John Green, author of ‘The Stone Frigate” and “ Reunion” is my old friend and customer from our days at the “Bull’s Head”.
Although I have heard you complain albeit gently and occasionally about the steepness of Mount Street, and its effects on your now historic and war torn body, having watched the television news and the dismal pictures of the streets in the towns of mid Wales running like rivers under the relentless rain, I know you will be thankful today to have your house on the hillside.
I wasn’t able to come and see you in November. I’m sorry for that, and although I considered it, I eventually decided against inviting you to the British Horn Society’s annual festival in Cardiff, in order to save you from spending the day with a hundred and fifty french horn players.
Your time was evidently more pleasantly spent in writing to me about your Christmas in Brecon, and your letter took me right back to the old town and our Christmases past in the “Bull’s Head.”
The words “Merry Christmas” squeezing through the speakerphone, direct from Davy Jones’ locker, to a dinner table in Edinburgh is a situation comedy beyond description.
As the laughter resounded, I remembered a similar combination of Christmas festivities and Pentecostal babbling that took place on a tour of China with the BBC Scottish in the year 2000.
I remembered as well, that I wrote to you later from Shanghai but this event was something I had forgotten.
I was in a “duck” restaurant in Beijing with some people from the BBC Scottish orchestra including my Welsh friend Elin Edwards.
One of the ways in which the Chinese cook duck, is to poach it in water and rice wine, the resultant liquid forming a disgusting, off white viscid soup, the drinking of which, we were told was to be the most nourishing and desirable part of the experience, second only to the eating of the brains of the unfortunate animal which are exposed by the waiters, who split the head lengthwise with a cleaver, thereby enabling the contents to be picked easily from the skull with chopsticks.
The seasonal accompaniment to this grisly gastronomic theatre was a sort of Sino Elizabethan musak version of “God rest ye Merry Gentlemen” which was being played at high speed, in adenoidal audio by what sounded like an ensemble of Zhonghus, Sanxians and some western digital contrivances.
A dozen or so Chinese were seated around a large circular banqueting table next to us, the men shouting simultaneously in a kind of quarrelsome Mandarin across a forest of wine bottles, empty rice bowls, and duck carcasses, whilst the women were giving their attention to their babies’ crying.
And to add a colorful commentary to all this, Elin was speaking in Welsh, on a mobile telephone to her sister, who was at a pre- Christmas party in Pontllanfraith, the volume of her voice having been adjusted so as to be heard above the party- goers in Wales, our Mandarin neighbours at the next table, and with a little additional volume which I presumed was to allow for the great distance between Beijing and Monmouthshire.
Donald duck quacking a Christmas greeting from the depths of the North Sea could not have sounded in any way inappropriate to all this.
Dozens of ducks, having been prepared in various ways, were being transported around the huge restaurant on trolleys, and our waiter, having been encouraged through the various phases of drunkenness by the cordiality of the people who occupied our adjoining table, had by now reached the final phase of the process, marking his achievement by dropping one of the birds, which bounced like a rugby ball leaving trails of grease on the vinyl floor that the trolley wheels could not avoid. The resulting drunken climax to this Chinese theatre of the absurd was provided by our waiter who, resolving to attempt the head splitting ceremony at our table, and with his cleaver perilously poised, was knocked off his feet by a wayward trolley.
This madness was ongoing and an hour or so later we were instrumental in the fraud and deception of a huge audience in the ”Great Hall of the People” by means of a very approximate performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony which was “conducted” by an enormous Russian bear with a sore head, aggravated by over a week of touring in a country, the ancient and delicate cuisine of which was completely unsuited to his huge appetite and greediness.
His arms appeared to be tiny and irrelevant in comparison to his enormity and fatness, and they assumed the awkward atrophic proportions of flippers on a walrus. Consequently, his attempts to provide rhythmic direction when things started to fall apart, only served to destabilize the younger and less worldly among the players in the orchestra, while the rest of us, by means of a disdainful indifference, remained true to our ancient traditions of orchestral playing.
The ‘maestro’ was seen in the hotel restaurant later that night, oblivious to the damage he had caused, piling a great number of carefully presented Chinese delicacies onto a heap of rice in the middle of his plate, prior to shoveling the whole sticky mixture into his mouth with a spoon, his chopsticks having been discarded in gleeful anticipation.
The sight of all this and the lingering memory of our shoddy concert only intensified my longing for home, and eventually after several equally threadbare performances in other Chinese and Taiwanese cities, we ended the tour in a confrontation with the customs at Taipei airport, whose officials, working on the assumption that all itinerant musicians are drug addicts, rifled all our luggage and having found nothing incriminating, instituted a special ‘musical instrument’ tax that delayed us for a few more hours, before we finally embarked on the twenty hour journey to Glasgow.
I don’t miss touring now and I have enjoyed relative sanity since I started to play the horn solely for the pleasure of it, and there was certainly no madness or drunkenness at our Christmas dinner of seafood and venison: just the gentility of Edinburgh, interrupted only by Donald Duck from the deep.
The weather is softening at last, and the floodwater is subsiding all over the country. Soon you’ll be walking along the riverbank in the afternoons again. I’ll join you in the spring and we can lean on the bar in the “Market Tavern” with the farmers.