The Suet crisis averted

You'd think that making your debut in Vienna's Musikverein might inspire a few nerves. But sheer terror? Ian Pillow recounts a wicked tale of breaking the British beef ban to save a few pence at Christmas
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As the plane flies out of the low clouds on its descent to the airport, I see out of the window the city of Vienna spread below me. We, the members of the Bournemouth Symphony, are on our way to perform in the hallowed hall of the world-famous Musikverein (home to the mighty Vienna Philharmonic) and my first sight of the city sends waves of apprehension shivering through my body. Beads of sweat break forth on my brow.

One would expect the odd tingle of anticipation or even a small butterfly to flap lazily inside the ample stomach of an old dog scarred by many years of battle; but full-scale terror?

The reason is not so much the thought of performing to ears accustomed to hearing the world's finest orchestra, or facing the wrath of the world's most discerning critics. The truth is, I have become party to a daring international smuggling operation.

For on my person is concealed nothing less than my sister's Christmas pudding, destined for the larder of my niece in Frankfurt, where we are playing in a few days' time. (No, not in her larder. In the Jahrhunderthalle.)

When I had airily agreed to save my sister the postage stamps, I had not realised the full implications of my actions.

The alarm bells started ringing in the band room a few weeks ago when my colleagues were relating the tale of a violinist who had wanted to save money by packing a week's supply of Pot Noodles on a trip to Finland, only to be thwarted by a rule forbidding the import of reconstituted meat.

And therein lies the problem. I feel sure that the pudding will have been made of beef suet, and as Germany and British beef are not exactly back-slapping best buddies at the moment, it would almost certainly be a no-no. Getting caught with it would be worth at least two years in Spandau.

Just think of the headlines if the story broke. "Orchestra's performance contaminated by BSE-carrying viola player." What's more, I have learnt that if the orchestra is delayed while the pudding is sent off for analysis, making us late for the concert, we would incur a fine of pounds 2,000. I feel the weight of the orchestra's success or failure on my shoulders. The pudding might, of course, be made from vegetarian suet, but being an ancient Pillow recipe, and looking at surviving ancient Pillows, that seems unlikely.

I therefore had an awkward decision to make. I could have put the pudding in a suitcase, which might have been less likely to be searched. But as our ancient BAC 111 plane (chartered from Airfix Airways) allowed such a ludicrously low weight limit, there would only have been enough weight left for a cuff-link.

So hand luggage it had to be. The tin foil wrapped round the pudding has already set the metal detectors ringing at Bournemouth airport. Having to declare the pudding and watch it sail imperiously along the conveyor belt in front of the whole orchestra was a demoralising experience.

Somehow the phrase "It's only a Christmas pudding" - uttered in one's own language, at one's home town airport - doesn't exactly sound John Le Carre, but here in a strange land and with only "ein Kaffee bitte" to get me out of trouble, this moment of reckoning is awe-inspiringly terrifying.

I did have the idea of sneaking the pudding out of the hold-all by the carousel where the luggage is first spewed out, and surreptitiously popping it into my suitcase the moment the case appeared; but there isn't room for it. Alternatively I could plonk the pudding on to the carousel, rush to the other end and pick it off right under the nose of the customs official, exclaiming loudly, "Aha! Here is my sister's 100 per cent vegetarian Christmas pudding, which is going to the poor people of Vienna," but my German phrasebook doesn't quite run to that. Nor, fortunately, does "Seize that man; he has a suet pudding" occur in too many of the phrasebooks belonging to those colleagues who have threatened to blow the lid off the whole scam with that one devastating sentence.

"Don't worry. Just walk normally," says one of my more sympathetic companions.

I have never "walked normally" to order in my life before. I suddenly can't remember how to do it. Put one foot in front of the other and transfer the weight from the back of the front foot to the front of the front foot and lift the back of the back foot and carry it to the front. The dummy run (walk?) is not a success, particularly as, in order to appear nonchalant, my gaze is thrust 90 degrees upwards while I try to whistle "The Blue Danube". A less than wise choice - the sixth note onwards is way out of range. (You try it.) The total effect is odd - a curious lope like a slow-motion ice-skating kangaroo emitting occasional high-pitched squeaks at the ceiling.

Eventually a semi-satisfactory choreography is achieved as I limp through the "Nothing to Declare" channel like a paraplegic crab - head bowed away from the customs official to my right, and the hold-all hard against the left leg and the china basin with its reinforced concrete contents painfully bombarding my left knee. I have changed my repertoire to "The Radetsky March".

The ploy works like a charm. I am through.

After the pressures of international crime, playing in the concert is so easy-peasy that I can only assume the standing ovation and shouts of "Bravo!" are in recognition of my fearless heroism against officialdom. A veritable Robin Hood among viola players.

I can now sit back and enjoy the rest of the trip.

There are a few dress problems in Frankfurt. I am playing the concert in soaking wet clothes, having completely forgotten about the law of displacement ("When a large body is immersed in a small bath...") and allowed a tidal wave of soapy water to overflow the bathroom floor upon which my concert dress lay waiting.

One of the coach drivers has off-loaded a case containing an oboist's concert clothes at the hotel instead of at the hall where they are needed. Our tour guide has taken a taxi back from the hall to the hotel, picked up the case, taxied back and left the case in the taxi. The taxi has now returned to the hotel and deposited the case with the porter, who has gone and put a violinist's case on to a coach belonging to another orchestra that is now heading for the other end of the country.

This spanking new hotel boasts the latest hi-tech security system. You wave a plastic card hopefully in mid-air in the lift, whereupon you zoom up to the floor on which your room is located. Should you be invited on to another floor to inspect a friend's tea-making facilities, you have to go all the way down to reception and face an embarrassing interrogation.

"Warum gehst Sie zu funfte Etage?"

"Ich mochte das Hanky Panky."

In the Bierkeller after the concert, we sit around discussing the shortcomings of the hanky-panky-proof hotel. "Someone with a criminal mind could crack the system."

All eyes turn on me.

Ian Pillow is a viola player with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra