bring (it used to be my late cat's rug) on one of them, along with a bottle of champagne I had bought on the way down. At least I had that.
The garden seemed at times like a maze, a lawned area protected by large hedges. Already some opera lovers were sipping their chilled champagne, trying to keep out of the wind by clinging to the wall of green. At last I spied Estella and her two elegant German friends and we greeted with that slightly overheated formality which cultured people tend to display, as if they haven't seen each other for a dozen years. She introduced a German colleague, whose penguin suit accorded nicely with his thick silver hair. He was a banker.
I forgot to mention that I had actually asked an attendant to name possible meeting places, and when she really did utter the words 'ha-ha', I felt such pride in the fact that I'd not even flinched when Estella had said it. Instead I had responded as if I went to Glyndebourne once a week, and 'ha-ha' was our usual meeting spot, darling.
Now I was a temporary member of the ha-has and nobody even mentioned my black shirt. But I had to confess my abject guilt at my solecism and almost pleaded for redemption from the banker, who shamed me with his perfect English and his knowledge of all the operas. 'Ach no, you look perfectly elegant, and after all you are an artist,' he responded with perfect affability and diplomacy.
I stared out at the munching cows, who from time to time gazed serenely back. The black-and-white seated figures chomping away at their foie gras and salmon sandies must reassure the cows that nothing will ever spoil this bucolic scene.
Soon it was time to enter the beautiful new auditorium, built in a symphony of light wood, as if a carpenters' consortium had decided to make a barn that looked like a theatre. The opera was Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, a moving and haunting melodrama of lost love and bitter disappointment. As the lights went down, I settled into the velvety blackness of elegant, upper-class, distingue England.
The white curtains that veiled the set were draped slightly to one side and I could almost hear the thoughts of women approving the gathering of the folds and making mental notes to reproduce this effect in their bedrooms at home. From time to time, as the music swelled and rolled into our ears, I fell into a split-second twilight world where snatches of dreams tormented me, but then I'd recover and try to concentrate on the agonies of unrequited love. The second act - after an interval with some Pimms - offered more vigour, semi-wildish balls, pirouetting dancers, a duel, a death, and I stayed completely awake.
But now for the reason we were all here - since the opera is only one part of the grand esprit de corps - the famous picnic break. Like busy little bees we set the blanket, opened the champers, noshed the deli, chewed the chicken. All around us the audience was chuckling, nibbling, pouring, opening carefully prepared packets, plastic containers, hampers with Harrods printed on the outside, juices, coffee flasks, ptes, caviar. I thought of all those busy fingers who did it themselves - the shopping in Fulham the day before, the morning's preparation, the filling of the car, the tickets, the food, the event] At the end, Tchaikovsky]
'Oh, look at this view]' my companions exclaimed, as if to make sure we are all in a suitable state of awe and exultation and enjoying our pounds 75 seats. We all cooed with satisfaction, although a wind-chill factor was creeping upon us and entering our bones, and we continued to slug back the champers even with an act to go.
Eventually the chill, plus filled bladders, had everyone heading for the loo. For the first time in my life I understood why Orthodox Jews thank God for the gift of maleness over femaleness. I had never seen such a queue as the one for the women's loo in my life. It stretched across the whole foyer with ne'er a whimper. It would have been easier to take a leak in the grassy fields - in fact, why not set up some Portakabins discreetly disguised, perhaps, with rippling curtains. The gentlemen's urinals were also packed and the sight of a group of men dressed identically in black, facing a wall, like a chorus line in a musical, was the most fascinating sight I had seen in years. The frenzy now to rid oneself of all this liquid was beginning to corrode the aesthetic nature of the event, for at this moment the downstairs area felt like an Australian cattle station on market day. Eugene Onegin was definitely taking second place to a good slash. As I left the men's room the women's queue looked like Macbeth's vision when he sees his opposition's descendants ('What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?')
There were some rather militant 'bravos' every time someone sang with some emotion in the second act, but as I knew everyone had just been to the loo they didn't seem such a special club any more, more like a lot of kids on a picnic with a bit of entertainment on the side.
As I steered the old lady back across the downs, I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever witnessed in my life. So it was all very worthwhile. If you can afford it, of course.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content