I knew as a young man living in North London that the man I would “go and see about a dog” in a public house (my dog being bootleg recordings of live performances on cassette or vinyl recordings of some bands I liked) would always be on time and would deliver the goods. Ray (as I knew him, although I think his name was actually Allan) was my “sounds” dealer. The recordings that I bought off him at regular intervals throughout might time in the capital have long since been digitalised (although often the occasional bit of crackle and hiss has been left in for good measure to remind me of the listening experience of my personal stereo).
I knew very little about Ray, and basically all I knew was that Ray’s merchandise was stored in various lock-up garages dotted around a number of London Boroughs, and in the pre-Internet day, that his “catalogue” was in the form of a poorly duplicated typewritten list that I would pore over with friends as we prepared our next purchases. We’d usually leave our orders on an answerphone, in a way that was not too dissimilar to how we used to order takeaways back in the day. Ray’d then call back to arrange a handover in a pub “correct money if possible” (although he had a large wad of banknotes that probably got thicker and thicker with every drop-off). Deal concluded, I would shake his hand (with chunky rings on it, including a sovereign ring) and finish my pint, and he’d tip his hat and disappear out the door, and I would head back to my shared flat at a lively pace via the chippy and immerse myself in listening to my new purchases, with the place to myself and my flatmates away visiting their girlfriends for the weekend. Re-reading these first two paragraphs, I feel like I am ghost-writing for Nick Hornby. Don’t worry, I’m not (although I have read and enjoyed a few of his books).
Ray’s handshake was firm, he was always at the pub at the promised time, and as far as I knew, while he was a wheeler and dealer, he was well connected and delivered wonderful recordings. I came to rely on his handshake as his reputation and guarantee. He’d ask me what I thought of the last records I had ordered, and would recommend something else that might by “right up my street”. There was no hard sell, and he said that his business only worked on trust. Whatever became of him, I don’t know. I can’t imagine him hanging around for the digital revolution of CDs and DVDs. There is something about hawkers in pubs nowadays that make me very suspicious about their wares. And they lack the Handschlagqualität that Ray had.
So why was the handshake so important? I think it had a lot to do with the way that I was brought up in a society that shook hands at every given opportunity. My father would instruct my brother and me to always shake hands when agreeing something, meeting up, parting company. Maybe it was a forces thing, a kind of superstition that it was the done thing to shake a comrade’s hand, in case you lived to regret not doing so if a tragedy occurred. This is part of the general malaise about the country I was born in. Politicians are no longer trustworthy, and this is a very bad thing. After all politicians are still notorious “pressers of the flesh”. The soundbite-nurtured public is crying out for some decent upstanding politicians, who can be trusted in the United Kingdom that returns to the polls for the third time in four and an half years. Possibly the soundbites, stripped of context, are one reason I would struggle to think of more than a very few exceptions with whom I would actually shake their hand and trust the words that we had exchanged. The outgoing Father of the House of Commons, Ken Clarke, would be one. The current incumbent in Number 10, would not be another.
Recently, nephew has moved into a new flat and is house-sitting for a friend of mine. Nephew, having once been as profligate as a professional footballer on the budget of a student, was worried how he’d manage to pay a Kaution on the Pendlerwohnung he is occupying. Little did he realise that in some deals Handschlagqualität is all it takes, or that it still exists. I went with him having had a mail from a friend who needed someone to take their flat, and asked about the deposit, and my friend, simply shook hands with me and said he could trust me to ensure that there wasn’t a problem. There was a awe-filled silence in the car on the way on to look at a few bits of furniture that “Uncle” had been able to secure a flat that was “kaution- und provisionfrei“, the holy grail of every flathunter’s dreams.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and nephew was duly installed in his new home. He was effusive about how his commute was now about 10 minutes less each way, and that how things were going well with his work, with a bit more money, responsibility and also how happy he was. The last statement was great to hear – when we picked him up after his fleeting stint on a cruise ship he was a mess and his prospects looked bleak. Fortunately little by little things have improved. He invited me to his flat-warming party, which was a modest affair. I helped out with some beers and some nibbles, which earned much respect. I’d intended to only stay for a couple of drinks (honest, Officer) but got chatting to a couple of nephew’s co-workers from the co-working space he is working at.
Usually I’d not expect a bunch of twenty-somethings to want to make conversation with someone likely older than their parents, but it turned out that nephew had told them about his “Uncle” who could sort things out. As it turned out, one of his friends got talking about the vinyl revival, and had come over with a turntable and a record bag to provide the music, which reminded me of the halcyon days of me getting records from Ray. The great thing was to chat with a young man who lived for records, in a similar way to my having done so. It was also quite a nice change from the “Spotify playlists” that others had brought along, although that is the way the young seem to do things – music is to listen to, but not to own. Sure, maybe the prospect of sitting with a double gatefold album in hand and admiring the artwork while listening to the music is an experience that the instant gratification generation don’t appreciate.
I told my new friend about how I used to buy records from Ray in the pub, and he was amazed. People would sooner just try and find a track to listen to once and possibly include in their Spotify playlist, but the notion of owning, the excitement of taking a record out of the album sleeve was something most in the room would have thought a fully alien feeling. He duly remarked about how incredible it was that I could trust Ray not to mess me around, or that he also trusted me to turn up in a pub with the merchandise knowing that I would have the money for him and that there wouldn’t any “funny business”. He told me that that just doesn’t exist any longer, and that he’d had various problems buying through willhaben and ebay with the product and description not matching or the seller disappearing into the ether with his money. As I left the party after a while, having chatted about supergroups, some of the classic vinyl albums I’d had, and the bootleg concert recordings, I held out my hand, and he shook it firmly. Maybe, just maybe, the handshake as a symbol of trust still has life in it yet in Vienna.