The block

1990, another world. My father and I have decided, seemingly without a word being uttered to anyone else, that it’s all very well attending Arsenal home matches but that expansionism is on the agenda. The previous year we took the train to Derby for a memorable (to me at least) 3-1 victory at the Baseball Ground and an end of season 2-2 draw at Carrow Road, Norwich, enlivened by a seemingly endless sing-song to pass the time as we were held hostage by the local constabulary before being released into the heat of the East Anglian summer. I can only assume my own extreme enthusiasm was the reason for an increase in the number of away games.

Regardless of why we were going to these games we were presented with a small but not insurmountable problem. The problem was that I was small and not insurmountable, and in those days away games meant standing on terraces with lots of fully-grown men. To add to the challenge I wanted to stand as close to those making a loud noise as I could.

Dad devised a novel solution. Possibly inspired by the ‘big step’ at the back of the old Clock End terrace at Highbury he used to stand on, he hammered together some old bits of wood that were lying round waiting to be repurposed. This is interesting in itself, as I am now not much younger than he was at the time and have acquired no junk wood, lying round waiting to be repurposed. The wood was fashioned into a block, maybe 50cmx30x20, just large enough for two feet to stand on. As if by magic, I now enjoyed a bonus in the height department when competing for airspace on terraces across the land.

‘The block’ (as in ‘have you got the block?’ And ‘you can carry the bloody block back to the car’) made its debut at Plough Lane, Wimbledon in August 1990. Its magical properties conjured a 3-0 win, including a corking half-volley from Perry ‘El Pel’ Groves. In the midst of this triumph were signs that the block might also prove to be trouble. When a goal went in, the crowd erupted, with the shoving and surging that went with it, and I went tumbling off the block and into the melee. Fighting my way back up to where Dad was stood we both realised the block had gone on its own little adventure and was nowhere to be seen. I went off to look for it and emerged through the bodies after a short time brandishing it in triumph. This happened every time a goal went in that day and on each subsequent occasion.

Taking such an item into football grounds also posed an interesting scenario for the local police. At Nottingham Forest’s away turnstiles, the block was sternly examined by a copper, who was clearly wondering why he should let in something that could be used as an effective projectile to be hurled at opposing supporters. We must have seemed like the right sort of chaps as he let us pass through the turnstiles, though not without admonishing me to grow, so that I could at some future point leave the block behind and not make his job any harder.

Yet it was not just me who found a leg-up useful. At several grounds I fought small battles throughout the match with those next to me who placed one foot on the block, and were clearly considering mounting a hostile takeover of it for their own ends. Sharp elbows and well-timed shoves – usually at exciting moments in play – generally dispatched these ne’er do wells. Go get your own block!

At some point that season we stopped bringing the block. I had grown enough inches to render it necessary, and though it always made it home safe it did add some complications to the simple joy of going to a match. And Arsenal won the league that season, losing only one game in the process, away to Chelsea, when as far as I can recall we did not have the block with us. Make of that what you will.

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Bowie, overland to Moscow and Finland

This piece is posted in the hope someone might read it and help me make it better. I am sure there are missing elements and inaccuracies…if you can help, leave a comment or drop me a line…TH

Wir laufen ein in Düsseldorf City
Und treffen Iggy Pop und David Bowie
Trans-Europa Express
Kraftwerk, Trans Europa Express

A fragment of a great life. David Bowie, in between concerts in 1976, travelled from Zurich in Switzerland to Moscow by train, then on to Leningrad and Helsinki. He was with Iggy Pop and other associates of his. Photographs survive, showing Bowie in his pomp, seemingly relishing this Soviet journey that would have seemed impossibly exotic, deep in the Cold War. The video to Kraftwerk’s minimalist tribute to the smooth international rail services of the time, Trans Europe Express, homages and unites Bowie, European rail travel and the retro-futuristic rhythms of electric trains clicking over continental railway lines.

On reading Carol Devine writing briefly about this journey on Calvert Journal, inspired by a comment on the YouTube video for Trans Europe Express, then reading some more on Alan Paul’s site, where there are also some fantastic photographs by Andrew Kent, I became curious as to the logistics of it. Here’s one of the world’s most famous men, albeit one whose reluctance to fly had led him to take the Trans Siberian Railway home from Japan to London in 1973, finding a few days spare in his diary and taking a few mates on a mad railway jaunt into and through the Soviet Union. This wasn’t really the done thing. So how did he do it?

In fact, it was possible to travel to – or more easily through –  the Soviet Union. Both entry visas and transit visas were free, and it seems that Bowie was aware he could get visas for a through journey to Helsinki which involved stopping in the two great metropolises of Russia. So while he’s not around to ask, Bowie could in theory (I think) have bought a ticket to Moscow in Zurich, and travelled north and east from there. The details of the journey suggests that he did just that. The connection entailed hints at a deeper piece of planning, a cunning adventure squeezed in, or possibly a concert itinerary designed on purpose to allow for such a jaunt.

Trying further to tie together Trans Europe Express and this journey, I picked up an old copy of Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetable. I couldn’t find one from 1976, but did get one from 1974. It’s little different in format from the European Timetable published today in many ways, so it is also safe to assume that the information didn’t change that much in two years.

As well as the striking abundance of car-carrying trains across Western Europe – now largely extinct – the other big change since then is the growth of high-speed services since the 1970s replacing the flagship trains of European rail, the Trans Europ Express (TEE) services. These first class only trains at one point comprised 45 services, connecting 130 cities.

Of course, crusty inter-railers would have had to pay a supplement (forever to be said in a French accent with memories of summer de-training incidents: ‘il est necessaire de payer un sooplemon’ ‘je n’avez pas le monnaie.’ ‘au revoir, stinkies!’ (thud onto platform, bags following). Gradually in the 80s and 90s the TEE network contracted, as more trains carrying second class carriages were added, before being disbanded in 1995. In 1976 however it was the way to travel. Did Bowie, Iggy and co hop on the TEE service from Zurich to Vienna? From there, they would certainly have aimed for Warsaw, and picked up the Ost-West Express on to Brest, Belarus – then of course part of the Soviet Union – and then into Moscow.

Alan Paul’s entry on this trip details the briefest of stopovers in Moscow before continuing on to Helsinki, where Bowie arrived a day later than expected. The picture that emerges of Bowie the traveller is of someone who squeezed in adventure where he could, and therefore had to plan quite specifically. Whatever and however, it seems unlikely this trip was made in error.

 

 

 

A swim in the snow

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Deep December, Monday morning after heavy snow on Sunday. It’s a couple of degrees above freezing but raining, with plenty of snow still on the ground. I run and slide down to the station, feeling and looking oddly dressed in running gear with a rain jacket and flat cap, but I need all these things. Exiting Highgate tube after trotting up the escalators I shush through the melting snow on the footpaths up into the village. The streets are quiet, probably due to some schools being closed, but there are also fewer cars on the streets, and those that are here are slowly swishing along the roads. Shuddering at the thoughts of riding the curves of West Hill in slippery conditions I am, unusually, glad to not be on the bike.

It was pitch black when I left home, and it only a little lighter now, well after the pond’s 7.30am opening time, later than usual due to this shortest time of year. Down Merton Lane and along Millfield Lane the eastern edge of the Heath comes into view, the white of the snow offering a little brightness but the dark black of the model boating pond reminding me what I’m here for.

Inside the changing compound there’s one grinning fellow swimmer who seems quite happy, most likely because he is no longer contemplating having to get into the water. The concrete floor is also grey and white snow, slush and ice, with a path for bare feet through to the jetty, itself white and uninviting. After a little too much pre-swim fiddling I find myself walking out making brave-ish small talk with the lifeguard. He keeps a closer eye than usual on those going by. The wind blows eddies and sharp little raindrops across the water, now looking green, blue and black all at once from up close. I fit my feet into the prints of someone else who stood on the side and dropped into the water, and do the same.

The water, never disappointing, delivers they goods, a sharp shock and it is a challenge to get quickly into the pattern of a winter swim. So: deep breaths, focus on breathing, swim under the other jetty, breast stroke to the edge, turn left, flip onto my back, 75 strokes backstroke. This takes you a lot of the way, then back onto my front and breast stroke the rest of it. A lap of sorts. My hands go numb immediately and feel like blocks of ice all the way round. At times water splashes into my eyes and I consider leaving them closed but then kick myself back into the moment. As there’s snow and ice around I let myself off having to make another dive in and head back to shower and change. Life comes back into my hands quickly. I find I can do my laces – by no means a given – and get clothes on, and before I know it am running off towards Kentish Town. The snow gets my shoes wet and cold. From the muddy brown slopes of Parliament Hill visible to the south it looks like hordes of sledges came this way yesterday though the Heath still looks marvellous in its silky white finery.

Coming this way brings the world back slowly, from dog walkers and parents escorting children to school, to the long stretch of no-one else on Highgate Road, then into the rush hour half-bustle of Kentish Town, where no-one has done what you’ve just done and once again you become one in a crowd, with just the inner thermostat purring away on overtime reminding you of the gently-fading feeling, and then the train south to the barely-noticed Thames and the rest of the day.

 

Belgrade dash

img_6463Was I really here?

On landing, with the Danube glowing soft rich orange in the evening, and into a taxi and the darkening day.

And the traffic so bad I was considering getting out and running ten miles, and did five, or less, or more, much of it along three-lane roads clogged with buses and military vehicles.

‘Most? Marakana? Marakana?’

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Over a river, the Sava, across a vast suspension bridge, and into the city, and through a park whooping at the exhilarating daftness, the absurdity a kind of rebellion and release. You go your ways, this is my thing to do, my wonderful way of life.

A hill too long and steep and traffic-ridden to run up. Past columns of soldiers marching away, then down quiet alleyways, and then I hear it, the noise of the Marakana, the sustained roar at kick-off, the ups and down like a flock of birds, a hive mind of sound. The floodlights glowing first distant, the closer.

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The dash to the turnstiles, and removed of half my stuff by a zealous bag search, some understandable and some strange. And then into the ground, where a match plays out like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

The banner at the start of the second half. Byzantium in Belgrade. A sending off. A goal. A goal! So that’s what we’re here for. Great goal by the way.

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The final whistle and the RSB fans staying behind for an hour to continue with their choreography, their songs, flags and dancing, drums and chanting, hankerchiefs and shirts being waves. After 90 minutes we are released to, and Dad and I slip between coaches ferrying fans back into the city and walk through quiet streets back to our hotel, past the Partizan floodlights.

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The next morning we are to leave and I know I will see almost nothing of the city. Itself a further act of nose-thumbing at myself. I wake up with sore legs and groggy from lack of food. The taxi is here. The day is bright and the colours on the motorway to the airport are autumnal oranges, yellows and reds. At one point the Pannonian Plain opens up to the north, an endless bread basket for thousands of years.

There isn’t any more for now but there doesn’t have to be.

Late summer, early autumn, sunlit water

Written over the Anatolian mountains, without sign of the close-by Black Sea.

It is pointless trying to photograph it. I tried. Perhaps I can describe it here?

This September has cooled off summer quickly. When clear, the early mornings are cold enough to need gloves on the bike. The sun warms things up quickly, but when cloudy the chill arrives immediately. Knowing what to wear is an impossibility.

Saturday mornings at the Heath are on hold while I manage George’s football team. This whirlwind of people, logistics and emotions means I barely have time to miss the Heath and the sprint to the water before the East Germans arrive with their ridiculous noise and American manliness. Not being with them is no loss, and I have Fridays.

Leaving home, the sun shines directly down my street and blinds me until I turn, then I feel the cold all the way to East Finchley on the bike. Arriving at the pond there is a hubbub of happiness from the half dozen swimmers there. I can see as I walk along the jetty why. The low sun, having just risen through the trees, is burning off the morning mist, but not too quickly. It’s shallow cantons are turning the water a blinding bronze-yellow, turning bobbing swimmers heads into small islands and illuminating the entirety. In the water the temperature drop of recent weeks means the thrill of diving in is real and instant.

I swim a slow lap in quiet wonder with no-one for company, then return to the ladder and get out energized and enthused. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about the wonder of the water. As everyone else feels the same we might as well be nodding and grinning to each other while mouthing no words. Some of the chaps spotted a kingfisher.

On Sunday I’m back for more, almost at the end of a hot and sunny ride from Finchley to Richmond Park, around the edges with the chugging chain-gangs and then back through town. It’s hot, maybe summer’s last lark, and word is out. There’s an outbreak of snakes in the changing area. Again the water is delicious, again the sun shimmers on the surface. I dive down a few feet to where the cool is greater, then come back up. Trees around the edges are turning from green to yellow, russet and golden. From here the way ahead is colder but no less exciting. I set some speed records on the final leg of the journey home and in the evening try to work out when I can next return. It is not long.

This is what it was like. No photo.

Aachen

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I once passed through Aachen without stopping and have been looking for an excuse to come back ever since. I’ve done that before, sailing south to Puerto Natales without seeing Torres del Paine, swerving museums and must-sees in other places only to realise the error of my ways. Today’s visit to the city’s cathedral scratched the Charlemagne itch. It’s an itchy kind of place: no wonder Pepin the Bald lost his hair.

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That Aachen is not better known proves Europe’s incredible depth. The mosaics and scale of the original Palatine Chapel are equalled in probably fewer than a dozen places, and none have the iconic name of the first Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled and died here. Yet most people would shrug at the name, and few who recognize it could place it on a map. UNESCO didn’t make that mistake, adding it to their inaugural list of World Heritage sites in 1978. So, why the unknown? It may be to do with its distinctly mitten-European location and ambience. Germany is the lost heart of Europe for visitors and it keeps its secrets behind impenetrable geography and linguistic confusion. But you only have to get off the train and look, and here it is. A small but lovely heart of just a few squares, one home to the cathedral, one to the town hall, and a little in between, and the rest the low-rise shopfronts and kiosks of post-war West Germany.

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Back on the ground, the after-work drinkers are standing outside little bars, their gentle laughter rolling out over the cobbles. In the evening sunshine locals gather on the grass behind the Elisenbrunnen, where warm mineral waters still gush out of fancy fountains. The sun strikes the spire of the ancient Aachener Dom and inside stained glass turns the cantons of light into beams of purple, pink and blue. The golden relics of Charlemagne glow quietly to themselves in the adjacent treasury.

George Best, Leeds

Out of the window of my chilly room the northern winter is in full swing. It is frosty and grey, white skies I come to know later above black water, silence, crows. Condensation at the window. The leafless trees complete the emptiness. Aged 19, I am here and I am nowhere.

There’s a path to a bus stop that I walk along, underdressed and neither wholly happy or sad, relishing the rootlessness of this kind-of winter break from study. Sometimes in London, sometimes Leeds, a few days in Manchester ‘visiting’, or searching, or missing. Listening and listening. The sound of those days is George Best by The Wedding Present, a band from Leeds who’ve moved on from this moment. I haven’t and listen to it on repeat. The witty, bitter lyrics, asking and provoking, stories of lost love and confusion, girls and gossip, life in these late decades as lives by young men and women. The stories behind these songs – of love that got away, of lessons learnt harshly, advice not always taken – fitted the faces I knew in Leeds, brushed past at a bar, swapped a line of acerbic banter. Yet somehow in the cold of those days and in the determined guitar, unlike anything I’d heard before, there was and still is a stubborn celebration of the wonder of it all. I’m still not quite sure how a record can sound so cold and so warm at the same time. That’s the north for you.

A barman I worked with served up anecdotes of living with Keith, the band’s original bassist. Not exciting anecdotes at all, if I recall, but a brush with musical royalty nonetheless. George Best was chiselled into the streets of Headingley, where I lived and where the band’s contact address was. Even if I never felt at home at university and stuffed up huge parts of it I loved Leeds, and still love the north. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The faces and the jokes. But that’s far enough into the locked bag of then. Tonight’s only a little about me, walking for miles in midwinter, so drunk I could hardly stand behind the bar as New Year was sung in all around me. Then I fell over. Triple time that night, earned and drank.

Time passed along from that winter. A year, another year, away from Leeds and on and on away from that moment in time, now too many years ago to remember more. Unlike the soap operas found in the grooves of my copy of George Best, I got married, and then had a son, and another, and a daughter, and it’s wonderful and I’m happy and lucky. I still reach for the record all the time because there isn’t anything like it and never has been and never will be. I still feel a little shiver at its opening line, still marvel at the bass lines which bounce along like a train crossing the Pennines, and most of all love David Gedge’s poetic, funny lyrics delivered urgently and as if grudgingly doing you a favour through the frosty night, because despite himself he has to. Gedge is an English voice as unique and distinctive as more celebrated artists.

That’s why I’m here tonight at the Roundhouse. I’ve seen the weddoes live before but never heard a song from George Best played on stage. I know it won’t and can’t quite be the same but this one is special. It’s not a nostalgia show, it’s different and I don’t care. The faces around me are older, like mine, lined with smiles though, hair greyer with good reason, little smiles of defiance borne from years of Shatner and Anyone Can Make a Mistake stubbornly cradled to the heart rather than whatever rubbish anyone else listened to.

I’ve come here on my own because that’s the best way. I’ve shared albums and bands with other people – best and usually with my brother and a handful of unfortunates who feel the same way – but no-one else was there and heard George Best. This one is different, beautiful and harsh and hardbitten, and it’s songs are true and there’s no way of fully explaining it. That’s why music exists.

Postscript

I spent the evening, as planned, down the front fighting the good fight, amongst a rolling, laughing singing celebration. The Wedding Present don’t do encores, but they finished with Kennedy, like something from a dream. I’d waited over 20 years to hear it live and by the time it came round my body couldn’t quite make it over the line to the end of the wig at the end, and my ankle turned over after maybe the thousandth pogo of the night. I hobbled out of the moshpit still grinning widely and then off into the night.