Christmas Day, 1988. Yes, that's me, seventeen years old, watching the television premiere of Back To The Future on BBC1. I just fought the automatic urge to write ‘terrestrial premiere’ then, which not only betrays what I do for a living, but would be an unnecessary term given how Sky’s output was a mere glint in Rupert Murdoch’s rheumy eye in those simpler days. In any event, as I watched sterling Doc Emmett Brown hang from the Hill Valley Clock Tower, valiantly trying to reconnect the power cable that would channel the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity into the DeLorean’s flux capacitor and send plucky young Marty McFly back to the year 1985…I dully realised that things had moved on between Yule and yours truly. I was on a festive cusp, far too old for toys, yet still too young to have any practical ideas of the kind of grown-up fun one could have over Christmas — much less the disposable income to indulge in any of it. I would have been too embarrassed to ask my ageing parents to remember which Jethro Tull albums I coveted on my CD list. Besides, I already owned Back To The Future on VHS. I learned that day that Christmas was never going to deliver for me the way it had done so when I was a child. The cracks had started to show. Life had started to intervene — the boring bits especially as the coming years would prove: those involving job seeking, house hunting, bill paying, bereavement and unrequited love.
Now, before I sound like some damnable Dickensian ingrate and disappear under a welter of voices decrying “Bah, humbug, etc” may I emphasise how much I do actually enjoy this time of year. For a start I’m saying nothing original here, I know, bemoaning the overt commercialisation of Christmas: we all feel that side of it. Nonetheless, like any person of sound mind, I enjoy giving and receiving presents and I have certainly received wonderful gifts these past few days, accepted with gratitude and affection, all. Without protesting my social credentials too loudly, you don’t need good Saint Nick to find me an excuse for a good hard, rousing carouse anytime, anywhere. Father Christmas, even at my embittered age, weaves his palpable magic over the Festive Season — manifest, if nothing else, as that self-determining atmosphere engendered among people amiably disposed to finding fun out in the cold air, the short days and long nights. Count me in for all of that, to say nothing of getting some decent time off work. No, I certainly don’t have an axe to grind with the Little Baby Jesus, if you’ll forgive an unnecessarily visceral visual image (coming soon to a cinema near you). Most conclusively, I also love Slade. Case closed.
Nonetheless, for me, there’s no denying that it’s been a long time — twenty-two years there, so I’ve reckoned — since Christmas Day itself has proven entirely able to equal, let alone surpass, the burden of expectation heaped upon it by the madness of the preceding weeks. Moreover, nearly every job I’ve had — whether they be in retail, publishing or education — has been informed by that galloping lunacy that seems to infect so many people in the run-up to Christmas Day. Consequently, it gets increasingly hard for me to feel it’s all been worthwhile by then. It needs to be said at least once more how there’s a lot to gain from a collective throttle-down on the financial outlay; better to observe the sanctity of a season where we turn our kindest thoughts to our dearest family and friends, irrespective of any religious leaning. That can be — could be, should be — a stunning human phenomenon, right there, one not to be underestimated. I think what I’m trying to say in so many, many words is: it shouldn’t just be for the kids, Christmas, should it?
However, Boxing Day — with the knowledge that one is as far away from next Christmas Day as can be — is an altogether more relaxing and less anticlimactic proposition. And so it has proved this year. Splendid. How’s that for a longwinded way of saying that I hope you had the Christmastide of your desire?
Now it’s time for me to turn to the comfortingly familiar subject of pubs.
Several months ago, I wrote an article regarding The Moon Under Water — a short, entertaining essay George Orwell wrote for the London Evening Standard in 1946, which laid out his ten personal requirements for the perfect pub. Orwell’s article clocks in at around one thousand words of spare, fat-free writing. My own article took 500 words more to get no further than discussing what I’d have on the jukebox. I think therein lies the precise difference between Mr Eric Arthur Blair, master of punchy, prosal parsimony and me — a fat guy who likes increasingly irrelevant instances of awkward alliteration plus the odd drink or two. It never even occurred to me that my ideal pub may not have a jukebox at all.
The matter of recorded music piped into public places raises a double standard for me. Who has not suppressed the urge while travelling on public transport to kill the moron whose mobile ringtone is clearly neither original, nor indeed loud enough for its idiotic owner to identify and answer without regaling fellow passengers to several bars? No, instead our Besuited Monkey Boy smiles his mooncalf smile at the phone like he’s never heard music emerge from it ever before in his life. Elsewhere, countless wretched Mexican restaurants across the nation would have gone out of business a lot sooner if the Mariachi band piped out — make that ‘ladled out’ — across the speakers at maximum volume didn’t distract the punters from their pre-frozen chimichangas and watered-down Margaritas. None of this is at all based on personal experience, can you tell?
I’ve been in pubs where the music is comically inappropriate: in London, just off Oxford Street, was a pub called Ben Crouches Tavern. Don’t look for it — it’s not there anymore, and I’m afraid the apostrophe in its name is still AWOL as well. It was one of a small chain of boozers wailing under the corporate nom-de-bleaaaghh of The Eerie Pub Company. Some of the other pubs in the chain may still be in existence, but I have no inclination to seek them out. The Eerie Pub Company. Certain terms should never be self-appointed. In the same way that someone who claims to be ‘laid-back’ usually tends to be persuading themselves more than anyone else, so can you expect neither thrills nor chills from a franchise outlet claiming to be eerie. Beneath the plastic stone cladding and gargoyles, the fibreglass cobwebs and the life-size effigy of Frankenstein’s monster sat a pub bereft of imagination or variety — but at least it was dark. They served the least demanding range of lager and ales you could find outside of a railway wine bar, plus a series of cocktail shots poured into test tubes and dubbed each of the Seven Deadly Sins. I remember being in Ben Crouches the afternoon we found out the Queen Mother had died. I don’t recall for certain, but it would have been a hollow tribute to Her Majesty’s memory if, as was entirely possible, we toasted her with ‘Lust’ or ‘Envy.’ But I digress. The oddest aspect of the Eerie Pub’s business model was how the creepy aesthetic worked at odds with the perky sounds of Blur, Stereo MCs and many, many more happy hitmakers of the Nineties. Not a single track by The Cramps, Fields Of The Nephilim or even Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers. Still, it could have been a lot worse. At least it was all good pop, anywhere you care to find it, but I can’t help thinking that all that good work — with the mock-Goth set design, those little shot-phials and the screens with the Dracula DVD on loop — ended up down the toilet to the twin sounds of Damon Albarn bleating and recorded screaming. I’m not joking about that last bit; actual screaming sound effects in the toilets, I tell you. Way to put a man off his stroke, in a manner of speaking.
Worst of all is the pub that plays out-and-out crap music, usually to cater — pander — to the lowest common denominator. Chain pubs are again the most likely perpetrators, playing a selection labelled ‘crowd pleasers and safe bets’ — songs that keep the beat simple, solid and bass-heavy, the exact, inanely generic chart pop tunes that end up filling the shelves, unloved and unsold, in charity shops. Mark their names with shame: Peter Andre, auto-tuned X Factor winners, anyone connected with Simon Cowell, in fact. It’s a given that the decor and lighting in these establishments works in harmonious sympathy with the sound, to create a brightly lit, blandly furnished, wipe-clean environment more akin to a provincial nightclub; a kind of alcoholics’ Guantanamo Bay.
However, isn’t all this pretty rich coming from someone who wrote 1,500 words on a fantastical, fictional pub playlist for an idealised, imaginary pub? Well, largely, yes, it is. I’m a keen proponent of a decent jukebox. A tastefully chosen, subtly driven jukebox selection can lift an already good evening into an excellent one; it can even, on occasion, salt a bad night up into something good. On either occasion, it’s always gratifying to find one’s musical decisions elicit the desired cry of “Ohh, TUNE!” from your cronies as the intro to a beloved song kicks in — preferably with forefinger aloft. There’s a time and a place for it all; having the discrimination to judge when exactly is the trick of it. Similarly, some of you will know the Café-in-the-Crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London which, until quite recently, broadcast Baroque music of the most uplifting order at discreet levels; the strident strings and brass warmth conspiring with the shadows cast across displaced headstones and other memento mori to create a wondrous location for an assignation. Within these heavy, sunken stone walls, scented with Madeira cake, dried lichen and Earl Grey tea, relationships were formed, reformed and deformed, friendships consolidated and — more than once — dreams shattered. Still not personal experience, oh no sir. None at all.
As an admirer of film scores, I can think of many, many more occasions where music enhances and underlines the emotional tenor of a scene than I can of times where it proves intrusive and unwelcome. There’s a case for not having music at all, but that’s a boring sentiment to maintain in a medium where all emotion is artifice — whether it be projected directly from actors, through clever visual juxtaposition to suggest meaning or just courtesy of Big Johnny Williams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. But I digress again. Anyway, all of this should have belonged in another essay entirely. I was here today to talk about pubs. I have reached nearly 2,000 words. Bollocks. I’ll have to leave it for another time.
Somewhere, George Orwell is slowly shaking his head.
I wish you a Happy New Year.
Michael Praetorius: Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh, 1994)
Heinrich Schütz: Christmas Vespers (Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh, 1999)
In Hoary Winter’s Night (Joglaresa, 2009)
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Te Deum/Messe de minuit (Choeur et Musiciens de Louvre/ Marc Minkowski, 1997)
The complete Harry Potter series (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, David Yates, 2001-2011)
The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)
Kelly’s Heroes (Brian G Hutton, 1970)
The First Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton, 1978)
The First Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton, 1978)