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The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come

One happy recent Saturday night I did something I have done every once in a while for around a quarter of a century. With its piano intro dancing round my head I put on Strangeways, Here We Come and tried to work it out.

As ever, the last album from The Smiths played the same game again. The first side sounded packed with high points. What I later came to know to be both both singles and that remarkable first song, managing to be about Irish nationalism and late-nightmares. For me it is synonymous with light bouncing round the cabins of European night trains in the 1990s. Then side two, which tails off to a crescendo of is-that-it and where-did-that-go, still remarkable and puzzling.

Strangeways was the first Smiths album I heard. It was one of those miraculous happenings of a school friend passing on a knock-off tape. I don’t recall first listening to it, but can still feel it in the pocket of my school blazer like a package of secret intelligence. What a chain reaction from there.

Strangeways misses the boat in the head-down drive to put the Smiths in their rightful place – a trickier minefield than ever as more time passes from gladioli waving teenage icon Morrissey to today’s version. Neither are found on this album. There’s none of the bluntness of the lyrics from Meat is Murder, where teachers are violent and animals die horrible deaths. The confidence of the The Queen is Dead, with fantastical characters and romantic love stories is replaced by a vaguely-expressed stridency, the drive coming from Marr’s fabulous songs and in places a more experimental direction. When Morrissey does go on the attack he heads straight for the music industry in Paint a Vulgar Picture, and then for an unnamed friend who is walking away from him. He knows it and sounds proud and haughty: if someone feels the need to say they won’t share then the other’s gaze has turned elsewhere.

This album is often painted as a what if: what if The Smiths had somehow found a way through the morass of issues that derailed them and made more albums? Did they lack the killer instinct to become U2 or Depeche Mode, to emerge from the 1980s as a hit machine, Morrissey being too divisive and contrarian to set the controls for the heart of the sun? Then again, with a little give, hints could have become something else. Marr’s on-stage guitar heroism with The Pretenders after the Smiths split, and Morrissey instead of Neil Tennant and Bernard Sumner on Electronic could have created something as unique as anything The Smiths did before. Or perhaps the whole thing fades away like other guitar groups of the 80s as other styles take hold.

Strangeways does nothing to answer these unanswerables. I long ago lost the ability to critically evaluate it. On it goes, every now and again for more than half my life, what a mysterious and wonderful thing Strangeways is to treasure.

The time before dawn

Saturday, 6.45am, Parliament Hill Fields

In Budapest


Back to the beautiful city on the Danube. Trams rattle over bridges and there are endless grand boulevards to pace up and down.






Sent to me from heaven – St Hedwig by the Danube


Of the notable baths of Budapest you might have missed Kiraly. It’s not Széchenyi with its old men playing chess in vast steaming outdoor pools behind fine art nouveau towers. Nor Gellert, the textbook Central European indoor bath. Kiraly is older and more mysterious. From what I could tell its roots go back to the 16th century, when Ottoman rule swept in new influences like, well, bathing. It may be that baths like that date back further, to ancient Constantinople – the shape of the Kiraly baths brings to mind  Byzantine churches.



The Kiraly furdo looks by some distance to be the oldest building around it at the foot of the hilly core of old Buda. Imagining the Danube in its pre-embanked state flowing through Budapest it would have been closer to the shoreline. The entrance and changing area are modern, with the slightly bewildering list of prices and options found at all of Budapest’s baths giving rise to mild panic, amplified by the oddness of being in something like a bathhouse, with pretty much no idea what you’re doing.

Anyway, in I went and after handing over several payments for a few different things (a cabin, a locker and a towel), one of which I did not have any need for, I found myself climbing the stairs to the changing area. The baths are very clean and very well set up, with electronic tags to close and lock the door of the cabin. There is therefore no need for a locker. There is, you filthy Anglo-Saxon, a need to wash thoroughly before entering the pools and steam rooms. Having done so, I made my way through each one in probably the wrong order.

The main pool appeared to be a social space, with couples old and young, groups of girls and lone males sticking to edges, only occasionally breaking out into the middle space. I like seeking the cooler pot for a spot of invigoration before returning to the warmth. Eventually I found my way into the steamiest of the steam rooms, with a thick fug of hot damp air covering everything including those breathing deeply inside. It was set in one of the pointed corners of the baths main building. Above it were thick glass tiles letting in the afternoon light, playing games with the steam and the darkness. I sat back and thought of the Ottoman Empire, of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short stay in Buda, and then wondered if I’d sat in there long enough to feel like I had done the whole bath thing. Concluding I had, I left and continued to stomp around the city until it was time to catch that evening’s sleeper train to Munich.



The house in old Buda where Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in while walking to Constantinople


At Keleti Station, with its statues of James Watt and George Stephenson, the night train to Bucharest was just leaving. Shortly after a train to Kiev headed out, then another to Prague. This parade of mighty journeys was soon joined by ours, named after Hungarian composer Imre Kalman, heading first to Vienna, then splitting in Salzburg with one half bound for Zurich and the other for Munich. Each one left 20 minutes late.



Mighty Keleti Palvaudvar


As ever when sharing a couchette with strangers there was no doubting the blind was going straight down and the heat straight up. No-one, for reasons I don’t understand, ever wants to look out the window of a night train. I twiddled the heat down and didn’t argue on the latter. It had been a long and cold day and I was very tired, so with earplugs was not troubled by the man and the woman below me who for complete strangers seemed to get on very well. How well exactly I am not sure, but they were still jabbering away at 4am when we pulled out of Salzburg. Plenty of additional passengers had boarded at Vienna, now the hub of Europe’s sleeper network.







Night train to Munich


The whole slightly ramshackle night train thing suits being moved deeper into Europe. But people still believe. We trundled back west through the night across rivers and through cities I’d rather have stopped at but will settle for having passed for now.


No autumn, winter

Autumn has been harried away by the rain and gusts of fast-arriving winter. After the chills of earlier this week, best enjoyed on a wonderfully blowy Wednesday on the Heath, Saturday is milder, wetter and earlier.

Parking up it’s still very dark indeed, the only lights the bright lamps on the changing compound. In the still night there’s no signs of life, no heron, no kingfisher, no Egyptian geese. Soon there’s no other humans in the water either, just me trundling round. As I get out after a final dive a man walks out along he jetty, bids me good morning and laughs a slightly mad laugh, jumping straight in to the 6c water. It is still dark as I drive home. This is the time of magic on the Heath and in the water, early before dawn.


Black Moss Pot

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A boat journey across the Sound of Raasay, to the island itself. The weather fronts scudded across the island, the sea and the sky, but dodged us as we made our way up Dun Caan. Autumn in season, but every season, over and over again, minute by minute.

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As we neared the top the wind drove us back, but not before we got to see back over to Skye.


Rainbows were everywhere, all day.

The Hebridean sky is a constantly shifting canvas, impossible to take your eyes off. It is fearsome, inspires wonder and is quite unlike anywhere else in the world.


Eyes unto the heavens.



Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Perhaps our feet tramped over the bones of a woman and a man fifteen generations gone, who have rested in this quiet churchyard for 500 years listening to the wind rustling through the unkempt grass. From them, a line might just lead on to us. Or not. But it’s nice to think and believe that the deviations and detours that have got us this far could be followed back to a place like this.



Perhaps a small part of us was here at St Mary the Virgin before we got here. These were good thoughts to digest over lunch, with the unmoved mulberry tree on the village green just behind.

I was sorry if my clumsy treads veered off course. It is proving nice to do so.

Buttermere at nightfall


At summer’s end we walked along the lake and looked at the fast-darkening mountains, cloud and water.

Switzerland: like a dream (again)

This summer took the Halls back to the Alps riding trains, climbing mountains and swimming anywhere and everywhere.


Regular, punctual, clean trains criss-crossing the country. What more could you want, FFS? This one’s resting at Geneva.


Views from the First cable car


The ridiculously scenic and accessible walk from the First cable car in Grindelwald to Bachalpsee. Want to leave the crowds behind? Have a dip in the see when you get there!


On a cloudy, drizzly day we walked along the floor of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I was very happy.


After blowing the budget on the Jungfraujoch it was initially dispiriting to find the view wasn’t there. Minutes, later, the above panorama was…


Extremely Swiss and extremely bonny cow above Kleine Scheidegg


Cog railway infrstructure somehow adding to the glories all around


‘There is a mountain. There is another. There is…’ (son listens politely)


Not a bad spot for a local pool. Grindelwald.


The fast-flowing Aare in Bern. An alternative means of transport for locals.


A signposted river for swimmers. How civilised!




Vicar Street, Dublin, 25 June 2019

Tim Gane, guitarist and one half of the driving creatives forces behind Stereolab ambles across stage and mischievously plonks a key on one of the vintage keyboards around the stage. Returning for an encore minutes later, Laetitia Sadier, the other half, notices him repeating the move and harries him back over to ‘his’ half of the stage. She is the singer and the face of Stereolab, who have earlier been casually described by the support act Tomaga as ‘the best band in the world.’ Last night it did not seem like an outlandish claim.

This was my first Stereolab concert for at least 15 years. Since they suspended operations their reputation has grown and grown. Would-be listeners can struggle to find a way in; lucky for me I never had this problem. My brother came home from town one day with Peng!, their first album, and I was hooked from there. With him and friends they were a soundtrack to my teenage and university years. Surrealchemist late at night in student digs in Leeds, train trips over the Pennines to see them in Manchester and Liverpool and, best of all, ridiculously sweaty concerts in London. Always in the summer.

All that said, I wasn’t quite sure whether this concert was going to be up my street. The last few albums weren’t quite as krautrock-and-chord-x with thrillingly radical lyrics – often in French – as earlier efforts, and I suspected I’d find myself enjoying it but willing something unlikely off an earlier album to be played only for everyone else to cheer when French Disco gets a crowd-pleasing airing.

There was no need to worry. Laetitia walked on stage to a smattering of cheers, then shushed the crowd as she was tuning up. Around 800 Dubliners did as they were told. Then she came back on again and made a more fitting entrance with the rest of the band. From that moment on, she, Tim and everyone else had the show in their grip, and walked unpredictably through their back catalogue.


The whole show was one long highlight. It felt like becoming reacquainted with something special that you’d forgotten you didn’t know in the first place why it was so. Anamorphose sounded like the soundtrack to a long dream. After Ping Pong Laetitia checks everyone knows the anthem to Marxist economic theory isn’t ‘just a jolly pop song’. French Disco did get an airing, but in the same ‘let’s get it out the way’ spirit it used to be. Crest, followed by Lo Boob Oscillator sounded so good it made me a bit sad for every other band that have come since them and have to try to be better.

In all of this there’s Tim, rocking out and driving what they called The In Sound From Way Out. Andy on drums pounding out motorik one minute and jazzy grooves the next, and the keyboards and bass adding up to a noise all their own. During the wig-out at the end of Lo Boob (some people in the crowd experiencing such a racket for the first time!) the bass appears to pick out the rhythm from We’re Not Adult Oriented, though I could have just been imagining it.

While in some ways this was noticeably a comeback – while Laetitia appears unaffected by time, Tim and the rest of the band have aged, and no new music was played – in others this was also a continuation of something Sadier herself struggled to describe: ‘a project…a partnership’, thanking the crowd for remembering. There never was anything so magnificent as Stereolab really going for it. It feels important for the future of humanity that they continue to for some time to come.