lovelondonscenes 145 – Fish eye fun from Southwark Bridge to Vauxhall

Yesterday I went for a stroll along the Thames, partly to clear out the cobwebs after an awesome leaving party (mine!) and to try out a couple of little lenses that you attach to your iPhone camera. A gift from a good friend on Friday. I took the tube to London Bridge, wandered through an unbelievably crowded Borough Market – gave up the idea of getting a Bratwurst and a beer –  and emerged by the river near Southwark Bridge. And started snapping. Here are a few takes.

Railway bridge between London and Southwark bridges. Must have a name, but I don’t know it.

Southwark Bridge on the left.

Millenium Bridge

Riverboat pier.

St Paul’s and Millenium Bridge.

Blackfriars Bridge, with the City skyscape lurking.

Wide angle version.

From a little jetty.

Westminster perspectives from Albert Embankment.

Used to work over there!

Tamesis Dock – pub/club on a boat, Albert Embankment. Have had some good times there!

And had a really good time here on Friday night – my leaving party. The Rose pub, Albert Embankment.

Vauxhall bus and tube station, just off the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on retirement

Yesterday was my last day at IPSA – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which regulates MPs’ expenses and decides their pay and pensions. I was the Director of Policy and Communications there. I’d been there since its creation in early 2010, following the MPs’ expenses scandal. Eight and a half years of my career, and the best job I ever had, with the best people. I’m “only” 59, so I didn’t have to retire, though my civil service pension had a retirement age of 60. And a lot of my colleagues really didn’t want me to go. If anything had kept me at IPSA over the last couple of years it was those colleagues. Special people. I’ve always had a sense of mission about what IPSA was set up to do too, and a feeling of responsibility about the place, having helped create and shape the organisation. The early days were a battle for survival, as a lot of MPs were very hostile; but things settled down, and today it’s a very different atmosphere, give or take the odd recalcitrant. In a way I feel my job is done, though I’m sure I will miss the day-to-day interaction with some great people. Great friends, in fact.

So I love the place, love the people, feel a sense of mission and a kind of paternal responsibility. So why on earth am I retiring?

It’s a fair question. I’ve asked it of myself many a time. I would. I’m always asking myself questions, challenging myself. I’m my own harshest critic. But there is an answer. It lies in an essential restlessness and a desire to do more of the things that really inspire me. In my novel “The Decision” there is a character called James. He’s the father of the three siblings around whom the story revolves. Towards the end of the book – this isn’t a spoiler! – some of the main women in the story are in a cafe, reflecting on events. James comes up. His second partner, Emma, says this about him:

There’s something going on in his head that doesn’t belong to anyone else. It’s the thing that drives him. Searching for something – quite what I’m not really sure he knows himself. Except he knows it’s never what he is doing at the time.”

When I write dialogue, it feels like I am simply transcribing what the characters say. I’m not putting words in their mouthes, manipulating them. So it was Emma who made that up, not me. But when I read it back later in the day I wrote it I thought, I’ve just described myself perfectly.

The things that inspire me could loosely be described as creativity and learning. New ideas and expression. Seeing people discover themselves, expressing their talents. It’s why I feel truly inspired by my work as a school governor, seeing the pupils learning, discovering, creating, expressing themselves. It’s why I blub when I watch “School of Rock” or “Dead Poets Society”. It’s why I love going to concerts by new bands, making their way, burning with the passion of the ideas they have been building up all their lives. It’s why the favourite parts of my job have been when we are creating something, working out how to solve a problem; or when I’m helping colleagues to develop themselves or deal with a challenge. It’s why, on a few occasions in my civil service career, which began in 1992, I seriously thought about chucking it in and becoming a teacher. I never did it, partly because of the money, partly because I wondered whether if I would be able to tolerate the ones who looked like they couldn’t be bothered. I say looked, because actually, there is always an underlying reason for someone’s bad attitude. But I’m a bit prone to thinking if you can’t be arsed, I can’t be f*****. That would never work in teaching. It’s not that good at work either, and I’ve tried to guard against it.

And that love of creativity is why I have been writing in my spare time for many years now. My music book, my poems, my novel, this blog. And now I want to do more of that. Not fit it in around everything else. I want it to be the thing I do first. And I want to paint, and improve my guitar playing, and maybe make some music, go to art galleries and take photos of London. Self-indulgent? Maybe. But I’ve done my 35 years of being a lemming, commuting into central London 5 days a week. I can afford to leave, I won’t be letting down my family – in fact I’m going to sort the house out too!

Blimey, there is a lot to do. I could be very busy. And not bored, like I have been a bit in my last couple of years at work. There’s just one risk: in the words of Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols era, I’m a lazy sod! I can happily sit around reading the news, listening to music, mulling over my Fantasy Football team, chilling. So I am going to have to set myself a strict regime: get up reasonably early, go cycling, breakfast, writing, and then other stuff.

Will it work? Will I have the self-discipline? I’m sure I’ll let you know. But I’ve got to. The opportunity is too good to miss. No more saying, well I’ll do that when I’ve retired. I have retired!

Now is the time.

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End of the Road Festival 2018

As summer draws to an end, it must be time for End of the Road! Our third and year 13 for the festival itself.  Four of us went this year: me, Jon, his son Louis and Louis’ friend Tom. The weather forecast was good – a first in our experience. And the line up looked amazing – the only problem was going to be those choices. Big Thief vs Fat White Family and the Orielles; Alex G vs Wild Billy Childish and Josienne Clarke/Ben Walker; Vampire Weekend vs Oh Sees; Idles vs Snail Mail. Hard! But choices were made, and you can read about them in what follows.

I managed to do a bit of mugging up before we went this year, helped by EOTR’s Spotify playlist and another put together by an individual, which was even more extensive. That’s when I discovered Big Thief, and instantly liked their music. Caroline Spence’s beautiful country sound really appealed, while Snail Mail had the same vibe as Soccer Mommy, who were also playing. And Aussie punks Amyl and the Sniffers sounded lively. It was going to be good!

A literary interlude

Before I get on to the music, I want to say a bit about the literary talks. Between 10 and 12.30 each morning there are three talks about books, at the Library Stage, in the woodland.  Jon and I have been to a couple before – music-related ones. This year we went to most of the talks. They were really interesting. In most cases so interesting you wanted to buy the relevant books afterwards. In one case I did.

On Friday I saw a bit of Caroline O’Donoghue talking about her book, “Promising Young Women”, which was about an office affair and the ramifications. Jon said it was very good (he got up a bit earlier and missed the worst of the shower queue – one of EOTR’s blind spots). The bit I saw was a bit of a love-in with some tarot readers who were also on stage. She was followed by Sally Bayley, who has written an acclaimed book called “Girl with Dove”. It’s a memoir of childhood that merges with fiction – Miss Marples, Jane Eyre and Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield. Sally grew up in a house with no men and she lived a very bookish life. She explained all of this through what you could call a performance essay. As she read, she acted out the passion, even hysteria that affected her house. It was both weird but also captivating. I bought the book in the Rough Trade tent later and had a very nice conversation with the author.

On Saturday the first talk I saw was with Daniel Rachel, who talked about his book “Walls Coming Tumbling Down”, which is about the Rock against Racism and Red Wedge Movements of the late 70s and early 80s. He interviewed many of the people involved, and it’s their story. It was at once nostalgic, but also a reminder about how bad things were at the time and how certain sections of music responded. As Brexit plunges us further into race and general foreigner hate, perhaps it’s time for another counter-movement. Jon and I had a chat with Daniel the next day, before one of the talks. We quickly got into our love of the music of the time. Bad times politically, brilliant times musically. The next speaker was Tot Taylor, who has published a book called “The Story of John Knightley”. It’s a complex, 800 page tale of a musical genius who goes into hiding, which looks back into the past as well. It sounded interesting, if rather daunting, and Tot rather showed off his expertise and name-dropped a lot. So he lost us a bit, but I still feel tempted to read the book – it could be brilliant.

Sunday was the one day I managed all three talks. Mainly because I got up at 7am to beat the shower queue – only to wait in line for 45 minutes! Mad. First up was Christina Patterson, a journalist, who has written a book called “The Art of not Falling Apart”. It’s about coping with setbacks and depression, but she was adamant it was not a self-help book. She was funny and quite bitter. Her biggest downturn was when she was made redundant by the Independent in 2013. She’d had some family bereavements too, and breast cancer earlier. So a huge load. She battled through, and the book describes some of that, but also tells the story of a whole lot of other people she interviewed. It sounded really interesting, though pretty intense. Next was an engaging, but rather obscure tale from Matthew Clayton about an 18th century diarist from Sussex called Thomas Turner, mixed up with tales of getting pissed and rock star trajectories (he knew Kirk Brandon of Spear of Destiny). I couldn’t quite figure out what Matthew was really trying to tell us, to be honest.

Then maybe the best session of all: a live podcast of “Backlisted”, hosted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, with a guest, Tom Cox, a journalist and writer who’d given a talk on Friday which we missed, as we wanted to see some bands – Tiny Ruins in my case, Penelope Isles in Jon’s.  The podcast was both funny and erudite. The format is that they first talk about what they are reading at the moment, then they talk about a book from the past, maybe an underrated one. In this podcast it was “Ulverton” by Adam Thorpe, published in 1992. It’s about the life of that village through the ages. All three regarded it as a masterpiece. Another one for the reading list! Andy was also very amusing on Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople’s “Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star”, which has been re-issued. First published in the mid-seventies, it is a classic. I read it at the time as a teenager and loved it. It’s a warts-and-all tale about life on the road in America. John talked about the latest novel from Sally Rooney, an Irish writer, called “Normal People”. I think it’s long-listed for the Booker. Again, I thought, I must read this.

Yeah, the literary forays were just so interesting and actually cut through some of the music I might have seen early on. The spoken word is something I’m getting more into. Let’s see if it has an impact on Latitude next year, where there is more of it.

Moving on to the music…

Thursday evening, 30 August

EOTR has always had some bands playing on Thursday evening, but there were more this year, shared between the main Woods stage and the Tipi tent. We sampled a few of them, starting with a band who’d been successful in the competition to play at EOTR called Suggested Friends. It was jangly, punchy indie. Some good solos and a nice slow one. The singer was clearly so pleased to be there and that was infectious. Good band. We saw a bit of Laura Misch, also at the Tipi. She was really interesting – playing keys and sax, with lots of looped sounds. Gilles Peterson likes her music apparently. That is a good recommendation. Then it was over to the Woods for Shopping. We liked them! 80s-style jerky funk-punk. Think Gang of Four, Go-Betweens, A Certain Ratio, even Talking Heads. The bassist had a classic 80s floppy orange fringe. Most of the songs followed a similar pattern, but I liked their sound. We then had to choose between Yo La Tengo on the Woods stage and Kiran Leonard at the Tipi. We went for Kiran Leonard. He’s an intense performer and a brilliant guitarist. He plays not so much songs as compositions, constantly shifting in time. Slow and beautiful to fiercely riffing. With his anguished voice over the top of it all. It’s intriguing, though not for everyone. When we saw him on the Lake Stage at Latitude in 2016 half the people left quickly and the rest were passionate about it. Tonight the Tipi stayed packed. Kiran Leonard is special.

Photos in same order as the bands above.

Friday 31 August

First up for me was Tiny Ruins on the Garden stage. They’re from New Zealand and feature Hollie Fullbrook on vocals and guitar. She sings beautifully. The music is folky/Americana. Often the songs start slowly, sounding like Nick Drake or John Martyn, then gather force and the guitars are let loose. I really liked it. The last song, “Old as the Hills”, brought a tear to my eye. In the first show of the day! Loved it. One of the discoveries of the festival for me.

My plan was to go to the Tipi next, to see Stella Donnelly. But there was a huge queue – she is obviously getting a good name. So I caught a bit of Red River Dialect on the Woods stage. They play atmospheric folk, which I rather liked. One to explore. Then it was Saba Lou at the Tipi. The programme was pretty enthusiastic about her. It was kind of country/ rock’n’roll pop with some grungy riffs thrown in. There was a song called “Penny Royal” where I thought, where is the tea? Nirvana fans will know what I mean. Very likeable. Saba Lou sang a solo doo-wop at one point, which was probably the biggest hit with the crowd on the day.

Caught a little bit of the Weather Station at the Tipi – a sixties folk rock sound – before going over to the Big Top for Aussie punk band Amyl and the Sniffers. I heard “I’m Not a Loser” on Spotify and thought this could be fun. And was it fun? It was mind-blowingly fun! Absolutely brilliant. It was like a collision of the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Joan Jett, AC/DC and a bit of thrash metal. Singer Amy Taylor was a feisty presence, boxing her way through the songs. The guitarist, Dec Martens, had a mullet the likes of which I haven’t seen since the 80s. And his playing was spot on – a true riffmeister. I had a smile on my face the whole show. There was a lot of moshing. The whole thing was just so exhilarating. Pure rock’n’roll – no frills, just noise!

So, buzzing from Amyl and the Sniffers, it was to the Garden, for the gentler rhythms of This is the Kit. One of my favourite bands of recent times. Rooted in folk, but getting more rhythmic, jazzy even. Kate Stables, vocalist, guitarist, mandolin player and driving force, was on great form and clearly a bit overwhelmed at the size of the crowd. Loved it all, but “Moonshine Freeze”, “Silver John” and “Bulletproof” were real highlights. So good that I’d practically forgotten about Amyl and the Sniffers by the end!

Had a bit of a break after that – pacing myself in my old age! – saw a little bit of Lost Horizons in the Big Top – slick, blander version of the Cocteau Twins, with somewhat overblown vocals – and then went down to the Woods stage with Jon to witness the coming of Fat White Family! Crazy, anarchic, but actually pretty slick too. They performed their exact hour, even with all the crowd surfing and other antics of singer Lias Saoudi. They really had the crowd going – it was a performance. There aren’t that many of their songs that I particularly like – though “Touch the Leather”, the closer, is one – but it doesn’t matter. I also liked the image projected by the one woman in the band, the bassist Mairead O’Connor. She stood there in her raincoat, looking singularly unimpressed by all the boys’ antics around her. All part of the image.

Next we dashed off to the Big Top for the Orielles. Their show on the Sunrise stage at Latitude had been one of my highlights. The tent was utterly packed. It felt more remote than at Latitude, as a consequence. But it was still great stuff: the jangling guitars, the bouncing bass, fragile melodies – and that amazing guitar workout at the end for “Sugar Tastes Like Salt”. A really good band.

I didn’t have any strong feelings about which headliner to watch, but Jon and I plumped for St Vincent. A class act. I’ve never really made enough effort to listen properly to her music, but as the show wore on, it really grew on me. A mix of dance, pop ballads and some left-field rocking. I started to think of Prince as she laid down the riffs. Good stuff.

That wasn’t the end of the evening. The Big Top had a late show, at 11.15. The much acclaimed Protomartyr. It was a bit too much for me. I gave it half an hour, but it felt a bit too gloomy, monochrome, the same roaring beats, chanted vocals, relentless beat for each song. I could see the appeal, if you love Joy Division, Goth, grunge, hardcore. I quite like what I’ve heard of them on record. But it was time to take a break, regroup for the next day.

I did look into the Tipi, to see who was on the first secret show, but it wasn’t Amyl and the Sniffers so I called it a day. The others went to the Tipi later to see Warmduscher, a Fat White Family spinoff (one of many). Sounds like it was pretty wild, with stage invasions, the singer inciting the crowd. Louis ended up with the mic at one point! Well, if you have that lot on at 1.30am, what do you expect?

Saturday 1 September

Caught a few songs of Colter Hall on the Garden Stage after the literary talks and then Stevie Ray Latham in the Tipi. Colter Hall had tones of Johnny Cash about them and I would have liked to see more. Stevie Ray Latham is English, originally from the south west. He plays lovely, plaintive folk with fragile vocals. In that respect he reminded me of Danny Wilson, once of Grand Drive, now Danny and the Champions. Then it was back to the Garden for Boy Azooga. They played some quite complex songs, with a lot of time changes. Pop with passages of serious riffing. Took a while to get into it, but I liked them. Frontman Davey Henderson, from Cardiff came across as a very likeable, engaging character. The Garden stage in the sunshine has that effect on most people!

Next was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Caroline Spence in the Tipi. She’s a country/folk singer, based in Nashville. She has the most beautiful voice and songs. Full of that country melancholy. She was accompanied by Chris Hillman on an understated electric guitar. Three of the best were “Slow Dancer”, “All the Beds I’ve made” and “Whisky Watered Down”, which was her struggling-in-Nashville song. Like Lindi Ortega’s “Tin Star”. Do listen to her albums – they are wonderful.

In total contrast to Caroline Spence, next up were Flatworms. From California, comrades of the Oh Sees, and similarly rocking. An awesome noise – one for the headbangers. Loved it! Though strangely they didn’t play maybe their best song, “Goodbye Texas”.

I then went over to the Garden for (Sandy) Alex G. This had been recommended to me by Jess, who was with us at Latitude, but couldn’t make EOTR this year. It was a bit of a phenomenon. Almost all of the oldies had disappeared, to be replaced by a mass of twenty-somethings. As the band kicked off, everyone seemed to know the words. The first few songs were breezy folk-pop; but then they went grungy, and later rather free form and jazzy, before returning to the songs everyone knew and loved at the end. If anything, it reminded me of Beck a bit – the slacker, lo-fi Beck. But a bit of a revelation.

After a brief rest, it was Shame on the Woods stage, following in the footsteps of Fat White Family. Punkier, less anarchic, but essentially going for the same vibe. They probably have more to say than FWF. Singer Charlie Steen spent a lot of time in (or on) the crowd. Another really lively, entertaining show.

Soccer Mommy at the Tipi were next. It was packed. Sophie Allison, the singer who is Soccer Mommy really, was tucked to left, almost behind one of the pillars, from my perspective. But what a wonderful performance. I love her songs – the album “Clean” is one of my favourites of 2018. Having listened to the music a lot since I saw the band at the Moth Club in Hackney earlier in the year, I had the benefit of knowing all the songs, though I still struggle to put names to them all in the spur of the moment. The show started with “Henry”, which is a lovely tune; there were plenty from “Still Clean”, including “Your Dog” of course, which got a big cheer. And Sophie ended with three songs which were just her and her electric guitar. First was her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” – marvellous! – and then, I think, “Still Clean” and “Scorpio Rising”. Or did “Allison” sneak in? The memory is a bit hazy as I was constantly trying to get a decent view, and had moved onto wine – not a good idea at a festival! One of the highlights, no doubt.

I did try to get into Hookworms next in the Big Top, but it was full and there was a long queue, so I went back to the Tipi, saw a few songs by Sweet Baboo – enjoyable observational pop tunes – before going down to the Woods stage for Vampire Weekend. It was a tough decision not to go to Oh Sees; but as I’d seen them twice in the last couple of years, I thought the opportunity to see Vampire Weekend was too good to miss. And I’m so glad I took that decision. It was a great show! They played all the classics: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (with a tribute to Peter Gabriel, playing a bit of “Solisbury Hill”), “A-Punk”, “Oxford Comma” and “Mansard Roof”. The afro-beats were perfect for a lovely starry night. They did a brilliant cover of SBTRKT’s “New Dorp New York”. And encore closer “Walcott” was a real celebration. The music was slick, crisp, tuneful. The crowd were loving it. A real feelgood vibe. Another show – with Tiny Ruins, Amyl and the Sniffers and Soccer Mommy – which I just didn’t want to end.

Sunday 2 September

The music began with Erin Rae, a friend of Caroline Spence, who guested on one song. More beautiful country heartbreak from Nashville. I so need to go out there! Only saw the second half of the show, but it was great.

A different kind of folk followed, with Richard Dawson in the Garden. Traditional English, given a twist. His 2017 album “Peasant” got rave reviews. I was expecting something quite mediaeval. Maybe it was, but he played a discordant electric guitar and screamed the words a lot. Powerful stuff, but not something I’d listen to, too often. Richard himself was very engaging and witty – a real Geordie. He started and finished the show with solo songs, just vocals. Captivating.

We stuck around the Garden for the Wave Pictures, who’d been drafted in for an ill Damien Jurado. They are Marc Riley favourites. It’s mid-tempo pop-rock, but with an indie twist. Singer David Tattersall has a plaintive voice and also plays some excellent guitar. That was the highlight for me.

I went to the Big Top to see Philadelphia band Japanese Breakfast next. They had a feature in the EOTR programme which made them sound promising. Fronted by Michelle Zauner, they went from sounding like Slowdive and Smashing Pumpkins at the start to quite poppy by the end. I really enjoyed the show. And towards the end they played “Dreams” by the Cranberries, which was definitely alright by me! Love that song. Yeah, one of the best shows.

Jon is a big fan of Ezra Furman, and I went along with him to see Ezra on the Woods stage. He’s an intriguing performer. His music, rooted the in 50s and 60s if anything, is then twisted around to match his fraught lyrics and delivery. He’s a man with a lot on his mind: a lot of hurt, anguish, anger. It’s a mix of vulnerability and protest. A powerful concoction.

Then one of those choices: Idles or Snail Mail? I went for Snail Mail as I’d seen Idles at the last two Latitudes. For Jon, Louis and Tom, it had to be Idles, and by all accounts they were amazing. But Snail Mail, featuring Lindsey Jordan, were a band I really wanted to see. In the same vein as Soccer Mommy. I got to the Tipi early, so early that I saw a couple of songs by Adrian Crowley, an Irish singer, who ploughs a similar melancholy furrow to Richard Hawley. I liked what I heard and shall have to explore. Snail Mail are from Baltimore. Hard not to compare them with Soccer Mommy: I’d say they were a bit rockier, with a lot of Velvets-style chugging riffs. The subject matter is similar, but Lindsey is a bit more intense, and has a kind of sneer as she sings. I noticed this as I got quite near the front for this one. A great show, with a really good vibe in the audience. There’s an album from this year, called “Lush” which came out this year. One that I’ll definitely be listening to a lot.

And so, the last show! Feist on the Woods stage, giving me the full set of headline bands. I like her music when I hear it, but don’t know it that well. The Guardian described it as space folk. It was folky, a bit dancey, a bit rocky. But she created a good atmosphere. It worked well on the big stage, on another lovely clear night.

As I went back to the tent, there was a big queue for the first Tipi surprise show. I’d heard it was Black Midi, who were amazing at Latitude. But I couldn’t be bothered to queue. I got back to the tent, took shoes and socks off, donned some tracksuits bottoms and poured a glass of wine. Jon got back, said next band on was Amyl and the Sniffers! I hummed and hah’d and decided to go up and see. Got my clobber back on. Got there and there was a queue a hundred yards long. No exaggeration. Thought no, I’ll leave it to the kids. Just keep the memory of the first show. Heard it all from the tent. That was nice. Louis and Tom were there for both Amyl and Black Midi of course, and they sounded brilliant when we discussed it on Monday morning. But occasionally you just say, I’m too old for this lark. But, but…

But what a great festival. Four amazing days. And we were blessed with the weather this time too. The literary mornings a great addition. But the music is what it’s all about ultimately. And it was so good.

We will back next year!

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Edinburgh Festival 2018

I’m just back from a few days in Edinburgh, enjoying the Fringe, the International Book Festival and just the vibes of that brilliant city. Kath and I hadn’t booked any shows in advance as we’d been unsure whether we’d be able to go until the previous week, so it gave us the freedom to improvise once we got there. That means choosing between thousands of events. I spent a train journey back to London from Kings Lynn last Sunday poring through the Fringe programme, trying to pick out shows that looked really interesting. I was exhausted by the time we pulled into Kings Cross!

What do I love about Edinburgh? Obviously during the festival it has a youthful vibrancy which won’t be there in quite the same measure at other times. (Whether the locals feel quite the same I wouldn’t like to say – the place is overrun.) But at any time there are few other cities in the UK that can rival it for spectacular beauty: the view of the castle from Prince’s Street or the top of Castle Street; the Scott Monument (which still reminds me of Thunderbird 3) from just about anywhere; the views of and from Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill; the undulating streets and the way that Cowgate lies below the surrounding streets, crossed by bridges, its buildings built tall to reach up to the same heights as those around them. And as well as the way it looks, it’s culturally rich (as befits a capital city), the food is great and it stays open late. And I like the people and love the accent. I could live here, no doubt at all. Maybe it’s that celtic soul again.

View from Castle Street intersection with George Street

Thunderbird 3 in Princes Street!

The murky depths of Cowgate

But, to the festival. Rather than go through each thing we went to in sequence, I’ll take it by a few themes, starting inevitably with comedy, the lifeblood of the Fringe.

Comedy

We saw six comedy shows, none of them the biggest names, but three sold out on the day, and all excellent. Three were women, and they all had plenty to say about men and the world that still favours men. Ella Woods’ theme was sport: how she hated it at school (especially netball, with its social hierarchy) and how women’s sport is still denied the respect and coverage it deserves – although it is a bit better than it used to be. She really struck a chord with a few of the younger people in the audience, who may have shared her experience. A very engaging show. Joanne McNally is an Irish comedian and gave an excoriating account of her experience with men which had some of the young women in the audience whooping with laughter. She was pretty brutal – not just about men, but about herself and life generally. And brilliantly funny. One of those shows when you think, thank God I didn’t get asked a question! Flo and Joan we saw last year in Edinburgh too. They sing very sharp and amusing songs, with some intricate wordplay, and stick the knife into the things they don’t like – which could probably be summed up as the Daily Mail worldview and misogynist men. One of their songs took the example of one of their abusers on Facebook, whose public profile showed he was a married man with two young daughters. So how could a man like that be writing “F*** off and die” to two twenty-something women because they have something to say? The song was addressed to his daughters and was cutting and poignant at the same time. Brilliant.

Flo and Joan’s show was sold out, as was Ivo Graham’s. He had a scattergun and self-deprecating delivery that made an obsession with Chiltern Railways really funny. No macho male, he – half the show was about his inadequacies as a romancer and now partner. He outed himself as having gone to Eton. At the Fringe, I suppose you have to and then almost apologise for it. The British obsession with class, I guess. Lad humour probably doesn’t get to much of a look-in at Edinburgh – except maybe late at night when everyone’s a bit pissed and anything goes? Matt Ewins’ show bore that out. Another sold out show. It was a manic mix of rapid fire gags, gestures, smut and videos. The videos were clever – real time compositions in a lot of cases, involving members of the audience. I found the first half absurdly funny, then started to feel a bit exhausted by the whole thing. Maybe just started to feel my age, because it went down a storm.

The last thing we saw, at lunchtime on Friday, was an improvised show by Racing Minds, four comedians who are doing lots of other things on the Fringe. Tom Skelton, Douglas Walker, Chris Turner and Daniel Nils Roberts with improved musical support from Dylan Townley. It was great! They got the narrative from audience suggestions, some a little hesitant and therefore not that coherent. And then off they went – pretty daft, but very clever and highly entertaining. Suffice to say that if anyone ever mentions the west of Kenya to me in a conversation in the future I shall probably start to laugh, and they will look at me, bemused. But I will be thinking of a diplomats’ party that goes horribly wrong!

Art

Last thing we did before getting the train back to London was pop into the City Art Centre, which is on Market Street near the station. I’d recommend this place to anyone visiting Edinburgh. It’s a lovely modern space, with always has some interesting exhibitions, together with the permanent collection. And it’s free. Right now there’s an exhibition of Scottish photographers, and a collection of paintings by the artist Edwin Lucas. The latter was the main attraction for me. Lucas never got much recognition in his lifetime – 1911-80) during which he worked for the civil service, would you believe? He even gave up his art for thirty years while he focused on family life and his work. His early work, mainly in watercolour, was nice but nothing amazing, but during the 1940s he got into surrealism and an expressive approach to landscapes which anticipates the vividly colourful scenes someone like Hockney painted later. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, which might not have helped his acceptance into the art establishment in Edinburgh. When he returned to painting in later life his work became even more abstract and interesting. Eventually his family were able to get the attention of the Scottish National Gallery and it acquired a number of his works. He is now viewed as a key twentieth century Scottish artist. Shame it didn’t happen in his lifetime.

Caley Station, Edinburgh, 1942 (photo’d and slightly cropped off a postcard)

Language

We saw three things that, in different ways, brought out the fascination of language and how we use it. First up was the poet Luke Wright, whom I’ve written about a few times before, including in my review of Latitude this year. He gets called a performance poet because he puts so much into his delivery – it is a performance. His use of language is amazing, a torrent of words, mashed up, bashed out, hammering at his theme. His set at Edinburgh was essentially the same as the one at Latitude, but I managed to see the whole thing this time. One of the standout poems was one in which the only vowel he uses is the letter “o”. He managed to weave an absurd story about some London boys who go to Bolton. (See, I can do it too, at least for seven words.) But the best of all was “Respect the W***” which is such a brilliant defence of being different, pretentious, creative, the antithesis to the norm, the Daily Mail norm, the Brexiter norm, the stultifying, conventional norm. Funny, visceral, essential. Punk poetry.

We went to three events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Two concerned language. The first was a late evening collection of polemics about a range of issues. We only caught the tail end of Q&A about the first, which seemed to be about the NHS. A couple of the others were quite interesting talks about copyright and data protection (really). But the really fascinating one was about learning languages. An academic called Dr Thomas Bak argued that knowing more than one language meant you had less chance of developing dementia. He had lots of facts at his fingertips to prove it; but the most striking thing about his talk and the way he answered questions was his passion for the subject. His belief. That was quite inspiring. The next morning we were back in the Spiegeltent for a fascinating session on how novels are translated from one language to another. Two renowned translators of French into English, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne, had translated some passages from a novel by the French author Edouard Louis called “Qui a tue mon pere”. We were given handouts of the original and the two translations. They were intriguingly different. The host, Daniel Kahn teased out some of the differences, the nuances. There was even a discussion of the use of an “and” at one point! But it was very relevant. I felt like I was in a lecture, but a really interesting one. I made notes. They say that Ros Schwartz used words to help the reader locate the opening in time and context, whereas Frank Wynne’s primary concern was to convey the voice of the author, and a desire for concision. Both approaches equally valid; but a reminder that when we read a book in translation, it’s not just the thoughts of the author that we share, but those of the translator.

They had daggers!

Theatre

We saw a couple of plays – both by friends of mine. People I worked with in the past in the civil service. A hotbed of creativity, you know? The first was called “A Beginner’s Guide to Populism” by Andy Moseley. It’s essentially a transposition of the rise to power of a dictator like Hitler or Lenin (or a would-be one like Trump) to a small town somewhere in middle England. Opposition to becoming part of a new town mushrooms into a declaration of independence, which then spirals completely out of control, with the thugs taking over. All very pertinent in these Brexit-crazed times; though I guess I would have had the would-be MP who, with her agent’s encouragement (or manipulation) exploits the mood, stay in control rather than succumbing to the thugs. But that would need another half hour.

Second was “Fan Girl” by Eddie Coleman. No politics in this one. It’s the story of a woman from London who is obsessed by a fantasy series, not unlike “Game of Thrones”, who goes up to Leeds for a fan convention. It’s a monologue, performed superbly by Karen Whyte, who takes us through her anxieties, her highs and lows at the convention, and her encounter with the hotel barman. It’s at once amusing and poignant. More of a happy ending than I’d expected when I saw it first time, in a pub in Islington (as you do), but it made sense to me this time. An ordinary but extraordinary experience.

So, big shout out to you both, Andy and Eddie. A great achievement.

Music

Last and never least, the music. Not the main thing you go up to the Fringe for, but it’s good to have a few musical interludes. We managed three, all on Thursday. One was completely unexpected…

First, in the morning we went along to the National Museum of Scotland to see the “Rip it Up” exhibition, a celebration of a Scottish pop and rock music.

Took this off the cover of the book, ably penned by ace Scottish DJ Vic Galloway

A wonderful journey through time, so many of my favourite bands and songs through the ages: Nazareth, Rod Stewart, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Rezillos, the Skids, Big Country, Altered Images, Orange Juice (makers of the great song “Rip it Up”), the Associates, Simple Minds, Eurythmics, Jesus and Mary Chain, Texas, Deacon Blue, Idlewild, Primal Scream, Soup Dragons, Teenage Fanclub, Chvrches, Young Fathers and many more – that lot are just the ones I like best. The Bay City Rollers were in there big time too. And so they should be, though I hated them with a passion in the 70s. Honeyblood snuck in with their first album on the wall of album covers at the end. One day….

The band that seems to have become most emblematic for Scotland is the Proclaimers. The dramatic live montage at the end on some big screens began and ended with them. “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” of course. It wasn’t the last time they came up that day. I’m pleased to say Chvrches got a look in at this point too, with footage of “The Mother We Shared”.

After that exercise in pop nostalgia – an exhilarating couple of hours – we headed for the dignified surrounds of St Andrew’s and St George’s West church to listen to some beautiful sounds from Papagena, five women who sing unaccompanied. I must admit this show caught my eye because of the title: “Nuns and Roses II”. They sing a wide ranges of songs, from early classical, through folk music from around the world to more modern artists, including Joni Mitchell, Imogen Heap and… Guns’n’Roses. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” no less. Their voices, the harmonies, the intricacies, were stunning. The sheer beauty of it was pretty moving at times. They had some nice humorous touches too. An uplifting experience.

And then the surprise. Kath enjoys crime fiction, so we went along to the Spiegeltent at the Bookfest for a evening gathering of some top crime writers, including Val McDiarmid, Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville. The show was called “Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers”. We were expecting a couple of hours of entertaining discussion about crime fiction. Wrong! It was a band, playing some great covers. As the strapline on their postcard said: murdering songs for fun. When they launched into the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” and Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” after a solo folk opener from Val McDiarmid, I knew we were in for a good evening. It was a hoot! One highlight was a great version of the Sweet’s “Blockbuster” which segued into “Jean Genie” of course, and featured a funny rant from bassist Doug Johnstone, protesting against all the songs being from the 60s and 70s, when he wanted to play Britney Spears! He got his chance in the encore, when he came on with an acoustic guitar and played “Baby, One More Time”. His colleagues joined him half way through. At one point, another group of female crime writers all came on to do the oo-oohs on the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. Most of the songs were related to crime or evil, including a really rousing version of the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Predict a Riot”, which opened the second half of the show.

Fighting the law!

Sympathy for the Devil

The Britney moment!

And guess what the very last song was, after the Britney interlude. Yes, of course, it was the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. That got everyone off their seats. The unofficial national anthem?

Three great musical experiences – as joyful as any of the excellent comedy we saw. There is something for everyone at Edinburgh.

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RIP Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin died today, aged 76. She’d been ill for some time. She had quite possibly the most soulful voice of all time. A total inspiration. Of course I wrote about her in my music book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. This is what I said. It followed a piece on Otis Redding, another of the greats.

The deep heart of soul music. That was a place to find Aretha Franklin too.  The Queen of Soul; the title, too, of a fantastic four CD box set I bought in 1992, which has just about everything you could ever want to hear Aretha sing.  Singing in that sweet, swooping, soaring, stirring soulful celebration of a voice.  Listen to her cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Waters” and ask, how did she do that?  How did she twist and turn her voice to get that soulful sound into every nook and cranny of the song? Her voice was the troubled water: rushing, crashing, crying all over the rocks and stones of the song. Pure, glistening mountain water.

I don’t have a strong memory of when I first heard Aretha.  As with most songs from the sixties, it would have been a steady feed from the radio.  As well as “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, I have a real soft spot for “Son of a Preacher Man”, which just grooves; and the spine-tingling “I Say a Little Prayer for You”, a truly spiritual love song. In the early eighties I bought a greatest hits album, which was fine;  but it was that later purchase that really brought home to me the breadth and depth of Aretha’s repertoire: from the gospelly soul of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”; to the bluesy groove of “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”; and the defiant call and response of “Respect”, the Otis song that Aretha made her own. She spelt it out in big letters in case anyone wasn’t getting the message.

 A rallying cry, ain’t no doubt about it.  OK, it’s for the girls against the boys, kind of; but us boys can feel that spirit too.  It’s just a great call to action.  And it has to be one of the reasons why Annie Lennox teamed up with Aretha, when she had that Eurythmics song called “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves”.

The “Queen of Soul” box set is full of Aretha’s interpretations of great songs by others, including The Beatles. “Let it Be” becomes a gospel classic, like it was always written for the rocking church choir.  “Eleanor Rigby” is attacked, duffed over, by an uptempo soul beat and comes out a totally different song. Not sure if it really works, but it certainly grooves.

My trusty Guinness British Hit Singles & Albums tells me that Aretha didn’t have a lot of big hits in the UK.  It was different in the US of course.  Here, her biggest successes came well past her heyday: in the eighties, when she teamed up with Eurythmics for “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves” (No 9, her best up to then apart from “I Say a Little Prayer, which was No 4 in 1968) and then… her only No 1, with George Michael, no less.  1987, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”.  Not one I got too excited about, but there you go.  Good to see Aretha get her dues… about 20 years late!

There’s a theme here.  Great sixties/seventies soul artists – Stevie, Marvin, Smokey, Aretha – big, influential, so important to the development of pop music. Still a bit of a minority taste until the eighties – when, hey presto, they teamed up with modern bands, or adapted their sounds to the beat of the decade, and had their biggest hits. So, Smokey’s “Being with You” probably outsold “Tracks of My Tears”; Stevie made more out of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” than anything else he ever did; Aretha had her biggest moments duetting with eighties pop stars. It seems wrong, unfair.  What’s remembered most though? For my generation, it won’t definitely be the classics.  We were in our early twenties in the eighties. The time, along with the teenage years, when music maybe resonates most and embeds itself in your DNA, building future memories.  So unless you seek out the past, and discover the greatest music, you might say Stevie Wonder means “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. It was No 1 for six weeks in 1984 after all. Nothing else he did came close.

Food for thought. I discovered the true roots of soul at the same time as I was enjoying the revivals, some of which led me to the sources.  It’s all great when you’re in love with music.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

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Have You Heard? – (88) “Talk of this Town” by Catherine McGrath

Image result for catherine mcgrath talk of this town

Catherine McGrath is a 20 year old country singer from Northern Ireland. She has recently released her debut album “Talk of this Town”. Regular readers of this blog will have seen all the reviews I have written about her concerts over the last year or so. I first saw her on the Alcove Stage at Latitude in 2017. I immediately liked her songs. Great melodies and sung beautifully. She had a really engaging stage presence too. I combined a couple of her EPs to get her into my top ten albums of 2017. And now we have the album.

And it’s a wonderful album. Of course it is! Country doesn’t really describe it. It may be the inspiration, but it is a consummate pop album. And yes, the template is undoubtedly early Taylor Swift.  It’s not a copy, but unquestionably an influence. My impression is that some people in the music business have seen Catherine’s potential and are giving her a bit of backing. She’s getting featured on BBC Radio 2, the production on the album is slick and pop-orientated. It has made the Top 20.

The album is a mixture of old (comparatively speaking) and new. Two of the best tunes have been recent singles. “Talk of this Town” is all about breaking free from the doubters at home and making her way in London. “Wild” has been around since that Latitude show and is a classic frustrated love song: we’re less than lovers and more than friends, and it’s killing me.  All happening at a Coldplay concert – based on a real life experience I think. And with a great bridge two thirds of the way in. Anthemic.

A few of the tracks are re-worked versions of songs from her previous EPs. “Just in Case”, “Cinderella” and “She’ll Never Love You”. Most of Catherine’s songs are wistful tales of love: lost or possible, rather than actual. Well, it is country music at heart! “Cinderella” has always been one of my favourites – a really beautiful tune – “Just in Case” has an upbeat sound and is often the concert opener, and the version of “She’ll Never Love You” has been stripped down to a piano version, with just a few strings. The last song. Truly lovely.

There are some infectious new songs too, with a bit of upbeat guitar; “Lost in the Middle” and “Enough for You” stand out for me at this point. These are the real Taylor Swift songs. But it’s all good. The subject matter, in classic country fashion, might be a bit miserable; but actually it is a truly uplifting pop album. It will be in my top five of the year, no doubt, battling it out with Kacey Musgraves, Lindi Ortega, Chvrches and Gengahr.

Give it a listen.  And then you can say, I knew her before she was massive.

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Sportsthoughts (163) – Premier League predictions 2018-19

So, less than a month after the World Cup final, the Premier League is back! Starting with Man Utd v Leicester tomorrow. And I’m more excited than usual. That’s because West Ham have bought well this summer and things just have to be better than last season. AND I bought myself a season ticket. Coming home…

But what of the annual thoughtsfromwestfive predictions? Let’s get straight to the point.

Winners – Man City

2nd – Liverpool

3rd – Arsenal

4th – Tottenham

5th – Man Utd

6th – West Ham

7th – Chelsea

8th – Everton

9th – Burnley

10th – Wolves

11th – Newcastle

12th – Bournemouth

13th – Crystal Palace

14th – Fulham

15th – Leicester

16th – Southampton

17th – Watford

18th – Huddersfield

19th – Brighton

20th – Cardiff

There will much scoffing in East Molesey and Hammersmith at a couple of these predictions. But hey, it would have been so boring to go City – Liverpool – Utd – Spurs/Chelsea – Arsenal, like everyone else. No harm in a bit of wishful thinking, and you never know, it might come true.

It’s very hard to see past Man City though. They have a very strong squad, made stronger by the acquisition of Riyad Mahrez and the return from injury of Benjamin Mendy. John Stones had a great World Cup, so can he translate that to his league form? Will the precocious Phil Foden – the Stockport Iniesta – break into the first team? What joy to be a City fan! There are potential weaknesses. If Aguero is unfit or out-of-sorts, they can lose a bit of cutting edge upfront; and Liverpool showed last season that if you really tear into them, they are vulnerable. But it’s a risky approach, and no-one else really managed it. Clearly the best team in the Premier League.

It’s reasonable to view Liverpool as City’s most likely challengers. They had the hex over City last year, and could claim to be the PL’s most exciting team, surging forward with pace and featuring the goal-scoring machine that was Mohamed Salah. I don’t think even Klopp foresaw his emergence as such an amazing striker. His role in the Champions League final was curtailed by a cynical, brutal foul by Ramos and he wasn’t really fully fit for Egypt in the World Cup. Apparently he has been back to his best in pre-season, so more fireworks can be expected. The Liverpool midfield has been bolstered by the arrival of Naby Keita from Red Bull Leipzig; but most important they have got themselves a top quality goalkeeper, in Alisson, Brazil’s No1. We saw last season how Ederson transformed Man City’s defence; Liverpool will expect the same from Alisson. There’s no doubt that having a good keeper spreads confidence throughout the defence; conversely, having someone who is prone to error or lacking confidence quickly spreads uncertainty through all the defenders. Defence has been Liverpool’s weak spot under Klopp. With Alisson and Van Dijk in place, they could be serious contenders. Hope they have a slow start though – West Ham are their visitors in the first weekend!

Yes, and then there is Arsenal. The post-Wenger era begins. Will it make any difference? New manager Unai Emery comes with a reputation for organisation and attention to detail. The jury seems out on his success at Paris St Germain, given the riches at his disposal. I must admit I was slightly underwhelmed when his appointment was announced, but at least it was done at the beginning of the summer, so he has had plenty of time to bed in and get the players acquainted to his methods. Some useful-looking players have been brought in, notably the Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira, but there hasn’t been a signature signing – yet. I write on the last day of the PL transfer window and there are rumours that Ousmane Dembele is coming, on loan, from Barcelona. Now that could be something. The point about Arsenal, though, is that they always have a wealth of attacking talent: the problem is the defence, and I include the midfield in that. At times, last season, they looked like a junior school side, everyone piling forward and not running back when they lost possession. If Emery can rectify that, then they will be a threat to anyone. Both their main forwards, Aubameyang and Lacazette, will be fresh, not having participated in the World Cup; Mesut Ozil will hopefully have something to prove, and there is some exciting young talent, like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reece Nelson and new signing from Lorient, Matteo Guendouzi. So anything is possible, including a mediocre season outside the Champions League places, but I’m going for something better. They can manage third.

That leaves Man Utd, Chelsea and Spurs of the current Big Six. Any one of them is capable of challenging for the title, but I don’t think they will. Chelsea are a bit of a mess (again) and don’t have a decent striker. United are brimming full of attacking talent, but hamstrung by a sulky, tactically out-of-date Jose Mourinho; and Spurs haven’t bought anyone and have a lot of players who played right up to the end of the World Cup. They also move into their new stadium soon after the season begins. There must be a risk of a slow start.

And I have predicted that there will be an interloper in that Six. West Ham no less. Hopeless optimism, soon to be dispelled by heavy defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in the first two away games? Quite possibly. But there has been a step up in class over the summer. A new manager Manuel Pellegrini, who won the title with City, and is respected around the world. And a bigger transfer budget, which has allowed a number of exciting buys, notably the Brazilian winger Felipe Anderson from Lazio, two decent centre backs, Diop and Balbuena (a Paraguayan hard man) and maybe best of all, Jack Wilshere from Arsenal. England’s lost playmaker. If he can stay fit, and play most weeks, he could work wonders for West Ham and get back into the England team. I’ve always liked him as a player; I really hope it goes well for him at the Irons. Sixth place is a big ask, but I’m hopeful – and I’ll be there to cheer them on!

Other than that, I fancy Everton to stand out from the rest, under new manager Marco Silva, and like quite a few people, think Wolves could be the season’s surprise team, after looking so good in winning the Championship last season. As ever though, everyone below that Big Six will be preoccupied by staying out of the bottom three as much as qualifying for a Europa League place.

The relegation places could go to any number of teams, but I can’t see Cardiff making the step up from the Championship (unlike Fulham, who, like Wolves, could cause a few surprises). And I’m afraid I can see Brighton and Huddersfield coming under strain, having had to pull out the stops to stay up last season. Both are well-run teams who play some decent football; but there’s not a huge amount of quality there. Hope I’m wrong, but I fear for both of them. It’s a brutal world, the Premier League.

As ever, almost all these predictions will be wrong. Fingers-crossed I’m right about the Hammers and the Gunners. My critics from East Molesey and Hammersmith will undoubtedly tell me that I am deluded!

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