Jim Newcombe does The Night Shift hosted by The Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment in Shadwell’s struggling pub, The George Tavern.
Sometimes it’s essential for even a pacifist to physically defend his dignity, and after returning from a recent visit to my hometown, where I was inescapably involved in a bar brawl through no fault of my own (thug, stolen drink, thrown ice) and luckily escaping unscathed, it was a relief to return to the ever-eventful metropolis where the dispersal of yobspawn isn’t quite so concentrated.
Tonight I am to be found in the George Tavern in Shadwell, in a time not my own (though it has been said that I belong to a bygone century), for tonight the pub is host to live 18th century music in the form of a quartet representing The Night Shift: Classical Music from the Age of the Enlightenment.
In the Gents I cannot see the walls through the graffiti. Amid much that is inane and profane I find such banalities as “Urite ducklips” and “Brian Wilson is a cunt”. A friend reminds me that Wilson was instrumental in signing and producing some of the best English bands of recent decades, some of who provided an anthemic accompaniment to my own ramshackle adolescence, but for me he remains the fool that called Shaun Ryder a great modern poet and likened Morrissey to Dostoyevsky. Having said that, the name is ubiquitous enough to conceivably refer to any Brian Wilson caught fishing in his neighbour’s pond.
By the time I settle back in my front row seat with two pints of Wolf Rock, the musicians have taken to the stage. Even the sound of classical musicians warming up is a comforting noise: notes slowly held and sustained like the pouring of honey in a melting pot of musical noises. The pocked and peeling décor assumes the colours of a Rembrandt painting: it is easy to imagine spoils of banquet heaped high in these lamp-lit shadows.
When the proper music begins I am reminded – having attended the Night Shift several times now – what a novelty it is to have this music played in pubs across London as opposed to the privilege and hushed reverence of the concert hall. As with Shakespeare, some suppose it is elitist, but it isn’t. It is civilised, yes, but it can also be rambunctious, even vulgar: Henry Purcell composed a piece called “Kiss my arse” and, curiously, Mozart too would compose a chorus with the same bawdy refrain (or “Leck mich im Arsch” in the German original). Here there is no insistence upon reverence, yet nevertheless the audience is held in rapt silence, and in that silence I recall a line from Robert Browning’s A Toccata of Galuppi’s: “I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play”. If the musicians demur at being called masters, then certainly it is masters who are being played, for included in the set list are Handel, Telemann, Bach, Purcell, Mozart and Haydn. I am pleased too about the inclusion of Ennio Morricone, because sometimes film composers are omitted from the pantheon of such distinguished and canonical company. The piece being played of his tonight is Gabriel’s Oboe which formed part of his score for The Mission, a fine film from 1986 starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
The Haydn in the set list is Michael Haydn, whom Mozart loved, though history has ascribed to his older brother Joseph the name of genius. Mozart’s father Leopold disapproved of Michael for his heavy drinking and gambling, yet his music is intimate, edifying. Bach, that king of Baroque composers, needs no introduction, nor Mozart. Georg Phillip Telemann, whose music I’ve loved since my teens, has written beautiful chamber music and, being an autodidactic multi-instrumentalist, his work includes compositions for harpsichord, the oboe, unaccompanied flute fantasias, and is delightful in its trilling and capering. Henry Purcell is among the greatest of English composers, and it was of his music that the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
“It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.”
When introducing Dido’s Lament, the name commonly used for When I am laid in earth, the elder woman in the quartet, the cello player, confesses that her pet name for the piece is Dildo’s Lament – the mantle of her seniority unmasking a more wicked gash of humour. The two violinists are a blond English rose and a Spanish brunette, both sweetly dimpled. In this piece it is the oboe which sings the mournful phrase “remember me”. It is good to watch the quartet’s intimate interplay, the way they move in sympathy to their instruments, making the past vivid to the present, and in between pieces there is good camaraderie between them.
A word should be said for the pub itself, for it is under threat of losing its licence. As with another national loss, that of the disappearing libraries (and what on earth is meant by an Idea Store?), more and more pubs are closing. I am not invariably opposed to such closures as I believe it is emblematic of survival of the fittest, yet when those pubs are the nerve centre of the locale and of historic interest then it is a saddening loss. A village without a pub is like a family of birds with no nest, though in the age of internet social networking we are already being mummified by stimulants that do not enrich us.
Others bemoan there are not enough coffee shops: there are too many coffee shops. To the best of my recollection, I have never stepped foot inside one and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Pubs, on the other hand, are, despite the vaulting of prices in recent years, a mainstay of traditional English culture and are the most truly democratic places in society.
I have done the Night Shift at The George before; I have joined in the beer-swilled anarchic chorus of revellers singing “Kiss my arse;” I have watched aspiring comedians here and attended Shore Leave to dance to sea shanties dressed as a sailor. In those days I was coming either from sedated Chiswick or from where I masqueraded in formal camouflage in the legal district. Now, as a resident and adopted son of the East End, it is but a walk away. The George has hosted the likes of Nick Cave and John Cooper Clarke. Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and Sir Ian McKellen have all campaigned in the attempt to stop the developers’ plans reaching concrete fruition. The building contains original brickwork some 700 years old, and is mentioned – albeit in its previous incarnation of The Halfway House – in texts by Chaucer, Pepys and Dickens.
As with the ongoing campaign to Save Our Soho, a place whose rabbled and labyrinthine streets is host to the inimitable motley and medley of market stalls, film crews, literary ghosts, musical aspirants, nostalgic thespians, the camp and mannered posturing of the main drag, the crooked drug dealers who pack cellophane pockets with actual grass and the doorways leading to snares of illicit allure, so The George too needs a helping hand to save face against the corporate entities who would raze the nation’s historic culture to its knees to heap the spiritless Throne of Mammon with yet more philistine booty: such progress has all the culture and humanity of a termite’s nest. But you can help: you can help save The George by signing the petition here: https://savethegeorgetavern.com/
The next monthly instalment for the Night Shift will be held in North London, in The Old Queen’s Head in Islington, another excellent venue, as I can personally testify from a couple of dates I’ve had there on the Night Shift, for it has a spacious, mysterious ambience replete with antlered candelabra, embossed stag’s head, encased foetuses, birds, human skulls, a bust of what looks like Aristotle and other macabre mementoes amid a shining citadel of shelved and bottled drinks, all responsive to the tricking flicker of soft candlelight, which, as ancient Ovid knew, is conducive to amours and is, like alcohol and poetry and music, aphrodisiac. It is also the lighting which would have lit the cavernous taverns of the 18th century, the ghosts of whose revellers have swooned awake tonight at the plucking and bowing of its chords.
So visit the Night Shift if you require music more subtle and complex than the foot-rapping four-minute formula of bridge, third verse, chorus, fade out; visit the Night Shift if you love novelty and culture, or if you are curious as to what melodies may have influenced the thought of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Mary Wollstonecraft and other exponents of modern liberty, or merely for an evening of civilised escapism.
And now you must excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, fellow maltworms; I am all for the night air and the winding walk home amid the intoxicating perfumes of spring. None of us know how many springtimes we have left. Let’s drink to that. Chin chin.
Find the next Night Shift here.