Tuesday, 3 October 2017

the opperman culture

Past the drunk woman reeling
with her bag of provisions
Down through the tunnel
with the stink-fuming bus
On to the bike path
where it's something like freedom
and the wind in my earring whispers
Trust what you must
It's my beat
In my new town

On the occasions Stevenage is mentioned in the media my heart usually sinks. Very often something untoward has happened, but the recent article in The Guardian about the town’s cycleways was certainly interesting.


For those who believe Stevenage to be a mythical place like some sort of East End overspill urban hell version of Brigadoon* may be surprised to know that as the first of the “New Towns” it was designed to separate cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Obviously it wasn’t really as simple as that but it was the dream of urban planners as this rather wonderful video demonstrates. I love the fact that the whole issue of pubs was seen in a comical light with the husband slurring out that he needs plenty of pubs nearby whilst the Mrs is saying oh no we don't. Very George & Dragon. Still, cycleways were an important part of the development of the town. They even got a few pages dedicated to them in a Ladybird book.

In truth, growing up in the town through the 1960s allowed me the use of these Dutch-style cycleways. In his 1970's Richard's Bicycle Book, Richard Ballantine claimed that: "you can cycle or walk anywhere you wish in Stevenage and never encounter a motor vehicle," which is utter nonsense.  I must admit that, certainly in the New Town area (Grace Way for instance), there were so many rabbit-warren like cul-de-sacs that we definitely did encounter motor cars. There were posts to stop you from cycling straight out to cross to the opposite side which I regularly bumped into. At the time you could cycle out of town and off into the countryside for hours. I grew up as an Edgelander on the borders between the Old Town and the building sites of the New Town where they were encroaching on the farmlands and woods, creeping ever-onward towards the villages.  As it was pre-mobile phone (pre-landline for my family too!) we were often away most of the day with our parents giving us barely a thought, I'm sure. They were at work. On these jaunts the regular equipment was: cheap plastic binoculars (next to useless), cheap plastic army-style water bottle, iSpy book of birds, biro and a packet of (usually) jam sandwiches if you were lucky. You were less likely to encounter a motor vehicle around the countryside than you were in the town. In later life I used to cycle to work at various factories using the cycle lanes. Somewhere recently I read that some residents claimed there wasn't any parking space for bikes in the New Town. What? There was plenty; I remember padlocking my bike up in town on my youthful forays to The Hobby Shop!

What I find most amusing about the article is the surprised tone and the sheer incredulity that the lead designer, Eric Claxton**, shows that people chose to use cars instead of bikes! Now, I must admit that I am not, and never have been a cycling enthusiast. But it doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to realise that if you make the roads easy to whizz around because there aren't any pesky cyclists or kids on them then motorists are going to love it!

As an aside here, I must admit that I went to school with Mr Claxton's son. In those days everyone had nicknames but poor Howard had to make do with simply being "Claxton" or occasionally "Clackers". Ideally he should have been "Plug" after the notorious Bash Street Kid from the Beano due to his impressive set of lugholes. However, at our secondary school we actually had a kid who bore the most remarkable resemblance to Plug that there was no competition. Anyway, I vaguely remember his father as bearing a resemblance to a much later comic character, Victorian Dad from Viz. Which suggests to me that he must have been somewhat of a stern gentleman and lacking in humour. I may be wrong.



Evidently, according to the article, despite the safe routes from homes to schools, less children cycle nowadays to school than ever. People preferring to take their little darlings to school by car. Much the same as any other town in Britain. The article claims that Eric was quite prophetic about the way things were moving back in 1992 and he himself was partly to blame for the townsfolk preferring the road to the cycle lane. Build a safer environment for cars and expect people to still choose to cycle. Hmm . . . I know loads of people now that would love to have a fairly safe environment for cyclists - especially around Ipswich. Mind you in our town the council have designated a fair few roads to have cycle lanes with white lines painted along long stretches of main roads. The problem is, people just ignore them and park their cars in them anyway. A fairly pointless exercise it seems.

I've noticed over recent years a move towards micro-cars: those little Bakelite Fiats and tiny faux Minis. Back in the days old Eric was designing Stevenage infrastructure, over in Elstree, another part of Hertfordshire, plans were afoot to design a British micro-car to try to "drive those bloody awful German bubble cars off the road with a proper miniature car". Of course, everyone is aware of the British Motor Corporation eventually designing the Mini and what a success it was to become, but less people are aware of the loser in the race. In Elstree in 1958, the Opperman Stirling was built. It was to be offered in two engine sizes, 424 or 493cc. A prototype was shown at the 1958 Motor Show but due, evidently, to the bullying Chairman Leonard Lord of the BMC, the hopes of the Elstree-based tractor manufacturer were dashed to the ground. At £400 they were the cheapest car on show but none were ever sold. Another 8-track cartridge vs cassette example.  Due to the Suez Crisis petrol prices were increasing, so smaller cars, then as now, made sense.

Just think, had they been manufactured maybe those bike-free roads in Stevenage could have been swamped with queues of little Opperman Stirlings chugging down from nearby Elstree and along to the factories and shops. Perhaps the proud owners of these little marvels would have chosen to take their little darlings to school in them.  Mind you, if they were really successful all those empty country lanes might have been full of them choking up the clean air and bumping into all us little townie oiks whizzing around.

The legend of Brigadoon is the story of a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands. The village became enchanted centuries ago remaining unchanged and invisible to the outside world except for one special day every hundred years when it could be seen and even visited by outsiders. This enchanted day is spent in joy and celebration. Those who happen upon Brigadoon may remain in this beguiling place only if they love another enough to give up the world outside. Not sure how beguiling Stevenage ever was. However, it usually crops up evry blue moon or so with a news story that isn't very complimentary.

** Now that's a name to conjure with.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

100 miles to liverpool

But in my dreams I see Liverpool in lights
dancing in the streets 'til the early morning light.
The tug boat on the Mersey joining in the Jamboree
well a man must have his dreams
even though his dreams might never come to be

I read somewhere recently that the first thousand miles of  England's motorway network were sketched out by official surveyors sometime around 1938 on a free map given away by Tit-Bits magazine using children's crayons. Having driven up and down several motorways recently, I can concur with this. I think some of the more recent additions to the network were also designed in this way.

Driving on the M25 is one of the most dismal experiences available, beaten only by the experience of driving the same motorway on a Friday. The M6 is beginning to develop a similar feeling of despondence when mentioned. Last Friday we drove down it - using the toll part for the first time ever -and we ended up in a traffic jam of epic proportions. Now, this was due to an accident but there must have been a fair few travellers feeling hard done-by whilst watching the free lanes whizzing by. A few of those other drivers must have felt not a little schadenfreude at seeing the queues and knowing that they had made the right choice in not bothering to pay the £5:90 toll. Still, the accident looked horrific and I can only imagine the horror for the families and services involved.

We were travelling back from Manchester where my newly married daughter and her husband are living now. Whilst there they had taken us to the British Music Experience in Liverpool. Now, this is similar to the one at the O2 but have an added attraction in having a hologram of Boy George singing Karma Chameleon every few minutes.  I know, you've probably stopped reading now to Google how to get tickets. Still, there are a few other excellent bits of memorabilia on show and I won't spoil it too much for you but you'll want to get there soon to see the piece of floorboard from the Hacienda club, no doubt. It looked like any old piece of 4x2 but, you know, get your kicks where you can.

All joking aside, standing in front of the glass case representing the late 60s/early 70s was actually really quite thrilling. Amongst the relics on show were Justin Haywood's sitar that he used on In Search Of The Lost Chord and Ian Anderson's acoustic guitar, flute and hand-written lyrics for Locomotive Breath. Both of these were part of my youth, so were definitely worth seeing. However, there in the top left hand corner was the very violin that Dave Swarbrick used on Liege and Lief. Now, excuse me, but the only thing at that moment that would have been even more exciting would have been the very Gibson Les Paul that Richard Thompson used on the same album. That wouldn't be possible because he sold it to John Martyn not long later (after deciding to start using a Fender Stratocaster) who subsequently had it stolen. Never mind, it's always fun to stare at artefacts that mean something to you in whatever small way.

If you've been to one of these 'Museums' then you may be aware that they are sponsored by Gibson/Epiphone, amongst others, and have a 'hands-on' section at the end where you can play different instruments. It's a nice thing really as it gives people a chance to fiddle with various instruments that they have seen and heard over the years that they may never get a chance to. I do find it a bit amusing that most of the artefacts on show are mostly Fenders: George Harrison's, Jimi Hendrix's and Buddy Holly's to name a few. However, the ones at the end are all Gibson Les Pauls etc, et al, still, it's the thought that counts. I was messing about with a Gibson acoustic for a few minutes whilst waiting for the others to catch up. I played a few finger-picked bars of Dark Road Blues (an old favourite of Dylan's I believe) oblivious to anything else going on. When I'd finished, a young chap employed by the BME was sitting on the next stool and said, "Oh nice - do you play banjo?" Now, I'm going to take that as a compliment on my frailing* skills, not as a negative comment on what the hell my fingers were doing and how it may have sounded!

After the museum we wandered into the centre of the City. I have never been to Liverpool before and I'm sure you're waiting for the obvious Beatles reference. And yes, we went along to the Cavern just to be complete tourists. Now, I'm not the Beatles greatest fan but I do appreciate them and what they did for modern culture. Everywhere you go in Liverpool there is a statue, picture or reference (or shop selling T-Shirts etc) to the Fabs, which I think is fair enough. The Cavern is obviously World famous and certainly plays on that. They have their own little industry going with memorabilia.

As we wandered down the stairs into the dark abyss we were welcomed by the strains of  The Jam's Going Underground by the resident entertainment. It seemed appropriate. It's pretty damned small, I must say. It's worth realising that the Beatles played there during their formative years and became huge fairly quickly. If you have some small part in such a global phenomenon, then you're going to capitalise on it.  After a pint of an ale "specially brewed for the Cavern" and a perusal of the several glass cases of tat memorabilia on sale, we had a singalong to Hey Jude (much to my daughter's chagrin) and wandered off into the good night. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. It was very touristy and I don't have too much problem with that, to be honest.

We live in a country full of history both recent and past. The recent past - such as music - provides an endless amount of pleasure, of course. Liverpool has been for many people a place of pilgrimage. The Beatles were, of course, a major force in the music and culture of the second half of the Twentieth Century. They cast a pretty big shadow over the early part of this one too. There is a lot of money being made, for sure, in Liverpool due to the connection with the Fabs. However, despite the glitzy makeovers on the Waterfront and the memorabilia shops and the flashy streets with statues of John, Paul, George and Ringo on every corner, there is another story. There's the story of modern Britain where that tenuous connection is maybe the only way to earn a crust.

The labyrinthine streets in the Cavern Quarter where shabby pubs offer "beer at £1:60 a pint**" and every busker - no matter how out of tune - sings a Beatles song, or the pirated T-Shirt shops with out of date now mouse mats tell a story. The doorways of shops are beginning to fill up again (like the rest of the UK) with homeless people needing somewhere - anywhere - to sleep. The North has always been the first part of England to feel the pinch when hardship rains down. And it seems to be happening again. No, I know, it hasn't gone away, but I found it more noticeable last week there than over more recent months anywhere else. Maybe it was the story in the press that week about Eleanor Rigby's Bible  that detracted a little from the excitement of being there where it all seems to have started. I'm not sure but much of the history of pop seems to celebrate class - especially the Working Class.

The successful musicians that are celebrated in the British Music Experience and the (I hesitate to use the word) wealth of talented singers, songwriters, musicians and Svengalis on show - and celebrated - in Liverpool show a way out of poverty and dead-end lives. Sometimes mooching around in such places that celebrate these talents can also remind us that whilst we may have loved to have been that successful, maybe sometimes we would all like to align ourselves with the thoughts of those Working Class Dreamers who managed to make something of their lives beyond the 9 - 5.  These people travelled around the country constantly to simply do what they believed in: to entertain. Often, they believed that the World could be a better place.

I honestly have no problem in being simply a dreamer and a tourist and standing in front of glass cabinets reminding us of their life's work.

John Lennon (1940 - 80 )
Alan Hull (1945 -95)
Sandy Denny (1947 - 78)
Rory Gallagher (1948 - 95)
Bap Kennedy (1962 - 2016)
. . . amongst others . . .

100 miles more to Liverpool, 100 more miles to go
been down this road in sunshine and in snow
and it don't get any shorter
and the water under the bridge has got to flow.


* 'Frailing' is a technique associated with banjo playing: Martin Simpson is an expert.
** For obvious reasons there were only keg beers on offer - fizzy lagers etc.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

the cloud walker

You can leave me in the air age if you like
But I'd dearly love to go back to my own time....

Life in the air age, isn't all the brochures say...
Life in the air age, it's too dangerous to stay...
Life in the air age, airships crashing every day into the bay...
Life in the air age, it's all highways in the sky...
Life in the air age, all the oceans have run dry...
Life in the air age, it's grim enough to make a robot cry...

Of the many excursions our family went on in the 1960s in our various old bangers, the trip to Bedford always caused a frisson of excitement. We would be going there to walk by the River Ouse. We would be treated to an ice cream and we could paddle amongst the broken glass in the small paddling pools that were very much a part of life in most towns in those far-off days. We could feed the ducks and swans and I probably carried a copy of the Observer book of Birds or, at least an I-Spy book so I could try to identify some " little brown jobbie" (as Bill Oddie calls them) without the aid of any binoculars.

However, the journey was always travelled hopefully as in Robert Louis Stevenson's words as we would be passing through Cardington. This is a small village on the outskirts of Bedford where two vast buildings made of corrugated steel loomed over the flat landscape. They housed huge dirigibles and barrage balloons from WWII. If we were lucky enough the colossal doors would be open and we could see in to the darkness and maybe catch a glimpse of these elephantine objects. If we were really lucky, one would be out on the field or up in the air near the roadside (on the other side of the fence, obviously!). Such sightings would take my youthful breath away. 

The first of these vast hangars had been built in 1915 as a private venture by the Short brothers. It was designed to house 187 metre dirigibles that were supposed to be used in our air defence but they entered service too late. The company became known as Royal Airship Works and this first hangar - called No 1 Shed - was expanded to 250 metres long. A second hangar was taken down in Norfolk and re-erected next to the first one and called, No 2 Shed unsurprisingly enough. Here work began on the largest aircraft the world had ever seen. The R101 was designed to be a long-haul passenger transporter to the far-flung dusty corners of the British Empire. A second vessel was also constructed in tandem and the R100 later successfully crossed to the USA. However, on its voyage to India in October 1930, the R101 crashed in Picardy, France killing forty eight passengers and crew. Given that the First Class facilities had included a smoking room, it's a surprise that the millions of litres of hydrogen above these aerial smokers had got that far!

The R100 was broken down but the hangars survived as R,A.F. Cardington and were used for the next war. Thousands of tethered barrage balloons ("Blimps") were constructed there. These were the elephantine objects I used to look forward to seeing on our regular trips to Bedford. Eventually No 1 Shed housed weather balloons for the Met Office. More recently one of the hangars is used for filming and several blockbusters have been filmed partly there. One such blockbuster was Batman, The Dark Knight Rises where an ex-pupil of ours was an extra in a scene filmed in the hangar.

It's many years since I travelled that way but the images of those immense metal sheds came back to me yesterday. I don't know why. Near to the village of Cardington there was another village I would occasionally go to later in life. The village of Chellington had all-but disappeared due to the plague, I believe. In the early to mid-seventies the Diocese of St Albans had decided to use the disused church as a kind of youth club. In truth what this really meant was youths from all over Hertfordshire and presumably Bedfordshire were allowed to go there at weekends and help do the place up. I remember going there a few times with various scalliwags and reprobates under the auspices of one Rev. Rob Yeoman who seemed to work in the Stevenage area. It seemed mostly to be an excuse to go away for the weekend and drink and smoke far too much (No 6 and Embassy in case you're wondering) and eat a hearty breakfast on Sundays before taking part in a service. As a life-long agnostic I can safely say that I really was only there for the beer*. 

The only way for most of us to get to Chellington was to hitchhike which is a form of transport that has almost completely disappeared from Great Britain. However, like many in the early 1970s, it was the cheapest way to get around. The journey from Stevenage to Charlton and Harrold, the two existing villages closest to the church at what was Chellington, obviously took us past Cardington. Even as a teenager, passing those two hangars still created that familiar frisson of excitement.

Recently I picked up a book of short stories by Edmund Cooper, a science fiction writer popular in those days. One of my favourite books by him was called The Cloud Walker. It is set at a time after mankind has destroyed itself and a new religion has arisen, one based on the machine wrecker Ned Ludd's followers the Luddites. This means all forms of machine are banned. So, whilst the Church of the Sacred Hammer attempt to keep mankind on a safer path, the protagonist dreams of building a machine that one day will allow him to fly. The punishment for meddling with machines is the death penalty. All this, of course, is a familiar sci-fi trope and was one explored also in the original Planet Of The Apes film too.  I can't remember how it all ends but maybe I'll read it again if I find a copy in a second hand bookshop. I'll no doubt be disappointed but still, it's worth checking out again.

I'm sure that if I drive past the hangars again I'll get that familiar feeling of excitement I got as a young lad. I may drive by one day soon as Mrs Dave and I are about to start travelling around the country more in full Ghost Rider** fashion in our new motorhome. I'm hoping to stop off at various brown signs and back roads of the country to explore parts of forgotten Britain. 

Meanwhile, the images of the Cardington dirigibles, Edmund Cooper's dystopic vision of Britain, my pathetic attempts at being a young Christian and Bill Nelson's lyrics quoted above have all mixed themselves together into a strange map of an Old Weird Britain that didn't really exist outside of my mind.

* Ind Coope breweries used to advertise Double Diamond beer in a series of tv adverts in the early 1970s, each ending with that phrase. This also explains the use of the phrase in the lyrics of Hungarian Rhapsody by Fairport Convention on Rosie.
** A book I read about modern nomads in the USA.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

a rye smile

The other night as I lay sleeping
I dreamt a light entered my heart
When I awoke, I was mistaken
Ah, but the curtains were still blown apart

Sometimes I find it unbelievable how quickly time moves on. My last post was April. April? Bloody Hell . . . that's far too long. When I retired from the day-to-day working life I really thought I'd be writing all the time. Ha!

The past few weeks have involved mostly the annual two month shift of exam marking. From the middle of May to early July every year I mark Film Studies exams, both AS and A2. As the new orders in education demand a return to a two year course at A level, I'm guessing my marking days are drawing to a close. My only gainful employment. Ah well . . .  Mind you, after being a Film Studies teacher for sixteen years has had a similar effect that teaching English Literature did to reading fiction*. Analysing the same things over and over year in year out gradually wears you down. That's why I chose to never teach King Lear. My idea of Purgatory is teaching bloody Fight Club which, other than Trainspotting, is fast becoming my least favourite film ever. At least I never had to watch Titanic or Mamma Mia - so I didn't. Never have, never will.

Meanwhile, Life has a habit of rushing forward tumbling and tripping over itself headlong into some sort of anarchistic celebration of chaos. Whilst I am sitting here enjoying the afterglow of a beautiful summer's evening having sat in the garden eating and drinking (four hour slow-cooked lamb and a rather good Argentinian Malbec in case you wondered) and listening to - yes! vinyl records - I'm trying to get my head together about how Time has a habit of running away from you. Still, Robert Cray's guitar solos are easing all that stress. At least music helps us get through the days - Jackson Browne has managed to stay alive healthily and he was on sparkling good form at the Royal Albert Hall last week.

Meanwhile, I have read that Britain's best beaches are still worth visiting, as long as you can step over the tons of plastic beads and bottles that are pouring onto them (mostly from the stomachs of whales, it seems). I notice that the beach at the bottom of my road isn't included in the list. Nor is Camber Sands which was opposite where we stayed a week or two back.

Now, Camber Sands is an interesting place. I've never been there, despite spending a week opposite the place. We were at a mighty fine wedding nearby a few weeks ago. On the Sunday morning (Father's Day) we had to nip over to the barn where the wedding was held to pick up the cars left from the night before. I knew I had to get back to Rye Harbour, where we were staying, as my wonderful offspring were treating me to a meal. It took a whole hour to crawl back through Rye as the World and his wife were all chugging, very slowly, through Rye to get to the aforementioned beach. Evidently, you have to stand up on Camber Sands as there isn't the room to sit down (I think I'm right there) whilst the beach on the other side of the river - yes, the one we were at - was an empty page waiting to be written on. You can't get arrested on Rye Harbour beach.

Other than that, there's a little village next door called Winchelsea - so good they had to make it in two parts: Winchelsea village and Winchelsea Beach. Now, as a quick quiz question: which one is the Middle Class part? Ah well, it wasn't the beach bit. Still, with Spike Milligan buried in the (rather spectacular) church and Sir Lord His Majesty Paul McCartney living in another village a mile or so away, you can imagine that it might be worth a visit.

Meanwhile, despite Mrs Dave and I starting our exam marking that same week (actually my second set), we were able to enjoy the baking hot weather and put up with the screeching seagulls - not so much a dawn chorus, more a crack of dawn cacophony. Each night was an adventure in guessing whether we'd get any sleep at all due to the humidity and sheer heat. The area itself was fabulous. It even has a pub with a French connection. Given the rather Mediterranean weather on offer that week, it seemed to be a mini Bexit break. In truth, we don't often get quite such wonderful weather but that really was quite something. It made me realise how lucky I am to not be teaching critical approaches to David Fincher's zeitgeist parody of Consumerism and Brad Pitt's apotheosis into Nietzsche's Ubermensch, or something like that. I must go and lie down somewhere . . .

Still, Rye was a bit of an eye opener. I'd always wanted to visit the area and I'll explain more in the next post. Meanwhile: what's the connection between the UK's oldest, most haunted Inn, smuggling and Rye? Answers on a postcard, please.


* No more Of Mice and Men or An Inspector Calls for me!

NB: This post has been amended somewhat since it was originally written for a reason I'll explain over a pint sometime.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

brand new start

A lot of words but no one talking
I don't want no part of that
Something real is what I'm seeking
One clear voice in the wilderness

Being of unsound mind, I continue to put myself through the absurdity of an annual coach trip to Les Arcs ski resort in France. This involves packing a coach full of mad skiers, drinkers and reprobates who have all come together to form a huge family for a week. The coaches are always uncomfortable with the bare minimum of legroom and, for the second year running, no working air conditioning (as in, it's either in El Azizia or brass monkey mode). However, the camaraderie and the fact that once your skis are on the coach, you don't have to try to carry them and a boot bag and a suitcase as you would if you were flying (as in our trip to the Pyrenees in February), make it all worthwhile. Still, it seems a bizarre way for grownups to behave.

Now, I'm sure you've all at some stage in your life made at least one long distance coach trip, so you will be aware, gentle reader, that at some point in the journey some fellow traveller will demand to be entertained with a dvd. I have suffered some awful films over the years on various forms of transport. Probably the worse was a film called The Wolf of Wall Street which had most of the passengers lose the will to live. This year it was decided  on the return journey - a journey even more feared than the return one - that they would show Deadpool. For the uninitiated, this is a violent potty-mouthed comic book aimed at kidults. Not to be caught out this time, I had made sure that I had charged up my faithful iPod fully and brought along my headphones instead of the little 'earbuds' that have a tendency to fall out of your ears every few minutes and don't manage to cut out any of the soundtrack to the usual in-coach entertainment: often a musical or appalling Hollywood 'comedy' about grown men behaving like 18 year olds. I chose to bring along a pair of reconditioned Bose headphones that I bought in the States a few years ago. 'Reconditioned' means that they were second hand and cheaper but guaranteed, and that was fine by me. Now, I need to point out here that unlike just about the rest of humanity, I don't walk around ignoring everyone else all day with a pair of headphones on. Or earphones. I listen to music all the time but mostly through speakers. I'm sure some of the people I see must sleep with headphones on.

So there we are, a coach full of uncomfortable big people - some with sporting injuries - being forced into listening to the soundtrack on a sound system  that would have put Led Zeppelin to shame and a a screen the size of a Colombian Bolivar 10 cent green postage stamp somewhere in the far distance. For one thing, I didn't have a pair of binoculars with me, for another, I had no interest anyway. On with the Bose headphones and my trusty iPod Classic. This didn't entirely alleviate the constant pain from twisting and contorting my legs into positions haven't been seen much since a Victorian freak show of the world's most bendable man stopped performing, but it stopped having to listen to Ryan Reynolds swearing for about two hours. But what to listen to?

Often there are certain albums I want to enjoy whilst trying to pretend to sleep on such journeys but I made the decision to listen to something I was familiar with but hadn't really listened to on headphones much. I chose Paul Weller's Wild Wood, which is an album that unbelievably came out twenty four years ago. That's right, it came out last century, only five years after I moved down here to the East Coast. Where has all that time gone? Anyone unfamiliar with the album perhaps need only be aware that the former Mr Angry of Woking had settled into some sort of rural bliss after listening to much 1970s music and smoking a few Jazz Woodbines. The music he had been listening to appears to mostly consist of the Island Records catalogue: Traffic and Nick Drake featuring heavily. Generally, the album is seen to be an "organic blend of styles - rock, folk, psych, R&B*" which was also probably more daring then than it may seem nowadays.

Now, Mr Weller is a fine songwriter and guitarist. He obviously, like most guitarists, takes a lot of care over his tone and effects pedals. He also trusts the other musicians he works with, particularly his co-producer Brendan Lynch. The album has a definite rural feel having been recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire. Late night writing sessions and a family of reliable musos collected around him allowed him to record in a fairly relaxed way. The resulting album is fairly dreamy with a lot of acoustic and slide guitars, keyboards and occasional a very laidback jazzy feel (that'll be the Woodbines then). As I have said, this is an album I'm very familiar with. What listening to it yesterday on headphones did though, was to open up a whole load of other layers that I was only really vaguely familiar with. It appears that the aforementioned Mr Lynch likes to add lots of other sounds and effects to his productions. Well, certainly the ones he's made with Weller. The stylophone is one instrument used, for instance. Now, the good old stylophone is best known for its appearance on Space Oddity and, er, that bearded Aussie chap we don't mention anymore. Other than that, there are loads of wibbly noises and buzzy bits along with various synthesizers no doubt playing backwards as well as forwards. There are no doubt plenty of bits of mellotron on there too. All very seventies.

Now, the main point here isn't to review the album or even to get interested parties to check this particular album out (although that would be a good thing). I guess the point I'm making here - in a very long-winded way - is that we can often be pleasantly surprised when we experience something familiar in a new way. I used to listen to music through headphones a lot when I was younger. I think the quality of my headphones is better now. I've already mentioned that I see many people wandering the streets and in public places wearing them all the time. Maybe they are all experiencing constant epiphanies due to the beauty of the wonderful music they bathe themselves in twenty four hours a day. I strongly suspect many of them don't given the snatches of computerised algorithmic AI-created drum beats I've heard them listening to.  Remember, I've just come back from France where they have the most abysmal  music played loudly booming across the ski slopes. Someone needs to be told that constantly repeating a phrase over such a beat for about 10 minutes doesn't really constitute a song. Still, back to the point. I feel that my often jaded listening patterns have just had a bit of a kick up the backside.

I feel now that I want to re-think my attitude to the use of electronica in my own musical experiments. I'm going to dig out my old stylophone and Digitech Synth-Wah pedal and add a few wibbles and boings to some songs to see what sort of atmosphere a well-placed noise lower down in the mix might create. Listening to a rare Weller track, a version of Nick Drake's River Man, is proof  that atmosphere can be created with well-placed and well thought-out ambient textures (oh, and a Beatlesesque raga feel), whether it's successful or not.

Tongue back out of cheek, though, listening to music more intensely in a more solitary manner can provide new insights into the music making process. It's just nice for a change to find something new in such a familiar artefact. Maybe the constant re-selling of older albums by remastering them is just a cynical ploy but, occasionally, there are benefits to us as well.


*Neil Spencer Uncut Autumn 2012

Monday, 27 March 2017

ice in the sun

Looking for constellations above the horizon,
West wind cutting sharper than our blades;
smiling forever into an endless sunrise,
we're flying on the waves.

After our quiet night in at the hotel in Reykjavik, we had a good wholesome Icelandic breakfast - fairly continental in style - and got ready to join our fellow travellers on a three-day tour of the east coast and southern areas of this stark land.

Anybody having recently seen the Rick Stein series Long Weekends will be aware of the tour we had chosen. We pretty much followed that but without a BBC camera crew to take us into people's homes to eat their roast lamb and fermented shark. We'd chosen the tour because I had no inclination to drive around Iceland myself at this time of year (the weather was occasionally awful). Maybe in the summer months.

The first day took in the iconic geysers and Thingvellir National Park where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other. We also went to Gullfoss waterfalls which were very impressive. Tours like this always leave me a bit overwhelmed with how much they can pack in to each day, but with some sights, how long do you really need to stay there. The geysers, compared to some other parts of the tour, were not quite as thrilling as I thought they'd be. Still, the waterfalls were huge and the sense of scale of the landscape was quite stunning. That afternoon we were taken to the Secret Lagoon. As everyone seems to go there, it doesn't really seem so secret but it was Iceland's first public swimming pool which has only been re-opened for a few years.

I was feeling that it seemed a bit foolhardy to take my clothes off and wander around in the freezing cold - I'm not a natural lover of swimming, truth be told. However, one doesn't hang around but get straight into the hot spring. The experience was wonderful. Certainly one of the highlights of the week. To be floating about in  38 - 40 degree water with the ice cold air around was thrilling. Iceland, of course, has cheap geothermal heating all year round which they even heat the pavements with! We then showered and grabbed a refreshing beer before heading off to the hotel we were going to be using for a couple of nights. The lava fields were vast and the moss that grows on them can take a hundred years to grow. Once again one tends to wonder why they plunder such a delicate resource to sell across the World but Iceland needs an income. They can't survive on Skyr alone.

The hotel was eye-wateringly expensive for food and quite disappointing too. When you paying in the region of £30 - £50 for a meal that you feel you could cook better yourself it can deflate you a bit. But we were a captive audience. It was a long walk to another restaurant although a young couple did try the following night and got caught in a blizzard for their sins. After the dissapointing meal (smoked lamb if you're interested) we headed out to search for the Northern Lights. Now, it seems that this is what most people go to Iceland for. However, most people don't see them due to poor weather and heavy cloud cover. It was a bright fairly clear night with a full moon. We weren't expecting to actually see anything as we haven't met many people who have seen them in Iceland. There's a big industry growing around people's determination to see them nowadays.

We stood around in the freezing cold with a few fellow travellers with decent digital camera on tripods. As I was beginning to shiver and feel that this was a wild goose chase, our guide told us that we were in luck. Now, we all expected Hollywood-style CGI but it wasn't to be quite so spectacular. Sure enough there were smudges and streaks and tinges of green but the moon was so bright it probably didn't help our view. So we did see them. If this was one of those Norwegian ferry trips that promise that if you don't see them, they'd give you another free trip the following year, they'd be able to say that, well yes, you did see them. One of the photographers allowed us a look at what his camera was making of it and it really was stunning. Shame our eyes aren't up to the same standard! The picture here is one of the photos taken that night. Obviously not by my iPhone, though. Eventually we had to get back to the hotel before frostbite took out too many of us. A glass of Luton red wine and a good night's sleep were required.

The following day was a shorter one and the weather report suggested that the evening sky would be cloudy with poor visibility, so we had been out the right night. We travelled to Jörulsarlon where various blockbuster movies had been filmed (late-period Bond films and the suchlike). This was probably my very favourite part of the trip. It's a massive glacier lagoon where huge parts of icebergs float down the river towards the sea. Some of them collect onto the beach. It genuinely was awe-inspiring. The beautiful colours and the feel of the power of Nature took hold here. Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull is here. The vastness of these humbles you.

On the third day as we started our return to Reykjavik, we went to a black sand beach with massive
stacks, Reynisfjara and then headed west to Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls. Here, at the latter,  we were able to walk behind the massive falling water and keep relatively dry. We stopped by the Eyafjallajökull volcano to watch a film about the eruption in 2010. You know, the one that stopped international flights and was mentioned in the XPTs' remake of Parachute*. This is truly the land of ice and fire. The last thing we did before the long journey back to Reykjavik was to visit a second lagoon. This one, the Blue Lagoon, is much better known internationally. It's the one from all the holiday advert pictures. Whilst we knew pretty well what to expect, the opportunity to stand around socialising drinking local beer (Viking, believe it or not) was a great way to bring the proceedings to a close.

The Secret Lagoon was much more natural and relaxing, whereas at the Blue Lagoon they've worked out how to fleece as much money as possible out of everyone. The landscape around it certainly wasn't very picturesque as it was a working geothermal site full of diggers and overground pipeworks. A more industrial and functional side to the country than we'd experienced in the National Park. Still, refreshed and relaxed, we headed off to the last leg of the trip.

Returning to the Reykjavik Lights hotel tired and hungry, we decided not to bother doing much other than nipping to a next door restaurant for a very pleasant meal. it was Icelandic in style. I chose halibut and Mrs Dave went for the lamb shank. An early night finishing off the cheap Luton plonk and we were having to face up to coming home the next day.

After breakfast we used the (very) expensive bus service as we weren't going to get ourselves into the same situation we'd had on Monday. Whilst I would have liked to get into some of the museums, the day was so sunny and pleasant (still cold though) so instead we explored the city on foot. If you're ever there and feel hungry, go down to the Old Harbour and find the Icelandic Fish and Chip restaurant. I kid you not, it was our favourite meal whilst we were there. We had the catch of the day, which was Ling. Not a fish I'd knowingly eaten before but I would certainly have it again. The shops are too expensive to contemplate and one we did go into was playing a row Björk, so I quickly got out again. And then we had to get back to the hotel to get the bus to the airport. One last beer (ironically enough, the cheapest of the holiday!) and the flight home. Delayed, of course.

A short visit to a country I'd wanted to visit for some forty years over and we have plenty of memories to keep us enthralled for many years to come. In all truth, we would love to go back there, perhaps in the summer months and then we could drive around. When you only go on a short break to a very unfamiliar country it seems sensible to me to see and experience as much as you can in the time you have. We wouldn't have seen anywhere near as much as we did. And, as we were visiting outside of school holidays, it meant it didn't cost anywhere near as much as the trip we planned but abandoned last year for our sixtieths.


* The XPTs are the Parachute era Pretty Things without Phil May and they re-recorded a modern take on the album. Still one of my all-time favourites for some unfathomable reason.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

saga holiday

see these things by northern light
you'll never see them clearer
love's as short as summer nights
by northern light my dear

Luton is, quite possibly, one of the worst airports there is. Having got up and left the house by 3:30 am and driven for two hours to get there, I was still fairly tired. The experience of being cattle-herded through security and then rushed through to the gate was quite unpleasant but nothing compared to what happened next. Now, easyJet aren't renowned for their customer liaison skills but some of their employees could do with reminding that the herds of holidaymakers being corralled and prodded through the airport are paying their wages.

We were rushed through past an abrupt middle-aged woman with a face like Les Dawson who seemed to believe she was re-enacting the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's version of Jacque Brel's Next!  Whilst everyone was tutting and thinking how rude she was they were being forced down into what can only be described as the waiting room for Hell. We were told to move further in together as there were plenty more to follow. The stairway was so hot that people started to fear for the older passengers - there were a fair few retired and elderly characters down there. Panic started to set in. The problem was that the radiators were all on full pelt but as we were travelling with easyJet, it meant that we'd all piled on as many clothes as we could. The airline demand that you can only take one small bag on and we had decided, like most fellow travellers, we wouldn't pay their extortionate fees for taking any hold luggage. So there we all were looking like an old school reunion for Michelin Men being held in a sauna. Just as desperation had totally set in, we were allowed to board the plane.

An hour or so later they announced to us that they had finally managed to find the bit of the plane that wasn't working and so we finally set off.

I had read Njal's Saga way back in the mid 1970s and have had a hankering to visit Iceland ever since. Well, it's taken one hell of a long time but I finally went there last week. Despite easyJet's attempt to stop me from getting there and making it as unpleasant an experience they could, we were finally on our way.

To be fair, the journey was fine, almost comfortable. I'd been warned that Reykjavik Airport was difficult to navigate but it was okay. There was a little bit of  tension when we were told that we hadn't printed off our voucher for the transfer to our hotel but it seems that Icelanders tend to be fairly curt when speaking. They sorted it out quickly and we were onto the bus quickly.

The bus had complimentary wifi and was very comfortable. Efficient seems the best way to describe our initial impressions. We got to the hotel and, again, they were very efficient. The journey there allowed us to see the landscape I'd been looking forward to for years. Fairly stark and wide open - I thought East Anglian and Scottish skies were big but this was on another plane altogether. As for buildings, well they seemed very functional and quite industrial. We passed small settlements and lots of pipes. Reykjavik was just a larger version only with hotels. We seemed to end up on the outskirts.

After off-loading our bags into the room we decided to go into the city, even though we were tired from travelling. It was mid afternoon and although cold, quite bright. We set off. As we had no idea how the buses worked we had been told that the walk wasn't too long. So we wandered off towards the harbour. We walked passed various restaurants and hotels and eventually came to the main drag, Laugavegur, which boasted a "World famous penis museum" and loads more restaurants. We turned off and walked along the seafront towards the harbour. We could see the famous Hallgrímskirkja church on our right. We stopped along the way to photograph everything as tourists do. A group of Eider ducks quacked noisily as we took a photo of Solfá which is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Ārnason, which is a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. It promises of “undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. This seemed to be very apt as we looked forward to the days to come.

We wandered about the small city centre for a while and realised that we needed to sit down in the warm for a while - the temperature had gone down a little - and began to look for somewhere to reat our weary bones. Mrs Dave was looking at the brightly coloured decor of one place when I realised it was The Laundromat, somewhere that had been recommended by a friend. Went went into what appears to have actually been a laundromat in the past and enjoyed their hospitality. There were washing machines washing what I assume were towels etc from the restaurant itself. We had a simple burger and chips* and a beer each. After a struggle with the bar staff to get my wallet off me and empty our bank balance, we decided to head off out into the late afternoon. I'm not joking, Iceland is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. It appears that the cost of living is twice that of ours. We were working at £7 per thousand krona. Let's just say that 1200 krona for a beer is a bit breathtaking. But that's nothing compared to later in the trip.

Meanwhile, we got outside and realised that the temperature had plummeted quickly and that it was starting to rain. We got up to the Hallgrímskirkja church and took a few photos but by now the wind was whipping the sleet into our faces and blowing us along. We decided to set off back to the hotel. Ah . . . the hotel. We could see it on the map but we had already gone off course and had set off in the wrong direction. With the weather now settled in for the rest of the night, we had to make our way back somehow. We were already knackered.

Mrs Dave began to bemoan my poor sense of direction and question my ancestry. After managing to walk totally in the wrong direction quite near to a small airport (not Keflavik which is where we had arrived) I decided to ask the only soul we could see who seemed brave enough to be outside during this arctic blizzard which was now approaching epic proportions. No, he had no idea even with a map where our hotel was but we worked out with him that we were heading in the wrong direction. He pointed us at least more-or-less in the right one and we set off again. To say that we were cold would obviously be an understatement. But cold, wet, tired and pissed off we indeed were. Eventually, somehow, we managed to get back to the hotel. We had seen parts of Reykjavik that probably don't feature in the official City tours but we got back to have just missed Happy Hour. Actually throughout the five days we were there we managed to miss Happy Hours no matter what time they were.

So we found ourselves back at our hotel totally shattered and very wet. As luck would have it, we'd eaten dinner and through foresight had some wine waiting for us in our room. We had been warned of the cost of alcohol and advised to take some with us. Two bottles of Californian Merlot for a tenner were procured at Luton airport after security and very welcome they were! So we ended our first evening in Iceland sitting in our pyjamas drinking cheap wine watching British television after a very welcome shower. Not exactly what we were expecting.

It hadn't been the best day of travelling we'd ever experienced but we had an early night excited by the thoughts of the next few days touring this very different country of extremes.

To be continued . . . 

* not very Icelandic I know but we were hungry. But more of that next time.