Oliver Cross: Beers and mysteries

My friend Dibbs loves Vienna, partly because he once spent three months in a five-star hotel there while working on a computer project.

"Yes but don't you find these big swanky hotels soulless?" I asked. "Wouldn't you rather be at home among your friends?"

"No," Dibbs replied without even bothering to look mentally torn and leaving the phrase "Are you mad?" hanging in the air.

Another reason Dibbs loves Vienna is because he was once taking a random walk around the city and called into a pavement bar.

The staff told him he couldn't buy a beer because the bar was about to close for good so they were giving all their food and drink away free and he was welcome to pile in.

This made no sense at all, particularly as, in my collection of European stereotypes, the Austrians have never been filed under generous, impulsive or crazy (that's the Belgians).

But maybe these inexplicable free beer incidents happen to everyone who waits around long enough.

Mine came at a gloomy pub in a back street somewhere in the West End of London - I can't remember the details, just the beer miracle.

It was early afternoon, there were perhaps a dozen quiet customers and a cheerful cockney barman of the type you can easily have too much of.

I ordered my beer, put my hand in my pocket and the barman screamed "Nah, this is on the house." This made me very nervous so I drank up quickly and was about to leave when the barman said "You can't go yet – have another beer." Again he wouldn't hear of me paying and again and again he wouldn't let me leave the pub without giving me more free beer. I escaped some time later and no wiser. He said nothing that indicated he had mistaken me for someone else – indeed, apart from the free beer exchanges we didn't speak at all – and although I've toyed with various theories, including CIA mind-experiments, I've decided that, like most things in life, it proves only that you never can tell.

A similarly inexplicable episode of apparent good fortune in my life came when, in the late 1960s, as a student, I took a job as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman for (boo) Robert Maxwell's then publishing company, Pergamon.

This was very dirty work. The encyclopedias were overpriced and not, I found when I out checked to few topics I knew about, very good.


We were sent to sell them around council estates and working class areas -– the chief salesman explained that the target punters were the sort of people who didn't normally go into bookshops and therefore didn't know what books should cost.

We were to recite, if we could get through the front door, an elaborate spiel starting with the lie that we were carrying out an an educational survey and weren't there to sell anything.

Then we would invite them to pick up an encyclopedia, offering it to them in such a way that they had to pick it up by a corner, which made it feel heavier than it was.

The general idea was to make parents wanting to do the best for their children feel guilty about not buying an overpriced encyclopedia – "Would you you like the chance to improve .......'s (insert name of child) educational future for less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes a day?" we would ask in a concerned way.

It was morally disgusting, which is why, being slow, I traipsed for a whole day around the streets before thinking "I shouldn't be doing this."

Then on my last call, and after I had dutifully repeated the lie about carrying out an educational survey, the man on the other side of the door, who seemed quite sane, said, "That's a pity, I thought you were an encyclopedia salesman. I've been waiting for an encyclopedia salesman to call for weeks because I really want to buy an encyclopedia."

Well, what would you do? I did try a bit of anti-salesmanship ("Yes, it's only a pack of cigarettes a day but that's for two years. You could get a reconditioned twin tub for that") but in the end I gave up. Morals on one side, 6 commission the other...it was no contest.

Younger readers may not understand the concept of 6. It was half a decent weekly wage. Robert Maxwell refused to pay it to me until I had pestered the company for months and months. I was not at all surprised when he was finally exposed as a crook.


ON Desert Island Discs the jokey Barnsley poet Ian McMillan chose as one of his eight selections a edited version of John Cage's Four Minutes 33 Seconds, which consists entirely of silence, although it is usually performed by an orchestra in a concert hall and has three movements, my favourite being the middle section, called Two Minutes 23 seconds.

I had always though it was a kind of avant garde joke but Ian McMillan made me think again. Firstly, if you have any degree of hearing at all, there is no such thing as silence, as you will have noticed yesterday as you observed the two-minute Armistice Day silence. In a city there is always the dull hum of traffic, electricity and pigeons, in the countryside there the buzz of small life and 4x4s and even if you can eliminate all that, there are the inescapable sounds of your own body.

But even an approximation of silence makes you think, which is, of course, the point of Armistice Day. Silence doesn't really happen unless you focus on it; it's a discipline and I can understand why on a desert island, with all those lapping waves and the plaintive cries of seabirds, you might decide to spend some calm, thinking time with John Cage. Apart from anything else it might turn your thoughts away from wanting to strangle the plaintive seabirds.

Timing, of course, is vital; near-silence, being a common commodity, needs to be artificially restricted to make it valuable. Yesterday we were all reminded how much two minutes of silence means; perhaps now it's time to see how four minutes 33 seconds works.

Incidentally, The Royal British Legion has released a record called 2 Minute Silence, which combines silence with a video of celebrities looking noble. Personally, I would prefer to listen to it blindfolded.

New dawn, same old story

LAST week I promised a new dawn for this column involving exhaustive research and absolute accuracy. I also said there would be a moustache night at the Chemic Tavern on November 5. It's actually on November 26, so I've decided that new dawns are not my forte and I won't be doing any more.

Mind you, this was by no means the worst of moustache errors. Here is a picture of the Yorkshire tenor Walter Midgley who, while performing in Rigoletto at Covent Garden in 1948, swallowed his false moustache. He courageously carried on singing, even though he needed surgery the next day to remove moustache debris.

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