I learnt today of the death of Lesley Melliard.
For the majority of readers that name won’t mean much. For a band of stalwart attenders of the BBC Proms over the years however, Lesley will be a familiar face to some and a dear friend to a great many others.
I came late to that special group and – I’ll happily admit – I didn’t consider myself an especially close friend. This largely because my resilience in the arena was considerably less than a lot of other season ticket holders.
What I can say authoritatively, is that she was one of the warmest and most welcoming of prommers.
She – like a great many others – looked forward to the season and when she saw familiar faces at the top of the season was quick to cry ‘Happy New Year!’. For a newcomer to the season ticket holder world as I was back in 2007, she made me feel at ease amongst a group which had clearly known each other for a great long time. I appreciated her generosity of spirit. That’s not a conscious effort – that’s a reflection of someone’s personality.
As the years have gone by, I’ve stood in the arena for Proms concerts on fewer occasions. I’ve found I’ve yearned for a comfortable seat or perhaps just a little more space. Lesley – like a great many others – remained true. Despite increasing treatments and ailing health, Lesley was still there during last year’s season. She was not going to miss it. Such determination is humbling.
She always stopped me to say hello whenever we passed one another. There was always a wave and a smile and a ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Are you going to grace us with your presence down here or go and sit in the posh seats tonight?’ I would hang my head in shame and say ‘No’. She would laugh and say she never really thought I would anyway.
What was important was that she was a key part of a special network of friends who convened every July for a summer of music at their beloved Royal Albert Hall. It was her festival, just as it was ‘our’ festival for all of us. Despite that sense of ownership, she always wanted newcomers to feel welcome. She was as much a part of my reintroduction to the BBC Proms in 2006 as the music itself. In some cases, making classical music accessible to new audiences only requires those already attending to be warm and friendly.
Last year, I stopped to talk to her sat down outside stage door at the Royal Albert Hall. Alongside her were two of her friends from the Proms. All three had walking sticks. I spent time talking to all three, but it was Lesley’s weakened state which left the lasting impression that evening. It was then I knew – regardless of the short amount of time I had spent socialising with all three Prommers – quite what Lesley had meant to me.
In a flash, I caught sight of her undeniably disease-ravaged body. Her vulnerability was plain to see. In that moment, I panicked. Sadness did rather creep into that concert. I was reminded I was going to lose a friend whose status in my life hadn’t really dawned on me until that moment in time. Later on I caught up with one of the ladies there and her husband and whispered nervously, ‘She’s going downhill, isn’t she?’ They nodded.
As I left South Kensington, the overriding thought was that she’d be there for the next season. She won’t be.
Quite what I would have said to her to convey what she meant without me signalling something far worse to her, I don’t know. We probably would have laughed. She might possibly have jabbed at me with her walking stick. No matter.
So Lesley, instead we promise this. We commit the first night of this year’s BBC Proms to the memory of a dear friend. Generous of spirit. Determined. Brave. And much, much missed.