Posted in Travel on Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 7:05pm
I try desperately hard not to let stereotypes govern my travels. It would be too easy to let an accent, a nationality or an attitude define the subtle shifts across locales as I walk around London for instance. It would be even easier to do the same on mainland Europe. I'm finally back here in Brussels - fourteen years after my last visit when I strolled without care around a city which I barely connected with. This time things feel very different indeed. Firstly, we are on the brink of a potentially momentous referendum which would see the link between the UK and this city changed irretrievably. Right now Brussels feels like a world city - people speak to me in perfect, polite English, they bustle around the city with just a hint of the gallic laissez faire. This truly is a crossroads - where latin and germanic Europe meets, and sometimes as history has shown - clashes with terrifying consequences. Brussels is a strange and potent place which is not nearly as inconsequential as it felt on my first visit.
Secondly, Brussels is now a fortress. The terrible attacks on democracy and western reason which brought terrorists to the rather beautiful heart of this curious place still echo in the streets. Soldiers patrol railway stations with their perky Jean-Claude Van Damme style berets and automatic weapons. The police skitter about from place to place, checking an impossibly endless number of key spots for signs of concern. This is either the safest or the most dangerous place in the world to be just now. Mostly though, seen through the eyes of someone who hasn't ever set foot in mainland Europe, Brussels is an exciting collision of the familiar and the alien. The impact of the gilded halls in Grand Place, the vast verdigreed dome of the Palace of Justice or the warm modernity of Gare Centrale are so very un-British. So different to the anglo-centric world which we left only two hours ago after stepping onto a train at St.Pancras.
I quickly found my morning routine here - a constitutional around the cobbled streets and alleys which surround our hotel, then into the station for coffee and a chance to watch people. The smell of warm waffles curled up from the concessions on the station concourse, and the friendly baristas learned my order. I felt welcome - at home even. I was beginning to fall for this complex, strange but oddly welcoming city. But it wasn't to be without its challenge. After a normal morning wandering and enjoying watching busy crowds commuting, we strolled a little before heading onto the Metro to get to Heysel. There appeared to be disruption - routes missing from screens, and the information system didn't seem to be coping well with translating it. We made our way to Brussels Midi and found the system in disarray. A strike had been called by MIVB workers this very morning, and very little was working. We decided to head back for the centre. As we entered the platform, crowds of demonstrating strikers appeared - with the Metro out of action they took full advantage of SNCB's services - travelling in packs, smoking and holding doors open to delay trains for their colleagues. There were three distinct teams: the Socialists, wearing red of course and by far the most tetchy of the bunch, the Christians who wore green and seemed to make a beeline for the bars and sex clubs in the seedier areas around Midi. Finally, the Liberals - blue jacketed and far fewer in number - we wondered in fact if it wasn't the same little pack of four or five we saw repeatedly touring the city.
Back at Central Station, we found more chaos. The unions had closed down most of the exits, with only the tunnel leading to Cantersteen open. We joined a long line of angry, bewildered commuters, pushing against a tide of union folks who didn't mind who they nudged aside in their rush into the station. Then the firecrackers began and people began to panic. It struck me as utterly insensitive that Metro workers, still reeling from the terrible attacks on the city and their stations just months ago, would think it fitting to contain folk inside a small area and then to set off firecrackers. I deployed my elbows and forced my way up the staircase and into the street. For the first time in a long time, I felt a surge of violent temper of my own. As we forced our way past the protests, the only reasonable route back to our hotel, a red-coated socialist threw a firecracker under a policecar. The dull thud sent us reeling. He laughed. I pursued him, fists clench and insults flying - but he had earplugs to defend his ears from his own explosions. We weren't sorry to get back to the quiet of the hotel. I felt my admiration for the city peeling away, the lustre tarnished by the tinge of the old European horror of strikes and obstructions. It was the strangest but perhaps most memorable wedding anniversary we've had yet.
In a little under a month, the UK will vote on its future in the political and economic union which centres on this city - this most functional and straightforward, but sometimes ridiculously quirky place. A city where an utterly rational European government co-exists with some of the most agitated workers, where the beer is wonderful and the food utterly confusing. As we set off in the early Brussels evening, the light glinting from the passing commuter trains starting to make their way through the bruised but not broken city, it's hard not to feel just as oddly optimistic for the place as I did when we first arrived. Whatever happens next month - and I fear it rests on a knife edge just now - I want us to remain connected to the continent, with Brussels as the point where we plug into it's confusing, bureaucratic but utterly logical heart.
Posted in Travel on Sunday 14th February 2016 at 11:02pm
I woke early this morning, despite trying not to. It's become my custom on our more urban breaks to use the golden morning hours wandering deserted city streets or staking out turgid waterways while my wife prefers to sleep in. We're agreed that each other's chosen way of spending those hours between the time that fools and decent-minded people rise isn't for us - another way in which we complement each other it seems. In fact, I'd worried a little that being out here in the countryside, out of easy range of civilisation would leave me pacing the room in frustration at the waste of these quiet early moments. Once I'd accustomed myself to being away from home I remembered the rather splendid location we were in, and padded over to the patio doors at the end of our huge room. We'd gone to bed on a wet, dark February evening with the lights of Worcestershire twinkling happily in the rain - but I woke to a wonderful vista - the Severn valley fell away from the Malvern Hills, a vast pool of mist capped by the distant, purple smudge of the Cotswolds. A patchwork of green and yellow could just be discerned through the cloud, and above it all a weak but persistent winter sun was rising. It was a beautiful scene, and I quickly dressed and slipped out onto the little balcony with a fairly horrible coffee for company.
I'd intended to read, or to write - but for the first time in a very long time I felt content to do virtually nothing but look. I watched the sun rise, the first time this year that I'd really felt it's warmth, and start to burn off the mist. I watched the first, intrepid birds braving the chill and diving for worms in the dewy grass. Slowly people began to stir and wander towards the breakfast at the main hotel building in pairs, holding hands. It was Valentines' Day and we were part of a band of people getting away for the weekend. For me though it was an anniversary - three years ago I was preparing to head for Seattle - a nervous, painful time of fear and uncertainty which seemed a world away here. Particularly here, because this place - these hills specifically - had fascinated me from an early age. From my school playground I could see across the flat plains of Northern Worcestershire towards the Malverns. They were a dark, ominous presence on the horizon, and I remember a game I instigated where we were tribesmen bowing down to the hills. I really don't know where I got the idea, probably some comic or history book - but little did I know how I'd be venerating the topography all those years later. I had relatives who lived on the other side of the hills, and travelling to see them was a delight - would we skirt the hills on the dull, flat road or take the exciting Wyche Cutting with it's switchbacks and hairpins, and it's curious amusement arcades and attractions lining parts of the route? I remembered too a journey with my father, when I insisted on dragging along a Tonka tipper lorry. I recall we walked up a dry, scree-covered slope and he paused to let me repeatedly fill the truck, run it a way along the track and dump it's contents. It felt like a rare moment of calm in my dad's life - a time when he wasn't rushing to work or snoozing over his dinner.
Later, we walked into the hills together from the southern edge at British Camp. The track runs along the ridge, rising gently at first then undulating as it climbs. From the first peak, the views were sublime. The sun had stayed high and surprisingly strong, and up here the wind was blustery and refreshing. I asked if we should turn back, but I was assured we could go a little further. Finally the views opened on both sides: to the west, the shadows of Welsh mountains adumbrated the rolling country of Herefordshire, and to the east Worcestershire's typically English blanket of farmland rolled towards the Severn and the Avon. We stayed up there for a while, letting the wind whip our hair in our faces and thinking about the journey we'd both been on to get here. I realised too, as I looked out over my home county that I missed my father terribly - more than perhaps I ever expected. I missed both of my parents more in fact than I'd dared to admit to myself over the past year. But I wasn't alone up here - and that is perhaps the most surprising thing of all.
Posted in Travel on Tuesday 5th January 2016 at 11:01pm
The British Road Trip is a failed conceit - there's something about the maximum stretch of around 800 miles or perhaps the winding, hedge-bound roads which isn't given to epic journeys. While our edgelands have an intriguing character of their own, they're not littered with the Americana necessary to romanticise the road. Britain is best seen from a train window - framed and fleeting, glimpses of back gardens and sullen canal chasms. Brick and stone blurring at speed. I've tried the road trip before - an early nineties odyssey from the South West to Newcastle via North Wales, Liverpool and the lakes. It is a distant memory now, and not an easy one in some ways. But it set some important axioms: make the curve from West to East, break the journey on each leg and never ever consider Blackpool a stopping-off place. With these in mind, we contemplated our own winter journey - our first long-haul road trip and the first return to Scotland since 2013.
The first day was a long stretch, with a later than planned start due to some difficulties with the facilities at home. Once underway though, we made good progress and paused only briefly at the splendid, recently opened Gloucester Services. The cruise along the M5 was calm and surprisingly swift and we were soon entering the twisting viaduct section which winds around the suburbs of Birmingham and contemplating the switch to the M6 which stretches its legs into Staffordshire once free of the city. On an earlier trip this part had been a bottleneck, but not today - a New Year's day start had been an excellent choice it seems and we were soon cruising north into Cheshire. The scale of our challenge hit us at Knutsford Services - realising we still had some miles to cover to reach Cumbria, and trying to guess at how long the truncated winter light would last. We ploughed on, into dusk and then dark, navigating the gentle bulge of the Preston Bypass - the prototypical British motorway. The lights of tiny lakeland villages blurred in the rain spots on my window, and we flirted with the idea of a detour into Westmoreland Services, the senior sister venue to Gloucester and scene of a welcome breakfast on a previous visit. Instead we headed on, finally arriving in a wet but welcoming Penrith in time to check-in at our fantastic B&B before heading into town to eat at The George, reconnecting with my last stay here.
Day two saw us head out to Penrith Castle to walk in the damp misty morning, before setting off again for points north. The M6 became the A74(M) and we entered Scotland - a curiously emotional experience in some ways. Our last trip here had been challenging, fraught with adjustment challenges and difficult arrangements. This time, we were back and we were in charge of the itinerary. At Abington we branched off the motorway and enjoyed welcome coffee before taking the A702 along the floor of the Clyde Valley with the nascent river which had figured so largely in my past winding and carving through the soft ground. At Biggar, we left the river and headed into the rising ground and tiny villages of the Pentland Hills. It was a tortuous route, and surprisingly unreconstructed considering it's the logical choice for traffic from the south and west heading for the capital. Finally, around mid-afternoon after a testing drive, we started a descent towards Edinburgh. The dark stones of the city spread along the Firth of Forth, a distant cobalt streak with curious rock formations puncturing the horizon. Even I, sometimes dispassionate about this city, was forced to concede it's beauty as we snaked through the proud city buildings towards our hotel in the Grassmarket.
This proved to be a wonderful base - close to the old town and just a bridge away from the station and the grand squares and boulevards of the new town. Early on in the trip we realised that this might not be the optimum time to visit in some ways: Scotland takes it's double Bank Holiday at Hogmanay incredibly seriously! Once the rush of the holidays had abated, shops closed for an annual clean. The incredibly short days were swiftly drawn into darkness. This made for a strange and rather unreal feel. We'd wake on grey, misty mornings and sometimes barely see the sun. However in other ways the timing was perfect: the city shone in this pale winter sun - the grey stone of the buildings reflected the sheen of light, and the twinkling lights of the old town staggered crazily up the hill to the castle. It was beautiful if unnerving. I felt a little overwhelmed to be so oddly infatuated with Edinburgh after a taking such a definite position. This didn't lessen with the sudden, jarring impact of a trip to Glasgow after all these years. I felt like a support had been kicked away - but I was still standing, surprisingly finding solace in a late arrival back at Waverley.
Our time in Edinburgh was magical and too short - we ate a lot, and spent a lot of time inside pubs and restaurants given the weather and the short days. There was so much more to see - so much that would have benefited from a dry morning or one which didn't whip freezing winds along Leith Walk. We finally departed a little later than we'd planned via the old road - the A1, taking a sweep out east to the coast, then plotting a lonely course south through the barely inhabited border country. It was remarkably quiet out here - with few other cars troubling us, and occasional glimpses through the rocky scenery to the crashing waves of the North Sea around Oxwellmains. Again, darkness overtook us on Tyneside and we found ourselves in the carpark of a generic retail complex, resting and refreshing ourselves before we ploughed on towards York - and the beautiful old Great Northern Railway building which was our hotel for the evening. The holiday off-season had provided us with a remarkably good rate for accommodation we'd never normally afford, so we celebrated with excellent food - possibly the best I've ever eaten. It felt like a celebration of a tough year survived, of a long trip conquered. I felt properly relaxed, ready to face the new year but reluctant to return home.
The long run home through the East Midlands, curving across the southern edge of Birmingham and close to my home town seemed easy after the challenge of the A1 - and we seemed to be home sooner than expected. It was good to be back - but this felt like an important landmark - almost exactly 800 miles of travel on the routes I'd always wanted to cover when I thought of driving a car myself. Perhaps the great British road trip is possible after all?
Posted in Travel on Monday 4th January 2016 at 10:01pm
I realised as we settled into the train at Waverley that I was nervous. It made absolutely no sense. I'd been looking forward to this part of the trip since we'd booked, and I'd been mulling over how it would pan out. We'd originally planned to drive over, but it didn't seem fair after the long haul up from home to impose more urban driving. Besides, I'd always arrived in Glasgow by train. As we crossed the ever-bleak landscape I've always loved between the two cities, I thought about previous arrivals and departures. It was fair to say that I'd normally done this in reverse, but on a few notable occasions I'd arrived at Queen Street to begin a trip. I found myself excitedly babbling about things seen from the windows, making odd connections, giving my apprehensive account of the city again. Soon we were dropping down, beside the barrel mound which surrounded the huge distillery, into the tunnel which would emerge in the city. I had a dry mouth, my heart was racing. This was absurd. It's Glasgow after all...
I suppose we adopt places at different times of our life, for different reasons. We cross paths with places at just the right moment for a redemption, a sense of home, just a place that's safe even? And often a place can evolve with us too, as London has always managed for me - and indeed, as Glasgow did for a few notable years. I'd invested a lot in the city - I'd ended up spending well over a month of each year here, seeing bands, exploring the city, trying to understand how it all fitted together. It couldn't be entirely coincidental that waves of the best music had tumbled out of this proud but ramshackle city that I also found oddly fitted me well? Later in my visits I'd started to explore Glasgow rather like I had London - striking out to find the source of things, visiting the often unvisited corners, walking further and more purposefully. Wanting to know and see, and maybe to understand. Then footsore and tired, I'd come back to the city for music and, as time wore on, friends of a sort. Of course, all this changed dramatically and excitingly for me a few years back, and since then there had been just one - not entirely successful - visit. I could chalk that up to culture shock, pushing too far and too fast, or maybe to the more sinister truth that I'd never found anyone who saw Glasgow quite how I did, let alone been able to explain my own feelings for the place or to convince anyone to see it quite how I did. I always worried what people thought of my affection for this often least-loveable of all cities, and I remember the crude assumptions people made about why I came here so often too. Sometimes though it's simple. It's the right place at the time it's most needed.
We stepped onto the concourse at the soon-to-be updated Queen Street station and like a giddy child I whirled around a bit for a moment, taking in the sweep of the roof. For want of what to do I suggested we visit an old haunt - Love Music, formerly Avalanche Records on Dundas Street. It all felt the same, smelt the same - the same fixtures and fittings. Alarmingly though, some of the same records were still here. Bands I'd championed back in 2011 languished in the 'local bands' section. There were a handful of new names, but few I recognised. Had I wasted my time entirely on all this, or had everything now retreated online completely? Where was the vibrant tumble of new sounds and mysterious discs I used to find on arrival? The fact was it took a great deal of energy to be nearly as up to date I'd managed to stay, and to expect to know without putting in the time was folly. For a while, it's fair to say, that my intense interest in the music here meant I usually had the good stuff before I arrived - but there was usually a gem or too lurking. I left empty handed and feeling thoughtful and we headed into George Square where a huge New Year's event was being dismantled - a far cry from the Thatcher Death Party we'd stumbled into on our last visit. From here, we grabbed a drink and then headed to Buchanan Street, passing the Yeeha Internet Cafe we'd had to lug our bags upstairs to use on a visit a few years back. Also, passing the coffee shop I'd so often frequented, especially when I'd just arrived and needed a bolt-hole until checking in time. Today there was no need to call in, no need to mark time watching the city. None of this made much sense really, so far out of context. We called into a couple of stores, shopped a little, wandered some more. The ground was wet, reflecting the silver sky back at us in the peculiar Glasgow way, and to the south the absence of buildings signified the river. It looked the same - but it just wasn't right somehow. I hadn't prepared for this - practically in terms of deciding what we should do, or emotionally - I was after all meeting an old friend having changed an awful lot in the interim. This needed thought. I felt exposed and clumsy, This had stopped being fun.
By Argyle Street I was finished. I'd no desire to go to The 13th Note despite it's place in my own history, I didn't want Glasgow to have changed, and I didn't want to admit I'd changed so much that I'd outgrown Glasgow either - even if that change was undeniably for the better in my case! For eighteen years I'd stalked this pattern of streets, watched the sun rise over Central Station or sink over the spires of the West End. I'd marvelled how you could buy a record from Stephen Pastel, get your hand stamped at a gig by Gerald Love or stumble into any number of musicians wherever you went. For a portion of that time I'd even lazily countenanced a future here - some way of restarting things 400 miles north when the opportunity came. Ultimately of course I'd changed my life in a far more radical sense, but I was aware that I'd somewhat closed the door on Glasgow too. It all became too much in M&S of all places... In a store which could have been anywhere in the UK, looking at generic menswear - I just knew that this wasn't going to work for Glasgow and I. It was time to leave.
I was persuaded to stick around for the train from Central back to Waverley - and it felt fitting to leave over the Clyde for old times' sake. To kill time we stopped into the Alston Bar & Beef under the station, in the catacombs which stand on the flagstones of old Grahamston. As soon as I saw the map of the long deleted district printed on their napkins I knew I'd be fine here, and that someone at least connected with things how I did. Good food, quiet and sanctuary while the rush hour clattered and swore above. We stuck it out until it was time to get the train, leaving under familiar signal gantries and over the dark river - recalling my desperate attempts to make a call to Seattle from a moving Pendolino three years before. Leaving the suburbs and plunging into the dark I settled back and reflected on the day, briefly surfacing at Carstairs to see the lights of the State Hospital. This had been a strange trip - an inversion of my usual loyalties - but a great one too. I guess I'd just changed more than I thought.
I'm not sure Glasgow belongs to me anymore, but a bit of me still belongs there. I don't know when or why I'll visit again - but I hope I get to, and I hope I get past this strange blockage in the process.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.