Monthly Archives: September 2017

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.

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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.