I like that title. If anyone cares to write a song with that name, I think it could probably be a hit in the same vein as the late Kirsty MacColl’s 1981 classic There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.
I will admit to being a little lacking in classical music knowledge — I’m firmly in the “I may not know much, but I know what I like” school of thought. It’s not entirely unheard of for me to be unaware of the title of a piece of music, and need to hum the melody to someone to describe it. I have also loved particular pieces of music for years, only finally finding out what they’re called when that nice Henry Kelly clearly spells them out after playing them on Classic FM. Sometimes I think that I should learn more, to actively increase my knowledge of classical composers and their works. But then I remember that over-analysis of music has ruined it for me on previous occasions. I always prefer my own emotional reaction, rather than a more educated and considered response.
For a few years, I’ve been an occasional customer of the Classical Music Exchange in London’s “fashionable” Notting Hill Gate. While I may not possess the most informed appreciation of classical music, I am quite a fan of contemporary composers — Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Part, Philip Glass, Graham Fitkin, to name but a few. When I visit the Classical Music Exchange, it’s generally this sort of stuff that I’m after. The reason for this is that the rest of the shelves are packed so tightly with composers from A — Z, I am sure that I’d never find what I’m looking for. I head straight for the ‘Contemporary’ and (deep breath) ‘Minimalist’ shelves, browse around to see if there’s anything I want, and if there isn’t I rush out again.
But, here’s the thing. Ever since I’ve been frequenting this particular store, I’ve been convinced that one particular member of staff has me sussed; even worse, that he dislikes me. Yes, it’s total paranoia — but it does seem that when I come into the shop, he glares at me as I head straight for my usual shelves and, as there aren’t generally too many items to browse through, either leave shortly after or arrive at the counter within minutes. On the occasions when I buy CDs, he takes them from me and flicks through the cases with a disapproving grimace. He barely speaks as he passes me the second-hand discs for checking. Once, while he was waiting for me to pay, I could have sworn that he deliberately turned up the volume of a piece of rather flowery baroque music playing on the store’s hi-fi. It felt like he was trying to tell me off — “You, BOY! This is proper music, BOY! Do you not hear? This is far superior to any of your new-fangled modernist rubbish, BOY!” (Although I can’t describe his voice, as I write this I’m imagining an impatient, angry Laurence Olivier playing Richard III, if that helps. While it’s a little parochial of me to describe his appearance — if you do happen to be a regular visitor to this store, keep a look out for the white-haired fellow with glasses and a scraggy beard, who often stands outside to smoke a cigarette.)
All my imagination, of course. Yet, he does seem relatively cheery with the rest of the customers who come in to the store looking for an obscure addition to their Wagner collection, or who want to find a particular 1972 Berlin performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 in F Major.
Yesterday afternoon, I went into the Classical Music Exchange before going to the cinema in Notting Hill. I felt the usual stern blinking eyes watching me from behind small spectacles, as I strode purposefully to the contemporary section at the back of the shop. However, when I arrived back at the counter with my CDs, my nemesis was standing to one side, and a cheerful Canadian guy was on the till. As he searched for my purchases, he chatted with me about my taste in music. (In case you’re interested, we discussed the version of Gavin Bryars’ haunting Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet featuring Tom Waits, which he promised to reserve for me if a copy was brought in. What a nice man.) I might have been mistaken, but I’m certain that Mr Classical Purist was looking on with a disapproving glare throughout our entire conversation.
If none of the above makes any sense, and seems like a lot of fuss about nothing — well, yes, it is. But just imagine going into the Rock & Pop store next door, and having one of the shop assistants guffaw loudly as you approach the counter with that obscure album you’ve been wanting to add to your collection for years. Hold that thought. As I get older (and possibly wiser), I’m beginning to have much less patience with musical snobbery, even if it is all within my own weird imaginings.