A Christmas Story
People often ask me if I miss working in a record shop at Christmas and I usually say no until I remember occasions like this:
It was almost closing time on Christmas Eve when a woman arrived in a cloud of Channel and gin fumes, looked at me as if I was twins on a distant horizon and announced, “Bloody arsehole.”
I was about to say, “And a merry Christmas to you, too, madam” when she wagged a corrective finger.
“Have ye jot,” she got out as her legs grew a bit wobbly and she had to lean on the counter, “Bloody Arsehole?”
Now, I’ve extrapolated Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder from a request for “Steeefffeee Window’s Apple Busfare” and managed to direct someone who asked for “Nice Beaver” by “that poof with the teeth” towards Night Fever by the Bee Gees. But Bloody Arsehole wasn’t ringing any bells, let alone ringing up a sale. So I had another go and asked this vision, who was beginning to look as if she might hit me before she toppled over, to repeat herself one more time.
“Bludddd. Deee,” she shed, sorry, said, “Arsh hole.”
Was this a request or an accusation? I must have looked completely helpless because she helped me. She gave me a clue.
“Ye musht hiv herdoit. ‘Eee shed if anbideee’d know whit ah meant, yeeee-eeew wid.”
A faint memory came to me. I’d seen this woman someplace before. But where was it? And who was she with? Who was ‘eee who had such faith in my powers of musical deduction?
“Ahm shoor ‘eee shed ‘eee heard the coal man shingin’ it,” my challenger wheezed as I looked at the racks, praying that an inspired volunteer album cover would launch itself into my arms so that I could close up the shop and go for a dri… Well, no, maybe not. I’d already inhaled several doubles.
Bloody Arsehole. The coal man sings it. Phew. When I was still at school we used to get coal delivered to the house by a chap who whistled tunelessly the whole time and wouldn’t have been above miscalling his driver, who was always telling him to get a move on and stop his infernal whistling, although infernal wasn’t the adjective he used. But I doubted if anyone would have released a record of this duo’s various contretemps.
Then the eureka moment began to form, like the answer in a crossword puzzle. The bloke I’d seen this woman with’s face flashed before me. They’d been at a gig together somewhere. He liked saxophone players. I’d sold him some Art Pepper albums – I wished I could have sold his other half some more Art Pepper albums because we had plenty in stock. None of them, alas, was called Bloody Arsehole and although doubtless Art had invited such a greeting at some stage in his very colourful life, he hadn’t named a tune in its honour.
Bloody. Arsehole. I heard a snatch of a tune before something started dragging me slowly towards the appropriate album rack. This tune had lyrics too and a little voice inside my head began to sing them to me - and that’s how I came to complete this woman’s Christmas shopping by selling her Body & Soul by Coleman Hawkins.
Merry Christmas everybody.
A man has just been at my door talking about the miracle of Christmas. “But what is the miracle of Christmas?” he asked in that tone of gentle earnestness with which Late Call presenters warn of impending humour.
“Is it, as a primary school teacher friend was informed in a recent class discussion, about a baby being born during a poll tax demonstration?”
I laughed. Well, it seemed the seasonal thing to do. Then I put him straight. No, in these over-commercialised times the miracle of Christmas is how more shop assistants don’t get carted off to the laughing factory during the last-minute stampede or, worse, the return of unwanted gifts Olympics that is Boxing Day.
It’s more than flesh and blood and hangovers can stand – being back in the front line after only one day to recover from the strain of ensuring, often with only marginal help from they who must be satisfied, that no stocking goes unfilled.
Everyone has their favourite “I realise you’re just about to close but I know exactly what I want and it is Christmas Eve after all” story. Here’s mine.
An office party casualty appears in a book shop and says in a 70% proof voice, “I want a book for my nephew.” To which the assistant, true to end of hard day form, replies, of course, “Sounds like a good swap.” No she doesn’t. She’s an assistant; she assists. She asks what the book is called and is told, with utter if slightly slurred conviction, “Roger the Dinosaur.”
There follows a good 20 minutes of rummaging around the sections from Children’s to Natural History and determined brain storming involving the entire staff and their waiting partners/parents/taxi drivers. Finally,
Yes, producing the goods sometimes requires inspired detective work. But as a failed applicant to CID (that’s Counter Intelligence Diplomacy), let me make a public announcement. After my experiences as a temporary sales boy in a music emporium last Christmas, I’m finished with the public.
Guitars finished me. Jews harps returning with dental repair bills I could handle. The one thousandth demand for a tutor book for the kazoo still made me chuckle. And the inevitable requests to see our big organs were greeted by the staff choir, teeth gleaming like keyboards, chanting: “Certainly, would you prefer them grand – or upright?”
But it was guitars that did it – not 10 guitars, two were enough. The first hint of trouble came when everything went dark. I looked up to see a man towering above me (and I’m not exactly wee). He was wearing a dog collar but that didn’t stop him breaking several Commandments or staging an inquisition that suggested some confusion between Yuletide and Easter.
Yes, I remembered his son buying a guitar on Christmas Eve. And yes, I watched him tie it to his moped with string, despite the offer of free delivery in the shop’s jalopy immediately after closing time.
Glowering, the pillar of society emptied the contents of a carrier bag onto the counter. What did I call this, then?
I said I called it poking his finger in my right nostril and I also called it very annoying.
“Not that,” he roared. He poked his finger at the wood pile on the counter instead. Obviously the guitar had been in a jam session with a road roller. “What do you call this?”
“Kindling,” I affirmed.
Could I repair it?
Could he turn Hirondelle into wine?
Well, couldn’t I return it to the manufacturer and say it had been damaged in transit, he beseeched me. So much for the bearing false witness Commandment.
I apologised and said no. At this the pillar of society turned into a tower of babble, exclaiming “****! *******! and, verily, ********!” He left with a loud invocation of the Lord’s wrath. At this point, the shop proprietor’s father, who has never recovered from watching Are You Being Served? misheard. “The cheese is priced? What does he mean?” asked out very own Young Mr Grace. “We don’t sell cheese.”
Then a woman comes in and asks to see someone in authority. I volunteer myself – a move I shall shortly regret. The woman wants a refund on a guitar she bought for her son because “it’s useless.” I unwrap the instrument from its carry case, slip it into tune and for my own benefit as much as anything else, strum a soothing ballad.
I venture with some trepidation that, perhaps – you know, it’s just possible – that the, er, fault may lie elsewhere.
“No, it’s the guitar,” she insists. “My son couldn’t get a single tune out of it. And we were all so disappointed – because he’s brilliant on his tennis racket.”
I rest my case.
One of the many, many reminders that Christmas is coming are television’s post-sitcom or games show announcements that so-and-so is currently appearing in panto somewhere or other.
You know the sort of thing: Hattie Jacques appearing as Cinderella; Madonna in Much Ado About Nothing; Anneka Rice in Rip Van Winkle. (Anneka Rice just falling asleep for a hundred years would do fine.)
These little primers may be every bit as insidious as those commercials for toys that make clearing the national debt seem affordable by comparison, but at least they don’t generally start until the clocks have gone back.
They also set me thinking about my own experiences in panto. Oh yes, I was once in showbiz – for about six weeks, and in a supporting role only, in what came to be known rather grandly as “The Orchestra Pit”. Mind you, if backing tapes in live concerts can be called a band, as I heard them being referred to the other day, then our little piano, bass and drums trio could certainly be called an orchestra.
Our stage manager agreed. Every night, and on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, he would lead us to our stations with the cry, “Gentlemen of the orchestra, walk this way.” And not wishing to disappoint him, every night, and on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, we three would pipe up, “What – and get arrested?” although, admittedly, with waning enthusiasm as the run wore on.
Some nights and particularly on Wednesday afternoons, when school parties were in, we were as lambs to the slaughter. Sitting in the orchestra pit, or seats 1 to 4 in rows A, B and C, to be more precise, we were cruelly exposed and sorely tried.
I once got caught, out walking with no shelter for miles, in a furious hail storm; my head was nippin’ as if I was being attacked with stilettos. But that was as nothing compared to the hail of sweeties that could come our way when the lights went down to signal showtime.
When the lights went back up again for the first number we’d go to play and discover our music hidden under two inches of dolly mixtures, liquorice allsorts or, if the heavy squad was in, boilings.
More sneaky treatment came from the angel-faced little tyke in seat 5, row C who detuned the bass as I hacked out the leading lady’s big number. Take it from me, nothing annoys the leading lady more than a bass player giving it big stuff on what sounds like a set of elastic bands as she goes for melodrama on a
Well, almost nothing. A leading man who has been carousing all afternoon and hisses unscripted brandy-breathed home truths in her face won’t please her much either. (Actually, I rather liked our leading man because he hissed a halitous “Oh yes I can” at my little chum in seat 5, row C that was more retribution than I could ever have hoped to dish out.)
Not that our leading lady couldn’t take a joke. During some particularly rough houses she was heckled mercilessly and gave as good as she got. Once, propositioned in a ribald but notably high-pitched manner, she suggested huskily that her admirer come back and see her after the show – ten years after the show.
The script didn’t help. Called to preen herself in front of a mirror and exclaim how beautiful she looked, she endured blunt counter claims along the lines of “Awa’ ye go, ye’re hackit.” And on one occasion, when she told her stage father, “It’s no use, my mind’s made up,” a cruel punter yelled, with, it has to be said, complete accuracy, “Aye and yer bust’s fictitious an’ a.” Except bust isn’t the term he used.
Her response was as eloquent of the Chaplin tradition as it was of the trouper’s. She fished out a tissue from the front of her dress, exaggeratedly wiped away an imaginary tear, sighed “touche” and got on with the show. Backstage, however, she loudly described her preferred revenge. It was unrepeatable. But I can tell you, it included the sort of stuffing that you wouldn’t give a Christmas turkey.
From The Herald, December 19, 1992
A previously undiscovered collection of songs written by Robert Burns during his stay in Edinburgh in 1787 has been found in an outbuilding of one of the poet’s favourite howffs. The manuscripts were found in a saddle, used by Burns when he was on his rounds as an exciseman, which was unearthed by workmen cleaning out a property adjacent to the Globe Tavern in Dumfries where Burns met Ann Park, the mother of his daughter Elizabeth.
All of the songs, says Burns expert Dr May Eyes, of Jackson Browne University, California, relate to an adventure the bard had with a group of Eastern European sailors he befriended in an Edinburgh tavern and several of them deal with the sailors’ homesickness, a state of affairs Burns could relate to as a ploughman trying to make his mark in refined Edinburgh society.
“These are priceless gems,” said Dr Eyes, who has had the manuscripts authenticated by fellow Burns expert Emma Mauchline-Tartt. “It had been previously known that Burns met these sailors and shared a few evenings with them, helping them to forget their troubles with pints of wine and merry muses, but no-one suspected he had written songs in their honour. The Slav’s Lament is particularly poignant but although some of them, such as Gloomy Dimitriyev and Flow Gently Sweet Vltava, show an element of sadness, others are more celebratory. I’m sure, for example, folk bands will be quick to pick up the Reel of Stupino and Tae Dubrovnic Gin Ye Go, and Tibbie Fowler of Gdansk is a great example of Burns’ ability to capture characters in song even when they are hundreds, if not thousands of miles from home.”
Dr Eyes is planning to record all of the songs – there are, handily, twelve in total – for a CD featuring some of the leading Burns interpreters of today and a release date has been set for April 1, 2015.
Long ago, before our shopping malls were turned into scrums of barging twits on personal missions of the utmost importance, Christmas shopping was fun. Christmas selling was even funnier.
To stand behind the counter in a record shop, for example, during the pre-Christmas rush was to experience more turns than a revolving door. As a source of entertainment it certainly beat the Christmas TV schedules.
Around the middle of November we used to open two books. The first was to bet on how low the public could stoop in its choice of Christmas numero uno single. The second was to take odds on which of us would deal with the daftest request.
These were a welcome break from the almost daily performances of “I don’t know it’s name but it’s used in that car commercial” followed by the howling, in melody-free fashion, of a snippet from Smetana’s Vltana, or some such.
Christmas brought the added attraction of the once a year trouper who couldn’t perform without a script. If his or her opening gambit began with any variation of “I’ve been absolutely everywhere but”, you knew that either the script or the cause was lost. Did someone say pantomime?
An MA degree in word association wouldn’t have gone amiss in translating a forlorn request for “something like Deserted Dining Car” into a cash sale for something called Abandoned Luncheonette. “Of course,” said another satisfied customer. “That’s the one, Albert Hall and John Noakes.” For some reason, even now, I can’t listen to Darryl Hall and John Oates lamenting the girl who left without harmonising, “Cheese scone.”
The sweetest incidents were always those where, in trying to give their kids a surprise, doting parents or grandparents would eavesdrop on teenage conversations with a notebook. Now, I was pretty sure, just by the sound of things, that what the doubtless deserving Fiona wanted was an album by the Eagles. But granny, it became quickly apparent, was a bit corned beef as well as adamant, a difficult combination to get the better of. Then again, maybe she’d picked it up right and there was indeed a record called The Ego’s Greatest Hits. We had hours of fun selecting various track lists for that one: I Go to My Head? Definitely. I Stepped out of a Dream? Possibly. I Remember Me? But naturally.
Without wishing to frown on teenage enterprise, some kids do use their Christmas list as the ultimate try-on, listing every record ever released in the hope that ma and pa will bring home as many as they, or the assistant, can carry to nearest car park. Staggering around under the weight of the complete catalogue so far from A to R, you might be excused if, when asked, “Now, where’s the Best of Rod Stewart?” you chuckle to yourself, “Flushed down Britt Ekland’s loo long since.”
But a little tact is required. How do you tell the severe-looking retired brigadier of a father that his Gordonstoun-boarding son is having him on? That some of his friends must have put him up to it – and teenagers, these days, they’re up to all the tricks. They’re such wags. And it’s only a joke – no, sir, not a very good one but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. Oh hell, there’s no such record as Queen’s Magic Moments on Philips (12-inch). Ho, ho, ho, little boy has dad got a surprise for you.