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.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

there was this bloke

all those songs that I sang you,
all forgotten, all in vain . . . 

I've just learned of the death of Derek Brimstone, a true gentleman and a great musician. Who? Well, Derek Brimstone was a very influential guy, let me tell you. Okay, we're not talking of the influence of a David Bowie here but for many of us, he was a legend. An unsung hero.

Way back last century, somewhere about 1970 I think, I was introduced to folk music through the wonderful vehicle of the Folk Club. They still exist today but nothing like in the numbers or quite like them as they were then. Recently, Martin Simpson has been quoted as saying that the definition of folk music is, "music that accompanies a raffle", and honestly I can't really argue against that! Sometimes it seemed that the whole point of the evening at a folk club was to buy a ticket and hope (or not, depending on the prize!) that you've won. I won once. I won an album in St Ives, Cornwall at the folk night - typically a Sunday - held at the local disco venue, Mr Peggoty's. Yes, sadly, I can still remember it. This was the summer of 1972 when as an end to school after our exams we went on holiday together. It was a bit like today except we didn't go to Ibiza to get out of our skulls on slammers, have wild sex and get horrendous sunstroke. No, we hired a cottage and went to Wimpy, the Chippie and the local pub and behaved like the nicely brought up grammar school kids we all were. The most obnoxious we ever got was singing the chorus of Angel Delight* by Fairport Convention (too loudly - the owners of the cottage lived next door!) You had to be there, I guess. It was so last century.

Anyway, I can't remember the album I won. Still, we were so well served by folk clubs back then. As a working class kid who managed somehow to get in to the local grammar school, I got to meet people from other places and castes, er, people wealthier than me (not difficult). A few of these came from Knebworth - the sort of place that nowadays would probably be fenced off from Stevenage and most likely would be a "gated community". My later best friend from there was the son of a bank manager. Barclays! Blimey, look at their ethical record for the early 1970s!

Anyway, they had a folk club in Knebworth and, as it was easy to get a train there and jump off as it slowed down into the village station, we didn't even have to pay to get there. It probably cost about 30 pence or so to get in to the club. The type of acts we got to see was quite formidable really but the late, great Mr Brimstone was one of the first acts I got to see there.

He already seemed old then but was actually in his early forties. He played an old Gibson guitar with an amazing style. Having started going to gigs about this time, I was used to seeing Prog players like Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour but this was an old guy playing very flash filigrees of notes whilst singing in a Cockney accent. Not only that, but he was absolutely hilarious! The jokes he told - you have to remember we had pretty good attention spans in those days - were long, rambling and cryingly funny. Several of his better jokes are immortalized on his album Very Good Time, where the songs are interspersed with live jokes. Not only this, but he also sang great songs. I didn't know it at the time but he chose songs by John Martyn, Michael Chapman and the Incredible String Band as well as old Blues numbers.On top of this, he also played guitar and banjo in a remarkable style: clawhammer. This was a style developed by Blues and Country musicians and was well-known by older teenagers who had been weaned on Bert Jansch albums but to some of us (younger ones) this was all a revelation. Fingerpicking. This meant that you didn't just strum your guitar loudly with a plectrum, scratching the top of your five quid plywood box willy-nilly, oh no: you could delicately tickle the strings and make it sound like - if you shut your eyes - like two players playing badly at the same time instead of just one. Marvellous.

Through the fuggy atmosphere of Embassy Regals, No 6 and the stickiness underfoot of those backrooms of pubs and village halls we learnt to sing along to "the chorr-arse" and laugh to some very dirty jokes. It was a real eye-opener to be part of this movement. These were the middle days of the folk club movement, by the late 70s/early 80s the clubs were dying on their arses. It was a time when good folk club acts could start to move out into the mainstream.

Whilst everyone else was trying to move out of the circuit to earn a better living, Richard Thompson had left the World tour circuit afforded to him by being a member of Fairport Convention to appear in those very clubs, whilst their main rival, Steeleye Span, were moving into the world of tv and contract riders. I'm guessing that their riders included dusky maidens and glasses of mead.  Still, in 1976 Steeleye weren't quite the World-conquering act they were later to (briefly) become. So, they appeared at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. The lineup was Steeleye, preceded by Mr B and a very young Martin Simpson before him. Derek Brimstone was also, as a great raconteur, the compere for the tour. So, not only did he do a short set himself, but he introduced a very young Mr Simpson too. Meanwhile, the folk world provided gigs and festivals that constantly produced wonderful to-die-for lineups that still, sometimes, astonish me.

I saw Derek Brimstone live many, many times at various folk clubs and festivals. He was often the host as well as performer but he was always great entertainment. That leads me on to his skills as a storyteller. A master joke-teller in the Dave Allen field. Let's face it, Mr B never EVER got the recognition for being such a great comedian. We watched all those comedians on tv in the 1970s that the BBC thought we should. Occasionally they'd put a folk musician on such as Richard Digance, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot or Mike Harding. But nobody bothered with Derek B. He wasn't as rude as them but, to be honest, he was funnier. Now, I always thought Mr J C was the least funny of those but he became the most well-known (so what does that tell us?) but poor old Tony Capstick was better known for being the policeman in Last Of The Summer Wine rather than as one of the funniest dirty-joke tellers and great unaccompanied traditional folk singers of the seventies. This is the guy who once started a gig by saying, "I'll start off a bit dirty then go out in a blaze of filth" and then proceeded to do exactly that.

The last time I saw Derek Brimstone must have been a good ten or more years ago. He appeared at the Red Lion in Manningtree as part of a double bill with Michael Chapman. Now, like many people I thought that they'd gigged together often, given their friendship. However, it seemed that they'd never played together on the same bill. They were wonderful that night. There was a mutual admiration and we were all (the sold-out audience) blown away. It was a fantastic gig.

What I haven't mentioned is the fact that sometimes my friends and I would come home from the pub, most likely mid-week, and listen to the albums. Oh yes, we'd jump the serious songs but listen to the jokes. We'd line up the Mike Harding, Bill Barclay and Capstick albums which my parents would be only too happy to sit back and listen to. Well, we had to make our own amusement in those Pre-internet, less than four station tv days. We'd all sit back and laugh and (this may seem sad nowadays) but be happy to regurgitate the jokes we'd learnt at parties. I have still occasionally attempted to tell some of DB's jokes over recent years. However, with the loss of tolerance and lack of attention nowadays, I've noticed that trying to tell a shaggy dog story must be an impossible task.

Oh well, I talk of time past and time passing. All I do know is that Derek Brimstone was a major influence in my young life. What few bits I can glean from the internet in his passing is that many others felt something similar.

God bless you Derek Brimstone, you were a gentleman and a very funny guy. I loved the story about how you drove the Rev Gary Davis around the UK in the sixties ("he could drive himself, but he kept bumping into things") and you made me realise that there was far more to music than young proggie guys flashing about with their Gibson guitars, Marshall stacks and fuzz pedals.

At least you managed to get to your mid-80s and were aware that you gave so much joy to many people. I checked out the few comments on the internet and you were well liked. Loved, actually.

That's not a bad life.

Derek Brimstone 1932 - 2017. RIP

*Try listening to it and imagine, if you will, sixteen year old naive kids singing it!