Brad the Bartender

July 22, 2014

A couple of Fridays ago I became a bartender. Not in a bar, but in a church. The organ recital started at 10pm, the listing said ‘Wine and soft drinks available from 21.30′, the appointed person didn’t turn up, and so I took charge. I’m not someone who has ever taken charge of anything in my life, but I’d turned 31 just a couple of days before and decided it was now or never.

First thing was to suss out the territory. Three kinds of wine, the white (Sauvignon) chilled, with several backup bottles in the fridge, the red (Montepulciano and Chilean Merlot) not; elderflower pressé, orange juice. There were twelve wine glasses lined up already, which would suffice if business was slow, but perhaps there were more stashed away. Aha, a box under the counter. Everything was coming together nicely.

Then it was pointed out that there wasn’t a float. I had to improvise. I gently pleaded with my first patrons to pay exact change if possible. At one point I had to rush out, leaving my post unattended, to swap money for some change from the cash box at the door. One woman, buying £3.50 of drinks for her and her daughter, gave me £4 and told me to keep the change, a tacit but reassuring endorsement of my professionalism.

As the audience trickled in, I began to observe a strange alteration in my behaviour. The old social awkwardness disappeared. I felt a proprietorial pride. I leant on the bar, hallooing potential boozers. I became every bartender I have ever seen on television or in film. Sam Malone from Cheers, Brad the Bartender from Magnolia, Les from Men Behaving Badly. I haven’t watched Cocktail and, I may say without fear of contradiction, I never will, but I began to lament the absence of a cocktail shaker. Every new face automatically became a person who might confide their troubles to me as I poured them a large glass of Merlot and offered them a sympathetic ear.

Dave Atkins as Les

Dave Atkins as Les

I also assumed a jocular patter I have never possessed in real life. Give a man a bottle of wine and a person to pour it into and he suddenly finds his tongue.

White wine: Ooh, I’m out of breath after that.
Me: Did you come up Bath Street?
White wine: No, Catherine Hill.
Me: Well, they’re both steep!

This is the kind of witty banter I would never think of under normal circumstances. With other patrons I joked about the ludicrous overpricing of our drinks compared to those at the cello concert earlier in the week, and the oppressive atmosphere inside.

Elderflower: It’s very close in here.
Me: Yes, you can’t open the windows!

To see it written down, you don’t get a sense of the sheer jollity that arose from this quip. People just love small talk, that’s one of the many truths I discovered during my half hour in the limelight. They also like it if you play down your competence. I tried to engage one man by telling him that if he took a risk and bought a glass of wine he might get lucky as I’d never sold wine before and my measures were likely to be on the generous side. He didn’t buy anything, but it didn’t really matter as (I found out) people really like wine. ‘I work hard,’ their eyes seemed to say, ‘it’s Friday night. I want a glass of wine.’ One man bought a glass of red at 9.45, then came back for another one just before the recital started. Another asked me if there would be an interval. ‘No, it’ll just run straight for about an hour.’ Oh, well, in that case he’d better have two glasses. These men were clearly committed alcoholics, but you can’t let ethical considerations interfere with your job, especially when they might lead to the alienation of your core demographic. By the end I’d got through the best part of ten bottles, with enough left over for a glass of white for myself.

Not that my success was unmitigated. Near the start, one man asked for a Sauvignon and I peered at the labels on the bottles of red for a few moments before he clarified that Sauvignon meant white. Another man appeared to take umbrage at my having given his change to his wife. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t suggested the money might have been hers anyway and that he was under orders from her as to what to buy. I didn’t call him a bastard, which is another illustration of my professionalism.

All things considered, I would be a bartender again, but probably not if it means I have to wash up 40 wine glasses after everyone else has gone home.

Papa Haydn wrote this tune

July 18, 2014

A reference in Paul Kildea’s Britten biography sent me scurrying for a copy of this book, which entertained the composer on a visit to America:

Spaeth - title page

If this were only a book deconstructing the great symphonies for the layman, it would be nothing remarkable, but Sigmund Spaeth takes it upon himself to provide mnemonic lyrics for each melody. It’s a treasure trove.

Some choice examples:

Spaeth - Haydn 1

Haydn, Symphony no. 94, ‘Surprise’ (Andante)

Spaeth - Haydn 2aSpaeth - Haydn 2b

Haydn, Symphony no. 92, ‘Oxford’ (Presto)

Spaeth - Schubert 1

Schubert, Symphony no. 8, ‘Unfinished’ (Allegro moderato)

Spaeth - Schubert 2

Schubert, Symphony no. 9, ‘Great’ (Andante)

Spaeth - Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 4, ‘Italian’ (Allegro vivace)

Spaeth - Brahms 1

Brahms, Symphony no. 1 (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio)

Spaeth - Brahms 2

Brahms, Symphony no. 4 (Allegro non troppo)

Spaeth is justifiably proud of his achievement, though he confesses it is not an original concept.

Credit for the germ of this whole idea really belongs to Miss Mabelle Glenn, of Kansas City, one of our outstanding educators in the field of music …

Not that he’s trying to pass the buck. As he says, ‘No justification or apology is really necessary.’ Not everyone could undertake a project like this successfully, though.

… there is a horrible memory of one musical educator who undertook to analyze Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for an audience of children in New York. For the opening four notes, definitely described by the composer as representing “Fate knocking at the door,” this gentleman used the words “I’ve lost my hat!” … Without undue arrogance, it may be assumed that no such desecration has been committed in this volume.

Well, I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much. A couple of big romantic themes for your delectation, firstly from the slow movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World’:

Spaeth - Dvorak

And here’s the horn theme from Tchaik 5, one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. Spaeth draws on his knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s pacifism to create a subtle and eloquent plea for peace.

Spaeth - Tchaikovsky 1Spaeth - Tchaikovsky 2

Hard to know how we managed in the bad old days before this book existed, isn’t it. I suppose if there’s a disadvantage to Spaeth’s method, it may be that it makes it impossible to listen to the noble opening of Schubert 9 without the accompanying banality of the text, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to recognise it and impress your friends. ‘That’s the “Horns play the prologue slow” Symphony!’ you cry, and everyone applauds.

Like rain on your wedding day

June 25, 2014

A year ago I went to chapel and observed a bunch of students about to graduate. This year, reluctantly, I shunned the corresponding service in favour of the second half of England’s match again Costa Rica, which was so monumentally uninteresting that I didn’t even bother to look at the screen for most of it. We all make bad decisions.

This morning, our students graduated. I went to watch them line up along the side of the chapel, and clapped as they paraded past. I took an umbrella with me, as the skies looked threatening. It’s been warm recently, but two days ago Cambridge was mercilessly thundered and lightninged upon, and yesterday I arrived home semi-soaked.

As I watched the students in formation, observing the now familiar mix of camaraderie and nerves, and eventually embarrassment as we started to applaud and they perhaps realised how preposterous all this is, I found myself thinking that a rainstorm is a thing that unites us all. The rush to find a place of shelter, the resigned but smiling faces we make at each other as we come in from the wet, as if to say, This country, eh? I was a few minutes from home yesterday, the rain falling in sheets, when a young mother on a bike (complete with Rerun-style baby) pulled up next to me and asked if I would zip up the bag on her back, which had come open. Her eggs were getting wet. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a stranger in the street. I remember my own graduation ceremony only dimly, probably because I was so intent on not falling over as I knelt for the accolade that I forgot to take it in. If it had rained, things would have stayed in the memory.


It didn’t rain today. In fact it turned into something idyllic, beautifully sunny and breezy. I can’t speak for other universities, but here you graduate, then you clear off. By the time the degree ceremony takes place, the parties have all been had. The authorities bung you a piece of card in a plastic pocket, then you go back to your room, shove some things in a box, put everything in your parents’ car, and arrivederci Cambridge. That doesn’t capture the euphoria and heartbreak jostling for supremacy in the human breast, but it’s the mechanics of the thing.

It’s a good thing to escape. Well, I imagine it is; I’ve not succeeded in doing it. I did go home after graduation, but by October I was back again, this time for good. So now I watch the students packing up and there is a small yearning in me to help them carry their lamps and kettles, and maybe, if they didn’t mind, I could sit in the back of the car and go back home with them, for who knows what adventures in the future, and I promise I wouldn’t be a bother.

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel a bit melancholy about the prospect of not seeing people again, and that’s as true of the people leaving as it is of those staying behind. Here is a recent Varsity article from one of our leavers. ‘I know that the memory of me will fade,’ she writes, ‘people will forget I was here. I will get lost in the trail of time and thousands of other students will take my place.’ But while it’s true that Cambridge the place will forget, the people won’t. Not all of them, anyway. And I find I remember particularly well the students who give us chocolates before they leave, as two did today, one with a card that I found unexpectedly moving. Valete, students! Onward and upward!

A brief history of spelling

April 24, 2014

I have always been able to spell. So I used to believe, anyway. I suspect that if I ever investigate the matter the evidence will prove me wrong. That said, by the time I started school, aged four, I had grasped the basics, and I looked down on the other children for their inability to do it, not that I’d ever have mentioned it to them. I was a nice little boy, really. Perhaps my disdain was really bafflement. Their memories weren’t as good as mine, I probably decided.

Aged nine, our teacher gave us a spelling test split into three parts. The first sixty words were straightforward. Any child who got full marks progressed to the next thirty, and any child who got full marks in the second part progressed to the final ten words. I was the only one who got ninety out of ninety, and so the third part consisted of Mr Platt reading ten words aloud, me writing them down, and everyone else in the room sitting around, bored. I got seven of these last ten right: one of the words, attorney, I had only seen written down in Peanuts cartoons, and I spelt it ‘attourney’ in the test, my reasoning being that it might be one of those words that Americans spelt without the u.

Surely a speccy nerd who can spell and likes to show off about it is exactly the kind of person likely to get a punch up the bracket round the back of the bike sheds, you’d think; but no. For one thing, I was never stupid enough to hang around the bike sheds, and for another, some of the other children in my class seemed to take pleasure in my spelling, fabrication though that sounds. One of them delighted in my ability to rattle off S-U-P-E-R-C-A-L-I-F-R-A-G-I-L-I-S-T-I-C-E-X-P-I-A-L-I-D-O-C-I-O-U-S in a matter of seconds. Some well-meaning boys used occasionally to refer to me as the walking dictionary. It’s not the kind of nickname any sane person would solicit, but it was flattering in its way. We are so used to thinking of children as innately capable of cruelty that sometimes we forget they can be kind too.

In my class that year was a very sweet girl of Polish parentage whose surname defied the conventions (such as they are) of English spelling. On one occasion the other children at my table tried to catch me out by demanding that I spell her name, while covering it up on her tray so that I couldn’t cheat. I had already taught myself how to spell it, as was my (unconscious) custom with any unfamiliar word or name. Years later, in the presence of another Polish student possessed of a particularly z-heavy surname, I had occasion to write it down. She laughed and said it was the first time anyone had done it without having to ask.

Another spelling test comes to mind, that I took at the age of thirteen. It was a hundred-question test, and included words like ‘fare’ and ‘subterranean’. I was convinced I had got full marks and gently nagged my teacher in the weeks that followed for my marked paper. To begin with she gave me the brush-off, but eventually she said she would tell me my mark: it was ninety-nine. I won’t say it tormented me that I didn’t know which word I had slipped up on, as I was so supremely confident of my accuracy that I simply assumed she had made a mistake with her marking. I even asked her (with, I fancy, an air of incredulity), was she sure? None of us got our tests back, and it is my belief that she never marked them. What teacher has the patience to write down three thousand ticks and crosses? Not even a professional and organised one, which the teacher under discussion was not. Why, then, did she make up such a mark? Was it in the interest of verisimilitude — after all, no one spells a hundred words without misplacing a letter or two along the way — or was it to tantalise the nasty oik who had been plaguing her? If I were a Philip Roth character I could get a good 5,000 words out of this single incident.

I am now a grown-up, and I can still do the complicated words like desiccated and Cincinnati, but I don’t feel any longer that being a decent speller sets me apart from others. Most people I meet these days can spell perfectly well, and those that can’t don’t need to, thanks to those helpful red squiggly lines all over the place. It doesn’t really matter how many r’s are in harassed, and everything I have built my life on is a fake and a lie. Never mind.


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