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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

“So you want to hear me sing?” is not a question that in the ordinary scheme of things you expect from the person behind the till in Boots; not like, “Do you have a Boots card?” for example.

“Yes, I would, Charlene.” Then I notice her name tag. “Your name’s not Charlene! It’s Christiana!”

“I know,” she says.

We were in Boots at Heathrow. I’d popped in along with everyone else who’d just got through security for those cute travel-sized essentials ,though the full-sized versions were in a case rolling on a conveyor belt somewhere nearby. Losing the final shreds of my humanity jostling for space in front of the ‘3 for 2’ offers (everyone has a plane to catch, thank you!) I was contemplating elbowing a family of four aside when the assistant whose name I misheard came over to introduce herself and a product she said I “couldn’t do without.”

“Hi Charlene,” I said, “Thanks, but not this time.”

“But this will make you look less wrinkled! You will look healthy. It works! I would not lie to you. And I can get you a discount. It will be fantastic for you. Plus here you don’t pay tax.” (Not) Charlene, I noticed, has a seductive voice.

“You have a lovely speaking voice.”

“Thank you. I sing too. If you buy the big packet you get a bigger discount.”

“You’re good at this. Where do you sing?”

“I lead the choir at my local Baptist church. And sometimes I sing here. Wait,” she said, “I’ll ask for my manager.”

I waited. She came back. “So are you going to buy the big packet?”


“I can take you straight to the till. You won’t have to queue. I’ll get all your other things for you too.”

“Great! I’ll buy the big packet.”

The manager stopped by. “If you want to sing, sing.” She turns to me. It makes the customers happy when she sings. Boots was appearing in a new light. This never happens in Chiswick. (Not) Charlene bustled me to the till. The queue got a bit twitchy, but I clearly had official dispensation. The manager opened another till and nodded to Charlene, who asked her question and whose real name I was about to discover.

“I would like to hear you sing,” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“I have bought the big packet…” My husband came in looking for me, making a swift exit on seeing me wrangling at the till.

“I mean I don’t know what to sing.”

I cast about for a song she might like. How about Amazing Grace?

As Christiana’s pure gospel voice rang out and filled the place everyone paused, perhaps recalling how we all might have a plane to catch, thank you, but essentially we’re all on the same flight. When, in his seminal work How Musical Is Man? John Blacking wrote, “Music is essential for the very survival of man's humanity,” he probably didn’t have losing it in Boots the chemist in mind. But here, in an unexpected extraordinary moment, I was beautifully reminded of mine.

Elizabeth Kinder


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