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January 20, 2012 3:02 pm
Things began to get awkward when I bowled my second strike. “Are you a ringer?” asked Paul Gambaccini with a slightly fixed smile. “My average is 140 and you’ve bowled a 161. I think what’s obviously happened here is that the Financial Times has asked staff to find the best bowler.”
Gambaccini is “the professor of pop”, “the Great Gambo”: a New York-born, UK-based radio presenter with a mellifluous transatlantic delivery and seemingly perfect recall for music trivia. He also, it turns out, has a life-long love of tenpin bowling. “I have to have a piano in my house or else I just feel muted,” he says, “and I obviously have to have a radio. But I also occasionally have to bowl because it is something I did when I was about 12 with my brother regularly. I can’t imagine not doing it.”
His brother lives in New York so they rarely bowl together now, but Gambaccini, his partner Chris and their friends – I was taking the place of regular Theo – maintain the ritual. Every Sunday at 11am they go bowling at All Star Lanes in Holborn. After my first ball, Gambaccini carefully explained “bowling etiquette”: don’t stand on the playing area when another bowler is taking their turn (“sorry!”); the bowler on the right is the next to bowl. He and Chris also offer fist bumps and high fives after every frame regardless of whether it was a good one or not. These things matter to Gambaccini; he is a precise man.
“What I do professionally requires incredible self-discipline with timing to the second, so I respect bowling. I think a lot of people who don’t have to be self-disciplined think it’s just throwing the ball down the lane, but it’s about precision. I not only enjoy the sport, I respect it, because to be really good – which I’m not – you have to have mastered pinpoint accuracy, which I’ll be striving for until I leave the earth. Meanwhile,” he adds, cuing me up like a record, “it’s your sixth frame.”
He does this rather a lot. The radio presenter’s art lies in the segue; filling the gaps between records and talking up to, but not over, the vocal. Gambaccini is a master. His broadcasting career began on Radio 1 in 1973, when he was just 24, and, after stints on Radio 3 and Classic FM, he now presents BBC Radio 2’s America’s Greatest Hits show each Saturday evening. He’s as comfortable with high culture as he is low and has an opinion on everything. On Friday January 27, he’ll be spinning the nation’s favourite funeral songs as part of London’s Southbank Centre’s “Death: A Festival for the Living” event.
“I find the fact that ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams is one of the most played to be very bizarre. The lyrics of ‘Angels’ are basically a series of unrelated platitudes that don’t refer to a specific situation and certainly not death.” What would he have? “The more songs you know the more songs seem suitable,” he says. “It becomes an impossible choice. I’ve always thought that the last minute and 20 seconds of the Arthur Rubinstein recording, with Erich Leinsdorf, of the Grieg piano concerto would be very suitable for the end of my funeral.”
Born in 1949, Gambaccini grew up in Westport, Connecticut, and came of age in an era when the “wonderfully civilised game” of bowling was in its heyday. He and his brother bowled with their friends at the local Westport Lanes. Bowling then was a serious and popular sport. “It was on ABC TV and Don Carter was the star bowler,” he recalls. “I remember the name of the star bowler as if he had been Babe Ruth.”
Westport Lanes was a new, 26-lane alley built during the boom in bowling that swept America in the 1950s and 1960s. “It was that period of the suburbanisation of America when an indispensible part of every new town was the bowling alley,” he says. “It’s broken my heart to see bowling go downhill. Now it’s a sort of retro, kitsch thing. Nixon, for all his faults, was a bowler. He had a bowling alley in the basement of the White House.”
Gambaccini studied at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and won a Rhodes scholarship to University College, Oxford, to read PPE. But bowling has always been an important part of his life – he even lost his virginity thanks to the game. “We used to have bowling outings for a group of friends. On one of these occasions, I bowled my all time best, which was 227.” It’s typical of Gambaccini to recall such a detail, and with every name he mentions he quickly adds the correct spelling, a reminder that he began his career as a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. One woman was so impressed by his bowling prowess that she asked him to bowl a 200 just for her.
Gambaccini set about doing just that. “I went in there and I bowled exactly a 200.” He duly sent the scoring sheet to the admiring woman and later a poem he’d found written by former British prime minister William Gladstone for Margot Asquith.
Little did Gambaccini realise that the woman thought he had written the poem himself. “We met at Paddington station and, as she approached me, I thought to myself ‘Tonight I’m going to lose my virginity!’ and son of a gun, it happened – all as a result of bowling. So don’t think this is an inconsequential sport.”
It’s his turn and he selects an orange 14lb ball. “One thing that is happening today that is a new problem for me is I’m pulling to the left because the ball is lighter,” he explains. His favoured 16-pounder appears to have been discontinued. Even at the best lane he’s ever encountered – at Dublin airport, of all places – they only had a 14-pounder. “It’s been a problem for me to adjust to a lower weight ball.”
After the first game he pulls out a small black notebook with his name discreetly stencilled in silver in the corner and jots down my winning 161, his 122 and Chris’s 115. “The Financial Times man is the money bowler today.”
At home, Gambaccini keeps a spreadsheet of all the scores along with averages, standard deviations and highs and lows. “Intriguingly, I have the lowest standard deviation after all these years, although I did have my spectacular 194 this quarter,” he says. Gambaccini not only has perfect recall, he’s also – according to a test he once sat – officially a maths genius. Part of the pleasure he gets from the precision of the game is the inherent mathematics at its heart in the trajectories of balls and columns of scores.
Our second game is more even. I bowl a couple of duff balls and Gambaccini sets the scene for the last frame like a sports commentator: “We’re going into the 10th and we’ve already had tremendous excitement because you’ve had your double [strike]. Chris has had his triple and you really are defending because as you see you have to do well in the 10th to hold onto your title.” He smiles. “No pressure!”
I manage a strike, but miss a further spare to finish with a respectable 132 – not enough to beat the Great Gambo’s winning 142. “What have we learnt?” he asks. “Well, you’ve got a heck of a standard deviation, and I don’t!” And then he offers the ultimate compliment: “If you ever want to bowl again, just get in touch.”
‘Death: A Festival for the Living’ runs from January 27-29 (southbankcentre.co.uk/death)
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