So that was 2020.
I've been through some strange times in my life, but this year really
takes the biscuit. Like so many other people I'd made plans for
this year - places to go, people to see, gigs to do and new things
to learn. And it pretty much all went down the plughole in March
when the Covid 19 thing kicked off bigtime. And like most people
I suppose I adopted a sort of philosophical approach to it all.
As soon as it became clear that we weren't dealing with a minor
outbreak and that it was starting to have a devastating impact on
certain parts of our communities, it became of matter of 'getting
on with it and getting it done' with as much good grace as it was
possible to muster.
At least that's how it was at the start.
I think many people became progressively more
and more dismayed - if not just plain angrier - at the way things
were being handled. Granted, we were all very much in the dark as
to precisely what this virus was capable of - so it fell upon certain
people to make certain predictions...and when you're dealing with
something as new as a novel virus it's only reasonable to assume
that any predictions are likely to be little more than educated
guesses. However, as time wore on it began to seem as though some
experts were more educated than others...and they weren't necessarily
the ones who were advising those in power.
And then it all got very strange indeed.
Now, I'm not one for conspiracy theories; they may have had some
mileage in the past, but these days you hardly need bother to go
to all the trouble of all that cloak-and-dagger stuff - if you've
got something dodgy to announce, you just bung it up on a corporate
website and no-one(save for a couple of hundred indignant folk on
social media) will pay it much heed at all. Don't believe me? Well,
did you know that the W.H.O once proudly proclaimed that their new
'Goodwill Ambassador" was to be none other than...Robert Mugabe?
Anyway, I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking that we weren't being
told all we should have been told - and we certainly couldn't rely
on the journalists to eke out the truth between the lines. I recall
being rather amused at a shot of a densely-packed crowd on Brighton
beach, along with a suitably doom-laden headline ("We're all
gonna die!!"). It didn't take much more than a cursory glance
to work out that the shot had been taken with a long telephoto lens...which
tends to compress the space between objects. Thus a relatively well-spaced
out beach became a packed horde of 'Covidiots' - a sneaky trick
that was brought into sharp relief by the publication of an aerial
shot that put the matter into (ahem) proper perspective.
Questions were being asked...but they weren't the right questions,
the hard questions - and I can't help but feel that it was all a
little too convenient...
Perhaps when all this business is through we'll have something of
a reckoning. But I'm not holding my breath.
After that it all got a bit more complicated.
It became harder to work out whether you could go outside, who you
could meet up with, where you could have lunch and whether the person
you'd been snogging counted as a bubble, a key worker or a latter-day
Typhoid Mary. And was it tonight we were supposed to stand outside
and clap, or was that tomorrow?
By the time that the Brexit negotiations hove into view, and Donald
Trump got weird on Twitter, all most people wanted to do was piss
off to the pub for a quiet pint....but, alas, they were all closed.
From my perspective I viewed the virus as potentially
just another lurgy that I had to avoid during the normal course
Let me explain - and if you're tucking into your dinner at this
point, you might wanna look away. Y'see, I deal in gob. Specifically,
your gob. When a horn comes in it's often coated with the stuff.
A hundred dried-up spots that mark each and every solo. And that's
the cleaner stuff. Take a peek down a saxophone crook and you're
likely to be treated to the sight of what one of my esteemed professional
colleagues refers to as 'groceries'. A grey, gooey sludge that accumulates
when you're too damn idle to remove the mouthpiece after playing.
I'd like to be able to say "Gawd knows what lives in there"
- but I had a very good friend of mine who's in the bio biz analyse
this stuff, and the results didn't make for pleasant reading. At
So I was a step ahead when it came to the use of PPE, having been
a regular consumer of nitrile gloves and various powerful disinfectants.
I also followed what I called 'The Dog Shit Protocol'. This is very
simple, and requires you only to imagine that you have dropped,
say, your car keys onto a grassy patch. When you go to pick them
up you discover (to your undoubted horror) that you've run your
fingers through a little 'gift' left by an incontinent pooch.
So there you are, with dog shit on your hand. What are you gonna
do? Well, quite probably you're going to hold that hand at arms
length until such times as you can scrub it until your fingers bleed.
What you're certainly not going to do is pick your teeth, scratch
your nose....or pop into the nearest shop, pick a few items of the
shelf and read the labels before putting them back again.
Time and again I'd see people forget about this (admittedly very
natural) hand-to-face interaction - but for me it's become something
that's almost second-nature. And it would for you too if you'd seen
as much gobby goo as I have.
However, I've noticed how very much more aware
I've become of, well, I don't really have a name for them - but
I suppose the closest approximation would be the word that the inestimable
uses to describe those people who accost you after a gig for a 'bit
of a chat', and who like to ensure you can't beat a hasty retreat
by grabbing you by the arm. 'Grippers', he calls them.
In my line of work these are the people who stand right next to
you at the workbench while you're assessing their horns and figuring
out what needs fixing. It's a bloody nuisance, because nine times
out of ten they're right in the way of where you need to reach over
to pick up a tool.
And it's usually a completely pointless exercise. Oh, I get where
they're coming from - they just want to point out what's wrong with
the horn...but you end up in a situation where they're enthusiastically
pointing at a pad with a little split in it (that has no effect
on how the horn plays, and that you clocked five seconds after you
lifted the horn out of the case), and you're looking at a pillar
that's come unsoldered and is only being held in place by a thin
crust of the aforementioned dried-up gob.
I suppose there's a kind of protocol when it comes to workbenches,
which is that they're 'hallowed ground' - and you don't get to approach
the 'Altar of the Dark Arts' unless duly invited....typically with
the sacred invocation of "Cor blimey guv, cop a butcher's at
So it's always been a nuisance in normal times, but now it's taken
on a whole 'nother sinister dimension - which usually ends up with
the overly-keen client heading toward the workbench while I'm retreating
swiftly in order to maintain some distance. This usually jogs the
client's memory viz the need to maintain a distance - but on a couple
of occasions this hasn't deterred them at all, and they've picked
the horn up from the bench and attempted to bring it over to where
I've moved...all the while pointing at some completely bloody obvious
fault, utterly oblivious to the fact that I'm halfway round the
back of the workshop by now.
In an effort to avoid this embarrassing situation I installed a
rope which runs from the 'reception bench' (where clients place
the case) and the workbench - but I despise the bloody thing because
it makes me feel like I'm an exhibit in a National Trust house,
and I much prefer the typically British approach of 'This may well
be the new normal, but let's be sensible and not make a big fuss
Humour aside, I'm acutely aware of how the pandemic
has affected people's lives - particularly those in the arts. It
very quickly became apparent that Boris Johnson's claim that "We're
all in this together" meant that some of us were more 'in it'
than others. Despite that fact that in times of trouble and stress
people often turn to the arts to provide some comfort and solace
and despite the vast sums of taxable revenue that the arts generate
- artists (in the the UK at least) have essentially been left to
rot. Well, OK, not quite...there was some 'very helpful' government
advice which suggested that having spent most of your life learning
to play an instrument to an exceptional standard, you should simply
chuck the whole lot in a bin and retrain as a glorified typist.
Which went down about as well as can be expected.
I've certainly heard some heartbreaking stories from clients. Sure,
some have been able (or forced) to adapt to teaching remotely -
but as we're not quite yet in the age of holograms and instantaneous
data transfer, the whole thing has been fraught with difficulties.
And it's perhaps not wise to underestimate the sheer amount of stress
this places people under. It's not a good place to be, and it's
certainly not conducive to an atmosphere of creative nurture. Others
have fared rather less well. Gigs have dried up, recording sessions
abandoned, tours cancelled - and it's not as if professional musicians
tend to be wealthy people. They've gone from 'getting by' to 'getting
nowhere' in a matter of mere weeks.
I've been doing what I can to support them, though to be honest
it really isn't very much. Priority turnarounds on repairs, hefty
discounts, passing on possible teaching opportunities. It's ridiculously
small fry in the great scheme of things but I felt I had to do something,
even if it's just a token effort.
And I've been genuinely touched by the number
of people who've got in touch to ask how I'm doing in the current
crisis. OK, sure, I know a number of them are really just concerned
that their repairer isn't going to go out of business and retrain
as a pastry chef - and I take that as a quite a big compliment -
but the majority of them are people I've never met. They're simply
people who've been reading my jottings down the years and they just
wanted to make sure I was doing OK. And, it has to be said, I'm
doing very OK.
They say there's always a silver lining, and I guess I've been lucky
enough to be in a position where having almost everyone stay at
home for weeks on end has turned out to be very good for my business.
Unexpectedly good, to be honest.
I'm pretty sure my reaction to the first lockdown was exactly the
same as that of many other small business owners in the service
sector. I immediately (and by immediately I mean even before Boris
Johnson had stopped waffling on about protecting the NHS) took stock
of what work I had in hand, how much money I had to spare and how
long I could maintain things before the work and the money ran out.
I knew that working on my own meant that I'd be able to carry on
under the lockdown rules - I just wasn't sure whether the work would
still come in. I don't mind admitting that the first week was rather
tense. I could easily survive a month, and two wouldn't be a big
problem - but things would start to bite after three, and at a very
pinched pinch I might just make it through a fourth month. But after
that? Who knows?
But then the emails started to come in. At first it was nearly all
student-grade horns - and I'm guessing that the lockdown prompted
a number of people to dig out that old horn that had been languishing
under the bed for the past couple of years to see whether they could
still get a note out of it. And when they found that they couldn't,
they decided to get the thing fixed with a view to 'learning in
I called this the 'first wave' - because a couple of weeks later
the second wave rolled in.
These were players who'd been practising on a
more or less regular basis - but the thing about practice is the
more you do, the better you get...and when you get better you start
to get pickier. Players who'd previously blown through various minor
faults were beginning to find their progress hampered, and were
getting to the stage where they were confident enough in their technique
to know that it wasn't their playing that wasn't up to scratch -
it was the horn. Most of these horns were of the intermediate to
entry-level pro spec, and I certainly wasn't complaining.
And then the third wave hit.
I'd classify this group as a mix of professional
players who had a few bob stashed aside for a rainy day and keen
amateurs or semi-pros who had sustainable incomes during the lockdown(s).
And this was all top shelf work. High-end modern horns and gorgeous
vintage beauties. More often than not they had multiple horns -
one client even managed to send down six horns, one after the other...and
I think the cheapest item on the menu came in at around £5000.
It was all 'big' work too; strip it down, do whatever's necessary,
no expense spared.
In short, I'd never had so much quality work in my entire career.
I was struggling to manage the flow of horns in and out from the
point of view of simply having the space to store them, and was
now on first-name terms with all the courier drivers.
I guess that's the nature of adversity - for every
group that suffers the effects of it there's nearly always going
to be a subset that the conditions favour. I know I'm not alone
in that respect - in my conversations with other tradespeople I've
found a good number of them have seen demand go through the roof.
I just never expected to be among them.
I'm certainly not going to apologise for that. I've had my share
of hard times, and folks who know me are aware that recent years
have been something of a chore - with fortunes changing at the turn
of 2019. That this year turned out to be even better against all
the odds is something I'd have been mad not to take advantage of
and be thankful for.
I shan't squander that opportunity. I've been investing in my business
- increasing my range of tooling - and working on new repair techniques
and services...so that when we're all done with this damn virus,
I'll be here to get the working musicians back on their feet.
We'll get there. Whatever you've suffered in this dreadful year,
may I at least raise a glass to you on this last day of 2020 and
wish you all the very best fortune for 2021.