In the Gods at the Proms
Cheap thrills High up in the Royal Albert Hall is another world, where puritan Promgoers revel in the fine acoustics.

Quite a few of the central celebrations of British state are for toffs. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Derby Day. The various levees and occasions of royalty. In this pantheon, the London Summer Proms occupies an honoured position. It's for music lovers, and the music is often very fine: but it has a strong national identity – indeed, the Last Night of the Proms, with the fervant singing of "Land of Hope and Glory", is about the most full-throated display of national enthusiasm to make it on to the airwaves.

The Proms, now wrapped into BBC sponsorship, is a negotiated merger of high culture and high patriotism: a very British event. Very British, too, in the discomfort many are prepared to endure in getting in cheaply. The gallery of the Royal Albert Hall – the vast circular High Victorian concert hall where the Proms take place – is where you suffer to acquire art, from as little as £2 a concert.

The gallery is a large wooden-floored circular corridor with only a sturdy banister separating you from a 135ft drop on to the stalls. The view of the stage is as from a hovering aircraft, and it is often hot and stuffy. Above (and below) all, there are no seats; those who come ill-prepared are obliged to suffer the bottom-numbing parquet, or jostle with stealthy ferocity for a decent spot by a banister. The gallery is a giddying, airless eyrie: but it offers famously good acoustics. The sound wafts up from the floor through the cavernous auditorium and reverberates magnificently around the glass dome.

Those waiting in the gallery queue usually know this: the relative poverty which puts them there, and keeps them there for up to six hours in sweltering summer heat (even London swelters now, in our overheating planet), gains extra virtue for knowing that Strauss's "Four Last Songs" will sound infinitely more unearthly and magical there than anywhere else.

Gallery-goers, or promenaders, are not to be confused with other holders of cheap tickets, who stand in the Arena in full view of television cameras. Gallery dwellers divide into three camps. The first is made up of the seasoned season-ticket holders, who happily write off summer evenings to sweat it out, night after night. By their habits you shall know them: their ostentation in ticking off yet another concert in their dog-eared programmes: their mutual acknowledgment, with quiet smiles. Season-ticketers are generally of a certain age, but nimble enough to take on the wide stone steps up to the gallery two at a time to lay claim to their favourite few metres of floor space. Their patch established, out come blow-up mattresses, cushions and clever orthopaedic props to make the three hours or so of music more endurable. They bring their own form of entertainment: books, knitting, embroidery, musical scores – but never newspapers (too rustly). An astonishing number of noiseless pursuits adapt themselves to the gallery, from yoga to meditation, even to actual sleeping - God forbid you should snore.

The second group is that of the earnest music student. Arriving on a bicycle with an ethnic bag and a bottle of water, the muso has probably singled out a few choice Proms, likely to feature a Finnish composer or an early music chamber orchestra. They will meet up with a viola-playing friend in the queue. They are not Last-Night-of-the-Prom types. Nor do they come for the James Bond soundtrack concerts.

The last of the gallery brigade are the trouble-causers, the noise-makers. They love nothing better than a jazzy Prom. This is partly because, to them, a Prom is a mere excuse for an elaborately clandestine picnic. In groups of four or more, they guzzle cans of beer in the queue. Once in, they clank their way up to the gallery, breathing heavily. Beneath "No food or drink" signs, they sneak out pots of taramasalata and stuffed vine leaves, break off hunks of baguette behind their backs and are seriously into their food before the lights go down.

It's a risky business, because the Proms Police - red-jacketed security guards - prowl continuously, confiscating glass bottles and curtailing obvious feasting. But it's an appealing challenge to the artful picnicker. The popping of corks is timed with a clash of a cymbal, or a deafening crescendo. Any crunching or chewing must be done quickly, and at the right moment, or else the season- ticketers turn to narrow their eyes and press a finger to their lips.

I love the gallery. It's convivial, relaxed and, if you bring enough inflatables, more comfortable than down below. Once you have experienced the pleasure of listening to some of the world's best orchestras from a horizontal vantage point, and getting up to stroll round whenever you like, you will never again confine yourself to a numbered seat.