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.
Saturday, 6.45am, Parliament Hill Fields
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.
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.
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.
At summer’s end we walked along the lake and looked at the fast-darkening mountains, cloud and water.
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!