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.

IMG_9631 2

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.


Two rivers in England

With some surprise we arrived on holiday deep in Roger Deakin’s territory. Suffolk, where the county butts against Norfolk, with the Waveney as the border, rural and silent and the place where Waterlog, his ‘aquatic songlines’ was born. I’ve never set out to swim in his strokes, but felt it fate to arrive in here for a family celebration without really looking at a map. This ‘secret river’, according to Deakin, was a short run through some fields from our base, and on the first morning I convinced Imogen was should do just that.
It turned out the Waveney made us work a little, footpaths clogged with nettles, and then paths stretching always just a little further from where the water should be. The first swim then was short, as we had to be getting back, but the next evening, returning by bike, I had time for a longer visit. The Waveney was completely silent, and it was a lonely and slightly strange swim. To be honest having plotted all day a way to get in, once I was I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I pottered about a bit and scrambled back up the muddy banks.
In between we pay a visit to Beccles Lido, also on the riverbank, heated but outdoors and full of fun. There’s also a glimpse of the Broads jam-packed with day trippers, a world away from the quiet space of this county line.
A few weeks on and another family gathering I stumbled into through the rush of recent months. While I really should start doing my homework in advance I’m tempted to let others keep booking them if these are the places we end up. This time we were in the Test Valley for midsummer, a shallow, fast-flowing chalk stream beloved of anglers. The river appears as we approach where we’re staying here and there. You hear and smell the streams.
The Ordnance Survey was not playing hide-and-seek this time – a bridge over the Test was five minutes walk through our village. The sun glints off the water as we first arrive, an advance party for several later stone-throwing trips and games of pooh sticks, but this morning was a chance for a just-possible swim in thigh-deep water. The game here is to head under the bridge through the shallower water upstream, then catch the chute rushing under the other side of the bridge, then repeat. The water is cold, the morning glorious.
Like in Suffolk we have it to ourselves. Under the spell of the water, the long days blow gently in the breeze.


George Clark’s bad day

At the National Archives are treasures of every kind. At large tables people sit or stand, poring over physical relics of the UK’s past that possibly mean more to the people poring over them at that moment than anyone else since they were first compiled. Hands get dirty with centuries old dirt. Piles of parchment and ancient scrolls unroll for the first time in generations.

I found myself here a few weeks ago as part of some family history, which if you are bored or mad – unless indeed you are a member of my family – you can read more about below this article.

The archives are home to the North London Railway’s staff registers and board meeting minutes, which contain the records of some of my ancestors. In one case, their entire working life. In another, what is apparently their unfortunate passing.

Once I’d hyperventilated at the avalanche of historical detail that came tumbling out concerning fines levied for violent shunting, promotions and seemingly odd deviations in career I spent a while leafing aimlessly through these lovely books. Thousands of people, mostly men, with their working lives laid out in beautiful handwriting. You can imagine a clerk hunched over these volumes, day after day, building up a picture of Victorian London life, when railways were young and the capital was expanding at a fierce rate.

And here’s George Clark. A pointsman (initially) at Hackney Wick Junction, with his father in the company’s service. He joins the NLR in 1859.

Miscellany - George Clarke's reprimand 1

By 1893 George was a ticket collector, a change of role owing to failing health after 34 years on points duty. The NLR was a tight-knit community that evidence suggests looked after its own.

Miscellany - George Clarke's reprimand 2

But what’s this? January 1896 does not seem to be a happy 37th anniversary for Mr Clarke. As the record states, he was “severely reprimanded for throwing a piece of iron to frighten away some children from station entrance, and striking a man named Bowen who was passing along the street at the time, Clark paid the man 5/ (five shillings, right?) as compensation and was told if this kind of thing occurs again he will have to go about his business.”

You can picture the scene, briefly if vividly captured. Clark’s irritation, and his hurling of the iron. Bowen’s shock, then indignancy – real or contrived – that he is owed some kind of reparation. The NLR management discussing how to deal with this in a proportionate way. And the children, running off laughing, retelling the story to anyone who would listen.

Miscellany - George Clarke's reprimand 3

It worked out ok for George in the end. On retirement, after 47 years service he was granted a good conduct retiring allowance of 7 shillings and 8 pence per week. Of Bowen, the children and the piece of iron no more is heard.

My head had started to hurt and I had to go to Leighton Buzzard. The book was gently closed and everyone within settled back into their sleep, with all the slumbering stories of England for company. Until next time.

Some historical geography of the railways of the British Isles

My family swirls around the railways. I have always loved them, and this has played a big part in my career trying somehow to articulate the feelings and excitement around movement, speed, being transported somewhere new. I inherited this from my father who worked for British Railways and like seemingly everyone who did was an enthusiast for all things connected to the permanent way.

In the deeper past my own existence, the connections that brought my ancestors together and into place, is dependent on the railways, their construction and the opportunities for movement and employment they gave working people in nineteenth-century Britain. This is the how and why of the various strands of parts of my family coming together in the early to mid nineteenth century.

Before the railways and other industrial development people were more closely tied to their village and the land. With their advent, labour was needed in new ways, and as cities boomed people could move to them.


My great-great-grandfather – he and I have the same name – devoted his entire working life to the North London Railway, working as a guard on their routes from the docks at Poplar around what is today’s London Overground line and more than likely to points beyond. His father, another Thomas Hall, was a railway labourer, or a navigator: a navvy. With his brother William, and thousands of others, he dug the early railways into existence.

In doing so he left his home in Staffordshire, spent time in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire where he met his wife, who he appears to have left with two young children and living with her parents while he went off to work somewhere, elsewhere, then moved to Islington and on to Bow. Part of what WG Hoskins called ‘a vanished race of men’, his work would have been incredibly hard, and may account for his early death. Along the way he must have made good enough connections to get his son a job on the North London, as their record books say.


The images of the life of navigators are reminders in themselves of the remoteness of this time and this way of life. Queen Victoria was not yet on the throne when railway building was having its first boom. By the death of Prince Albert much of the country’s lines were in existence. Their toils predated photography, and are captured in long-view sketches of giant earthworks. The London to Birmingham Railway was described as the greatest human achievement since the pyramids, and while this is fanciful the scale of labour is comparable. The popular image of navvies is that they fought and drank their wages away by night after herculean efforts by day. Along with their faults to modern eyes they were heroic working men. This Thomas Hall may or may not have done these things. He may have just excavated railways, took his wage and gone home at the end of a gig. There aren’t records but there are grainy illustrations to stare at with no clues.


In this picture navvies are guiding barrowloads of earthworks up a rather steep embankment along a trackway of planks, assisted by a rope pulled by a horse. All the illustrations here are from an old copy of The Railway Navvies by Terry Coleman.

All this is like much family history a little mind-blowing. Another great-great-grandfather met a grisly end falling from scaffolding on a gasometer in Dublin, not long after fathering his only child, my great-grandfather. All quiet voices from the past that have brought my family and I to this point. The impossibility of knowing these people, the distance from their lives is fascinating and in some ways troubling. Any life has crossroads, decisions and milestones. Pass the pickaxe will you? It is time to dig on.



Night swim early in the month

A week of dark moments. Three swims. The last on Saturday morning at 7am, on the last day before a couple of months of 7.30 openings to compensate for later dawns. I’ve left the house alone, my family in sleeping silence, only a light under Harry’s door suggesting he’s awake and quietly reading. The roads are near empty and Millfield Lane is still, apart from a fellow swimmer waiting until the last moment in his black cab. An ever-receding part of me still asks what I am doing here. This question is easily enough ignored.

Inside the compound, even though it is still just before seven, three men are already swimming, and I walk through to join them. They must leave the water while I am in but I don’t notice them. The only light is the bright lamps of the compound beyond the reach of which is impenetrable still-night. The lifeguards are eating cereal beneath their own thin illumination. A swimmer looms out of the dark, steaming and grinning. Out on the jetty it is very noticeably not near dawn, and I have not warmed up, but I dive in anyway and puff through the water with no-one else in it. Rain falls and sparks the water into life, and me as well. Things move in the darkness, cormorants, terns, the week rolls past my eyes, hard and testing, the water uncompromising, unwelcoming, compelling. The wind whirls an eddy across the dark surface. Out, then in again, then finally back into the changing area, then out onto the heath.

Shivers all the way home. Still feeling cold at 8.34pm, and thinking about the morning.

12 December

I did not relish the prospect of today’s swim, nor did I enjoy it particularly. But I needed it. The wind is cold, the air is cold, the water is cold. The sun is behind a cloud and not playing today. I arrive in the mood for a scrap, bruised leg from falling off my bike, and get one.

I get out and attempt to stare down the east wind blowing across the water. It carries on and I stomp off, having fought to a standstill and not won, but not lost.


21-22 December

This has been a magical December, with a clutch of pre-dawn swims curving to and then away from the shortest day.

Winter Solstice itself brings an evening visit to the Lido under a bright full moon, almost the only light on the water. It is wonderful to dive in and swim some lengths with Imogen, who in her gloves and boots looks quite the part. She is a winter swimmer who has effortlessly taken to the water this year and is a much better swimmer than me. This festive occasion is enlivened by a lifeguard sampling a sausage roll dipped in brandy butter. Seemingly thinking the condiment is hummus, we enjoy his very north Londonish confusion.


The following morning, but before dawn at the end of the longest night I am at the pond again, walking round the paths on the perimeter waiting for it to open. Early Saturdays have become unmissable and I shall miss the dark drives over, the silence and emptiness of the Heath, buying the Times on the way home and relishing the crosswords to come.


There are only a handful of swimmers at this time. They all seem to know each other well. Perhaps that is what another ten years will get me though I am happy in my own company and probably show it. One other man puffs around, awkwardly front-crawling, head above the water. His slow progress is undeniable though. Mine is of a similar pace, and progress is somewhat shocked by even the marginal change in the water temperature. As ever, the pond is colder and softer than the lido. In the half-light the brightness of the winter snowberries catches my eye.


Christmas Eve, swimming with a pale dawn starting to glow in the corner of the sky, another shining moon with its distant landscape visible from the water. Sometimes it tries to hide behind bare, leafless trees but remains a sentinel on this circuit. Compliments of this season. The usual gentle flow of morning swimmers fools me into thinking that this is a normal day. It is a shock then at how empty the roads are running down to Kentish Town, and it becomes apparent that I’m the only one in a hurry to get things done this Monday morning. Nothing is open. The Thames still dozes with only a pair of ferries ghosting round below Blackfriars Bridge, the moon still there, a constant companion of late.

1984: three songs

In 2018 I’m not sure there has been a single great song written. Perhaps there was and I missed it. In 1984 there were at least three that have echoed down the decades. All came from England, and all from very different bands.

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?


By 1984 The Smiths has been together for two years, and in short time had established themselves as the darlings of the indie scene, or bedsit rock if you prefer such a strange-sounding title. Does anyone even live in a bedsit anymore? Then again, is there an indie scene now? Still, The Smiths had thumped out a few singles and made enough of a hash of recording their eponymous debut album that they’d had to have another go. They still didn’t get it right. The Smiths remains one of the great almost-was albums.

Hatful of Hollow, on the other hand, is a compilation of radio sessions full of the bite and edge that (I understand) characterised the bands’ live performances. And here’s How Soon Is Now? in all its non-rhetorical glory, an awkward and strongly-worded exchange in the first person, brooding over an unending dirty chord, with siren sounds and thumped drums. Or rather that was where I first found it, a teenager getting hung up on The Smiths and paying £5.50 at Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange for a copy of this life-changing record. It was second hand. Someone had sold it! Anyway, How Soon is Now? This song debuted as a b-side to William, It Was Really Nothing. On the cover is a man who could indeed be in a bedsit. A b-side, but one that must have astonished anyone who flipped over the jangly a-side to come face to face with some of Morrissey’s greatest lines. The opening line repeats and drifts through the song: ‘I am the son and the heir…’

Not only does the chorus rage of ‘You shut your mouth, how can you say, I go about things the wrong way/I am human and I need to be loved – just like everybody else does’ rightly stand in the ranks of Smiths lyrics as possibly their defining words, they are run close in the same song by the angst of the drizzling night that seethes and rages: ‘there’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.’ Oh and it’s seven minutes long. It provoked such a reaction that it was re-released as an a-side and also grafted on, barbarically, to the end of the first side of The Smiths. Perhaps we should close the book on the greatest song of the 80s right there. Or perhaps not.

Felt – Primitive Painters


While The Smiths were still four solutions in search of problem rattling round Manchester, Lawrence (just Lawrence) had with Maurice Deebank (not just Maurice) long ago formed Felt in the West Midlands village of Water Orton. Mining a love for Television’s Marquee Moon and Deebank’s classical guitar flourishes they’d already knocked out three albums by the time Robin Guthrie agreed to produce Ignite the Seven Cannons, Felt’s 1984 long-player. Guthrie proceeded to do what he did with the Cocteau Twins and cover everything in a haw frost glinting in the sunshine of an early morning. And for that he got labelled a goth!

This ‘ethereal swirl’ made this record sound very different to other Felt albums, and the keyboard work by Martin Duffy hinted at the band’s future direction once Deebank had left. But while this album was viewed as both a missed opportunity (1984: a year of swings and misses?) and ‘unbalanced’ by Lawrence to such an extent that he remastered and reordered it comprehensively for the 2018 reissue, it contained some of Felt’s best songs and the one for which they are best remembered. This is the mighty Primitive Painters. Like How Soon is Now?, its opening line sets the tone, and leads the song through an labyrinth of twists and turns, clouds of noise, Liz Fraser’s vocals duelling with Lawrence’s and the bands’ dismantling of the song, yet it remains to my ears coherent and singular throughout. And those words? ‘I just wish my life could be strange as a conspiracy.’ Later on, as Fraser’s wounded Calypso melodies waft over the noise Lawrence plays with words ‘This is a new trance – and an entrance too.’ Perhaps it makes sense after one listen, perhaps after dozens. 20 years after first hearing it – as the opening track on Absolute Classic Masterpieces Vol. 1, which otherwise runs backwards in time through Felt’s early years – I still listen to it most days and marvel at it. It is also better than most Cocteau Twins songs. I can only think of Lorelei, Fotzepolitic and Carolyn’s Fingers that even come close.

Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon


There’s still more melodrama to be found on Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, the third of 1984’s triumvirate of the titanic. The Bunnymen’s commercial success may put this for some in a slightly different bracket. It shouldn’t. It’s utterly fabulous. In 1984 it seemed touch and go whether E&TB or U2 would become the biggest band in the world, until Ian McCulloch and co decided they’d rather not. Sadly U2 managed it. Or perhaps it’s not a shame. The Killing Moon sits though in a curious bracket. As part of Ocean Rain, it carries the same sense of windswept grandeur as the rest of that album, but stands out like Primitive Painters does on Ignite the Seven Cannons and How Soon is Now? as a b-side. Instantly striking, demanding attention, hanging off one line, one which came to Ian McCulloch, incredibly, in a dream one night. Again, The Odyssey made new, gods and goddesses offering visions and guidance.

‘Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin’

Here’s a sense of inevitability, of foreboding, of something made and recorded and handed down to new ears that is very much of the time it’s from, but a record that would be a hit in the decade before it and this one, even if it feels like it could only be written when it was. McCulloch repeats, then exclaims these lines at the end of the song, with Will Sergeant’s guitar dancing round it, the song tailing off like it’s still playing on a boat that’s leaving the harbour. I was seven in 1984, but I got there in the end.