Going to a record shop and buying some records

‘The Joy brings you many things
It does not bring you joy’

The opening lines of Morrissey’s ‘Mountjoy’, the penultimate track on mighty ‘World Peace is None of Your Business’ long-player suggest a place, real or imagined, that cannot possibly make the visitor happy. As places offering little joy go, online record shops must be close to the ultimate in neutralised comfort.

Yesterday, cut loose in town, I strolled along to Rough Trade in Brick Lane. I’m not much at home in this part of town, its colonisation by the greased moustache and vest brigade making it far more alienating than in the days when it was a place for a half-decent curry Jack the Ripper walk. But Rough Trade itself retains a good stock of vinyl making it worth braving the trendier-than-thou atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon posing.

Some weeks ago, tempted by being busy and picking up Mozzer’s new one for a few quid off I’d ordered from an Amazon reseller that hadn’t turned up. The speed with which they refunded me suggested they hadn’t ever had a copy to pass on. Two-click purchase, dry and unsatisfying, followed by silence, waiting and eventually nothing.

The alternative was glorious. In the shop I met that curious chap, the teenage me, mildly overexcited to be surrounded by records, flicking through Smiths albums although I’ve had them all for nearly two decades. We both grabbed what we were looking for and then headed to the counter, pausing only to add something improbably esoteric to the pile before exiting, poor in pocket but rich in spirit.

That vinyl is now turning in front of me as I write this, the needle riding the grooves and playing layer upon layer of lovely sound. And then the stylus swings into the centre and turns in silence, and I mustn’t forget to turn it off.

European Rail Timetable: the stuff travel dreams are made of

The digital world may dominate how we plan and book travel, but real things still make for the best inspiration.

Take the European Rail Timetable, the reborn monthly publication brought back to life by ‘the former compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable’, or the wise old heads of European train travel as we should probably call them.

This wondrous tome is, apart from the Thomas Cook branding, unchanged since my first forays on the continent’s railways in the early 1990s, and probably for decades before that. The cover remains Leyton Orient red, the paper thin, the print on the timetables small. Each table is packed with symbols to make Dan Brown salivate, and with surprising ease and elegance in the presentation of information a lifetime’s potential journeying around Europe slowly unfolds. Should you wish to detain your dinner guests in a newly-decorated toilet I suggest leaving a copy in there, as my father does.

Looking through the August 2014 edition there’s the reassuringly familiar order to the book: news first. Seasonal services, easier links between northern Sweden and Finland, storm damage to tracks in Montenegro. The high-speed service in Turkey has still not fully started. Then the all-important index, city maps and then country-by-country routes. It’s not fully comprehensive, but then how could a 600-page guide cover all of Europe, but there’s everything you need. If you’re heading somewhere without trains like Iceland, once the timetable has gently chided your chosen destination for not having rail services principal bus lines are noted. There’s even some coverage beyond Europe, varying continental focus on a rolling basis and making a subscription well worthwhile.

Here are five highlights of this edition that got my feet itching, how about you?

1. A car-carrying train from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to Koper, Slovenia. Car plus you and your family sped across Europe in classic vehicle-on-vehicle action, with the added excitement of a sleeper journey thrown in. Your kids would love it.

2.Luleå to Narvik across the roof of Sweden. The train leaves Luleå at 0553, when the Arctic will be alight, but asleep.

3. Nice to Moscow/Moskva. Nice, the heart of the glitzy, sunny south of France to brooding Moscow via Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus. The heart flutters just thinking about it.

4. Then why not cross Moscow from Belorusskaya station to Kiyevskaya and roll to Ukraine and Bucharest, from where one can connect through Bulgaria to Istanbul? Double-headed eagles of Byzantium all round.

5. Ferries: Barcelona to Tanjah (Tangiers, Orlando) and Hirtshals (Denmark) to Torshavn (Faroe Islands) and, if you’re very lucky, Seydisfjördur in Iceland. Zoinks, what a trip.

Europe is best seen slowly, and best from a train. The pages of the European Rail Timetable make for very satisfying series of ‘what ifs’ and no travel library is complete without several copies, preferably used on the road.

The White Rose Classic – a high time in England’s high lands.

29 June 2014

Only a few hours on from this remarkable ride and things are still coming back to me.

Parts of yesterday were played out in excruciating pain, with cramping quads and calves, aching shoulders and the feeling that my head was going to burst.

Parts of it were grinding, steep climbs that made a joke of cycling being a fast way to get anywhere, followed by swift, terrifying, exhilarating descents.

Some parts were fun.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

The White Rose Classic is not, then, a ride to be taken lightly.

I arrived full of beans from what I thought was a pretty good training programme after a string ride in the 85-mile Tour of Flanders in April. I’d also heaved a 31kg tent home on the tube from Central London on Friday and done more heavy lifting on Saturday.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be overly surprised, more than anything, that I hit an upper limit of performance somewhere along this route. 3000m of climbing is 1.5 Mount Ventoux’s, the fearsome Provencal giant that repels ill-thought approaches. Yesterday the cuddly-sounding Yorkshire Dales threatened at several times to spit me out and had me seriously contemplating abandonment.

Yet I didn’t, so hurrah for the human body. Bravo to knackered 37-year-old muscles and in particular to the stubborn streak that keeps legs turning when things feel lost.

What’s most memorable about the ride? A few things. Mainly the climbs, not Alpine but steep, stubborn rakes that don’t seem to like you very much. Fleet Moss is home to Yorkshire’s highest road and provoked considerable argument from quads and calves. That I made it over without trouble lulled me into a false sense of security and I didn’t do what I saw others doing at the Hawes feed station: swilling energy drinks in a quest for electrolyte fuel.

Somewhere outside Hawes a thick fog descended in my head. I pulled off the road for a stretch, trying to rid myself of increasingly painful cramp and trying not to panic. By the next climb – the Coal Road – I was gobsmacked to find myself pulling up with shooting pain, walking for a few metres, then falling off when trying to remount. I got going again, still at the base of the climb only with considerable dull-headed stubbornness, and have no recollection at all of the brief descent before Garsdale Head or that climb itself. The view down into the next valley was jaw-dropping enough to jolt me awake. I definitely got a kick out of the descent towards Ribblehead.

Around here the fog clears and I went from counting each pedal revolution to feeling like I was a certain finisher. Just as well as I was only just over halfway at this point. I can’t really make sense of this section of the ride as it seemed to take place in my head. I was certainly glad to leave it behind. By the time we reached Settle I was bristling for a scrap with the steep hellingen I’d lost to on my last ride round here, and summitted noisily, yelling something that may have sounded like encouragement to those around me also puffing their way to the top.

It was from here a small matter of getting back to Ilkley in a decent time. That I did, but the middle section wiped out the sense of joy I have had after other long rides. I was glad it was over, even if now I’m starting to feel some pride at making it both in the immediate circumstances and given the challenges of training for such a ride right now.

As ever, at the finish fellow riders got stuck into beer and swapped stories, while I rode quietly away. I’m more certain than ever of the beauty of the Dales and that a bike is the best way to see them, and also have a funny feeling that I’m not done with the White Rose Classic.

*Update: revisiting this piece after a week I have a greater sense of achievement than at the time, and possibly less inclination to sign up again. Though I can feel that passing too.*

24th May swim

photo 2 (1)

Almost twenty-four hours later and the thought remains of sky, cloud, sun and water. Sometimes the pond is gentle, green water and quiet. Last night it shouted “ELEMENTAL!” in a way that I can’t quite imagine ever being able to forget. To think, the drive over was in a storm so thick I struggled to see, and I was expecting water, on water, in water.

As I arrived the last drips fell, and I walked along the jetty in some haste, but the sun soon blew out from behind a dark grey cloud and poured through the trees, defying me, the lone swimmer late on Saturday to look at anything else. As I rounded the final turn it was shining straight at me, setting the water alight with bright yellow beams.

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I duck-dived down, swam along underneath for as long as I dared, then surfaced, blinded and reborn. How people used to worship the sun! Scrambling out, I could not resist more, traversing the open water in unusual directions, routine out of the window. Eventually I got out, cold and chilled further by the evening air. I stayed cold all night but somehow have held on the elation, partly because I am now in Yorkshire and close enough to the Lakes to reach out and touch them, smell the air, dream of the walls, fields and streams. And the thought that in life there are endless streams to find and bathe in and mountains to march up thrills like that stream of golden light, last night.

25 May 2014, en route to the Lake District

Amsterdam, April

Amsterdam last night. Dark, quiet and understated after a bright and colourful day. I can smell the air of earlier adventures in Europe, the sound of rumbling trams and their bells, bikes clattering by canalsides.


We may just forget to die

Reconnecting with Patrick Leigh Fermor while reading the wonderful salvaging of the last section of his journey from Holland to Constantinople on foot, The Broken Road.

His words, recounted here, are good words to live by, to be grateful and thankful, and enjoy sunny days, beautiful places and good friends.

“You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate – we have the mountains. We are fortunate – we have good food. We are fortunate – we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate – we have the beautiful sea to swim in.”

“Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea,” said the young man, nodding in agreement.

And then Paddy said to him: “And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die.”

Lost and found

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Classic 1960s Batman

Teenage boys are strange creatures. I should know. I used to be one. And once you’ve been one a part of you remains one. So something of me is 14 and only really interested in two things: football, and comics. Batman comics, to be precise.

Hint: no-one did.

Hint: no-one did.

American comics became a bit of a thing in the early 1990s. I think it had something to do with the spate of superhero films that came out then. For me it started by gazing at the exotic, small comic books that were tucked away on the bottom shelves. For 60p you could take your pick of Batman, Superman and Aquaman from the DC stable, and Fantastic Four, Spider Man and The Punisher from Marvel.

One of many golden finds

One of many golden finds

Most kids I knew who got into comics went for Marvel. For some reason I chose Batman, and stuck with him. I quickly went from poking around north London newsagents to nearby specialist shops – Mega City in Camden and Comic Showcase in Covent Garden in particular. And from here, the true mecca of enthusiastic boys (always boys) – weekend comic markets. These jumble sales, attended by mysterious sorts who packed a few boxes of exciting wonders in a van were where I first learnt to haggle, shove other people out of the way in search of a much sought after edition, and grew my collection.

A kind of more literal forerunner of Eraserhead

A kind of more literal forerunner of Eraserhead

For a couple of years that was it for me – I managed to pick up Batman comics going back to the mid-60s and also ventured into independents, especially the saga of a samurai rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo by the incredibly talented Stan Sakai. Slowly records and corduroy trousers became the object of my desire, but my fourteen-year-old-self had a plan. All my comics were lovingly protected in plastic bags with backing boards, waiting for the day when I rescued them from storage. And now I have. And looking through them again at their mad covers, with the smell of dusty halls in King’s Cross and Westminster where I got them coming to mind I can safely say that them was fine, fine days.

Two Jokers

Two Jokers


Feminism meets Batman. You suspect the artist didn't quite grasp the concept

Feminism meets Batman. You suspect the artist didn’t quite grasp the concept