Friday, 27 February 2015

slow train coming

When the train comes in the morning
I'll be waiting, how about you?
I'll be standing at the station with my ticket
How about you?
When the train comes . . . 

For a while I've been thinking about how different train journeys are nowadays - time really has changed our expectations and experiences.

It seems that steam trains still raise some form of romantic notion in many people. Memories of seeing the beautiful Mallard or the Flying Scotsman come rumbling through Stevenage when I was a child are still vivid. Looking down on them as they thundered through the Old Town station from the bridge outside the ESA factory filling the air with smoke brings a tear to the old eye – and it wasn't just the grit thrown up alongside the smoke.
The opening shots of the Time Shift programme The Nation’s Railway: The Golden Age of British Rail brought back the same memories. The programme looked at Britain’s railways during the era of nationalisation. It showed how the decayed, Victorian transport network that had clung on but eventually became tired after WWII had been transformed into a modern system fit for the twentieth century and laid the foundations into the twenty first. As steam gave way to diesel and electric, the architects of the railways looked ahead far into the future. Now things are knee-jerk reactions, built for a quick profit and have built-in obsolescence. New stations like Euston were built as cathedrals to Modernity and the first British high speed trains were introduced.
During these exciting times when the disparate companies were brought together as a nationalised industry, British Transport Films was set up to keep a record, educate and advertise. The archives for the BTF (1949-1982) can be found here and they’re well worth a look.
The programme itself was an enjoyable hour watching some great clips – see the well-behaved football fans! Watch the debauched sweaty vicars playing chess! – and realising what was going on whilst I was getting on with my life. I hadn't realised how history was being made in 1978 with the first high speed trains. In 1978 I used trains a lot to travel between Kings Cross and Stevenage to go shopping in London or to gigs. Or to wander around the West End looking in awe at beautiful guitars and go to the Nelly Dean for a few pints. A bit like nowadays, really.
During the years of British Rail’s “unified and efficient transformation” as they mention in the programme, I travelled on the trains quite a lot. Somewhere in the past when I was about twelve, I journeyed up to RAF Lossiemouth near the top of Scotland. At that time, it was the furthest I'd ever travelled away from home. Not only that but it was certainly the furthest I'd ever been away from home without any  parental presence. Some of my fellow travellers were those that taught me all I knew (sic) about matters of an intimate nature but a week away amongst bullies and sailors was an eye opener. To say the least.

Old Stevenage Station
The train journey itself was wonderful - we left Stevenage station and journeyed up through the night to Edinburgh and beyond passing through such exotic places as Derby and Leeds et al. This would have been about 1968/9. No adults were involved until we got to HMS Lossiemouth and we were kept in order by one Able Seaman Tony Evans, himself not much older than us little oiks. Sleeping in a carriage and sharing a dormitory with bigger boys who all seemed to know the ways of the world, was an eye opener (no - nothing happened, it really was very innocent). When we got up to the wilds of Scotland, we had to very quickly accept that we were in the Navy now. As we had to leave by the following Friday, I never got a turn in the barrel, in case you wondered*. However, spending the week being driven around that part of Scotland in a speed boat and lifted up into a hovering helicopter helped make me the person I became. Still, moving on . . .

A few years later I went on holiday to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends. As they all went down a few days earlier than me because I went to the Reading Festival, I followed down on the train. I actually did this two years running due to Reading and I must say that I really enjoyed the experience of travelling alone with a pocket full of money and the freedom to do as I liked.  Long quiet train trips through fabulous changing countryside with the time to sit and read (most likely science fiction or a Penguin Classic) sipping beer and occasionally chatting to fellow passengers.

The BBC4 programme informed me that British Rail served Whitbread Tankard keg beer in those days so I assume that's what I was drinking - remember folks, no ID needed in those halcyon days! I also remember one of the trips quite fondly because a rather lovely young lady took a shine to me and talked to me all the way from London to Exeter. We drank a few beers and she told me all about her trip to Exeter to get married the following day. A sweet old lady opposite for a while listened in and assumed that I was to be the Groom. Given that I was a scruffy seventeen year old with a remarkable resemblance to Catweazle’s skinnier brother and must have been one of the least likely passengers on the train to be getting married the next day, this was a bit of a surprise. That was nowhere near as surprising as the fact that the charming young lady decided to continue with the conceit. It was a lovely journey and still brings back pleasant memories of innocent travelling. What was that line by Mark Knopfler? I got a keepsake and a kiss.

It just so happens that I'm currently reading Tiny Stations by Dixe Wills - a man terminally incapable of spelling his own improbable name - which is a sort of travelogue about travelling around Britain by rail and stopping at request stop stations. Up until about two years ago I didn't realise these little stations still existed let alone realise that there were so many still clinging on. I found out by having to request a stop on an emergency dash to get to our car somewhere in Wales. Anyway, Mr Wills does write about his pathetic attempt at a pub crawl on the "Real Ale Rail Trail" (also known as the Tarka Trail ) in the West Country was quite amusing. It also reminds me of an attempt a friend and I made last summer at walking part of the Mayflower Line between Harwich and Manningtree. A few pubs were visited as we wandered along not surprisingly. Manningtree has a rather good bar if you ever get stuck between London and Norwich. Which happens a lot actually.

So, all in all, trains still seem to feature in my life. Maybe they're not so romantic nowadays but I do usually enjoy the experience. And of course if you get really fed up with everyone yakking on their phones or the sound of a distant Ed Sheeren's tinny voice whining on, you can always sit back with a good book or crossword listening to your own choice of tinny digital background noise.
* an old joke but you should check out the po-faced attempts at explaining the phrase online!
** having re-found that bit in the film it seems that was just the 125, so I'm probably wrong.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

guests of the nation

People say we've got the power, the phrase, I think is hearts and minds.
Never mind where we came from, we've left our history books behind.
Not so much teachers as fighters, and what we teach is how we fight,
and we're going to ring the changes, we're going to ring it right.

Some lines from Roots by Show of Hands came back to me several times last week: Are Rule Britannia and Swing Low the only songs the English know? I'm not sure, maybe Jerusalem sneaks in there too. We'll obviously discount anything from those awful Saturday night karaoke programmes that seem to have taken over the "Light Entertainment" slot.

We were sitting in a bar in Dublin enjoying the songs provided by a talented singer/guitarist. The previous night we'd been entertained by a band in Murray's down O'Connell Street and the evening before that by a duo in a bar in Temple Bar. Music everywhere. As the bars fill up with tourists the music becomes more obvious - lots of Whiskey in the Jar and Wild Rover of course. The singer on Wednesday evening asked for requests which Mrs Dave and I were happy to write a list of songs we'd like to hear. From that list of about ten songs he admitted to us that there were only two he didn't know. He didn't know From Galway to Graceland and he was a little abashed that he didn't know Irish Ways and Irish Laws but planned to learn it. That shows dedication.

If we asked most English entertainers to sing the same list I wonder how many would know any of them? He'd started his set with Spancil Hill, a song I was introduced to back in the seventies and somewhere have a recording of it with me playing electric lead guitar on. A song of absence - a Wild Swan song. Oh to be back in Auld Oirland instead of waking up every day here in Sunny California.  The guy seemed to want to chat to us after the gig and we had an interesting talk which surprised me. I'd assumed that he was possibly a brickie who played occasional gigs to earn a little more from his hobby. Oh no, this was his job. He'd been a carpenter but preferred doing this - although the house building market had collapsed we learned later. The band the night before toured around the world and had toured Scandinavia last year. These people play regularly in pubs and hotels and the audience don't pay - it's just assumed that punters want to be entertained whilst eating and drinking. These people earn their livings from doing what they love and are good at with no pretensions of fame. No instant success from Mr Cowell and his cronies, thank you.

But the question of culture came up several times during the week. We visited Kilmainham Gaol and
learnt of the appalling way the English treated the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Even James Connelly although already dying after gangrene had set in was wheeled in, tied to a chair and shot. It was quite poignant listening to the story standing there in the very yard the executions took place. In later discussions with Mrs Dave's relatives it became obvious that the lessons learned and the history is stamped on many Irish people's hearts. Time and again a knowledge of history and a sense of nationality and culture were displayed. I don't get a lot of that nowadays from the English. The Scots, the Welsh and Irish all have this sense of a deep culture which does not seem to be there in many particularly young people over here. Perhaps we always come out badly in all these stories and we have a tendency to try to forget what has come to pass. In our rush to become the 51st State I guess we need to rediscover our own culture before it's too late..

There's a pride, I guess, in one's own heritage that Dublin seems saturated with. The "Oirish" shops selling anything you can imagine in green or black and white were virtually every other shop. Nearly every bar has music and, of course, Irish dancing thanks to the run away success of Riverdance. It seems that Mr Flatly is so successful now that the punters can't get enough of it. Wherever you go in Dublin there is Guinness, music, dancing and "traditional Irish food" which seems to be Fish'n'chips, Irish Stew or a Burger. But it's great to see and hear so much live music - we enjoyed it all, even the bloody Wild Rover (clap, clap, clap-clap)! They're tearing up the roads to lay more tram tracks and transport is much cheaper than over here. They have a great bus service, trams and good trains. There's plenty to be proud of. The bar staff were always pleasant and everyone had time to stop and chat, there was never a feeling of being stressed out and rushing about for little purpose or reward.

With the pound strong against the Euro at the moment Europe is probably inundate with travelling Brits. It's been a good few years since I was last in Ireland but it certainly wasn't as expensive as last time I was there. It's a good time to go. Travel broadens the mind, of course. It's definitely given me some food for thought. I wonder if we've just forgotten so much, never learnt it or if we're really ashamed of our own culture?

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, yes of course it rained.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

denmark street

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road
Just round the corner from old Soho
There's a place where the publishers go
If you don't know which way to go
Just open your ears and follow your nose
'Cos the street is shakin' from the tapping of toes
You can hear that music play anytime on any day

A return to Soho and its environs on Friday last week brought back some good memories. I’ve written before about my younger days wandering around there and, thankfully, there is still a cosy familiarity about the place.

I wasn’t aware that the Tottenham Court Road tube station is currently shut so I got off the train at Holborn and walked up via Shaftesbury Avenue. Again, all familiar. I got to the Dog and Duck exactly at one o’clock and was a bit shocked to find out that they don’t seem to sell London Pride any more. So a pint of Nicholsons was the only real alternative. My friend came in soon after and we decided to have lunch there so Scampi and chips were procured and we were ready to go for a wander.

As we walked up Bateman Street and turned left into Greek Street I looked around to see what changes had been made. Very few beyond the new names of restaurants and bars. The Pillar of Hercules was still there, we turned to walk under the arch and into Manette Street. The familiar large windows of Foyles seemed different. I wasn’t aware that Foyles had started to sell cheap luggage, so I assumed that something quite big had changed.

We crossed the road to wander down Tin Pan Alley and we went into several vintage guitar shops. A Gibson acoustic from 1957 hung on a wall with a price tag of some five thousand pounds. Nearby a 1920s Martin sat looking inviting. It was in the sale. Down a thousand from the asking price of £9995! The bloke in the shop said we could have a go of anything if we wanted. That way madness lies – I don’t think I’m worthy enough to waste his time getting it down off the wall. A quick retreat.
There is a petition – nowadays online, of course – to saveDenmark Street and other parts of the area
including the 12 Bar in Denmark Street itself. The attempt at homogenising Soho into rows of the same bland looking shop fronts of every other town in Britain continues but there are some pockets of resistance. I guess it's all about big fish devouring little fish. The trouble is, I guess, is that it’s all very well to want places to stay the same but if people don’t use these places then why should they? My barber commented on something similar recently. We were discussing the movement of Community pubs that seems to have started over recent years. If people in small communities – villages mainly – want to keep their local pubs as locals and not become private houses then they should use them! The reason these places are closing down is because these very people aren’t frequenting them. That’s not rocket science is it?

Our visit to Soho was rather fleeting, nothing more than an afternoon really but I was quite pleased that if this change is happening then it won’t be instant. The guitar shops of Denmark Street are still there, Macari’s is still in Charing Cross Road as is the Phoenix Theatre is still there – currently showing Once with Ronan Keating starring* - and even little Fopp Records is hanging on down on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue. Fopp is a fairly recent shop but at least it is a half decent record shop. There aren't many of them left it seems. Decent ones that is.

I've long-since been banned from buying musical instruments especially when going to London so I came home with nothing but a pleasant memory of an afternoon well-spent revisiting my youthful haunts. Just time for a last pint in the Blue Posts (it was the only one selling London Pride - maybe Mr Cornell can explain the loss of pubs selling it).

Ah well, until May when I return again . . .

*Mrs Dave and I saw it in New York in the summer - I'm assuming that Mr Keating's accent will be a lot more authentic than the ones we heard!