I am currently enjoying Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani channelling Neil McGregor and taking us through the history of India via 50 lives (rather than 100 objects). I had previously read an overview of Indian history (many years ago, when there was less of it) but the series is full of surprises – in particular, how many supposedly modern ideas arose (or also arose) in India in the distant past. We have reached the 15th century and the life of Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism. I have had a soft spot for the Sikh faith for many years and this episode only added further reinforcement. If I understand correctly, the Guru started a system of inviting people of all religions, castes and genders to come to the temple and sit down together for a free meal: which must be one of the finest ideas ever generated by a major religion. I have a strong feeling this work continues to this day here in the UK, supplementing the role of food banks in these parlous time for many families. I worry that society is becoming ever more segregated into groups that never meet each other which can’t be a positive for the future of the (only semi-mythical) social contract. Perhaps we need to take this Sikh idea on board much more widely, tackling some of the worst aspects of deprivation and improving social cohesion at a stroke.
But what has this plug for Radio 4 and the Sikh faith to do with chatting to barmen? Well, I was just coming to that – but feel it is important in this era, so often characterised by instant gratification, to allow for a more gradual unfolding of today’s thesis.
I have, for many years now, been the bane (OK, a bane – the long hours, poor salary and working conditions might also be considered banes) of those working in service industries by insisting on engaging them in conversation, normally against their will, during any face-to-face transaction. I have just enough self-awareness to recognise this is probably all about me and my desperate need for human contact to fill the howling pit of loneliness at my core, but I also like to imagine that it might enliven the working days of those unfortunates I pick on. It is also good to treat people as such, not as some sort of robot lackey. Some (maybe most) fend off my conversational advances through some combination of disinterest, embarrassment and terror, but enough engage with the process that I keep on going.
Actually, proof-reading that last paragraph has led to a minor epiphany. As previously established, what I most want in life is an audience and the poor folk serving me are (for a brief moment) a captive audience – constrained by their professionalism (or fear of disciplinary action) from fleeing my company (which would be the response of most right-thinking folk with a greater degree of freedom).
For most such audiences, my one-man-show is a fleeting, never-to-be-repeated experience and the trauma fades with time, but not for those working at my regular haunts. The most frequent victims of my attempts at verbal intercourse are the staff at 10 Greek Street and at the bars of the Nuffield Theatre and Turner Sims – and it is the latter which will detain us here (and justify the title). There are now a few staff with whom I have chatted on multiple occasions: not only providing me with some bonus pre-show (or even interval) entertainment but also some valuable information. Most of the staff are (I assume, or by now know) students – which is very much my core demographic (I like to view the near 30 years since I left university as having been spent perfecting my student-hood) – and so have shared local cultural tips, including pubs! This may have reached its peak on Sunday afternoon when I was given a hot tip for a combined CAMRA-recommended pub and music venue – and even an upcoming free gig.
So it was that yesterday evening I cycled down to the Talking Heads – just a little beyond Waitrose in the wilds of the Portswood Road – to watch (though not invigilate) an examination. As part of their final exams, music students perform (no huge surprise there) and the public are allowed to watch for free. For the jazz/pop students their ensemble exams took place in the backroom of a pub – which strikes me as excellent preparation for later life and provides a great deal more atmosphere than any of the exams of my own youth. The Talking Heads seems to offer live music almost every night – so I shall definitely be adding it to my roster of local, cultural haunts. Three ensembles performed across the evening, with the ensemble size growing as the evening went on – and with the final one borrowing some forces from both of its predecessors. The evening was enormous fun (and did I mention, free!), though I did observe that no-one else in the audience or on stage seemed to have direct experience of the first half of the 1990s (I have no idea where the examiners were hiding). I felt very old – like someone’s dad (or worse) – but did re-learn the applause rules for jazz-inflected music (rather different from its classical counterpart) and was surrounded by music students (to copy off) when rhythmic clapping was required. All three acts seemed pretty good, but my highlight (by a jazz mile – like a country mile, but less depressing and more freeform) was the evening’s final ensemble Muteight (snaps for the name!) – which did have eight members (we didn’t have to count the ship or computer) and at least one mute. This was good news as my bar friend was the keys-man (if that be the phrase) for the band, so I can honestly say (next time we meet) that I loved them. I have a significant birthday in the annoyingly near future and, if I mark this with some sort of “event” (other than sobbing alone into my beer), they would be an excellent choice to close the evening. Last night, even I was tempted to dance: fear of being judged – and found wanting – by a large group of people nearly thirty years my junior stayed my dancing feet (the young can be so judgemental!). Still, unlike the rest of the audience, I could remember the seventies influences that informed a fair chunk of their music and could wallow in a nostalgia denied my fellows: sometimes age does have its benefits!