The car crunched slowly across the gravel drive. The unmistakable sound of aristocratic
motoring and success. So much more pleasing than any attempts at replicating the
effect by taping rice krispies to the tyres. For a moment Rob was tempted simply
to abandon the car at a rakish angle at the foot of the marbled steps and make his
way up through the lofty, Gothic arched doors, staking his claim to the old baronial
pile before the fateful words came back to him:
“Orchestra? OK, down the drive; when you get to the house follow the road round to
the right; through the courtyard; watch out for the dairy on your left; through the
gate, into the field; it's all clearly marked by large stones painted white...” Though
not so clearly and not so white that you won't drive over them later scraping the
sill of your car on the way out. “Then into the fallow field; the next gate will
be shut, you'll have to get out and open that one yourself; through the east field;
careful of the cattle; oh and you must shut the gate behind you, can't have cattle
wandering through the audience; still it's very unlikely that the bulls will attack
members of the orchestra... again; then it's through the lower paddock and around
the fountain lake and you're at the stage – well, orchestra car park, but it's OK,
it's only a short walk from there. Oh and make sure you go round the north side of
the lake; they're digging drainage ditches on the south side – it could get a bit
muddy...” Rob offered a few silent words of prayer for the future of his car's suspension
and headed off road.
Some minutes and only two wrong turns later, Rob turned off the engine and silence
reigned. Silence that is apart from the preliminary testing of the sound system.
A testing which clearly had some way to go judging by the tortured distortion-heavy
strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” courtesy of the sound engineer's favourite classical
“budget” CD. “Nice touch,” thought Rob, “hope” and “glory” - two things singularly
lacking from the lives of all those poor unfortunates who find themselves trudging
across muddy fields towards any number of large bacofoil domes up and down the country.
Pippa looked balefully at him. There was no getting away from it: they were gonna
have to leave the air-conditioned seclusion of their motorised cocoon.
Turning their backs on the car, their last connection with civilised society, Rob
and Pippa took their first faltering steps towards the stage and only then, as their
gaze locked on one another, was the silence broken. It was Pippa that spoke first
in uncertain tones. “Which side is north?”
“Why you asking me? How should I know?”
“Well you're a man... Aren't you supposed to know things like that?”
“Thank you for those words from our feminism correspondent there... You've just set
the cause of the sisterhood back three hundred years.”
“Wait... what's that?” And a glimmer of hope replaced the heavy sarcasm.
Pippa followed the direction indicated by Rob's outstretched arm, “It looks like
“Yes. A rank and file violinist,” Rob's voice was rising triumphantly, “and more
Suddenly spotting the reason for his delight, the joy and relief was evident in
Pippa's voice “A sinking rank and file violinist!”
Some twenty or so yards ahead a tragic scene was unfolding as a young, and Rob could
not help noticing extremely attractive, woman was coming to terms with her misfortune.
She must have been very attractive for her beauty to shine through the chaos. Already
up to her knees in what Rob hoped was only mud she struggled gamely on.
“Poor girl.” Pippa murmured.
“Oh well,” Rob chirped, “they're expendable. I think we'll go this way...”
The flowery print of her floaty summer dress was gaining an added earthier realism
with each laboured movement. Throwing her violin to a colleague she fought for survival.
Desperately she pulled her way through the cloying sodden earth, finally reaching
the safety of firmer ground and gasping for air with relief and exhaustion before
looking back with tears in her eyes at the evidence of her passage: More poignant
than any blue plaque, a solitary strappy sandal remained steadfastly in the grip
of the treacherous mud.
“Still, poor girl... she looks rather shell shocked. Have some sympathy, Rob.”
“Oh I am sympathetic... but every muddy field gig has its casualties. You've just
got to be thankful when it's not you. She's probably learnt a valuable life lesson!
After all there's nothing quite like wading through a field full of cow shit to dash
those idealistic notions of ambition and aspiration.”
“That's true enough. Nobody ever warned me about that when I was at college. “Work
hard, practise hard, always know where north is.” ”
“Exactly – practical experience is priceless...”
The backstage area was just as luxurious as Rob and Pippa had come to expect – not
remotely. White plastic was the order of the day: A couple of white plastic tents
were designated as dressing rooms. A handful of white plastic garden tables and chairs
passed for dining facilities. One of the dressing rooms doubled as the Refreshments
tent, occasioning the presence of some white plastic cups and white plastic spoons
and an ageing tea urn – fortunately not white plastic. A much needed splash of colour
was added by the portaloos... blue plastic, standing in an unusually generous group
Rob looked at his watch. “Half an hour yet. You get us a seat, I'll get the teas.”
Rob returned a couple of minutes later. “There you go,” he said, as he handed Pippa
her white plastic cup. “I'm afraid the urn wasn't all that hot. Still the milk that's
been sat out on the table for the last couple of hours was pretty warm so that should
make up for it.”
Pippa gifted him a smile that was almost as weak as her tea. “Thanks.”
“You see... I bring you to all the best places for lunch. The great British countryside.”
“And how thoughtful of you to invite the rest of the Royal London Gala Philharmonic
Orchestra as well. You shouldn't have.”
“Really, think nothing of it.”
“Oh don't worry,” Pippa assured him, “I'm trying to.”
The minutes passed... all thirty of them... and then a few more. Rob was in danger
of becoming irritable. “What's going on? Why aren't we starting?”
“Dude, you almost sound like you want to go to work! Are you feeling alright?” Pippa
asked. “This is quite a departure, sometimes you only have to look at a bass and
you start yawning.”
“Well that's true enough.” Rob conceded, “I just don't like all this hanging around
wasting time. I mean wasting time during sessions is fine – that's like real money,
overtime. Wasting time at some daft showbiz event is a bit of a given. But here...
let's just get on with it and get out of here.”
“Oh you're so sensitive and artistic... It's all about the music with you isn't it?!”
Pippa smirked. “If you looked around you, you'd see there aren't quite enough people
here yet. The percussion section's stuck in traffic – first weekend of the summer
holidays isn't it?”
“Well in that case I'm having a pint.” Rob stood up from the table.
“Where?” Pippa asked.
“The beer tent.”
“It's that white plastic thing over there. I can see the white plastic glasses quite
“There... Can't you see the glasses? They're thrown into sharp relief by the white
“It won't be open yet, they're only just setting up.”
“They might take pity on me,” Rob said naively. “Want anything?”
“They won't. No – I'll stick with my white plastic tea, thanks.”
Rob however, was in no mood to let reason and likelihood stand in his way and set
off with determined tilt across the field... Some ten minutes or so later, after
much futile begging and beseeching, Rob bowed to the inevitable and turned to trudge
back to the stage. The one thing he could do without was a smug “I told you so” from
Pippa. This was a time for sympathy and understanding. This was a time for consolation
and a reassuring hug. This was a time for... von Suppe's “Light Cavalry Overture.”
Shit. Rob broke into a slouch. He wasn't gonna give that lot the satisfaction of
seeing him running to a rehearsal. Just compose your features into a look of serene
certainty and lack of guilt – that's the secret. Struggling through the now massed
ranks of tam-tams, cymbals, snare drums and other assorted toys, (“Christ where did
that lot come from?”) Rob glared reproachfully at the now smugly smiling percussionists.
Proud of his soundless negotiation of all that metalwork Rob's silent progress was
brought to an end by the unmistakeable sound of brass mutes being dropped from eager
“helping” hands only too keen to announce his arrival. Finally taking his seat, Rob
quickly filtered through the glances that came his way: Most seemed simply to say,
“Good afternoon, I'm glad it's not me.” Pippa was smiling broadly in an “Oh, welcome
back! I told you so.” fashion. Whilst the conductor treated him to a “Nice of you
to join us. I can't bear such unprofessionalism” hard stare. Rob looked back, sweeping
the orchestra with what he hoped came across as an “It's not my fault. All these
white plastic tents look the same to me” insouciant gaze.
Any embarrassment Rob had felt was soon forgotten. As the afternoon wore on he was
instead consumed with thoughts concerning the stunning array of musical talent he
wasn't sharing the stage with: There's that girl that came third in Britain's Got
New Opportunity Talent Knocking Faces. Though to be fair Rob could tell she was a
good singer just by looking at her... and maybe she was planning to sleep her way
to the top so the least Rob could do would be to be on hand to offer a ready smile
if she was gonna start at the bottom. Then there was that interchangeable generic
classical boy band – he was less impressed by them – four perma-tanned prats with
all the vocal talent of, well, four perma-tanned prats. But when all was said and
done they were just also-rans. OK, so they had their own dressing rooms but that
amounted to nothing more than a white plastic tent they could call their own. Still
to come was that transatlantic – Rob couldn't help thinking subatlantic would have
been better – singing sensation, Massimo Deretano. It was the perfect rags to riches
tale: The son of Italian-American Irish-Jewish Liberal parentage, there were very
few sections of society that had not found a reason to rail against him. Blind from
birth, Massimo had nevertheless worked hard and had forged an honest career as a
welder. After travelling widely – not intentionally, you understand, he simply couldn't
find his way home – Massimo settled in the north of England where his insistence
on singing as he welded left people riveted by his talent. After years of working
the northern club circuit Massimo got his big break when a classical recording label
discovered a gap in the market that could only be filled by the combined forces of
a large marketing budget and the stupidity of the record buying public. The rest,
as they say, is history, and merchandising, and licensing agreements... Already some
years past his prime – and even that wasn't great – all this meant that all the trappings
of success were his. Consequently, Massimo was the only person on the bill that night
whose presence justified a white plastic structure with rigid sides – the Headliner's
As the ocularly-challenged Deretano took to the stage the wave of indifference from
the orchestra was so palpable it was a wonder he did not trip over it. Rob relaxed
back into his seat, prepared himself for a good giggle and basked in Deretano's spectacularly
faded glory. He observed with interest the tragic correlation between past it musicians
(and he used the word necessarily loosely) and past it sportsmen. Where the sportsmen
find themselves gently pensioned off, removed from the iniquities of the weather
to live out their days in the comfortable seclusion of the TV studio, past it musicians
find themselves abandoned to the treacherous British summer and pissed-up punters.
But the punters were still hours off yet. For the time being, the shambling Deretano's
audience consisted of a handful of dayglo-clad stewards on litter-picking duty in
an otherwise empty field. Rob was bemused: how could this guy, this near spectral
figure, ageing skin pulled surgically tight across bony skull, possibly command the
adoration of millions? There had to be a mathematical formula that summed up the
change that would be wrought in a few hours time. The only group Deretano looked
like he could be of interest to at the moment was “Care in the Community”. But with
the addition of nightfall, ten thousand people and a star cloth, super stardom is
achieved (if in any doubt just add dry ice.) Some peculiar alchemical reaction takes
place where base metals – or in this instance, plastic faces – are turned into pure
What seemed like exactly three hours later, the rehearsal ended... or stopped...
or petered out due to lack of interest. Rob dropped his bass with alacrity and headed
for the wide open spaces of the countryside. Some fields are well appointed, some
are... spacious. This day's field definitely counted among the latter. Pippa soon
joined him. “Well...?” she asked.
“This calls for a drink.”
The saloon bar of the Noose and Gibbet was rammed. In a rare moment of togetherness
and understanding it seemed the whole of the Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra
was present. With a chance to relax and more importantly drink there was only one
topic of conversation:
“Oh, it's awful.”
“Have you seen all that merchandise?”
“T-shirts, CDs, lunch boxes!”
“That's nothing: I'm sure I saw a guy out the front selling bootleg stuff – you know,
Labrador puppies from a cardboard box...!”
“I quite liked him.” There was a stunned silence. This was an approach no one had
thought of before. Such incredible irony... or was it? “He's rather good isn't he?
And very charming.” All eyes turned to see who had spoken. There was barely a trace
of mud to be seen, just a radiant complexion and flaxen hair, but Rob recognised
her immediately – the sinking rank and file violinist – and she was extremely attractive
but clearly very stupid. Something had to be done.
“Do something,” muttered Pippa. The silence was going rapidly beyond awkward.
“Who wants a drink?” said Rob.
When they left the pub, Rob and Pippa were rather looking forward to sitting in their
silver dome. “Well... at least the wind's dropped,” she observed.
“That's true enough, this rain isn't going anywhere.” It was hammering it down. “Clearly
that's why they make these things out of bacofoil – we can huddle together for warmth.”
“Ah well, worth a try,” thought Rob. Not that his evening was without pleasure, far
from it, as he smiled benignly down on the increasingly bedraggled devoted public.
The majority of the evening passed mostly unnoticed, both by Rob and the inebriated
punters. All that remained was a final soul-destroying hack through 1812 and the
wonder of fireworks. And then... it all went dark... and quiet. This looked promising.
A few worried looking techies later and that promise bore fruit: “What's up?” Rob
“Fucked if I know,” came the response from the disgruntled techie as he thrust his
hands defiantly into the pockets of his black shorts. “Power's gone down. Water must've
got in. Tripped the lot.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Can we, fuck.”
“Brilliant!” And with that Rob was up. Word spread fast. Any analogy involving rats
and sinking ships would have been more than appropriate. Under cover of darkness
the Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra fled the scene. Suddenly the fireworks
went up, every few seconds capturing freeze frame images of beleaguered musos making
their bid for freedom – the stampede for the flapping “door” at the back of the tent.
A rush for an open flaps the like of which had not been seen since Rob's last Happy
Hour visit to Madame JoJo's...
They stumbled blindly through the mud, smoke and rain. Wretched; exhausted.
The doors slammed shut. “Well...?” Pippa looked enquiringly at Rob.
“Still,” Pippa continued, “bizarrely there was some quite good music in amongst all
“Really?” Rob was sceptical. “Name it.”
“Yeah – really. I mean, there must have been! Law of averages and all that, it can't
all have been rubbish. Must try playing some of it indoors one day...”
“I wouldn't be too eager if I were you. God, what a day. Thank Christ the power went.
That saved us a good twenty minutes.”
“Yeah,” Pippa opined, “must've cut the programme down to a cosy three and a quarter
“Remind me. How many RLGPO gigs have we done?”
“So far? Err... one.”
Rob looked horrified. “Shit. Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure,” replied Pippa. “Hang on a minute; let me count them. One... yep –
“Shit. And how many have we got to go?” Rob was looking increasingly worried.
“Wait, I've got a schedule here somewhere. Right, here we go: Royal London Gala Philharmonic
Orchestra Summer Concert Series. OK, we've done one... so that leaves...”
“Shit. Who's next?”
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Pippa asked.
Rob was mistrustful. “There's good news?”
“Well, it's inside.” Pippa reassured him.
“And the bad news?”
“It's Alberto Notalento.”
Rob looked unimpressed. “Never heard of him.”
“I've got a flyer here – get this: “The singing brickie. Plucked from obscurity from
just behind the back of the chorus at La Scala by the Fly By Nite music agency, Alberto's
life was changed for ever. Relocating to the north of England his fame spread.””
“So what's his U.S.P then?”
“It says here: “People travelled from far and wide to see his wonky walls – quite
a feat of bricklaying as Alberto was born without arms. However he overcame adversity
– positioning the bricks with his mouth, singing all the while, and that is how his
extraordinary vocal talents came to light.””
“Is that it?” Rob was still unimpressed.
“Isn't that enough? Oh, and he's dead.”
“Yeah, it says “Just five years after his last tour was cut short by his untimely
death, Alberto is launching his comeback: The Drop Dead and Clean Up Tour. Don't
miss this once in a lifetime opportunity – your lifetime, not his – to see the great
man lying in state at the O2 Arena, tastefully accompanied by all your operatic favourites
without the inconvenience of his voice.””
This was too much even for the willing suspension of disbelief that Rob had taken
the precaution of regarding most of his life with. They drove on, into the night,
or more accurately the early morning, in silence. Each lost in their own remarkably
similar thoughts... “How did this happen to me...?”