Monthly Archives: December 2017

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


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.