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.

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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

Tomáš Rosický – six seconds

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur, FA Cup third round, Saturday 4 January 2014

Football weaves an odd magic over those who go to watch it. Every week between August and May there’s a set time of a set day when tension ratchets up, and life is not normal. ‘Entertainment as pain’ Nick Hornby called it. I love it, despite better judgement and competing priorities in life.

At this match one incident in particular encapsulate the unique experience of supporting your team and desperately wanting them to win, and how it feels wanting something to happen that is completely beyond your control. And then it does. And it is great.

If you want, you can watch the video (for instance here) to get an idea of what happens. Tomáš Rosický, Arsenal’s Czech attacking midfielder scores Arsenal’s second goal. Here he is, bustling Danny Rose off the ball and charging goalwards.

In an instant, tens of thousands of people stand as one and roar him on in what has become a sprint. Despite the close attentions of Spurs defenders who are younger and faster Rosický wins the sprint.

Next, the duel. Lloris, the Spurs keeper, narrows the angle. A vast, silent intake of breath. Rosický flicks the ball, twisting his body as he does it. This unorthodox shot rises over the keeper and nestles in the corner of the goal. 

And then: noise. An amazing noise.

English football crowds make a noise unlike the continental ‘GOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ It is more like a roar of relief, disbelief and a primal scream that reaches out into the night sky and to the millions watching on TV.

From my vantage point in the crowd it looks like Tomáš may have left it late, which he had, but that he would not ever miss. Just as well, as I used those six seconds in which he is charging towards goal to temporarily discover faith in every deity that comes to mind, and invoke their kindness. Then the ball goes in and I add my voice to roar, muffled split-seconds after that by the supporters around me, old friends and family, who bundle on top of each other.

The scorer with adrenalin coursing through his veins charges off, arms punching the air in celebration.

Nice one Tom. That was a very fine six seconds to be alive.

This morning’s swim

This morning while drying off after a chilly dip at the Men’s Pond I shared a thought with a fellow swimmer.

Did he, like me, find huge benefit in how vexing matters were left behind in the all-consuming exercise of swimming in cold water?

He agreed, but had another question: ‘where do they all go?’

This felt like a very Saturday morning question to ponder for a while.

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Wonderful Cantabria, gorgeous northern Spain

The hills, it appears, roll on south and west forever. From any stretch of road we drove down on our recent family holiday to northern Spain there was an unbroken range of the greenest of rolling hills. On clear days the Picos de Europa mountains loomed in the distance. If gazing at this graceful greenery palled then there was the deep blue of the Bay of Biscay in summer to offer a contrast. So explain to me again why so many of our fellow passengers on the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry were charging south, to the overcooked Mediterranean coast?

Not that we minded. Portsmouth had been a pleasure: the new home for the Mary Rose alongside HMS Victory at the city’s Historic Dockyard the perfect way to while away the day before our crossing. It was reminder that even less heralded parts of England contain shake-inducing wonders. The Brittany Ferries crossing was another treat with lots of family-friendly features including a heated outdoor swimming pool and a kids play area. Whales were easily spotted when nearing Spain and cetacean-spotting volunteers were on hand to sort a blowhole from an over-enthusastic wave. If, like mine, your children are fanatical about Octonauts then they’ll go bananas at any marine life. You’ll probably also discover that your three-year-old knows more about whale behaviour than you do. Nonetheless arriving in Bilbao was exciting and, due to the resolutely industrial nature of the port, a little foreboding.

There was no need to fret – nor to pigeonhole Bilbao, which has a very pleasant centre and, of course, the Guggenheim. And – here a theme begins to develop – a rather spiffy playground round the back complete with towering tunnel slides. Trams too!

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The Guggenheim’s playground

Our destination was Noja (no-kha), a seaside town between Bilbao and the other ferry port on the north coast, Santander. Noja is there due to its beach and attracts a largely Spanish crowd to its shores. The unfamiliar language we heard everywhere was Basque, underlining the local crowd here along with a smattering of Brits, Dutch and French visitors. We were there in peak season and our campsite, the leafy and lively Playa Joyel, was full. Thumbs up for this place – great pools, lots of suggestions for things to do, a nature reserve and it was steps from a wonderful strand of sand with body-surfable waves. If you don’t have a tent you could do what we did and stay in one of the on-site bungalows. The dazzling array of camping gear from across Europe provided ample eye-candy for travel gear nerds. It takes one to know one.

That said, even the best campsite and pool will induce a need to get out and explore, and Cantabria, the province we were in delivered the goods. On one day we visited Santillana Del Mar, a beautifully-preserved medieval town. It must be superb on a wintery day and in the evening, but retained charm even on a busy summer Saturday. Further on down a beautiful road that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the French Jura was Comillas, with a great beach and a variety of modernist buildings. Small Halls revolted at the notion of hill-climbing to Gaudi-designed houses, so we compromised on an ice cream in town and a quick look at a Gaudi gatehouse on the way to the seaside.

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Santillana del Mar

Another excellent jaunt was to the caves of Monte Castillo, containing the kind of rock art parts of France are famous for. Booking is necessary both for the El Castillo and Moneda caves, and well worth it. We were late for our booking but were accommodated on a later tour of the other cave – allow an extra half hour to get there as even once you park it is a chunky walk, especially for kids, to the visitor centre and further on to some of the caves. The views of Puente Visego below are superb.

Other treats? Santander on a sunny Sunday evening, especially pottering around the park on the Magdalena Peninsula. It was a challenge to find a parking space, but as we walked back from in the setting sun the harbour view rivalled some of the world’s great waterside scenes. Saying it beats Sydney is a stretch, but Santander simply offers views that need seeing.

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Checking out the penguins in the Magdalena park, Santander

After a week I would have loved to up sticks and head west, to Asturias and Galicia, following the trail of the Camino Santiago signs and sweaty yet beatific hikers we saw on smaller roads, or east back to the Basque country to San Sebastian and into the Pyrenees, but that’s for another time. Put simply, if you are looking for a slice of real Spain, and to holiday with Spanish people there, then the green hills of Cantabria make for a memorable choice.

Morrissey: Autobiography

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It’s not entirely clear where it started.

The first time I heard the word ‘Morrissey’ was on the radio in my parent’s car. The charts were on, so it would have been a Sunday, and the DJ – an unhung one – was talking about the freshly released Suedehead, which as any Morrissey fan no is his first single. As I was 11 I went on to pay some, but little attention to Everyday is Like Sunday, Last of the Famous International Playboys and other classics from the early solo canon at the time of their release.

One day, aged 14 or so, I must have expressed an interest to the right person as Mandy Smith, a girl in my class, handed me a copy of Strangeways, Here We Come, the final Smiths album.

From here I was sold – everything by the Smiths and Morrissey gathered up on vinyl on happy Saturdays ferreting round London’s record shops. Morrissey posters replaced anything else on the wall of my teenage bedroom. Concerts, fanzines, terrible teenage poetry, queuing to get my copy of Vauxhall & I signed at HMV in Oxford Street on March 14, 1994. Invading the stage at Ilford Island (oh the glamour) on the Boxers tour. Defending Morrissey like I’d defend my own family and Arsenal Football Club.I had, and have, ‘a thing’ for Morrissey. It wasn’t that I was melancholy teenager, far from it, in fact I loved the humour and wit in is lyrics and the way many songs rocked along. Down the front at a Morrissey concert remains sweaty, bouncy fun and a chance to sing the ‘Mor-ris-sey’ football-style song.

Therefore I approach Autobiography from a different angle to most. Not for me any worries about the odd indulgence of Penguin publishing it as a classic. After all, in life there is one rule for Morrissey and one rule for everyone else. No real concerns, either, at what unknowns may become known. With Morrissey the more you expect to learn, the less you find out and the enigma grows. This was one life story that surely would not be warts and all. Most of all this was something of a unique opportunity for 480 pages of enjoying the singer’s prose, a welcome break from more recent albums which have been off-form, or maybe just aimed at a different audience.

Here, then, are some reflections on the book.

1. It’s (mostly) a great read.

Morrissey writes beautifully and in a way that makes no attempt to hide that he is, in his words ‘a bit much’. The journey from underwhelming and at times brutal schooling in Manchester to his iconic status is not a smooth procession to victory. It is awkward, haphazard and filled with regret at many things, especially the friends he has lost along the way. But it is also very funny, full of wit like his songs and the pages skip by happily.

2. He doesn’t like some unusual things

In one passage pot-holers are lambasted for the hidden desire Morrissey believes they all share to fall in, so they can appear on the news. This is one of many examples of unexpected targets who get a roasting. Think Bryan Ferry’s safe after Morrissey writes adoringly of Virginia Plain? Think again – by 1987 he’s winking at Johnny Marriage and dubbed ‘full of sherry’. Tony Wilson, Mancinian grandee? Grasping schemer straight out of Twenty Four Hour Party People more like.

3. He glosses over the Smiths breakup

Morrissey is vague about this most interesting of incidents almost to the point of amnesia. It reminded me a little of a running in Asterix books where none of the Gauls can remember what happened at Alesia, where they took a pummelling from the Romans. Every Gaul professes to not even know where Alesia is, and so it is with the events of 1986-7. Gradually they seem to slip away. Maybe they did.

4. There’s room for more

Apart from some scant details on certain songs there’s an almost wilful exclusion of detail on what was, by all accounts, a near-spiritual songwriting process for Morrissey and Marr. I’d have loved more detail on that, and how that changed with Stephen Street for Viva Hate or Mark Nevin on Kill Uncle. And as other reviewers have pointed out, Boz Boorer is a very important figure in Morrissey’s career. There’s enough left out for a book devoted to Smiths recordings and his approach to them and views on them, and one on solo recordings too. More please!

5. It’s personal…but not that personal

I was amazed at how open Morrissey was about his relationships in one way, but leaves much to be interpreted. I thought this was very sensitive and quite a gentle way to parry the vulgar prying into one’s private life that the media demands. After all, what would further peeling back the curtains do but expose and hurt those mentioned?

You can’t help but remain curious about some other key characters in Morrissey’s career: Boz Boorer in particular remains an enigmatic figure. Alain Whyte, responsible for some of Morrissey’s best solo songs gets a mixed write-up. Stephen Street barely exists, yet look what they did together.

More, more, more!