Geneva, Friday 17 April 2020
It is a summer day in 1999. I am in London only briefly. The one possible place to meet for lunch is his office. I hurry along Whitehall. No need to look for a street sign; the huge iron gates and hi-viz policemen are the giveaway. “Good morning!” I say to an officer. “I have a meeting with Mr Campbell.” He looks at a clipboard, finds my name and waves me through. “Urm… Where do I go?” He smiles politely. “Number ten, sir. Right along there!” I look down a Downing Street devoid of cars and people. “What, I just go and ring the door bell?” That smile again. “I suggest the big brass door-knocker, Sir. There is no bell!”
And so I knock and that door opens. Official efficient security personified shows me to Alastair’s office. It’s been quite some years since I’ve seen my old college buddy. Firm handshake. Warm greeting. Nice sandwiches. Soft drinks. We’ve both gone our separate and very different ways. He’s changed. I’ve changed. We chat about our jobs: me the doctor; he the spin-doctor. We catch up on our families and mutual friends. He’s still Burnley football crazy. “Are you still playing the bagpipes?” He chuckles. My question is the play button for a shared memory. And then we start laughing.
It was a summer night in 1979. Exams were finished and May Balls done with. I have vague memories of a riotous dress-up party. I was Tartan of the Apes. At about four o’clock in the morning, Alastair said. “You’ve got a kilt! Great! Let’s do a trip!” I was intrigued. “Where?” He took a pull at his beer. “How about Brussels?” We got the first train from Cambridge station to Harwich. Alastair had donned a kilt. I had grabbed a toothbrush. “What’s in the case?” I asked. He laughed. “The pipes! Thought we could earn a bob or two.” Still hungover, we had a late breakfast on the ferry to Ostende and arrived in the Belgian capital that evening. We had two pounds between us. And I had sobered up.
“So, what happens now?” I asked. All bravado had evaporated with a fast encroaching not-such-a-good-idea feeling. Had Alastair noticed my growing discomfort? I started to worry that my pal was enjoying my worry. This was, quite simply, not the sort of thing that I did. I was a medical student FFS. “Look! A proper pub!” he cried with delight. The Double Diamond! The owner was a scot named Andy. He thought two broke blokes with English accents wearing kilts was a real hoot and merited a couple of free beers. He told us that If we returned later, we could sleep in a box room above the bar. “OK”, said Alastair, “Let’s go to work!” His nostrils flared; he’d caught the scent of Belgian francs.
Walking through the streets of any non-British city looking like a Caledonian tramp is likely to cause a stir. If there’s two of you – and one is carrying the pipes – the air is full of whistles and cheers. New-found friends offered us more beers. Then we spotted a long queue for a cinema. Alastair stopped and fired up the pipes. I realised three things simultaneously. He was very good. The music was hauntingly beautiful. Bagpipes are loud (and therefore, as I was about to find out, ideal for working streets, stations, bars, trains and shopping malls.) I stood by, tapping my feet and swaying my hips feeling a bit of a spare part. I was cheered to see people obviously loving the whole spectacle. Then the music cracked up. Alastair was laughing so much he could no longer blow into the bag. “Wassup?” I asked. “Go on, then! Make some money!” he yelled. I gaped at him. My jaw and the penny dropped together. His job was to play the pipes. My job was to play the hat. I was going to beg on the streets! Feeling slightly ashamed, I set about my task with hesitation but to my utter amazement people gave us money. And how! After twenty minutes said hat was full to overflowing. Coins and notes! So we went for a beer and, predictably, everyone in the bar wanted to hear the pipes. We made more money. We drank more beer. We ate filet steak with Belgian fries. And that was the beginning of a week of non-stop laughter.
I rapidly honed my hat technique. I learnt that it came down to, first, giving people a good feeling about putting their hand in their pocket or handbag for change they wouldn’t miss and, second, being right in front of them at the critical moment. If the first person approached put nothing in the hat, working the rest of the crowd was, in financial terms, uphill. The trick was to spot the most willing giver early in the piece. So, the hat would start on the ground near Alastair’s feet. At some point, somebody would make the unmissable move to find some loose change. At this point, I would pick up the hat and be just so positioned to facilitate the nice person’s munificence and congratulate then for it. Everyone else would then be happy to donate to our cause. Even better, when Mummy or Daddy encouraged timid little Marie-Louise to put a coin in the funny man’s hat. An exaggerated thank you. Big smile at parent(s). Gentle ruffle of hair. Guaranteed double takings for the set. As PG Wodehouse would say, it’s all about the psychology of the thing.
We experimented. Once, the two of us collected without playing any music. That worked surprisingly well. In a one-off and beer-fuelled moment we flirted with the idea of street comedy; this involved me trying to play the pipes and Alastair collecting. I could only mange a kind of farting noise. People laughed a lot at my wrestling with a Scottish octopus; it still filled the hat.
Wherever we went, we were the centre of attention. Late one warm evening, we were in a busy street in Dusseldorf. We were doing well with “Amazing Grace” (as usual) until a police car arrived sirens a-blare. The upholders of law and order told us in no uncertain terms to get out of town. The crowd was cheering and jeering when an enormous guy in suit and tie pushed his way through and shouted – in English – “What’s going on here? These are my friends!” Much to our surprise, the police left tail-between-legs. Our new bestie, said “Let’s go to my club!” Bruno (for that was his name,) his entourage, Alastair and I were waved past the queue for, through the doors of and onto a reserved table in a pretty slick nite spot. It was humming. The champagne flowed. We never did discover who Bruno was. He claimed he was the mayor of Dusseldorf; we suspected he was some colourful gangland boss. At some point, he told the DJ to turn the music off so Alastair could play. And Alastair did play. Well… I still had my hat on and felt a responsibility to collect a deutschmark or two. When the management realised what we were up to, we were ejected in short order. Bruno did not come to our rescue.
We’d made enough cash to stay in hotels. That night, we got back to our room and emptied the hat, sporrans, the pockets of our waistcoats and our socks of cash. There was money everywhere. We laughed and we laughed. We laughed until we ached and then some. A man from the neighbouring room knocked on our door and asked us to make less noise. That made it worse. The reception desk phoned threatening to call the police. We were both in serious pain now and the more painful it got, the more we laughed.
Eventually, we arrived in Antwerp. It was a Sunday afternoon. We’d been riding this crazy roller-coaster for six days, were knackered and felt we should head home. All good things have to end and we calculated that we were carrying the equivalent of about two thousand pounds (and this in 1979!!) Antwerp’s centre was quiet but one bar was open… and its terrace was heaving. On top, the clientele were whistling and shouting at us come and join them for a drink. One last gig? Why not? We went in …. only men…. ah! Gay bar! The guy in charge was most welcoming; he went, unsurprisingly, by the name of Willy. He wanted to hear the pipes. Alastair charmed them all with “Atholl Highlanders.” He then announced a jig called “Paddy’s Leather Breeches.” The place went wild. And while they all danced and whooped, I started the rounds with the hat. Now I know what it’s like for a waitress to feel eager hands wander up under her skirt. Having given the terrace a good fleecing, I figured I would head inside where there were clearly more potential donors. I hesitated on the threshold. It was dark. There was a lot of black leather. Willy, much amused by my predicament, took the hat and went in and collected on our behalf. We said goodbye with man-hugs all round. Antwerp kept us in laughter all the way back to Harwich.
I see on-line that my friend Alastair is still piping. He does so outside his front door as his part of the Thursday evening clapping for carers. He even serenades his neighbour, a nurse, when she returns from her gruelling hospital shift. Predictably, his political colours still fly; he hounds the government to recognise and right any short falls in the COVID-19 response. I wish him well. Perhaps one day I’ll persuade him to meet up in Brussels. We’ll see if two guys in their sixties can, in the post-COVID-19 era, graft and laugh as much as those two post-pimple young men straight from college without a care in the world.