Sandwiches & Dreams

I’ve been dreaming about sandwiches. I’m a middle-aged man who’s been denying himself carbohydrates, and this is the consequence. Sadly, wilder, youthful dreams are long extinct; calories, rather than hormones, dominate my sleeping hours.

I dreamt about the modern sandwich, of course, but in those (many) minutes before hauling myself from bed and considering the world’s more serious woes, I thought about how sandwiches have changed over the last fifty years . When I was a child, long before Jamie Oliver and his like inspired us to buy ingredients and prepare dishes our parents had never heard of, and long before Pret a Manger offered us sandwiches of chicken, coriander, lemon juice and avocado (this is the one I dream of more than of any other), or hummus and watercress, or God knows what, the institutional tea – at weddings, speech days, funerals, and confirmations, and held in the brocaded ‘lounges’ of three-star hotels , or on lawns –  provided us with only half a dozen miserable varieties of sandwich, most of them of mean and miserly composition. There are places in the world where sandwich fillings must be thicker than the two slices of bread that contain them – the United States and Israel come to mind – but in the bad old days of the English sandwich rarely would the filling be half as thick as a single slice.

There was the salmon sandwich (salmon neatly combining the virtues of daintiness and luxury, even if it came out of a tin). Making the filling involved mashing tinned salmon with malt vinegar. The result was fishy, acid and wet, but at least it glued the slices of white or brown (more sophisticated) bread together.

Note the dainty use of the parsley sprig


Then there was the cheese sandwich, usually  containing a single millimetre-thick slice from a pack of Kraft Cheese Slices (remember how you had to peel them carefully from their plastic backing sheets). Those were the days when nature could be improved. Placed between two slices of buttered white bread, the end result had a single soft unresisting consistency that became, when chewed, a ball of glue in the mouth.

Entirely artificial


Fish paste sandwiches were even worse. What’s become of fish paste? These pastes came in thick glass bottles, as if they might explode, smaller versions of the old Coca Cola bottle. I presume they harked from a time before refrigeration. You pulled a thin metal cap, sealed to the rim with a strip of red rubber, from the top to reveal a grey-surfaced sludge. The smell was from the 19th century. They were made from pilchards, shrimp, bloaters, mackerel, salmon, and other marine substances, but they all tasted the same. Spread thinly on buttered bread they became no more than a dark stain between the two white slices. These grenade-like bottles were stored against a rainy day at the back of the kitchen cupboard, next to the John West salmon, ready for the unexpected visit of a peckish Great Aunt. You don’t see them any more. I think they’ve morphed into cat food.

Immortal but repulsive

paste bottle

Egg sandwiches, at least, offered a kind of challenge. There was, of course, the smell of methane, but the greater difficulty was that they would fall apart if you didn’t handle them correctly. After all, there was nothing to hold them together (unless they were pre-slathered in ‘salad cream’ (another abomination)). I’ve never known eggs boiled so thoroughly, nor since seen eggs sliced so thinly. And if you were careless, greyish yellow crumbs of egg yolk might catch in your throat and set you off coughing. Daintiness lost in an instant.

Cucumber sandwiches, slithery and hard to hold as they were, were always delicious. They have survived the revolution and always will. Even Jamie offers a recipe.

As for sandwiches made with ‘sandwich spread’, these were the most utterly repulsive of them all. Sandwich spread is a kind of sweetened vomit, perhaps the most disgusting substance that has ever been served as food. I can’t remember ever seeing it in its fully exposed form. I hope that I never will. It is too revolting en masse to be exposed to human gaze.

A banned substance

sandwich spread

Calorie-starved as I am at this moment, nothing (barring starvation or little else to eat on a delayed Wizzair flight) would induce me to eat any of these horrors, except perhaps the cucumber sandwich. The others are the stuff of nightmares not dreams, and I hope that we’ll never see them at Pret.




Just as…

Just as playing a musical instrument or singing musically is far more important than playing or singing accurately (indeed, a friend of mine sings the right notes only rarely, and most of those accidentally, but his musicality is profound – imagine a male version of Florence Foster Jenkins), and just as a good consultant needn’t know anything about anything in particular (it’s more important that he or she should look smart, ask good questions and listen well, than spout dry technical truths), and just as sales is more about being liked than knowing something about what you’re selling, and just as speaking eloquently is more important for a politician than having anything useful to say, so what software actually does is far less important than how it looks.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but there’s an iota of truth in some of this nonsense and I’ve reluctantly accepted the view that what’s called the ‘functionality’ of software (how I hate that word, but continue to use it) is by no means the only thing that matters.

I design a configurable software system called time@work. It’s designed for Professional Services Organisation such as lawyers, engineers, and consultants, indeed any organisation that needs to record the time and expense incurred on projects. We have nearly 300 customers around the world, and we meet our customers requirements without needing to change the underlying software code – we click and build and configure the basic software to do millions of different things.

Of course, we bring out new versions from time to time, and most of the changes we make are inspired by our customers’ needs. We add new options and checkboxes and functions, and I doubt that we or our clients will ever run out of such ideas, but we keep fast to the rule that we’ll only have one version that’s ever more capable. I was once a programmer (and yes, once a programmer, always a programmer (it’s like being a Roman Catholic, I believe)), and it has often seemed to me that adding more ‘functionality’, ever greater capability, is more important than anything else. More important, for example, than that the system should look attractive.

But of course I’m wrong about that, though less wrong than I used to be, and I have to remind myself from time to time of that old adage in the business software implementation that projects fail more often for other reasons than that the software doesn’t do exactly the right thing.

That doesn’t mean that you can use Microsoft Word as a manufacturing requirements planning system, or Microsoft Excel as an airline booking system, but there’s a grain of truth in the idea. Configurable software such as ours, however brilliantly conceived (!), doesn’t always do exactly what customers want, and there must always be flexibility and imagination and compromise on all sides if an implementation project is to succeed. You can concentrate on nothing else but ‘functionality’ and you’ll never produce an infinitely capable system. A year of software development work might take you from a 94% fit to a 94.5% fit.

The problem is that if you concentrate only on capability, you’ll neglect those things that sometimes seem more trivial to you if you’re a programmer – the graphical look and the ‘usability’ of the system. If there was a road to Damascus for me, it was in the development of our iPhone App. Developing the systems@work App was a great lesson. The world of Apps is unforgiving and to succeed you must meet higher standards of attractiveness and usability than in the kind of software that’s used in the dark corners of accounting departments.

And so, in the recent version of systems@work’s time@work, expense@work and forms@work we’ve spent time and money on making the software look a lot nicer and easier to use. I don’t regret it. We released Version 6 a few weeks ago and it’s been received with enthusiasm by customers and resellers alike, and I, too, find it a greater pleasure to use.

This took months!


There’s still more to do. Weeks of programming time can be consumed in making paging controls and field lookups look consistent across the system, but we’ll continue. That’s not to say that checkboxes here and there that add to the capability of the system will be entirely neglected, but for a few weeks ‘functionality’ must take a back seat.


‘Ram Packed’

Language is a slithery thing, as everyone knows. Try to hold it down and it will wriggle from your grasp. It’s said that the French try the hardest to catch and throttle it, and the Icelanders have had a go at it too, but prescribing how language should be used, and banning the use of new and imported words is a hopeless task. Language changes all the time. The best you can do is describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, not prescribe. Even proud nations such as Hungary, with a language that slithered into Europe a thousand years ago from somewhere terrible beyond the Urals, and which belongs to a group to which few other languages belong, is a hotchpotch of words borrowed locally from the Turks, the Slavs and the Germanic peoples.

You notice changes to your own language most if you’re an expat, as I am. Or, I suppose, if you’re the child of a minority language group exiled to another country. It’s like seeing friends again after many years have passed. They suddenly look older, though the people you see every day never age.

And I remember working with Americans of Hungarian descent in Budapest during the early 1990s. Some were second generation Americans, the children of those who fled in 1956,some third generation Americans, the grandchildren of mostly Jewish emigrants from Hungary in the 1930s, or of survivors of the Holocaust who found a new home in the USA after the Second World War. They were eager to practice the language they’d learned from their parents or grandparents and which some of them had used at home. But what they found was that this was a charming, utterly out-of-date variant of the language spoken in the streets of Budapest today or twenty years ago.

I write this because I was perplexed by an expression Jeremy Corbyn used to describe the crowded train he boarded a couple of weeks ago. There’s a controversial video of him sitting comfortably on the floor of a railway carriage, having walked past a number of empty seats (some of them unreserved), complaining about the overcrowding of Britain’s railway services. ‘The train is ram-packed,’ he said, or something like it.


I’m unfamiliar with the expression. I know ‘crammed’. I know ‘packed’. I know ‘cram full’, perhaps even ‘cram packed’, but I don’t know ‘ram-packed’. It brought to mind those white-gloved train packers who cram or ‘ram’ passengers into the carriages of Tokyo’s metro, but I don’t think Virgin East Coast has yet resorted to that kind of violence.

I put it down to a local dialect that Jeremy might have acquired as a child, though he grew up in the Midlands and went to the same primary school that I went to, but perhaps his ears were better attuned to the streets than mine, as they are now to the shrill street-activists who support him.

But then I read the same word today. Not exactly the same, but a similar usage unfamiliar to me. In an article on low footfall over the Bank Holiday weekend at Britain’s shopping malls – – a man called Mr Nathan is quoted as saying, “It certainly looked very busy yesterday – the restaurants were rammed.” (I must have been desperate to be reading an article about retail statistics, but the headline caught my eye as perhaps a sign of post-Brexit-decision economic decline.)

Dictionaries appear to be more up to date than I am…


So ‘rammed’ and ‘ram-packed’ must be words that have slithered into use whilst I’ve been away and inattentive. Or rather, they’re new usages, since I know what ramming means. It worries me. I still intend to return to live in Britain someday soon, but will I understand my fellow citizens, and will they understand me? I have no wish to sound quaintly anachronistic.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right about the trains. They are ram-packed and someone ought to do something about it.. I only just found a seat on the train from King’s Cross to Peterborough last Tuesday. It was dog eat dog.

Soviet Bus Stops


I’ve collected all sorts of odd things over the last fifty years, including, when I was a very young child, a series of twelve seed catalogues produced by a company called BOCM. I never read any of them, but I enjoyed possessing them. Collecting them offered a kind of emotional security and control, an illusory feeling that the world might be manageable. I still enjoy and need this feeling today as I gloat over my things. Not for me, I think, a spiritual and immaterial life in a monastic cell, unless I could start a collection of monastic paraphernalia.

I also collect those tiny shampoos, conditioners, lotions and soaps that you find in hotel bathrooms, and I have boxes and drawers of them at home. I’m oddly reluctant to use them. If it comes to ‘having your cake’ or ‘eating it’, I’d always rather ‘have’ than ‘eat’. I haven’t yet catalogued the collection, nor have I arranged them by colour, purpose, quality, brand, or location of origin, but I might yet turn to that in my retirement. No doubt Sigmund Freud would have a few things to say about collecting, but fortunately he isn’t around to ask. In any case, he wasn’t exactly immune from the craving to take control of a small portion of the world. He collected and catalogued neuroses.

I’ve collected the ordinary too – stamps, coins, books, rugs, paintings, DVDs, CDs, etc. – but they’re too commonplace to be interesting for long. But I also enjoy the mad collections of others. I know a man who collects erasers (or rubbers as we call them in the UK) and I’ve visited some very odd museums – the Museum of Catering and Commerce in Budapest, which has a glorious collection of Soviet-era shop fittings, the Police Museum in Prague, where you can gaze in wonder at a cabinet full of poison pens, and the Museum of Humour in Plovdiv, which contains a remarkable collection of jokes, from one-liners muttered in bars in Bishkek to the whole of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Last week I marvelled at a motley collection of Allied and Axis military equipment picked up from the battlefields of Crete, and presented, with absolutely no historical context, in a private museum somewhere between Chania and Hora Sphakion.

But you don’t have to take possession of things in order to collect them. Train spotters don’t possess the objects of their enthusiasm in any literal sense, though I presume they derive a fleeting sense of an ordered world from what they do. Nor do spotters of bus stops come to possess the bus stops they spot.

Which brings me to a book I recently bought with the irresistible title,  Soviet Bus Stops, a collection of photographs of Soviet ‘bus pavilions’,  from all over the evil empire, from Kazakhstan to Moldova, by way of Lithuania and Armenia, perhaps even from places where busses never stopped (or started) at all, Soviet planning being what it was.

The photographs were taken by Christopher Herwig, who travelled tens of thousands of uncomfortable kilometres to compile his collection (and I doubt that the hotels he stayed at offered those little bottles of shampoo). It’s an utterly fascinating book and you’d certainly find yourself looking at it more than once. Who would have thought that bus stops could be so interesting, so varied and so expressive?

But of course public art always had a special place in the Socialist world (consider the Moscow Metro), and the book’s several prefaces explain how in the last decades of the Soviet era, architects and artists, frustrated by the billions of strictures applied to large scale structures, found individuality and expressive solace in the smaller scale of the bus stop.

In fact, designing a bus stop was something every architect in the Soviet world learned how to do. It was a standard exercise for design students across the Soviet world. Many built nothing larger. For some the bus stop offered a single chance  to say whatever they had to say about the world.

Think about it. What must a bus stop do?

  • It must protect the People from the wind, rain and sun
  • It mustn’t obscure the People’s view of the bus as it approaches
  • It must discourage the People from vandalism and other forms of capitalist desecration
  • It must be easy for other People to clean
  • It mustn’t obscure the bus driver’s view of the People or their hailing
  • It must entertain, educate and inspire the People in their relentless construction of a Socialist Utopia
  • It must fit snugly next to the road
  • It must encourage queuing discipline – no one is ‘more equal’ in a bus queue
  • It must vanquish Nature

How many of those criteria does this lamentably simple non-Soviet bus stop meet? I wouldn’t even know on which side the queue should form.


Never mind that the bus rarely arrived on time, and was a rickety old Soviet model when it did. If you were one of the People you probably didn’t own a car, so a bus pavilion was where you spent a good proportion of your waking life (the rest of the time you spent queuing outside shops). So you were grateful for something a bit out of the ordinary to wait in or at, something that would inspire you to come back and wait all over again.

I’ve seen some of these myself. I was in Moldova a year or two ago and came across a splendid bus stop just outside Cahul. It was just like the ones in Herwig’s book, and far nicer than any other building in the village. I stopped and photographed it but didn’t go on to collect any more. I didn’t then know that the bus stop can be a collectible item.

But hats off to Herwig. I can’t recommend his book too highly. Add it to your collection.

The Cut of My Jib

Everyone knows that love can be sudden, foolish and catastrophic. On the whole it’s better assembled gradually than experienced at once as a bolt from the blue, like the stigmata. Quite how love happens ‘just like that’ no one knows. It might be an ankle, the toss of a head, an imbecilic smile, or an equine laugh. Read as many romantic novels as you can and you’ll never discover the cause. Barbara Cartland, William Shakespeare, they were sensitive observers, but they weren’t true scientists.

Spontaneous hatred is equally inexplicable but we all experience it from time to time. Flowing from us or coming at us. It might be the licking a finger before the turning of a page. It might be a matter of table manners. It might, from a different perspective, be that imbecilic smile or that equine laugh. Sometimes it’s the tiniest, almost imperceptible thing.

I was the victim of it myself, the other day, a spontaneous burst of hatred coming in my direction on the tube between Ladbroke Grove and King’s Cross St Pancras. A man sitting opposite me glared at me in an alarming way as I took my seat, and he went on glaring, even when I wasn’t looking. I could sense it. He didn’t look like a terrorist bent on the indiscriminate taking of many lives, so I wasn’t inclined to reach for the emergency stop. No, it was my jib he didn’t like the cut of, and mine alone.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing odd about my jib. There never is. I was dragging a suitcase towards Luton Airport and my jib was the usual jeans and polo shirt. I caught his angry eye, and looked away, and then back again as we passed through Paddington, and Edgware Road and Baker Street, to see if he was still looking, and then I decided I wouldn’t look at him at all. The last time I looked, he raised a finger at me like this:


I was frightened, to tell the truth, just a little, but I couldn’t see that he was any danger. The previous evening a young man had run amok in Russell Square leaving an American woman dead and several people injured, so I was alert to the dangers of insane behaviour in a public place and ready to run should he lunge.

At Great Portland Street he tottered to his feet and lurched towards the exit, and it was only then that I realised he was completely drunk. I heard another passenger commenting on the smell of drink as he stumbled from the train. Even so, why did he pick on me?

Drunk or sober, instant dislike is disturbing. My father used to say, ‘I don’t like the cut of his jib’ when he took against someone he didn’t know. He used to say it quite often, and, to give credit where it’s due, he was often right about the people whose jibs he took against, and I often ended up taking against them too. But I never remember him raising a finger to make his point.


I looked up ‘cut of his jib.’ It’s a nautical term, apparently, from the early 19th century, the jib being the forward sail that indicated a ship’s nationality. So a ship with the wrong cut of jib is an enemy one best avoided. Wear your jib carefully.


Mass Seclusion

When I was in my twenties, impecunious and pretentious, I travelled enthusiastically as far as my budget would allow, and sometimes a little further. I was occasionally alone but more often with family and friends. I remember one friend in particular who was tiresomely anxious that we should never call ourselves ‘tourists’, or be perceived as ‘tourists’ by others. Rather, we were ‘travellers’, though, as far I could tell, we queued for the Uffizi, and the Vatican Museum, the Duomos, and the Pinacotecas, just like everyone else. And although my friend was sometimes dressed eccentrically, I believe I looked as scruffy and ill-dressed as the ‘tourists’ we despised. I’m sure we took the same holiday snaps home, and the stomach upsets too, even if not the t-shirts.

What is it that makes some of us determined to be a cut above the others? Why do we strive to be different – by which I mean more entitled, somehow, to be where we are? There’s nothing shameful about tourism, as far as I know. And why do we so eagerly avert our eyes and close our ears to the braying voices of our compatriots, and seek out those places, churches, hotels, beaches and restaurants that no one else knows about? We never find them, of course. If they exist they’re already mobbed by crowds of people exactly like us. How we love to find that restaurant where the locals eat, forgetting that they eat there to get away from us.

These days, I’m quite comfortable being a ‘tourist’, and I’m happy to speak my own language with people who are just like me, or indeed not like me at all, even if they avert their eyes at first. You can’t run away from yourself.

As a tourist you have hard choices to make. If you’re seeking authenticity, isolation, and communion with the locals, you must forget comfort, safe food and drink, easy access and escape. If you want seclusion and comfort, you must accept the ferocious expense of it, and mustn’t expect anything to be authentic. You won’t learn a lot about the country you’re visiting and its people if you’re holed up in a five-star resort hotel. You’ll be surrounded by the burnished rich, and you’ll be served by people who’ve had all the individuality trained out of them. If it’s exclusive, it’s excluded everything of value as well as the ‘riff-raff’.

The middle way is simply to accept that if there’s an affordable, moderately comfortable place in a spectacular setting, then you won’t be there alone. If it’s perfect, then the crowds will have found it.


Take Loutro, for example, on the south coast of Crete, a spectacular bay that you can only reach by boat. The sea is unpolluted, the architecture simple, the hotels and guestrooms affordable, the cafes and restaurants neither sophisticated nor primitive. It’s hard to get to, but thousands do. This tiny strip is the perfect getaway with a population density nearly the equal of Gaza. And your friends from home will have the room next to yours and you’ll chat about Brexit at the Bar. And yet I would return.






There’s only one thing worse than being told what to do, and that’s being told what not to do. I mean, of course, when there’s no justification, though I have to admit that in quite reasonable circumstances, too, as, for example, when I was learning to drive, I don’t like being told what to do, and in 1987 when a man in Twickenham barked at me for four whole days and occasionally seized the steering wheel, it meant that I never got as far as taking the test.

When you’re on holiday, as I am now, in a quiet place on the south coast of Crete, being told you can’t do something when there’s no good reason at all, can make you very peevish indeed.

Consider this, posted at the top of the steps to the bar at a very modest three-star hotel in Loutro  (70 EUR per night for two).


Two things annoyed me immediately. First, the spelling of ‘ambiance’, which I mistakenly took to be wrong. It turns out that ‘ambiance’ is an acceptable, though little used alternative to ‘ambience’ so it’s fortunate that I mounted no attack on the hotel’s management on that score. But second, the assault on liberty.

In general, we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others or infringe their rights, and whilst moralisers, blue-rinsed conservatives, and luddites might long for an age when quiet conversation was the only alternative to suicide, times have changed, and if we choose, as couples, individuals or families, to sit quietly with our eyes on our phones, and laptops, texting, totting up numbers in spreadsheets, emailing, blogging, talking quietly to our distant colleagues and loved ones, or snapping a pic or two, that is surely our business and no one else’s.

Obviously we mustn’t make too much noise, and we must switch off those pings and beeps. We must certainly prevent those tinny high-pitched tones to seep from our earphones into the calm quiet around us, but if we’re doing no harm, then let us do what we want in the bar.

‘Harming others’ of course, is something that is hard to define, but we should be very wary of allowing those who would curtail our liberty from citing what they might call ‘indirect’ harm. A man wearing the wrong kind of cricket gear might be said by some to ‘lower the tone’  but I would struggle to understand what this might mean.

And, for example, there were some who argued against same-sex marriage on the grounds that, whilst it didn’t in any obvious and direct way harm mixed-sex marriages, it nevertheless undermined the whole ‘concept of marriage’. Piffle. It would surely be hard to demonstrate exactly how, just as it is hard to explain quite how the use of mobile phones or laptops harms the ambience of a simple and unsophisticated bar at three-star hotel in a remote part of Europe.

Nevertheless rules and conventions are hard to ignore. A couple of months ago I went to see Der Meistersinger at Glyndebourne and I didn’t wear Black Tie, as most men do, rather a lounge suit, a little tight around the waist. I would have been much more comfortable, though even more ill at ease, in jeans and a polo shirt, and I can’t think that anyone in the audience would have been harmed in any way. But, convention is powerful and even if we don’t care about belonging to a particular tribe, we don’t want to be scorned.

At the Salzburg Festival, three weeks ago, believing that the rules would be more strictly enforced than in Sussex, I wore Black Tie, but, to my dismay, saw that most of the audience was quite casually dressed. I didn’t feel ill at ease, but I certainly felt uncomfortable. It was a very hot evening and the auditorium wasn’t air conditioned. Two rows in front of me, a man was wearing blue jeans and an open-necked shirt. I didn’t notice any scornful looks cast in his direction, and I cast none myself. There were only envious and admiring ones, but that might have been for other reasons.


Why do we lay down the law, when it doesn’t matter a jot?

At the hotel beach there’s this notice too, which I think equally silly. I go topless, myself, as it happens.






The Artificial and the Natural

Playing the oboe is difficult. It’s a woodwind instrument topped with a double reed made of cane, wire, cord, cork, nail varnish, beeswax and brass. When the reed is working well the oboe makes a beguiling and plaintive sound (think of the solo from Swan Lake or at the start of the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto). Played inexpertly the sound can weaken concrete. Most parents don’t have the patience for it, nor can most afford the isolated farmhouse that it requires, which is one of the reasons why so few children learn how to play it and why almost all oboists were brought up in the countryside. It’s said that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at anything. Your first 8,000 hours on the oboe should be spent in solitary confinement.



Putting others’ aural comfort aside, the challenge of the oboe is that if you want to play it well you’ve got to make your own reeds, or, at the very least, have the skills to adjust them if others have made them for you. You have to be a craftsman as well as a musician. If you’re a flautist you can simply pick up your flute and play it. There’s no fussing about with a box of DIY tools. In fact, there’s no other instrument I can think of that involves such pernickety fiddling about with bits of cane, and wire, and cork and knives. It’s as if you should know how to make corsets in order to function as a barrister. True, playing any musical instrument involves a certain amount of manual dexterity, but that’s a different thing from taking tube cane, splitting it, gouging it, shaping it, binding it and scraping it. Lucky indeed is the oboist who’s a good craftsman, luckier still the oboist who enjoys the craft of reed-making. If he or she is a good oboist and musician too, it’s like winning the Euromillions Lottery.


I make my own reeds. I was taught how to do it by my wonderful oboe teacher, Douglas Heffer, more than forty-two years go. I still hate doing it, but I can’t play on anyone else’s. Each one can take me an hour or so to make and test, and only one in eight (a low hit rate – some oboists achieve one in four) works well enough. Worse still, when you’ve made yourself a good one, it lasts just a week or so in peak condition. They’re fragile and organic, and they’re gradually digested by saliva. The mouth isn’t a good place to put a natural substance, but as far as I know you can’t play the oboe in any other way.

So, we oboists have dreamt of the artificial oboe reed – the ‘plastic reed’ impervious to saliva and time. Clarinettists already have them (but theirs is a single reed rather than a double) and bassoonists are starting to use them too. Both of these types are much larger, and the higher margin of error means that artificial clarinet and bassoon reeds have been easier to develop.  And even if they’re not using artificial reeds, bassoonists and clarinettists can buy reliable natural ones made by others. They don’t need to be craftspeople.

So, we oboists have been excited recently by the launch of the ‘plastic oboe reed’ by Légère, and I went to the oboe shop, Howarth, in London, with my oboe-playing friend Caroline, to try one out, in the hope that for the rest of my life I might never have to make another reed. Mind you, they’re expensive, but I and most oboists would sell half of what we possess, as well as our souls to the devil, for a reliable supply of pick-up-and-play, last-forever oboe reeds.


And, they’re not bad at all. I think I could get used to them. The ‘scrape’ has a different contour to mine, and the sound is a remoter, mellower, more closed sound than mine, but I think I could get used to that, if others could.  I also understand that they can be adjusted slightly, if you’re nice to Ollie, who works at Howarth, but once you’ve adjusted them you can get months, even years, of life out of just one. I’d wondered what it would feel and taste like to put something dry and artificial in the mouth but it felt just the same as the natural ones. So, I’ve ordered four. Why four? You’d think they would be identical, since they’re made out of the same substance by a machine, but apparently they can be hit and miss. And at more than one hundred pounds each, and with a waiting list,  I thought I’d improve my odds by buying in bulk, and trust that Ollie won’t ruin them all.

And it doesn’t’ stop there when it comes to oboes and the artificial. Oboes are traditionally made of a very hard wood called African Blackwood that sinks in water, and is so close-grained that it looks and feels like stone, but the mischievous Michael Britton, who runs Howarth, and whom I’ve known for 35 years, brought out a swirly purple ebonite oboe for me to try. Ebonite is a hard plastic that’s closely related to kryptonite (apparently), or Bakelite, the hard stuff that old-fashioned telephones were made of. Howarth have made just two of them, and they’ve both been kitsched up with gold key work.. If Liberace had played the oboe, not the piano, this would have been the model he would have chosen. But, to my very great surprise, it played remarkably well, though at 14,000 pounds, I don’t think I’ll be buying one tomorrow.

It’s a myth that natural is always best. Let plastic reign.