A Test of One’s Character

Okay, it’s a Friday morning so rather than be a smart-arse about something in the news I’ll instead tell a story.

Back in 2001 or 2002 a friend taught me three chords on a guitar – sufficient for a full career in most genres – and I decided I wanted to learn. To that end I borrowed a classical guitar from my father, then later bought a cheapish Yamaha acoustic, on which I practiced chords. I realised the best way to maintain motivation was to learn one or two songs all the way through and sing along, so that it at least becomes fun. Within a few months I learned two songs – The Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower, and Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love – and played them to death. Gradually I added to what could loosely be called my repertoire, and in August 2003 I moved to Kuwait for the best part of a year where I had very little to do other than surf the internet, read books – and play the guitar. It was during this period I got the hang of the chord shapes, but never really learned to strum, and was mainly playing an approximation of a Carter Scratch style.

In June 2004 I moved to Dubai for 2 years, and for long periods my guitar would turn into an ornament, resting untouched in the corner of my living room. But there were still occasions when I’d practice, and I was still enjoying the odd session of playing and singing when I moved to Sakhalin in September 2006. I played a fair bit there, trying to improve, and learning a lot more songs. By now I was hooked on bluegrass, a genre I’d gotten into in Kuwait after falling in love with the soundtrack to the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? which spurned a revival in old-time and bluegrass music worldwide.

My position in Sakhalin was a bit of an awkward one: I was 29 years old and the General Manager of a company which had a thousand men on site an hour’s drive away, a few dozen of whom were grizzled expats, mostly Brits. To say they were not overly impressed with this inexperienced yet noisy young man swanning around in a comfy office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital, while they toiled away at useful work in the mud, snow, and ice on site went without saying. I made things worse by, on my first night, unintentionally blanking one of the site supervisors, a man by the name of Rick. Rick was a Londoner in his forties, a proper swaggering cockney who was powerfully built and had a tongue sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. If there was a derogatory remark to be made, an opportunity to take the piss, or a joke to be cracked, Rick was on it in a flash. Rick came to the swift and early conclusion that I was a bellend, but fortunately I spent so little time on site in the first year it didn’t really matter.

However, at some point I started interacting more with the site team and, because I respected them and was prepared to listen and ask nicely for things, they were never openly hostile and within a short time actually quite liked me (although I don’t think they ever changed their opinion that I was an office-based loafer). Rick used to take the piss mercilessly, but having been at boarding school, served as an army cadet, hung around Royal Marines, worked on a Manchester building site, and grown up the youngest of four siblings this was like water off a duck’s back. In truth I found it amusing, and it’s better than being ignored.

Around Christmas 2007 some of the attractive young Sakhalin Energy employees decided they were going to recreate Calendar Girls by making a calendar of 12 of them semi-naked. The middle-aged working class blokes in my outfit decided they’d do the same thing, with echoes of The Full Monty. To this end they asked that I take the photos (they knew I had a decent camera) so we all met on a snowy hill overlooking the construction site. Each bloke stripped naked and struck a silly pose, covering their meat and two veg with some object or other. What it lacked in elegance and eroticism it more than made up for in terms of team-bonding, and the entire process was absolutely hilarious. When all 12 men had been photographed, one of them said: “Oy Tim, now it’s your turn. Get yer kit off and stand over there, we’ve all done it.” I’d get naked for fun on the Underground at rush-hour (did I mention I’d hung out with Royal Marines?) so I did what was asked and joined in the fun. I can’t remember who took the photo, but Rick thought it would be highly amusing to lock my clothes in his car. There I was, in minus twelve, bollock naked except for a hat, with my clothes locked in the car and Rick and the others rolling in the snow laughing. Unfortunately for Rick, he’d left his work gloves on the bonnet: lovely, new, fur-lined calfskin work gloves his wife had given him as a present. Seeking shelter for my important parts, I stuffed them into one of Ricks’s gloves and proceeded to strut around. This had two effects: it made everyone laugh even louder, and Rick to unlock the car door. I think he threw the gloves away.

Anyway, by the next summer I’d become pretty good friends with Rick, who was by then living in a company-built house on the edge of town. One Sunday afternoon I was round his place when I saw he had a guitar, so I picked it up and started playing whatever I knew. Rick had just started learning and was happy to find someone else who played, and suggested the next Saturday I bring my guitar around and we could jam together. He suggested he invite a couple of the Filipinos from site, who were wonderful musicians, order some pizzas, and make an evening of it. I liked the sound of this, so agreed. But the following Wednesday I got a call from Rick.

“Tim my old son, things are getting out of hand,” he said. “I’m having to turn people away.”

“Turn people away?” I said. “From what?”

“Timmy Unplugged, of course! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten! So many people want to hear your concert I’m running out of space. I might have to start selling tickets!”

Rick had stitched me up like a kipper, and told the entire site team that I would be putting on a guitar show for them at his house. Now by this stage I knew a few songs, but the downside was they were as obscure as they come and nobody would know them. This might help mask a poor peformance, but nobody would be able to sing along and help me out. I’d be on my own. The other, much greater, problem was that I was absolute shite. Despite the amount I’d played I could not strum or pick very well, nor sing. I had no natural talent whatsoever and what meagre progress I’d made was a result of sheer bloody-mindedness. Believe me when I tell you I sounded absolutely awful, cringeingly-so, like something you’d see at a junior school talent contest where participation was obligatory. Now everyone on site knew this because Rick had told them, which is precisely why they wanted to come. This would be a chance to see someone make an utter fool of himself. Bear in mind all but three of these guys lived in huts on site in the middle of nowhere, so any opportunity to come into town, drink, and have fun was seized upon.

I thought about pulling out, but decided I couldn’t, something to do with pride and tackling a problem head-on. I turned up at Rick’s house on the Saturday evening to find it absolutely packed, basically the whole site team from supervisor upwards. All the expats from the office in town were there as well, basically everyone in the company who knew me. As I walked in an almighty roar went up, and everyone started slapping me on the back. I put my guitar in an upstairs bedroom and spent the next hour drinking in the kitchen and living room with everyone else. As time went by I hoped maybe everyone would forget about my playing and just enjoy the party, but before too long one of the supervisors said “C’mon Tim, time to get the show started, don’t you think?” Everyone within earshot roared their approval, and I trudged up the stairs to fetch my guitar. I sat on one of the beds, shaking with nerves, trying to remember what I would play and how. Within a minute a loud, synchronised thumping came from below, followed by chanting: “Timmy! Timmy! Timmy!” Then I heard Rick below out: “He’s getting into his stage clothes!” followed by a gale of laughter.

I grabbed my guitar and went downstairs, greeted by a deafening roar. Everyone was packed into the kitchen cheek by jowl, leaving a tiny space at the foot of the stairs in which sat a single, solitary, empty chair. I sat down, and the place fell absolutely silent. And I started to play.

And boy, it was awful. Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love, picked with shaking fingers, sung in a flat voice while looking at the guitar strings. But when I finished, everyone cheered so hard the roof threatened to come off. “More!” they cried. I did six songs in total, each with missed notes, buzzing strings, trembling voice, and forgotten lyrics. Nobody cared, they loved it. This was real entertainment! After each song they cheered, and after the final number someone thrust a drink into my hand, and the party continued as before. Throughout the night a steady stream of people came up to me individually and whispered words to the effect of:

“Well done Tim, I can’t believe you actually did that. You didn’t let Rick get the better of you, good on you. I couldn’t have done something like that, no way.”

I never did become a true part of the site team, but after that night they always made me feel welcome. Looking back, it was one of my proudest moments.

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23 thoughts on “A Test of One’s Character

  1. Put the next novel aside for a while.

    Write us a collection of short stories.

  2. Face it – however bad you were, you’d have sounded better than Bob Dylan 😀

  3. Stitched up like a hand made suit or done like a kipper?

    Either way you were, but a happy ending.

    I used to play bass in a pretend punk band, too pissed to be nervous is about all I can remember.

  4. “Meat and two veg?”

    You Brits are quite amusing sometimes.

    BTW, too bad you didn’t add “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an homage to your calendar experience.

  5. Nobody said this yet? Where the hell is the calendar with the girls?

  6. You didn’t insist, in front of everyone, that Rick get up on stage with you? (“Rick said he’d do the next song with me if I did the first one by myself”) Rookie mistake.

  7. Where the hell is the calendar with the girls?

    I never even saw it! I can probably find the one of the men, though. You interested? I know Whiteboard Technician is, and has already sent me an email asking if he can be on the cover of a 2019 re-run!

  8. You didn’t insist, in front of everyone, that Rick get up on stage with you?

    Someone like Rick would have swatted that away like a fly.

  9. “Nah, Tim, I couldn’t possibly upstage you on your special occasion!”

    😀

  10. Wait a minute, just to clarify. You’d find one of the men in order to track down the girls calendar? Or you’d find one of the men in order to track down the male calendar? I’ll assume you understand which option I prefer.

  11. I have to say, I’m intrigued by the male calendar…
    Just my 2 cp.
    I should probably get back to my spreadsheets and papers…

    Great story, though Tim. More, please!

  12. Not being frightened of making a fool of yourself to keep a promise.

    People respect that

  13. Don’t watch it usually, but someone pointed out that Rhod Gilbert had done an episode of “Work Experience” with the Royal Navy. So, fair enough, sparked up IPlayer.

    Better than I expected (plus the minor entertainment of recognising various backdrops, and the amusement occasioned by his beret and the helicopters hopefully trying to land on it once he was wearing Action Working Dress) but the point relevant to our host’s story is the judgement passed on him after a few days of very basic QM skills and sea survival.

    “You… were trying very hard, weren’t you?”

    Delivered with amusement and some respect – Rhod was frankly fairly rubbish, as you’d expect with just four days of prep time – but he had dug out hard and put in a lot of effort both in training and aboard, and candidly he’d done better than expected both in personal performance and the programme produced.

    I recognised most of what he’d done – it’s not casual or easy, and the main reason that reservist sailors like myself get a few days driving simulated ships in Endeavour Building at Collingwood is precisely to teach us that it’ can get really difficult to do well and that reality doesn’t have “reset, rewind, let’s try that again shall we?”

    But I empathise because there are times to know that “if you’re not properly skilled, stay out of the way” and there are times where turning up and giving it some enthusiastic effort is your best bet. Most of my undistinguished part-time military career seems to consist of raising a hand and saying “I’ll do it if you can’t find someone better…” and it’s funny how it’s the people who volunteer (even if they get turned down) tend to be the ones first pinged for interesting opportunities.

  14. Unless you are playing a Les paul through a marshall stack or my mesa boogie….you are not playing guitar.

  15. Advance team building hazing technique that applies worldwide in all institutions.

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