Reflections on Bob Dylan as he turns 80

Today is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. The troubadour, the poet – with his Nobel Prize – the spokesman for a generation, even if he didn’t see himself that way. And now one of the great survivors, still playing, touring and making albums. His 2020 work, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released to great acclaim. It included a 17 minute epic called Murder Most Foul which mused on the assassination of President Kennedy amongst other things – something he didn’t do in the 60s, at least not directly, when he was the great protest singer. The album’s lyrics are full of allusion and historical, literary and biblical references, as you would expect from classic Dylan. The music is pretty basic, rooted in blues and old time jazz, if I recall. I say recall because I only ever listened to the whole thing once. I found it hard going to be honest, a bit of a dirge. Some of the lyrics were pretty trite. Sacrilege to say so, but the main effect of listening to Rough and Rowdy Ways was to send me scurrying back to the 60s classics.

While I’m in sacrilege mode – the effusive praise will occupy the rest of this piece! – I went to see Dylan and his band at Wembley Arena in 2017. It was the first time I’d seen him perform live – a gap in my musical experience, to be sure. It was awful. I seriously considered leaving half way through – not helped by the fact that I had toothache – but thought, I can’t do that, it’s Bob Dylan, one of the greatest artists of all time, one of my favourites of all time. I stuck it out. The music was a combination of honky tonk blues and barely recognisable versions of a few old favourites. Now I knew he reinterpreted his songs – nothing wrong with that, they’re his songs and it keeps them and him fresh. But this was outright destruction! Back on the tube, heading home, I took refuge in a Dylan selection on my iPod – the best of the best. The concert hadn’t affected my love for his music, which was a relief.

I don’t think anything could affect my love for the music of Bob Dylan – or at least that part of it which, to me, represents all that is great about him. It’s a lot of the canon, but not all of it – I don’t really go much beyond the mid-70s in terms of his original music, though the retrospective Bootleg series, which began in 1991, has been a source of discovery and delight. I wrote about Dylan at some length in my book  I Was There – A Musical Journey*, which I published in 2016. I thought I’d reproduce the piece here, which I wrote in 2011 (there’s a reference to Dylan being 70). You can tell it’s ten years ago – there’s a reference to MP3s, but none to Spotify!

In summary, my journey into the music of Bob Dylan began with Desire in 1976 and I soon discovered the wonders of Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde at university. But my immersion in the 60s classics began in earnest in the 80s when I had started work and had enough money to go on a voyage of discovery. My favourite album remains The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, but there is some stiff competition. Read on if you have the time. If you know the music of Dylan well I’d be interested in what are your favourites; if you don’t I hope you might get some pointers about where you might start…

One of my early plunges [in the 80s] was on Bob Dylan.  The poet and troubadour.  The man who told the story of the sixties – somewhat against his will.  The man who was a massive influence on Bruce amongst others.  It was time to understand.

 Of course I was already familiar with quite a lot of his music.  But now it was time to fill the gaps, buy up the catalogue.  I really got going when I lived in Putney, in 1981-82.  There was an Our Price on the High Street towards Putney Bridge.  I must have done wonders for their profits that year.  I can still remember coming out of there with “The Times They are a Changin’”: the bleak grey cover, Dylan with cropped hair. I was full of anticipation, and even trepidation, about what I was about to hear.  Blimey, it was all a bit heavy, a bit depressing, after the first play. Not one to brighten up the weekend. I never did really get into that one, after that initial reaction. But there are so many others which became fundamental to my life in music.

 My first recollection of Dylan, other than hearing things like “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio, was listening to the album “Desire”. The album came out in 1976 and someone in the Johnson’s sixth form used to bring it in to the prefects’ study.  It was an album full of stories. The leading track was “Hurricane”, a tale of injustice against a boxer called Rubin Hurricane Carter, who had been convicted for murder. It set the tone for the rest of the album.  Dylan extemporising, the guitars embellished by violins and soulful choruses. In the prefects’ study, it was the overall vibe that struck me – not that many tracks stood out at the time. The one that did was the last song on the album, “Sara”.  Even to a seventeen year old metal soon-to-be punk fan, it was a beautiful, melancholy tribute to a woman that clearly he loved deeply.  Later I discovered that this was made around the time that their relationship was breaking up, which makes the song all the more poignant.  God knows what Sara must have felt listening to it.  The price for being the partner of an artist of the greatest renown, I guess.

 I mean, fancy having “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” written for you – in the Chelsea Hotel – and the whole world knowing.

 I love “Desire” now, with its tall and mystical tales, and the harmonicas and violins and the harmonies sung by Joan Baez.  It’s a rambling wild west of an album, and Dylan on the cover looks like he could have been out there in a frontier town in the 19th century.  “Isis” sums up that vibe, with the man who marries and loses the woman called Isis and finds himself on a mission to make easy money.  Of course it all goes horribly wrong; but somehow Isis reappears, the mystical child.  Weird and wonderful, simple music, Dylan weaving one of his fantastical tales.

 That’s the thing I really learned about Dylan when I learned to play guitar. The music, at least in terms of chord structures, is mostly quite easy to play.  The songs are often simple, skeletal. But the way they are delivered – the grating voice, the rasping harmonica and the poetry, the phrasing – take them to another level.  A truly sublime level. You find yourself thinking, how did he come up with that?

From “Desire” I moved on to “Blood on the Tracks”, its predecessor from 1975. I bought it at Univ, probably on a recommendation in NME, or maybe from a friend; I can’t now remember. It was a beautiful album: a work of stunning melancholy, so poignantly sung and played.  It started with the brilliant “Tangled up in Blue”, the wistful story of a lost love and dreams of recreating it.  A story of drifting from place to place, tangled up in the memories of her, whoever she was.  The album was said to be about Dylan’s separation from his wife, Sara. He denied it, even said it was based on Chekov’s short stories. But you could feel the pain throughout, as his voice rose and fell; simple musical arrangements allowing the voice, with shards of sad harmonica, to tell the tale.  It was an album to be listened to all the way through, to feel the moments of optimism amongst the despair, and to experience the shock of “Idiot Wind”, when those tender and elliptical reflections suddenly turned into full-on anger and spite, Dylan spewing out the words.  In isolation, there wasn’t that much enjoyment to be had listening to “Idiot Wind”. In context, it was a crucial and brutal moment in the outpouring of emotions that ran through the album.

 Allegorical it might be, but was that somehow about the same person that he stayed up in that Chelsea Hotel, writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for? The full circle, to be sure.

 My favourite songs on the album, along with “Tangled up in Blue”, were “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello”.  “You’re a Big Girl Now” began with a lovely minor key guitar intro and ended with a wistful harmonica solo, in keeping with the emotions of the song. The song felt like a love letter, aching for a reconciliation, each verse peaking midway with a cry of oh, oh as if the pain of reflection was too much.  “If You See Her, Say Hello” was less hopeful about getting back, but hanging on to that shred of memory: hoping she’d look him up if she had the time.

 Again, the music was gentle, simple: almost off key guitar, an organ mixed right into the background, barely perceptible, but adding depth. And the voice, the quivering, desperate voice. This was grown up music, music I barely felt ready for.  But I felt I understood.  The voice and the lyrics told the tales, but so too did the music.  As ever, you could feel through the music. 

“Shelter from the Storm” was another beautiful, gentle tune, with enigmatic lyrics. It felt like it was a tale of a man wracked by a turbulent life seeking solace with a stranger, a temporary thing. Balm to the wounds. But then there’s a verse about taking too much for granted, a wall between them.  So maybe it’s more than I thought. Who knows?  The wonder of Dylan: so much to be read into the words. Room to create our own stories.  Just writing this, I find myself paying more attention to words than for anyone else I’ve written about, even Bruce and Elvis.  He is the poet, no doubt about it, and I haven’t even got onto the sixties yet!

 It’s fair to say that I have only ever bought one book of rock star lyrics in my life, and it is “Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-2001”, which was published in 2004, by Simon and Schuster. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny.

 It wasn’t long after my introduction to “Blood on the Tracks” that I had my “New Pony” moment, along with Bruce Springsteen singing “Racing in the Streets”, as I listened to the radio at home. “Street Legal”, the album, was good, but not quite in the class of the previous two. My thoughts turned more to the classic past, and that started with “Blonde on Blonde”.

 There’s a famous interview with Dylan from 1978, when he talks about “Blonde on Blonde” as when he got closest to the sound he heard in his mind. He describes it as a wild mercury sound.  What a great phrase. It could mean so many things, but there’s something metallic, precious, unpredictable, untameable.  “Blonde on Blonde” met all those standards.  I bought it when, ‘78 or ‘79? Undoubtedly because the NME, and so many artists interviewed in the paper, referred to it as one of the great albums. And the cover looked great: a fuzzy photo of Dylan with scarf. And it was a double album, and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” took up the whole of side four. That’s just something that you could never get in the MP3 age. There is no side four. Only, huh, that last track’s really long, click on something else. I don’t mind; there are so many plusses in the way we listen to music today. And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” sounds just as great if you hear it on shuffle. You just don’t have that sense of its place, its isolation.

 So where else to start but side four?  Well, maybe side one and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 “? Where everybody must get stoned!  I wasn’t all that bothered about that first time around. Whereas “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” entranced me: the poetic relentlessness of it, the forensic detail, metaphorical, obscure, but clearly an obsession … that all-nighter in the Chelsea Hotel. A simple guitar beat, a little piano, Dylan’s voice twisted but tender. Almost reading out the tributes and observations; melancholy, but like so much of the best melancholy, truly uplifting. And at the end, a harmonica break that encapsulated that wild mercury sound. A flourish that somehow captured and embellished the sentiment of the song, a delicate thread of despair.

 Which is why it had to be the last track: it would have been downhill all the way from there if it had been at the start, no matter how good the other songs were.  “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is one of those songs which occupies a different dimension to anything around it.  A different time and space.

 The whole album was a new, almost daunting experience.  This was Dylan as I’d never heard him before. “I Want You” was familiar; but even that, a simple love song with a lovely clipped guitar, sounded a bit… weird. It was the voice, Bob Dylan in full effect. A half-talking, quarter-crooning, quarter-rasping sound, rising and falling in unusual patterns. Sliding here and there like wild mercury. I was captivated.

 The songs were like abstract paintings, the lyrics like wild brushstrokes which didn’t immediately seem to connect with each other. But they were really distinctive, with phrases leaping out at you hither and thither.  Now, for someone who doesn’t worry too much about lyrics as long as they’re not really bad, this was most definitely a new experience.  Everything revolved around the words. Even when they didn’t make a lot of sense.

 “Visions of Johanna” was my favourite, after “Sad Eyed Lady”. It had all that abstraction, and the weirdness of voice, and the silver sound of the harmonica drifting in and out; and everything came back at the end of each snaking verse, to those visions of Johanna, haunting the singer and the song.  I still haven’t got a clue what it’s all about – Mona Lisa with her highway blues and all that – but it remains entrancing, enveloping.  You can make up your own story, conjure up your own visions.

 There was a lot of blues on this album too; skewed blues, Dylan blues.  “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Obviously Five Believers”, “Temporary like Achilles”.  The latter was basically just a bar room blues, but it had that voice, stretched out and loaded. The emphasis in the oddest of places. This wasn’t what they taught you in music lessons. But it made perfect sense in a Dylan song.

 And “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. What could it mean? What was Shakespeare doing in the alley speaking to a French girl who knew the singer well. Why did the preacher have headlines stapled to his chest? What were the Memphis Blues?  What was Mobile? I dunno, there was a great rumbling country backing, a soothing organ sound, and a story.  Fragments of an adventure, things not quite right, misfits at every turn.  And the Memphis Blues again and again.

 Yeah, I could see why “Blonde on Blonde” was always rated as one of the top albums ever, back in the seventies.  Dylan had invented his own rules and no-one else has ever sounded anything like that.  Even though the music was just your electric country blues with a twist. No, it was the voice and the words, those wild, random, pulsating words.  About nothing and everything.  Poetry.

 And so, in those early eighties, credit card at the ready, I headed back to the years which have to be regarded as Dylan’s greatest. Having established a singular identity, he wrote the songs that defined American folk music, and then picked up his electric guitar, offending the diehards, and made the definitive electric country rock’n’roll blues. Culminating in the surreal patterns of “Blonde on Blonde”.  Between March 1963, when he released “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and June 1966, when “Blonde on Blonde” emerged, he made seven albums, each one a classic in its own way. I swept them all up – and the debut “Bob Dylan”, which was mostly covers –  and absorbed the evolving Dylan vibe.  The three that stood out most for me were “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”.  I got into them in reverse order: I was travelling back in time. 

 “Highway 61 Revisited” was an obvious place to start, because it had one of the great, iconic rock songs on it: “Like a Rolling Stone”. The song ascended, through layers of guitar and keyboard and spiteful lyrics, to that amazing crescendo when Dylan scowled and demanded to know how it felt to be on the way down. On your own, no direction home. I’m sure you know the words.

 You’ve heard it so many times, but it’s still spine-tingling, as the harmonica launches in to finish off the refrain.  It’s a song that must have inspired a young Bruce Springsteen.  There’s an umbilical link to “Born to Run”, I’m sure.

 From “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Tombstone Blues”, a speeded-up blues with the same surreal lyrics that characterised “Blonde on Blonde”.  I loved this song from the start.  As ever, you could just be bamboozled by the lyrical fragments, or form your own picture.  I had this picture of adolescent isolation, hopelessness… in the kitchen of all places, with the tombstone blues. Sulking.

 Because I’d heard “Blonde on Blonde” first, and had it for maybe three years before “Highway 61 Revisited”, the latter felt to me like a dry run for the former.  I’m not so sure now.  Many would say that “Highway 61 Revisted” was the better album, hitting the same spots, but more concise, more focused.  But still with enough time for the rambling final song, the precursor to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the brilliant “Desolation Row”. It had a faster tempo than the snail-paced “Sad Eyed Lady”, and a pretty Spanish guitar sound, and wasn’t about the one person.  In fact, it’s hard to say what it was about. Another abstract musical painting.  Something about losers; a cast of oddities, contemporary and historical. A reflection of the milieu he was operating in? Who knows? It was an epic.

 “Bringing It All Back Home” feels like the coolest Dylan album of all time.  It’s partly the cover: a drawing room scene, as viewed from inside the camera; blurred borders and a clear inner circle, with Dylan, cool as you like, in the foreground with a grey cat, blues and soul albums to his side, and an elegant dark-haired woman in a red dress with a cigarette, reclining behind him. Dylan’s previous album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” pokes out behind her; a copy of Time magazine, with President Lyndon B Johnson on the cover, rests at her elbow.  And loads of other stuff.  Framed in white, with Dylan’s name in red and the album title in blue.  The music had to be good with a cover like that. And surely it was. The album kicked off with the buzzing rock’n’roll beat of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with Dylan reeling off the slogans, a call for rebellion. There’s a famous film of the song – not sure you’d call it a video in those days – with Dylan peeling off a succession of storyboards with the song’s slogans on them.  It’s great imagery, conveying the intent of the song brilliantly. Insouciant and strident at the same time.  So knowing and so ahead of its time. The riff was derived from Chuck Berry, I think; and in turn, Elvis Costello adapted it for “Pump it Up” on “This Year’s Model”.

 The album was divided into an electric side and an acoustic one.  The first side had a couple of love songs, “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, with lovely, tinkling guitar and just a little bit of the surreal lyricism.  “Maggie’s Farm” was a tale of escape and became an anthem in the UK in the 80s for the opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the union movement. And then there was some of Dylan’s distinctive blues.  Side two, the acoustic side, was awesome.  “Mr Tambourine Man” may be compromised by becoming the song of choice for a million buskers, but that’s because it’s a song of great resonance as well as being dead easy to play.  “Gates of Eden” had a yearning sound and lyrics that railed against corrupt society and, well, lots of other things. And then it got even better.  “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was an extraordinary piece, a subdued diatribe against pretty much everything, but with that alright Ma refrain which spoke of an inner turmoil – it felt like Dylan talking to himself. It’s a raw, bitter song, exploring the inner depths, with some memorable lines, like the revelation that even the US President has to stand naked.  And the last shot that sums it up, turning the personal into the universal, when Dylan muses his fate if they ever saw his thought-dreams.

 The album ended with a tender, anguished song about loss and renewal, one of Dylan’s best: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. He’s on the brink, singing at the top of his range, crying out the lyrics, which of course don’t always make sense. I mean, what has a reindeer army got to do with anything?  Yeah, well, it’s Dylan. It’s all what you make it.  There aren’t many songwriters that treat you to so many images, so many possibilities that let your imagination run free… as well as providing a damn good tune.

 And then the journey back in time took me to what became my favourite Bob Dylan album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”.  Remarkably, only his second album, after a debut which was mostly covers of folk and blues, Woody Guthrie to the fore. A year or so later, in May 1963, Dylan had transformed into the spokesman for a young generation disturbed about the way the world seemed to be heading.  This was the time of the nuclear stand-off between the USA and USSR; the time, I imagine, when people most feared that the world might just slip into the third world war. The war to end all wars.  And end a lot more besides.  The Cuban missile crisis was in October 1962.  I was three, so I have no memory of it; but I can imagine the fear of what next.  In my adult times I guess 9/11 in 2001 was the closest to giving us that same sense of foreboding.

 “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was a mix of protest songs and the blues and the love songs and what was just going on in Bob Dylan’s head.  It wasn’t quite so surreal lyrically as later albums, but the signs were there.  The first song I hit on combined the Zeitgeist with some grade A weirdness.  It was “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. The talking blues was a device that Dylan used quite a lot in his early days.  A simple guitar motif and a lot of talk-singing.  Live, a real chance for improvisation, I would imagine. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” was the song that introduced me to the talking blues, but another element of Dylan’s lyrics too – a real sense of humour. It was a song about a dream about life after the apocalypse, told to the psychiatrist. It’s full of brilliant lines, funny and scary at the same time.  There’s one verse that links to another of Dylan’s preoccupations, the anti-communism, the reds under the beds philosophy that had gripped America. That was the subject of another talking blues which I first heard on the official bootleg series which started in the early nineties.  It was called “Talkin’ John Birch Society Paranoid Blues”. It was an amusing song about a man who is so worried about Communists that he joins the John Birch society. And searches for them everywhere, even the toilet bowl.  He’s worried about the red stripes on the American flag, American presidents… even himself.  Killing with comedy.

 “Talkin’ World War III Blues” rambles on, musing about Cadillacs and record players and telephone operators, until the doctor interrupts to tell him he’s been having the same dreams. Except Bob Dylan wasn’t around…

 I love that.  Just imagine the simple guitar picking, the nasal deadpan delivery… and the putdown. Didn’t see you around.

 There were so many songs that I loved on this album.  Some as soon as I got it, others in time. “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” is one of the Dylan classics: a break up song, but softened by the gentle, simple backing.  I like playing this song on my guitar.  It’s not too difficult, and has a lovely sequence of chords, majors (happy), minors (sad), sevenths (launchpads). That’s about as technical as I get on music. There’s something essentially optimistic about the song, and that combination of chords is behind it.  “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another song with a post-apocalypse feel, whether or not that was the intention. It’s prescient too, a theme tune for the environmental concerns that have taken on such force in the 2000s. There’s a relentless rhythmic repetition to it, which conjures up a feel of nightmare. I first heard it as a Bryan Ferry solo venture of course, so I have this rather confused take on the song, as the Ferry version, almost by definition, made it arty, more detached; but I think Dylan’s raw vision has won out in the end. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” again feature the spectre of war, and the military-industrial-political complex with such a stake in the Cold War conflict.  “Blowin” in the Wind”, like “Mr Tambourine Man”, has acquired a busker-cliche image, but what a great song, really. The words, the melody: so simple, and yet so powerful.  That’s why it resonates.  

 Then there were the more personal, Bob Dylan songs.  From the pastoral “Girl from the North Country”, which drew on the old English folk tune, “Scarborough Fair”, to “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, a tale of passing years, and “Corrina, Corrina”, which was a cover, but a lovely wistful blues with a loping guitar in the background.  It sounded like a song about a girl that Bob really cared about. While writing this piece I’ve been playing “Girl from the North Country” on my guitar.  The chords are easy: G to B minor (wistful) to C and back to G.  Not so easy to sing with my range – I strain to hit the peak of that B minor line. But what beautifully simple words that convey everything you need to know about the hurt and the unextinguished love. Take the second verse, where the singer implores whoever he’s addressing to make sure she’s warm enough in the howling winds of winter. Not only does it tell you all you need to know about the harsh climate of the Northern Mid-West – Dylan’s home state is Minnesota – but it’s so affecting, with all the love in the world poured into that concern for her, so far away. Such a simple expression that tells you everything. Gets me every time.   

 Ah, it’s a wonderful album from start to finish.  A joy in itself, but also with a real sense of Dylan on the journey to greatness.  If the peak was “Blonde on Blonde”, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was the first step into the uplands. And it had a great cover: Dylan arm-in-arm, with a girl, his friend Suze Rotolo. Hunched up and happy in the cold, in the middle of a slush-covered New York street. His home turf. With a really cool orangey-brown suede jacket, the like of which I spent years trying to find.  Never quite managed it, but I’ve got one these days which kinda does it for me.

 In those early eighties, I stopped at “Blonde on Blonde” going forward. And then, on the Dylan timeline, I picked up again with that seventies listening:  “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, “Street Legal”. The latter album, despite moments of brilliance, was getting gospelly, which didn’t suit Dylan; or more to the point, didn’t hit my Dylan buttons. And then he got born-again religion. It wasn’t too well-received in the papers I read – NME to the fore of course – and I lost the contemporary connection for a while.  It wasn’t until “Oh Mercy” in 1989 that I got interested again in the modern Dylan.  And to be honest that was because of the rave reviews and the teaming up with producer Daniel Lanois, who’d done brilliant things with U2 and latterly with The Neville Brothers. There was this spacey sound to his works, which allowed Dylan to breathe, and to extemporise.  Whether it was an escape from the previous few albums I don’t know, because I’ve never got around to listening to them. But I think it may have been a bit of a liberation. 

 The making of “Oh Mercy” features in Dylan’s first volume of autobiography, “Chronicles”.  He evokes the atmosphere and scenery of New Orleans, where the album was made, beautifully. The steaminess, the lushness, the cemeteries, the mystery… and the blues; everywhere the blues, and soul and myriad musical forms.  One time he escapes from New Orleans, with his wife, on his ex-police Harley Davidson, to ride the surrounding country, to clear his head.  There’s a bizarre and rather disturbing encounter with a shop keeper called Sun Pie, a homespun philosopher who foresees the coming of the Chinese and the survival of the fittest.  Dylan tells it all with clarity and foreboding – he turns down an invitation to stay for dinner. 

 It’s interesting that the final product did have that spaciness in the sound – and a New Orleans sultriness – because Dylan tells a tale of frustration in his book about the making of the album.  Somehow what is in his head doesn’t connect with Lanois’ musical approach without a lot of effort on both sides.  It’s fascinating to read of the struggle, as well as the goodwill and mutual appreciation, and then to listen again to the album. It’s an education.

 Then, in my rather wayward Dylan journey, in 1994, I discovered the return to Dylan’s folky roots, which accompanied his retreat from live performance and spokesman-for-a-generation status after his motorbike crash in July 1966. The catalyst was an Elvis Costello album of covers called “Kojak Variety”.  It was a good album, a bit of a breather for Elvis. One of my favourite tracks was “I Threw it all Away”, a plaintive little song about, basically, taking a love for granted… and throwing it all away.  I saw it was by Bob Dylan and needed to find out more.  So I bought the album it was on, “Nashville Skyline”. It wasn’t just folk, it was country.  It was a gentle, heartfelt album. Dylan’s voice was totally different to the slurred radical of “Blonde on Blonde”.  It was pitched higher: vulnerable, kind of… normal. The songs were pretty conventional too, but the best had a stirring quality. “I Threw it all Away” really felt that way; “Tell Me That it isn’t True” was fragile bewilderment; and the reprise of “Girl from the North Country”, with Johnny Cash, had two great singers straining to hit the notes, which made it that bit more poignant. And then there was “Lady, Lady, Lay”.  One that makes all the Dylan Best Of’s.  I’d heard it plenty of times on the radio.  It’s a beautiful, laid back, but many-layered song that wistfully implores the lady in question to stay a bit longer. Before I ever really listened to the lyrics beyond the title, I could sense the longing and the impending regret.  A wonderful tune. 

 I picked up “John Wesley Harding” around the same time.  I always thought of it as the follow up to “Nashville Skyline”, but actually it was the first post-motorbike-crash album, released in December 1967.  It had a similar feel to “Nashville Skyline”: a bit less of the country twang, and the songs not quite as distinctive – except of course, “All Along the Watchtower”. The song that Jimi Hendrix took and made his own: a guitar anthem. It’s impossible to listen to Dylan’s original without thinking about what it became.  I think Dylan even said Jimi’s was the definitive version.

 The other music that Dylan made in this late sixties period was with The Hawks, who’d worked with him on his tours in 1965-66 and were pretty involved in the making of “Blonde on Blonde”. They later became known as The Band and made some great music in their own right: albums like “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band”.  Their classic songs included “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and some tunes they wrote with Bob Dylan” like “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”.  The latter two were also on “The Basement Tapes”, recorded in 1967, and one of the legendary bootleg albums until it got an official release in 1975.  I bought the CD twenty years later! It’s an album which feels a bit unfinished, but sounds as if Dylan and the band (The Band…) were having a great time, exploring American music, rock’n’rolling. There’s a lot of humour in the lyrics, a good vibe flowing through it all.  I like things like “Please Mrs Henry” and “Million Dollar Bash”, which go by in a flash.  They were never going to be massive hits, but they show Dylan just being himself, amongst friends.  A feel-good album.

 I’ve got another version of “The Basement Tapes”, a bootleg of the bootleg, or something like that. Courtesy of a good friend, Paul, who is a bit of a collector of such things. The CD has what must be an early version of “Quinn the Eskimo”, also known as “The Mighty Quinn”.  The song became a No 1 hit for the British group, Manfred Mann, in 1968, and features now on all the Dylan greatest hits albums.  It’s an upbeat pop tune – not Dylan’s speciality – and it is now a regular sound at The Stoop in Twickenham, when the Harlequins rugby union team are playing. Sometimes Manfred Mann, occasionally a hard-rocking version by a Swiss band, would you believe, called Gotthard. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Quins for a few years now, and “The Mighty Quinn” is our celebration tune. And we’ve had a few good times to celebrate.  Funny to think it came from those sessions when Dylan was escaping from what he had created, but still wanted to make music…

 The Dylan story continues to this day.  Still touring, still making music, still celebrating music – he has a US radio show that takes people back to the roots of the music he loves and the music that today lives in the same spirit.  He is the ultimate troubadour.  Over the past decade, he has made a few albums which have received critical acclaim: “Love and Theft”, “Modern Times”, “Together through Life”, all exploring the roots of the music that made him what he is.  Each time the voice sounds that bit more frail; but the passion is still there. I’ve bought them all, listened a few times, and then, I have to say, switched back to my old favourites. But I really respect what he is doing.  Music is his lifeblood, singing is his trade, and he’ll do it until the day he dies.  A true hero.

 The legacy has been enhanced by a series of “Bootleg” albums that started in 1991, with a five album box set that strangely comprised Volumes 1-3 of the series. It was a beautifully-packaged set with a classic mid-sixties Dylan photo on the front cover: the punky hair, the Ray-Bans, blowing into the harmonica. The music ranged from early stuff to the eighties Christian period.  It’s when I first heard “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and there was a lovely Irish sounding piece called “Moonshiner” which I’d never come across before.  Overall the music was interesting, in a completist sort of way, rather than amazing.  Maybe because it ranged over such a lengthy period the impact was lessened.

 The next few volumes focused on single concerts. Volume 6 has one from 1964, with Dylan at his acoustic peak. Highlights include a wildly expressive version of “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, a sharp-as-hell “John Birch Society Paranoid Blues” and a song I previously hadn’t heard, called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”. Why and what’s the reason for? cries Dylan.  Davey Moore was a boxer who died after a fight. Who to blame? Not I… say the referee, the manager, the gambler, the writer, the fighter, the crowd and sundry others. Dylan rattles off the denials, in a sinister monotone. It’s a gripping tale and a mesmerising performance. Throughout, Dylan’s voice is at its most expressive: pitched high, almost shouting, spitting out the words at times.  He’s joined by Joan Baez for a few songs at the end. It’s an odd combination, the rasp and the warble. Doesn’t totally work with only the strummed guitar as backing: the voices need to be playing off different things, not just each other. But I can imagine it was amazing being there, seeing and feeling the two of them together. 

 Volume 4 is a concert from 1966 in Manchester, when Dylan had gone electric and some fans weren’t happy.  It’s the scene of the infamous Judas cry and Dylan’s reply, I don’t believe you… you’re a liar, before launching into a visceral “Like a Rolling Stone”.  Volume 5 took in live performances from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, with Joan Baez, amongst others.  It featured songs from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”, as well as some of the sixties classics, often heavily re-worked.  A really good selection.  And then Volume 7, released in conjunction with the 2005 DVD, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home”. What a great film – Dylan interviewed about his roots, his early days and his sixties heyday, with live footage that captures the moment brilliantly. The CD goes right back, with home recordings of Dylan playing at being Woody Guthrie, his main man, and a touching “Song for Woody” from his early studio efforts. You understand…

 In 2004, Dylan’s first volume of autobiography was published.  “Chronicles, Volume One” it was called.  Of course, being Dylan, it wasn’t chronological, but went back and forth through time.  And completely missed out the heyday. It concentrated on the early days, really telling you where Dylan came from, personally and musically.  He’s brilliant on the flashes of light that truly helped to form his distinctive style. Woody Guthrie and the blues singer Robert Johnson take pride of place, with the moments that Dylan first discovered them vividly, excitingly described. He pays tribute to the various folk singers that he played with in New York, people like Dave van Ronk, and is enthralling about the way that a production of Brecht and Weill songs unleashed his imagination, making him think ever more creatively about the structures and characterisation in songs. 

 And I like the bit when he describes listening to a folk musician called Mike (not Pete) Seeger in a New York attic in those early sixties when he was finding his way.  Dylan is so moved by the brilliance of Seeger, his musical virtuosity.  He knows he could never compete, and realises he therefore has to invent his own rules, his own music.  It’s part of the transition to writing his own songs. The rest is history. Thank you Mike Seeger!

 He’s fascinating too, on how he was trying to make music in the late sixties with “New Morning” and then “Oh Mercy” in the late eighties, as I’ve described earlier. There’s a tremendous honesty about the whole thing: the struggles he sometimes had in realising his vision for the songs, his desperation to get away from being seen as the spokesman for the sixties generation. (A tiny bit of me asks is he protesting too much here, maybe rewriting history just a little; but I don’t think so, given the openness with which he tells his tale.) His prose is like the lyrics to his songs: sometimes (but not often!) a straight story, other times almost random musing with flashes of great insight, memorable phrases, extraordinary recall of detail.  Maybe he kept a diary, or maybe he’s just got that eye and memory for everything. The richness and detail of his lyrics suggest he’s just got it all.

 I’ve been re-reading Volume One of “Chronicles” as I write this piece. Even though the periods in his life that he writes about hardly overlap with the times he made my favourite music, the insight into Dylan the man and Dylan the song writer have really heightened my appreciation and understanding of all his music.  More artists should write books like this.    

 There’s no sign of Volume Two.  I hope he’s working on it.  I hope he takes us into the magical period from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” to “Blonde on Blonde”.  And I hope he takes us on the journey through “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. Some of it might be painful, I guess; but I’d love to hear what really lay behind all that great music. I’d like to know what he was thinking of when he wrote “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. What was he hearing when he strove for that wild mercury sound? I’d like to know if or how he managed to record “Blood on the Tracks” without breaking down.  How did he see through the tears when he sang “You’re a Big Girl Now”? I’d like to know what he was dreaming when he dreamt up “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and how he and Johnny Cash got together to sing “Girl from the North Country” with such tenderness. I’d like to know how he has kept the passion and the energy, still reinventing himself at age 70.  Because we can all learn something from that.  I’m sure he would say, be true to yourself, follow your dream. And don’t stop dreaming…

* “I Was There – A Musical Journey” is available on Amazon. Click here. It tells the story of the music I have loved from the early 70s until 2016. It includes delving back into the sixties, to rock’n’roll and some of the jazz greats.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Thames Journey: (7) From Hampton Court to Kew

Glide gently, thus forever glide,                                                                                                            O Thames! That other bards may see                                                                                                  As lovely visions by thy side,                                                                                                                As now fair river! come to me.

Those words are from William Wordsworth’s 1790 poem Lines. They were written on the banks of the Thames at Richmond, through which we pass in this seventh instalment of the Thames Journey. The tidal river, which begins at Teddington Lock, does more than glide at times – it positively surges. There is brutality in its beauty. But there is certainly beauty.

Looking downstream from Hampton Court Bridge

We have reached the part of the river with which I am very familiar. I have cycled and walked along its length many times over the years. For that reason, as well as the fact that I live in West London, there are many more memories and reflections that come to mind than in previous episodes. So the length of the river covered in each remaining episode will be shorter than those that went before. The journey in this section is about 11 miles. Maggie, Kath, Jon and I did walk this exact stretch one time, on 2 July 2017. We hadn’t been planning to – the intention was to get a train to Henley and walk to Marlow. But when we reached Ealing Broadway station we found that most of the trains had been cancelled. We swiftly concocted a Plan B and walked down to Kew Bridge for a hike upstream to Hampton Court Bridge. More recently – last November in fact – I did most of the walk in reverse, accompanied by my good friend Dave,(a resident of East Molesey) as far as Kingston. A lot of the photos are from that recent walk and others I have been doing in Brentford, Kew and Richmond over the last year. The Thames has been a boon in lockdown.

Riverside near Kew

This is a prosperous part of London, particularly on the Surrey side, which for the most part of this journey is the eastern side as the Thames snakes northward, before it lurches southward at Brentford/Kew. In days gone by, before the suburbs extended to these parts, they were holiday destinations and the site of great palaces and ornamental gardens. Hampton Court is one of course. Henry VII built his palace near Richmond, named after his earldom in Yorkshire. Richmond was merely Sheen before that. There are grand houses and gardens at Ham, close to Richmond; Strawberry Hill, Marble Hill and Orleans House near Twickenham; and Syon Park, by Brentford. And of course, the finest gardens of all are at Kew. We’ll come to some of these as we go along.

Let’s start with a few pictures of the walk from Hampton Court to Kingston. It’s interesting how a riverside location often encourages imaginative architecture. A combination of wealth and, perhaps, a sense of freedom?

Looking back to Hampton Court Bridge

Open house

Approaching Kingston. The Italianate church is St Raphael’s

Kingston Bridge

View upstream from the bridge

Dave and I saw a lot of cormorants on the river that day. Apparently the fishermen are now complaining that they are taking too many of the fish! The good thing is that there is obviously a plentiful supply of fish, which shows that pollution levels are much lower than they used to be.

Kingston is a bit of a concrete jungle in its centre, with a punishing one way system, if I recall from the days when I had to drive there with my son Kieran for birthday parties at a leisure centre where they could run around and shoot lasers at each other. But the riverside is serene, and like all river settlements, it is rich in history.  Kingston is where they used to crown kings back in Saxon days, including Alfred the Great and the wonderfully named Ethelred the Unready.

Until 1729, when Putney Bridge was opened, Kingston Bridge was the only solid crossing of the river between London Bridge and Staines. That’s remarkable. But then this area was mostly countryside with a few villages, and ferries would have been operating in many parts. A wooden bridge existed at Kingston from the 12th century. While the bridges had to be replaced quite often, having one gave Kingston a great advantage as a market town. That may be why Charles I gave Kingston a charter which prevented any other market from operating within a seven mile radius. I assume that no longer applies. The bridge was also used between 1572 and 1745 for the practice of “ducking”, whereby a beam was attached to the bridge from which dangled a chair which was used to immerse “scolds” in the river. According to Peter Ackroyd, these were women who used foul language, “nagged” their husbands or slandered other members of the community. The last victim was the keeper of the King’s Head alehouse in Kingston, who was ducked in the presence of 2 or 3,000 people. Blimey.

The current bridge was opened in 1828, replacing a bridge that had partly collapsed due to a severe frost. Prior to that there had been disputes about who should pay for the repair of the increasingly dilapidated structure. That has resonance today, as Hammersmith Bridge remains closed while the council, Transport for London and the government argue about who should pay for vital repairs, which could cost £45m. 

Just downstream of the bridge, as the river runs north, lie Canbury Gardens – a respite from the concrete. There are attractive views of the river and prosperous Hampton Wick on the other side. In summer the yachts come out to play. I remember many years ago, while cycling down here, being surprised to see what looked like a regatta. Continuing the boating theme, Kingston is also the starting point for Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, in which they row upstream to Oxford and back to Kingston. There have been many film and TV adaptations of the story. The one I remember affectionately is the 2005 TV series in which three comedians, Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Brian and Rory McGrath took on the rowing duties. Wouldn’t mind watching that again. Or maybe I should read the book!      

It is not long before you reach Teddington Lock, a huge complex of three locks and a weir. It marks the boundary between the tidal Thames and the rest of the river. A little further downstream there is a boundary stone that designates the boundary between the Environment Agency’s jurisdiction of the river and that of the Port of London Authority. Why this is at a different point than the tidal/non-tidal demarcation I have no idea. And I must admit I’ve never noticed the stone. I shall have to look out for it on my next venture up to these parts. The three locks cater for boats of different sizes, including one for the large barges which used to ply their trade up and down the river. The lock was very unpopular with local fishermen and boatmen when it opened, and the first lock keeper was provided with a blunderbuss – bayonet attached – to deter irate punters!

These shots are from my walk in November 2020, unless otherwise indicated.

The full works

Looking back upstream as I approached the lock

Family outing July 2017

Footbridge from the Teddington side, October 2011

And the Surrey side, nine years later

View from the bridge, October 2011

The large lock

As the river bends eastward we reach the curiously-named Eel Pie Island, with Twickenham on the north bank and Ham on the south. There are houses and streets, but no cars. Until the footbridge was opened in 1956, the island was reached by ferry. In the 60s it had a musical reputation: the Eel Pie Island Hotel was a home for the blues as well as a venue for up-and-coming artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Rod Stewart and David Bowie. This part of London remains a centre for blues and jazz. The hotel closed in 1969, briefly reopened, and was burnt down in 1971. The island, also known as Twickenham Ait, was named after a dish served on the island from the 16th century. Henry VIII was apparently fond of the odd eel pie – no surprisse there. The hotel was opened in 1830, and the island was a popular picnic spot in Victorian times. It is mentioned in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby. Today, as Peter Ackroyd wrily notes, “The island is now the insular home for a somewhat eccentric community”. I’ve never got around to crossing the bridge onto the island, but from the towpath on the Ham side in the summer, you can see and hear the parties on the balconies and the riverside gardens. Does Pete Townsend still live there? Did he ever, or was it just that he owned the Eel Pie Studios on the Twickenham bank? Never mind – I like to imagine that in one of those large houses he’s jamming with his mates still.

A glimpse of Eel Pie Island from the Ham side, November 2020

The Eel Pie island footbridge, Twickenham side, October 2011

The bend at the river at this point means that while Twickenham is slightly upstream from Richmond, Twickenham Bridge is downstream of Richmond Bridge. Think about it! Twickenham was first mentioned in writing in a charter of AD 704 according to Ackroyd. It may mean land by a river fork. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, liked the place. Ackroyd quotes him as saying it was “so full of beautiful buildings, charming gardens, and rich habitations of gentlemen of quality, that nothing in the world can imitate it.” On the other hand, a Frenchman once remarked to one-time resident Alexander Pope, the renowned poet, “All this is very fine, but take away the river and it is nothing.” Ackroyd adds, “This is perhaps accurate.” But it’s also something of a tautology: wherever the Thames flows it defines the place. How couldn’t it?

These days, Twickenham is best known for its rugby stadium and for being the headquarters of English rugby union. The stadium, surrounded by suburban housing and supermarkets and the A316 dual carriageway which morphs into the M3 and heads south-west out of London, is a rather ugly and cold brute of a building. The seats are squeezed tightly together. But when 82,000 braying rugby fans are in full voice, there’s quite an atmosphere. My favourite moments there have been watching Harlequins, the local rugby team whose stadium, the Stoop, is on the other side of the dual carriageway. They play the odd Big Match there, and won the Premiership final in 2012 – the highlight of the nine seasons when Jon and I were season ticket holders at Quins. Those seasons were lit up by the brilliant New Zealand fly half Nick Evans, who retired from playing at the end of the 2016-17 season. He’s on the Quins coaching team these days. I wrote this tribute to him on my blog at the time.

The maestro

Switching to the Surrey side of the river, the approach into Richmond is truly a wondrous thing. You pass Ham House on your right and then behold the river widening and bending, lined with trees, which give way to the meadows which rise up to become Richmond Hill. The hill is lined with grand buildings, the most notable of which is the Royal Star and Garter Home for disabled military personnel. The home was built in the early 1920s – there was a hotel on the site before that – and remained in use until the early 2010s, when it was sold to developers, for conversion into apartments. The view of the river from the top of the hill is spectacular too. It was the first view to be protected by an Act of Parliament, in 1902. There is a viewing terrace, which holds a special place in my memories, as it is where, on a warm and sunny October day in 1990, Kath and I had some of our wedding photos taken. Our reception was held at the Richmond Hill Hotel, on the other side of the road.

The next few shots are all from November 2020.

The river bends into Richmond. Star and Garter, background right

Ham House

Petersham Meadow and Hotel, Star and Garter

Looking back upstream into the sun

The view from the top. February 2021.

As I noted earlier, Richmond wasn’t Richmond until the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. It was known as Sheen – not to be confused with Sheen, as we know it today, beyond Kew. I suppose it was West Sheen to Sheen’s East Sheen. Where that left Kew, I don’t know. Henry VII was the Earl of Richmond – in Yorkshire. But he wasn’t a Yorkist, unlike Richard III, whom he deposed. Confused? Read on… He took the throne in 1485 and was king until his death in 1509. What Hampton Court is to his son Henry VIII, Richmond is to Henry VII. His non-London home – London was essentially the City and Westminster in those days. Kings of England lived on the site of Richmond Palace, which lies between the river and Richmond Green, from as early as 1125 when Henry I was on the throne. Richard II was the first to make Sheen his main residence in 1383. Henry VII built a new palace on the site after the wooden buildings which were there before burnt down. Mary I – Bloody Mary – honeymooned at the Palace with Philip of Spain. Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned there briefly, but returned as Elizabeth I and spent most of her time there. She died in Richmond in 1603. The Palace met its demise in 1649 when it was sold by Parliament (in the days of Oliver Cromwell) for £13,000. Over the next ten years it was largely demolished, so there is little, if anything to see today.

Richmond is one of the most desirable places to live in London, with house prices to match. No doubt Pope’s French acquaintance would say it was nothing without the river, and it is certainly one of the loveliest places along the Thames. The bridge is the centrepiece. It was opened in 1777, and is now the oldest surviving bridge in London. It was designed by James Paine, who went on to design bridges over the Thames at Chertsey, Kew and Walton. It is so harmonious with its surroundings – it has an understated elegance, I think. It’s often gummed up with traffic of course, but attempts to widen it have been resisted. The nearby Twickenham Bridge, which is a rather utilitarian construction, was opened in 1933, partly to take the pressure off Richmond.

Richmond Bridge in November 2020. If you look closely, you can see the White Cross pub behind the bridge – see next paragraph.

The riverside at Richmond is a great place to hang out, especially in the summer. But beware two things: it gets very crowded, and parts of it flood at high tide! The pathways down by the White Cross pub become impassable – unless you want to go barefoot, or are wearing wellies. I remember popping into the pub for a lager during a bike ride along the river a few years ago (just the one!). I locked my bike up against some railings along the river, got my pint and sat there in the sun. The river began to encroach. By the time I’d finished my drink, my bike was in six inches of water. Shoes and socks off to retrieve it!

Summer scene, June 2015

High tide, February 2021

Let’s venture over the bridge briefly, into St Margaret’s. Along Richmond Road, until we reach Sandycombe Road, a suburban side-street. Here we find Sandycombe Lodge, designed and lived in for a while by JMW Turner, the great painter. I strolled up there the other day – for the first time. I must admit I was expecting something grander – Palladian, with stucco walls perhaps. There is a certain elegance to it, despite its modesty; and I suspect the interior is where you see Turner’s artistic eye most. It’s closed at the moment of course, but I’ll be taking a look around sometime in the future.

Turner is one of the great painters of the river, maybe the greatest. Ruskin said of Turner’s relationship with the Thames that, ”He understood its language.” I think I know what Ruskin meant, after watching its ebb and flow so often over the past year – and after walking its length. The river is constantly telling its story. Turner lived much of his life near or alongside the Thames: he was born in Covent Garden, a pretty rough place in the 18th century; and died in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, rather more salubrious. At other times he lived in Brentford (where he went to school in his youth) and Isleworth as well as St Margaret’s. A river-dwelling West London lad – I can relate to that!

Back to the river, and a little further along – best walked on the Surrey side – we reach Twickenham Bridge, and just beyond that, Richmond Lock. It’s the last lock on the river – or the first, depending on which way you look at it. It was officially opened in 1894 by the Duke and Duchess of York. After a major refurbishment in the 1990s, it was re-opened by the current Duke of York…

The main purpose of Richmond Lock was to regulate the tidal flow so that the stretch of the river between between Richmond and Molesey (near Hampton Court) wasn’t impassable to boats at low tide. Too much of the water drained away downstream, so three large sluice gates at Richmond Lock prevent all of the water making its passage to the sea. Whether that also contributes to the flooding in Richmond at high tide, I don’t know. But it seems a possibility.

Twickenham Bridge first. Two more shots from November 2020. The first is taken from near Richmond Bridge: the railway bridge comes first, then Twickenham.

These first two photos of Richmond Lock were taken on Tuesday this week. The tide was going out, so the sluice gates were up. 

The footbridge was shut for part of 2020 for some further refurbishment. It cost half a million. But it’s back now, which is great, as it’s the point I’ll often walk upstream to along the Surrey side from Kew Bridge, before heading back on the other side, through Isleworth, into Syon Park and then into Brentford and along the Grand Union canal on the way home. It wasn’t too inconvenient to walk a little further to Twickenham Bridge and cross over there while the footbridge was closed, but the latter is much nicer. There are no cars roaring by.

The next couple of photos are from February this year. I liked the way the water’s surface had a black and white effect as it rippled at high tide and reflected the low sun. There’s a bench I often sit at by the footbridge on the Surrey side. I get out my flask of tea and sandwiches – how old geezer is that? Still, the option of popping into the pub has been lost to us for most of the past year. Anyway, one of the swans in the photo got pretty interested in what I was eating and came close. I thought taking a snap right at that point might be ill-advised! 

The next two are from a misty December day in 2016. I would have been cycling in those days.

And this photo was taken right by the footbridge one lovely April day in 2012. I’ve always liked the way it signals revival – and hope.

Before I describe some of that walk home, I’ll stay on the Surrey side, as I want to share some photos of the natural beauty along the towpath. To start we have the Old Deer Park running alongside the river, heading downstream. Back in the days of Richmond Palace, these were the palace grounds, and there were deer inhabiting them. The deer are now in Richmond Park, the palace is long gone and Old Deer Park is shared by London Welsh rugby club and Royal Mid-Surrey golf club. There’s also a monument on the towpath marking the meridian line, which was used to calculate the time before Greenwich Mean Time. In the park there’s an observatory and some obelisks, built in the time of King George III, which helped to make those calculations.

The gap marks the meridian line, with an obelisk directly in line

The observatory is in the background

I love the riot of plant life along this stretch of the river. Between the Old Deer Park and then Kew Gardens there runs a channel of water, with all sorts of trees and undergrowth thriving in it. It is endlessly fascinating, almost jungle-like. And on the other side of the towpath, there is a lovely array of flowers on the river banks – and below the banks, revealed at low tide, a tangle of tree roots in thick mud. Not quite swamp, but the next best thing. And if you zoom your lens into the rippling water around all of this, you get the most beautiful patterns. Here are some photos to give you a sense of what I mean.

The undergrowth changes character with each passing month, as we move through the seasons.

Beginning with the lushness of summer – July 2020.

The colours of Autumn – October 2020.


The bareness of winter, with remnants of snow – February 2021.

And on the river bank, a tangle of roots and branches that are often submerged.


Across the river, Isleworth and then Syon Park come into view. Isleworth in general is unremarkable, but the old village, down by the river, is rather lovely. Much of the riverside is obscured by the woods on Isleworth Ait, but they relent just as the London Apprentice pub and All Saints church make their appearance. The pub is over 500 years old. Its name comes from the times when apprentices rowed up the river from the City on their annual day off. One day a year! Turner lived nearby in his thirties and was a regular. In our Quins-going days, and once we no longer needed to take the kids by car, Jon and I liked to walk to the Stoop via the London Apprentice, where we’d have a pint and watch some of the lunchtime football on the TV. The tower of All Saints dates from the 15th century; the rest of the building is modern. The waterfront here has the largest gathering of swans I have seen on the river. It’s a popular spot with families and young couples, especially at low tide, when they can walk onto the river bed to feed the birds. At high tide, on the other hand, the road can become impassable, as the river laps up against the garden walls of the church.

The best views of Isleworth village are from the other side of the river. The london Apprentice is the darker building towards the left of the picture.

Expecting food!

Two aspects of Isleworth Ait.

The little-known River Crane enters the Thames at Isleworth, just upstream from Isleworth Ait. It’s a river that winds its way unassumingly through Isleworth, Twickenham and Hounslow, skirting Heathrow airport and giving its name to an area called Cranford before you reach the source at Hayes, near the Grand Union Canal. It runs past both Twickenham Stadium and the Stoop, unnoticed by the match day crowds. I’ve tried walking along different parts of it a couple of times, but you never get far before the path becomes blocked, one way or another. Like many of the tributaries of the Thames in London it remains a well-kept secret.

River Crane just before it meets the Thames

Just around the corner from All Saints lies the entrance to Syon Park. There’s a long straight road up to the car park and the garden centre. A meadow lies to the right of the road, with a footpath on its right. That takes you past the centrepiece of the park, Syon House. Set back in carefully tended gardens, it is the home of the Duke of Northumberland. It was built in the late 16th century on the site of Syon Abbey, which, of course, had been destroyed during the reformation. The Abbey had the last laugh though – Henry VIII’s body was kept there overnight, on its way from London to its resting place in Windsor. The coffin lid burst open that night and dogs feasted on the dead king’s bones!

Syon House from the river

And from the park  

Syon Park was also the site of Battle of Brentford in 1642 during the first phase of the English Civil War. It was around the same time as the battle of Turnham Green in Chiswick, which resulted in the Royalists withdrawing to Oxford. The Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, under Prince Rupert, who drove their enemies into the Thames. Another battle may have taken place in Brentford in Roman times. It is one of the points along the Thames which lays claim to being where Julius Caesar and his troops crossed the river into London during his second invasion in 54BC.

Such excitement has rarely troubled Brentford since, though the local football team is making a strong push for promotion from the Championship to the Premier League, having just missed out last season. In 1712 the poet John Gay, in an epistle to the Earl of Burlington, described it as:

Brentford, tedious town,                                                                                                                    For dirty streets and white-legged chickens known.

Apparently King George II liked Brentford because it reminded him of his home town of Hannover – dirty and ill-paved. There were wharves at Brentford, for trade with London, from early times. In the 17th century barges took cargoes of bricks, fruit, and fish downstream, returning with, amongst other things, horse manure for fertiliser. There was a Dung Wharf. Perhaps this contributed to the town’s reputation. A large dock was completed in 1859 and only closed in 1964. Brentford is where the Grand Union Canal meets the Thames (as does the River Brent, which joins the canal in Hanwell). It runs between Brentford and Birmingham and is connected to a number of other canals, including the Regent’s Canal in London, the Oxford Canal and the Leicester Line. The London to Birmingham line was formerly known as the Grand Junction Canal and fully opened in 1805. Brentford was able to take advantage of the trade that took place along the canal, linking that to downstream London. Of course, with the development of the railways and then the roads, that trade diminished. Brentford’s days as an upstream port were numbered.

The docks and other riverside areas today are a mixture of repair yards, warehouses, the odd pub, an artistic community located on a small island, and housing developments – lots of housing developments. These are mostly apartment blocks, often located around marinas. There is still a huge amount of building going on. The social infrastructure – the cafes and restaurants and shops – still have a way to go to match the residential developments: but the future, post-pandemic, is looking bright. What could really seal it, in my view, is a footbridge over to Kew Gardens. That could really be a boon for Brentford, and it might encourage more people to go to Kew Gardens on foot rather than driving.

If you detect some local knowledge here, a personal interest, you’d be right. This is very much local territory for me. I live in Ealing, but on the border with Brentford, which is part of the borough of Hounslow. It’s a twenty minute walk down to Brentford High Street, another few minutes to the Thames itself. I’ve always spent a fair bit of time cycling and walking in the area, but during the past year it has become an almost daily occupation. My lockdown life.

The first three photos are from February 2019, at low tide. There’s another ait near Kew Bridge – after which the pub One Over the Ait is named – and the channel on the Brentford side dries up almost completely. 

Contrast this last photo with one taken from a similar position at high tide, July 2020.

On the left of these two photos is the back of the Waterman’s Arts Centre – a rejoinder to that disparaging comment from John Gay. The Waterman’s is a centre for independent cinema, theatre, music and the visual arts. It opened in 1984, with a concert by Ravi Shankar in the theatre. Bands and DJ’s often perform in the open space that also functions as the bar and restaurant – you can get good Indian food there. The DJ Gilles Peterson coined the term Acid Jazz while playing a gig at the Waterman’s in the 80s. One of my fondest memories of the place is of the Christmas pantomimes which our kids used to love going to when they were little. Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, all the usual themes. With just the right amount of ribald humour for the adults.  

In the background of those last two photos you can see a tower. This was the old pumping station, which supplied water to the residents of West London from 1838 until 1944. It is now the London Museum of Water and Steam, and is a rather fascinating place. The children loved it as there is a little steam railway that goes around the waterworks. We went on that many a time!

If you take the steps down from Kew Bridge on the Brentford side, there’s a lovely spot to gaze downstream. You can then take a secluded path, passing by the One over the Ait, where in summer the fuschias bloom. This caught me by surprise when I first encountered them last summer. The first three shots in this batch are from July; the last, in glaring sunlight, was taken in August.

One December day, knowing it was going to be sunny, I got up early (for me) to catch the sunrise down by the canal and the river. 

Brentford Dock Marina

This is where the canal opens out into the Thames

Hopping back over the river, but via Kew Bridge rather than that imagined footbridge, let’s linger in Kew Gardens before ending at the bridge itself. And Kew Gardens is a very nice place to linger. The Royal Botanic Gardens, to give them their formal title, were founded by Princess Augusta in 1759. Born in Gotha, Germany, she became Princess of Wales when she married George II’s son Frederick. She developed the exotic gardens which had been created by Henry, Lord Capell of Tewkesbury. The proximity to Richmond Palace meant that many noblemen had settled in Kew in Tudor times.

In the mid-2000s, I once had an interview for the role of CEO at the Royal Parks Agency. It went pretty well, though I didn’t get the job. At the end of the interview someone asked me what my favourite London park was. I thought about it for a moment and said, “Kew Gardens”. Thing is, it’s not one of the Royal Parks. I knew that, but thought I’d be honest. Not a good idea! Still is my favourite though: such an array of beauty – the gardens, the ever-changing, multi-hued flowers, the amazing greenhouses, the lakes, Rhododendron Dell, and the bluebells in Spring. It’s a peaceful place – no cars, bikes, dogs. It’s large enough to lose yourself in and there are facilities and activities galore if you have children to entertain. At the far end – following the river downstream – the vegetation is wilder, and that’s where Bluebell Dell is located. Swathes of violet amid the greenery – a joy to behold. I wrote a blog about the bluebells back in 2012. It followed one about my ten favourite air guitar songs of all time. That was the one where I had thousands of hits and gained a lot of new followers, after it was put on WordPress’s front page. What my metal-loving new followers made of the bluebells I don’t know. Bit like telling those interviewers that Kew Gardens was my favourite London park…

Here are one or two photos from Kew Gardens, taken over the years. The glass works are the work of the American sculptor Dale Chihuly, and were exhibited all over the park in 2019, including in the Palm and Temperate Houses. Art and nature in harmony. Always a feature of Kew Gardens – and so true of the Thames too.

Bluebell Dell, May 2011

The Palm House and some rather striking flower beds, May 2015

The Great Pagoda, May 2015

Rhododendrons, May 2015

Autumn colours, October 2016

A proliferation of colour, October 2016

The Hive was created in 2015 for the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo, but found its way to Kew in 2016. It hums with the sound of bees from a nearby real hive, while lights inside glow to the vibrations of the bees – in the key of C! 

April 2017

The Chihuly glassworks were photographed in June 2019. 

And so we reach the end  this episode of the Thames journey – at Kew Bridge.

The first bridge at Kew was opened in 1759, the same year as Kew Gardens was founded. Perhaps not a coincidence. It was built by Robert Tunstall of Brentford, who previously owned the ferry that operated across the same part of the river. It’s a spot where the river is executing a 90 degree change in direction, from north-east to south-east. The current bridge was opened by King Edward VII in 1903 and was named after him. That name didn’t stick though – it’s Kew Bridge, pure and simple. The traffic is a nightmare most of the time over the bridge – the junction on the Brentford side is particularly bad. But the views of the river up and downstream are lovely, and you can walk down to the river bank for an eye level view, watching the water lapping up the steps at high tide. Sunrise and sunset can be a special time too, the snarling traffic above you forgotten.

From the Kew side, October 2011

Brentford side, high tide, July 2020

From Strand-on-the-Green, December 2020

And just to finish, let’s talk about Brentford FC – the Bees – again for a moment. They have just built a new ground just up the road, sandwiched between the A204 and the A4 – the Great West Road – with the M4 flyover looming overhead. Lovely! On one level the new stadium looks like a giant version of my local Waitrose in West Ealing, but I’ve had a sneaky peak inside as I walked down Lionel Road South and it looks great. So much better than dilapidated Griffin Park, rising out of the terraced houses (though it did have a pub on each corner). The fans haven’t had many opportunities to go there yet, because of lockdown, but if they get that promotion, it’ll be a lot of fun watching them there in the Premier League. Come on you Bees!

There’ll be another football team featuring in the next leg of the journey – Fulham FC – as we travel from Kew to Putney. Coming soon…

Posted in A Thames Journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

My Top Twenty Albums of 2020


A year to forget in so many respects. But a year in which the music didn’t die, despite all the restrictions put on it. Quite the opposite in fact – without the solace and inspiration of music all the madness would have been even harder to face. Musicians – and venues – have suffered badly, their livelihoods snatched away. But many of them have responded magnificently, finding countless new ways of performing and recording – and involving their audiences. The spirit of music lives on.

We all knew lockdown was coming by the end of February, if not earlier. The sense of foreboding grew. At the same time, it didn’t feel like the time to retreat from celebrating music – it felt more like the last chance. In the week before lockdown I went to two great events: the 6 Music festival at the Roundhouse on 8 March and the brilliant Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton on 12 March. I relished both and hoped that things might be back to normal in time for Latitude in July. Some hope! Now we are left hoping that all the festivals won’t be cancelled in 2021; but realistically I can’t see social distancing rules being disapplied by then, even with the rollout of vaccines. Best not to raise the expectations too high.

In the run up to lockdown and in its early phases I found myself drawn to old favourites – the classics. A lot of Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, Radiohead and, of course. Bruce Springsteen. Led Zeppelin and U2 too. Back to basics, I guess. They seemed real, reassuring. Unusually, I found it hard to get too excited by new sounds. That indifference didn’t last long – thanks to BBC 6 Music more than anything. Lauren Laverne, Mary Anne Hobbs, Tom Ravenscroft, Gilles Peterson in particular. And the mighty Iggy Pop, on his Friday evening Confidential show. Some of their influence can be seen in my top twenty this year, with electronica and jazz featuring more than usual.

Jazz – and all its variants – really embedded itself in my listening in the summer and beyond. It was partly a response to some of the new music I was hearing – with the aforementioned Moses Boyd in the vanguard – but also the result of a rather large playlist I compiled on Spotify, which ranged from the absolute masters like Miles and Coltrane to the new jazz movement in London and elsewhere, which is so exciting at the moment. In between, I went back to a lot of my 80s and 90s soul, rap, electronic and funk favourites, which had jazz inflections. Gilles Peterson was an inspiration then, as he is now. I called the playlist Allthatjazz, and it’s public if you want to give it a listen at johnsills. I find it the music for all occasions in lockdown life: reading, writing, chilling out late at night, walking… and just dreaming.

At the halfway point of the year I wrote a blog called 40 from 2020, with an accompanying playlist, which featured tracks that I’d really liked up to that point. On the whole I didn’t really connect them with albums – and many were stand-alone tracks. That, of course, is a growing feature of recorded music today, where people stream single tracks rather than whole albums a lot of the time. In fact, you could say that having a list of best albums of the year is rather archaic. But those lists that people compile in December still feel important and exciting to me – and I still discover a lot of new music through them. 6 Music, Rough Trade, the Guardian, Loud and Quiet, Line of Best Fit, NME, Pitchfork… I devour them all. There’s some consensus, but a huge variety too. Just as there should be.

And so here is my top twenty. The top four picked themselves, though I did change my mind about the order from time to time. Below that, the rankings are pretty fluid – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks prevaricating, altering, bringing in new candidates, re-listening to make sure. The benefits of not working! I’m pretty happy with this list – at least until next week…

Top Twenty Albums of 2020

  1. Folklore by Taylor Swift
  2. Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
  3. Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen
  4. Untitled (Black Is) by SAULT
  5. Sixteen by Four Tet
  6. Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
  7. Dark Matter by Moses Boyd
  8. Lianne la Havas by Lianne la Havas
  9. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC
  10. To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth
  11. Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975
  12. Source by Nubya Garcia
  13. Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad
  14. There is No Other by Isobel Campbell
  15. Color Theory by Soccer Mommy
  16. Some Kind of Peace by Olafur Arnalds
  17. Home by Hania Rani
  18. A Dark Murmuration of Words by Emily Barker
  19. Wu Hen by Kamaal Williams
  20. The Main Thing by Real Estate

My No 1 choice, Taylor Swift’s Folklore, came out of the blue at the end of July. I loved it from the moment I heard The 1 and Cardigan as I was out walking – and then it grew on me even more! It’s the ultimate lockdown album: reflective, wistful, nostalgic, full of love and regret. The songs are beautifully, simply constructed and the lyrics full of clever twists as well as being heartfelt. She made the album with Aaron Dessner, the guitarist from The National, and there’s a duet, exile, with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Esteemed company, for sure; but this album is all about the inner Taylor Swift. An album I return to, again and again.

And Taylor has just sprung a follow up, Evermore, on us! More of the same on first listen. One to absorb in the coming weeks.

Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song is both introspective and outward-looking. Apparently she was coping with a difficult break up as she composed the album, and some of the lyrics reflect that; but there are also musings about the environmental catastrophe that faces us. All this is wrapped in layers of electronica, some floating dreamily, some banging out the beats and heavy bass lines. The album begins with a fascinating interpretation of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (which she just calls Arpeggi) and the standard never drops. John Cale provides a lugubrious vocal on Corner of my Sky (The rain, the rain, the rain, thank God the rain…) It’s a wonderful, absorbing mix of sounds and feelings, and I really can’t wait to see her perform it live.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You was another one that seemed to spring from nowhere. And what a joy it is! Bruce has reassembled the E Street Band and taken the time machine back to the 70s, to his glory days of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There are three tracks, too, that he wrote as a young man – now recorded for the first time. Janey Needs a Shooter – that title should be on Greetings from Asbury Park! This album has power, passion, anger and a sense of pure celebration. It’s nostalgic – that theme again – and reflective of the passage of time. Bruce is now 71, and he can still bawl out the rockers. A remarkable album from a remarkable man.

And so to SAULT and Untitled (Black Is), one of two albums this collective released this year. This is a breathtaking piece of work, a symphony of protest, anger, hurt, defiance and pure soul. It’s an important album, symbolising resistance to the oppression of black people everywhere. Rough Trade made it their No 1 album of the year and called it the What’s Going On of our time. I don’t think that is an exaggeration – it has some of the same despair, bewilderment and sense of redemption. It’s an album that demands to be listened to from start to finish, though there are also outstanding soulful tunes like Wildfires and Miracles that can hold their own in any company. Essential listening.

These four albums stood out, but the supporting acts were pretty special too. And again they reflected the times. One thing I didn’t have this year was the summer festivals, which always point me to a wealth of new music, some of which then makes it into my end of year selections. That perhaps explains the relative lack of indie guitar music in the twenty this year. The only two that really meet that description are Fontaines DC and Good Sad Happy Bad. It took me a while to appreciate A Hero’s Death fully, as there’s little of the vibrancy of the band’s brilliant debut from 2019, Doggerel. These songs are long, darker, more subdued. But the layers reveal themselves after a few listens and the depth of the songs become clear. A brooding masterpiece. Shades starts with rather lo-fi, slightly quirky indie and then plunges into a psychedelic cacophony that I find captivating. There are elements of Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine, and a wild saxophone which recalls The Stooges’ Funhouse. I haven’t seen this on many end-of-year lists, but I don’t know why. It’s weirdly brilliant.

I guess you could call Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy indie, though sensitive singer-songwriter might be a more accurate description. Songs of angst, love, disorientation and a lot of that sensitivity. Beautiful voices to heighten the effect – and a real pop sensibility. Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher is rightly receiving a lot of end-of-year plaudits; Sophie Allison, the singer behind Soccer Mommy isn’t quite so in the spotlight; but her song Circle the Drain is an absolute indie-pop classic. Her album Color Theory is, like the Fontaines album, a real grower. Real Estate are another band who are bracketed as indie; but to me this is something else: a modern take on classic West Coast rock. Naturally, therefore, they hail from the East Coast. Rather like the band they immediately reminded me of when I first heard them: Steely Dan. The Main Thing is an album to wallow in, and take yourself back to the sumptuous 70s. The lush melodies, the harmonies, the guitar breaks… it’s Can’t Buy a Thrill!

Jazz, as I noted earlier, has formed a big part of my listening this year, so it’s no surprise that there are three, arguably four, entries from that genre in the twenty. Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter is a musical masterclass that soaks in the sounds of young London as well as the influences of the jazz masters. His drumming is sensational – and it takes me back to that last pre-lockdown concert. Nubya Garcia’s Source is aptly titled as she and her band explore the roots of the music that has influenced them: the sounds of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and, of course, London. She is an inventive and subtle saxophonist and this album is pure pleasure. Kamaal Williams is a producer, keyboard player and drummer, though what drew me most to Wu Hen was the richness of the saxophone on tracks like Pigalle and Mr Wu. This is the cool sound of London. Lianne la Havas has been around for a while, but I’ve never really got into her music until I heard her self-titled album this year. It’s a beautifully soulful, jazzy collection. There’s a lot of pain in these songs – Paper Thin for example – but they are suffused with warmth and fellow feeling. Love and Affection you might say. Like Kelly Lee Owens, Lianne has covered Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. Rather differently of course; but put the two together with the original and you get a real sense of what a great song it is.

I’d like to recommend, too, a tremendous jazz compilation called Blue Note Re:imagined, which does exactly what the title suggests. It features many of the stars of that new jazz and soul movement, including Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, Alfa Mist, Poppy Ajudha, Jorja Smith and Yazmin Lacey. Listen to this and feel the groove.

As days drift by without much shape or form in 2020, and with lots of time for reflection, electronica, ambient music seems especially well-suited to the times. It’s good to listen to when you are writing, or even working, which I still do occasionally. Four Tet’s Sixteen was perfect for the circumstances, with its loops and beats and washes of aural colour. I transported myself to Iceland for Olafur Arnalds’ atmospheric soundscapes. Some Kind of Peace is a thing of windswept beauty. There’s more beauty in the music of Hania Rani, a Polish pianist, whose recorded music has some similarities with the gentler side of Nils Frahm’s compositions. Home is an entrancing album, as was its predecessor Esja. It’s thanks to Mary Anne Hobbes for the introduction. All these albums feel at one with nature, something I could also say about Emily Barker’s A Dark Murmuration of Words. Emily is an Australian folk singer who settled in England many years ago, but still feels the tug of home. I’ve loved her music for a long time, and this album is something of a return to her roots. There’s a beautiful simplicity in it, a reverence for home and for nature. A reverence and fear – as Emily sings, Where Have all the Sparrows Gone? Isobel Campbell’s There is No Other touches on environmental themes too, but its appeal is in the lush, wistful, dreamy ballads. There’s something deeply soothing about this album, and Boulevard is one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard all year. Imagine yourself once more in that Parisian café, watching the world go by. It’ll happen one day…

That leaves me with two idiosyncratic and fascinating works: To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth and Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975. Jehnny Beth is the singer with the awesome Savages. This is her first full solo venture. There’s a lot going on on this album. There are songs that ring out Savages-style, but there are beautiful, wistful ballads too, and a whole load of off-piste sounds in between. As befits Jehnny, there is a real intensity to it; and her French roots are more discernible than they are in Savages. I heard an interview with her where she said that she was very affected by the death of David Bowie as she made this record and listened to his final masterpiece, Blackstar. She said to her collaborators that she wanted To Love is to Live to sound like it was the last record she was ever going to make. I get that. Notes on a Conditional Form is what you might call singer Matt Healy’s flawed masterpiece. That’s what we always liked to call double albums that would have made great single albums in years gone by. I’ve never really listened much to the 1975, though they were pretty good at Latitude a few years ago. But I read the reviews of this album, some of which were rather critical, and I thought it sounded interesting. And it is – very! It’s a journey through the history of pop, rock and dance since the 80s and a very entertaining one. You’ll probably only listen to the Greta Thunberg track once though…

I’ve made a playlist with three or four songs from each of the albums in this top twenty, which is at the end of this post. With added extra…

As I observed earlier, it’s really not all about albums these days, and I’d like to mention four artists who have been favourites through the year, but have so far only released EPs and tracks. I think they are all gearing up for albums in 2021, so there’s something to look forward to already! Biig Piig is the stage name of Jessica Smyth, who is from Ireland, but is based in West London and spent a lot of time as a child in Spain – she sings in Spanish occasionally. Her jazzy soul-rap really caught my imagination after I first heard the track Switch on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Recommends show (although Switch itself is not typical of her sound). I’ve played her collected works a lot since then – so much that many of the tracks found their way into my Spotify Wrapped! Arlo Parks is another young Londoner. She’s been getting a lot of praise for her soulful, introspective ballads. There’s a darkness to a lot of them – Black Dog, for example – but a cool beauty. Sade, Lianne la Havas, Joan Armatrading might all be reference points. And she does a great version of Radiohead’s Creep. Maisie Peters, from Brighton, has had a few mentions on this blog in the past. I like her thoughtful, intelligent, touching, catchy pop songs; and she has been productive during lockdown with four excellent singles, my favourite of which is called, appropriately, The List. That’s a list of all the things she needs to stop doing. Very lockdown. Rather different in style is Greentea Peng, whose striking voice and fusion of soul, rap, reggae and jazz beats makes for a very distinctive sound. I guess there’s a bit of Grace Jones about it – and her. I think she could be destined for great things.

There are four songs from each of these artists on the playlist, plus four other tracks, simply because they are too good to leave off. Three are lovely ballads: Hallelujah by HAIM, The Roving by Bonny Light Horseman and the gorgeous, optimistic In a Good Way by Atlanta’s Faye Webster. I think she might have fallen in love! And just to show I still like a bit of rocking, Freya Beer’s Dear Sweet Rosie packs a good old-fashioned punch. Thanks to 6 Music’s Marc Riley for that one.

There’s a song on Bruce’s album called House of a Thousand Guitars. It’s my favourite track. I played it six times in a row while out on a walk the other day. It made the world feel like a better place – as did the nature around me. It’s something of a call to arms, a reminder of the redemption in music, which is one of Bruce’s perennial themes. Whatever shit gets thrown at us, we’ll always have the music…

Well it’s alright, yeah it’s alright,                                                                                                  Meet me darlin’ come Saturday night,                                                                                              All good souls from near and far,                                                                                                    We’ll meet in the house of a thousand guitars.

Here’s to 2021.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections, Music - Top Tens | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Thames Journey: (6) From Marlow to Hampton Court

In this leg of the journey we move from the picturesque countryside of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to the suburban outskirts of London. It’s a walk of around 33 miles, which we did in four stretches – the last of which was two years after the first. No sequentialism round here! A couple of the walks were upstream, but as before, I’ll sequence the photos in a downstream direction. The headings likewise.

Marlow to Maidenhead, 3 April 2016

This was one of the upstream expeditions, Maidenhead to Marlow. Around 7 miles. It was the second walk in our journey, and for reasons I can’t now remember, Jon wasn’t able to come along. It was just me, Kath and Maggie. He completed it later, of course.

I wrote about the bridge at Marlow in part five of the journey, but not All Saints Church, which nestles by the river. From the towpath side you get a good view of the church. The current building is a Victorian construction, completed in 1835. The old church dated from the 11th century, but it was undermined by centuries of flooding. The spire collapsed in 1831!

Just out of Marlow, you come to Bourne End, where you cross a bridge to the other side. You are soon in Cookham, another Thames town with an ancient heritage. We didn’t linger on our journey, but there are two megaliths in the town, the Cookham Stone and the Tarry Stone. Peter Ackroyd ventures that the latter may have been a meteorite. That would have made it sacred. An abbey was established here by AD 716, and a Saxon parliament, the witenamgot was held at the site of the Tarry Stone. Cookham is perhaps best known these days for having been the residence of the artist Stanley Spencer. Many of his paintings depicted the town, sometimes in biblical settings.

At Cookham the Thames path veers off the river for a while, and ascends a hill. We approached from the opposite direction. I remember the path up that hill being the steepest we encountered on our Thames journey. There are some lovely views towards the Thames – and Lulle Brook in between – from the top.

Across the river is Cliveden House: these days a grand hotel (with its garden opened to the public) but a place with some interesting history. It was initially constructed in 1666, as a residence for George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. It had various owners of the years, including the wealthy political family, the Astors. In the 19th and 20th centuries they entertained the great and good – and not so good – here. A riverside retreat on the Cliveden estate called Spring Cottage featured in the Profumo affair in 1963, when the Conservative war minister John Profumo was involved in a scandal involving the model Christine Keeler and an osteopath (really) called Stephen Ward, who had links with the Russians. You may have seen the 1989 film Scandal about the affair. Anyway, it wasn’t the first spy scandal of the era, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, undermined by the whole business, resigned later in 1963, citing ill health. This part of the Thames, easily accessible from London but nicely secluded, has featured in all sorts of dodgy goings-on over the years: remember the equally notorious Medmenham Abbey and the Hellfire Club in part five? A retreat for the rich; and where there’s money…

The last word on Cliveden House, though, is that it has a connection with that great TV series of the 1960s, Thunderbirds. My obsession as a young schoolboy. I was delighted to read in the Cicerone guide that Cliveden is the home of Lady Penelope!

And then Maidenhead. Today, its image is rather staid – it is the parliamentary constituency of ex-PM Theresa May after all. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the name derives from the head of a maiden saint, one of eleven thousand virgins martyred with St Ursula at Cologne around AD 383. An alternative suggestion is that it comes from maegden hyth – a landing place for maidens, which, in days of yore, meant an easy place to land. Cookham, in its orginal form, meant boat place. Not surprisingly, the main towns on the river were located where it was easy to come onshore and establish the necessary infrastructure for trade.

Not quite sure where the next two photos were taken, but not far from Maidenhead. The third is just upstream of the road bridge, which in turn is just upstream of the railway bridge.

Today, the thing that interests me about Maidenhead is that railway bridge. This was built by Brunel and was completed in 1839. It heralded the age of steam-powered trains. It was a daring piece of architecture – even today it has the longest and widest flat brick arches in the world. Sceptics predicted it would collapse as soon as trains ran over it. One person who was enthralled by this was the artist JMW Turner. One of his great later paintings, from 1844, is Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts a train travelling over Maidenhead railway bridge.  At this time, many of his works had become more abstract in the way they dealt with colour, light, shade and objects. They were hugely ahead of their time, and many contemporaries hated them. Rain, Steam and Speed is a perfect example. The painting is part of the National Gallery collection, but has been lent to Tate Britain for its exhibition Turner’s Modern World. This opened just before we went back into lockdown. I managed to see it a couple of days before everything closed down again. It’s a brilliant exhibition. If you are in London or nearby, do try and catch it when we re-emerge into the light.

This photo is a shot of the reproduction of Rain, Steam and Speed that I have at home. On the left of the picture is an outline of the road bridge. The real Maidenhead is somewhat less dramatic!

Maidenhead to Windsor, 26 August 2018

This is another stretch that we walked upstream. It rained for almost the entirety of the walk, which was about 7 miles. We had all the requisite rain gear and it held out pretty well. But we were drenched on the outside. The abiding memory is going into a DIY store in Maidenhead to see if there was a café for a warm cup of tea, just after coming off the river. We stood inside the building with the water dripping off us, forming pools on the concrete floor. Needless to say, there wasn’t a café – not there or anywhere else on the way back to the station. We admitted defeat and took a train back to Ealing, damp and thirsty.

My diary tells me that there was some lovely countryside along the way, but it wasn’t a day that made you want to get the camera out of the bag. We stopped near Bray for our lunch – under the M4 bridge to be precise! It had the virtue of being dry. Something of a contrast in style to the nearby Waterside Inn, owned by the Roux family, which has three Michelin stars.

Bray is associated with its vicars in Tudor and Stuart times, who were known for their frequently changing religious affiliations, as England’s monarchs swung from Catholic to Protestant and back again. Being on the wrong side could mean burning at the stake. The civil war and Oliver Cromwell further complicated matters. One vicar, in the Tudor era, is said to have responded to accusations of being a turncoat, a changeling, with the riposte:

Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this – to live and die the vicar of Bray.

Sounds like a good strategy to me.

Al fresco dining

Windsor to Chertsey, 17 April 2017

This was a longer stretch – 11 miles plus, downstream. We began from Windsor station, and were soon walking along the Home Park. Windsor Castle loomed in the background. The Queen’s residence, and an impressive sight. William the Conqueror built a castle on the knoll of chalk that rises here. Peter Ackroyd speculates that, being artificial, it may have prehistoric origins. William’s castle was rebuilt by King Edward III between 1360 and 1374. Hundreds of local men were “impressed” to do the building, against their will. Slave labour, basically.

Just upriver from the centre of town lies Windsor racecourse. There has been racing in the area since the time of Henry VIII, but the Royal Windsor racecourse began holding meetings in 1866. It has become best known for its summer evening meetings, typically on Mondays. You can get a train to Windsor Riverside station and then a boat from there to the racecourse. I used to go quite often in years gone by, when Kath’s law firm hosted an annual trip up there. We spent most of the time sipping champagne by the marquee, snatching glimpses of the racing on a TV screen. The live racing was quite hard to see, but you had a punt and experienced the roar of the crowd as the horses raced to the finish. Always a jolly evening out.

On the opposite side of the river lies Eton, home to England’s most famous public school. Which, for any overseas readers, means private school. The school that has given us David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson in recent times. I’ll say no more.

Old Windsor lock

Just past Old Windsor we came to the place I was most looking forward to seeing on this walk: Runnymede. Famous as the site where King John, in 1215, met his barons and signed the Magna Carta. While a lot of the text is devoted to the detailed concerns of the day, there are also some timeless expressions of individual rights and justice which remain on our statute book today. Our current government would do well to remember them when they talk about passing legislation which would allow them to ignore the rule of law, international or otherwise. The site commemorating the Magna Carta is simple but inspiring. Nearby there is a memorial to John F Kennedy. Both remind us that there is better way of governing than that we have experienced in the UK and the USA over the past four years. Fingers crossed that political events in both countries over the past couple of weeks do portend some light at the end of the tunnel.

By Bell Weir lock, just down from Runnymede

Soon after, we were in Staines. Home of comic character Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) and indie band Hard Fi, whose 2005 album Stars of CCTV painted a grim picture of hand-to-mouth suburban life. And what else? We weren’t expecting much. In fact, the passage of the Thames through Staines lends a rather more affluent perspective; and there is, again, a rich history. The name comes, most likely, from stones, which may have been part of a megalithic monument, and later marked the boundary of Chertsey Abbey’s lands. As Peter Ackroyd drolly comments, “The site is now a roundabout beside Staines Bridge.” Nearby is another stone, the London Stone, which marked the limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction of the river between 1197 and 1857. The Lord Mayor of London used to visit Staines annually to touch the stone with a sword. Don’t ask me why.

Staines is located at the confluence of the River Colne with the Thames. It is thought to have had a river crossing before Roman times. There was a Roman town here, called Ad Pontes (by the bridges). The current bridge opened in 1832, a little upstream of its predecessors. It was designed by John Rennie. Staines used to be the limit of the tidal Thames, which is presumably why the London Stone was located here. The locks downstream, notably Teddington, which we shall see in the next instalment, have changed that.

Staines Bridge

The Swan, by the bridge. Stopped for a drink here

Church of St Peter, by the river

Modern living, bungalow ranch style…

We ended the walk at Chertsey. It was quite a long walk from the bridge to the station. We were blissfully unaware that Chertsey was the site of the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, from the 7th century AD – or I was, anyway. Ackroyd writes that it was “ravaged” by the Danes and rebuilt by King Edgar in 964. It, and Chertsey, thrived until Henry VIII’s reformation did its worst. Some of the stone was taken down to Hampton Court and used for the palace there. The present bridge dates from 1785. The first was constructed in 1410 and was maintained by the abbey.

So much of the history along the Thames centred on the great abbeys and their religious orders, as we have seen. Henry VIII destroyed it all.

Chertsey Bridge

Chertsey to Hampton Court, 2 April 2018

Quite often, before we finished our journey with three walks between Inglesham and Farmoor (see part two of this journey) we reminded each other, we haven’t done Chertsey to Hampton Court yet. I can’t say that I recall being excited by the prospect, but it had to be done. It was a good bit of exercise, and the Thames always has its compensations. It was another dull grey day when we completed this stretch. There had been a lot of rain, and there was a bit of flooding. Peter Ackroyd says that Chertsey has the last of the Thames’ “water meadows”. So it was a fairly unremarkable walk, but the destination was splendid, even if it didn’t stand out on the day.

Looking downstream from Chertsey bridge

Walton Bridge, opened in 2013. It had five predecessors.

I think this is West Molesey – it’s all a suburban blur

The area around Hampton Court bridge is rather lovely. Just recently I met my friend Dave for a walk downstream. He lives in East Molesey on what we might loosely call the south side of the river. The photos below of Hampton Court bridge are from that day. On the day of the walk I’d given up taking photos, on account of the damp greyness of everything.

A glimpse of the palace, through a fence. The grounds were shut.

Hampton Court Palace is, of course, the focal point of the area. It is a magnificent building, with some lovely gardens, all beautifully maintained. It was the home of the ogre Henry VIII, and I have no wish to dwell on that. Instead, I want to celebrate one of its present uses, at least before the pandemic, which is to host concerts in the summer. They take place in one of the large quads, and it is a wonderful setting – as long as it is not raining! We have had some great moments there over the years: Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry solo (twice), Lisa Stansfield, Ringo Starr, and best of all… Kylie! That was in June 2019, and it was an amazing evening. There are a few photos below, but for a longer account of a fantastic evening, have a read of the blog I wrote about it at the time.

So, we are at the end of this leg of the journey. But before I finish, I’d like to mention a French restaurant in East Molesey, on Bridge Road, called Le Petit Nantais. I have had many an awesome meal there, especially the seafood spread, which I, with my good pals Dave, Jon and Tony, enjoy before heading for our annual summer trip to Sandown races. Washed down with the finest of white wines. The host, JP, is a true Frenchman, passionate about rugby, as well as food and wine. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area – when we are allowed to indulge in such pleasures again. In the meantime, there is a good delivery service, Dave tells me.

June 2016 version

Next time, in part seven, we head down to Kew, moving inexorably towards the heart of London.

Posted in A Thames Journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Thames Journey: (5) From Cholsey to Marlow

This, the fifth of my Thames Journey series, covers a 36 mile stretch of the river, which we covered in three walks in 2016 and 2017. It’s a part of the journey where the river does a 180 degree turn, heading south then east, then north, before turning east again. Bending and twisting all the while. The Chiltern Hills lie to the north and as the land rises we have some of the most spectacular scenery along the river. There is some of the most spectacular wealth too.

Cholsey to Tilehurst, 30 May 2016

We picked Cholsey to start this leg because it had a railway station. We finished at Tilehurst, just before Reading, for the same reason. I’m not sure quite how long the walk was, as the Cicerone Walking the Thames path guide divides up this stretch of the river differently, but I’d say around 13 miles, give or take a mile. It felt long! Partly because we walked past Tilehurst towards Reading, then changed our minds and doubled back. Can’t quite remember why now. I think it was a pretty featureless stretch and we decided Reading station was a bit too far.

We made our way down from Cholsey station to the river and headed downstream. The first landmark was the Beetle and Wedge pub in Moulsford. I’d been there for dinner many years ago after a trip up to Oxfordshire for the annual reunion I have with some of my friends from university. The food was pretty good, as I recall. We just stopped outside for a tea break this time.

Looking upstream from the Beetle and Wedge

The lone tree

The walk along the river towards Goring was pleasant: meadows and clusters of trees. The village of Goring, twinned with Streatley on the opposite side of the river, dates back to ancient times. The church is from the 13th century. The Icknield Way and Ridgeway cross the Thames at this point. We stopped for lunch at a pub, which I think was the John Barleycorn. I recall having a rather nice pie and a couple of pints, which took me a while to walk off! 

Cool house!

This is Gatehampton railway bridge, just downstream of Goring. 

About half way between Goring and another pair of villages, Whitchurch and Pangbourne, you divert off the river path and head uphill. There were some lovely views.

We descended into Whitchurch. The iron bridge there, painted white, was opened in 1902, and is one of two remaining toll bridges on the Thames. The other is Swinford Bridge, which featured in part three of this journey. Pedestrians have been able to cross the bridge for free since decimalisation in 1971; for vehicles the cost is 20p! We crossed over into Pangbourne, named after the River Pang, which joins the Thames at this point. Pangbourne is today best known for being the home of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, for the last eight years of his life (he died in 1932). The adventures are inspired the river in this part of the world.  A little further downriver, Mapledurham House is thought to be the model for Toad Hall. I knew nothing about this when we walked this stretch, so all I have is a photo of Mapledurham Lock!


The toll bridge at Whitchurch.

More lovely scenes as we headed out of Pangbourne towards Mapledurham. With thanks to Jon for the photo of the goose patrol.

Mapledurham Lock

Tilehurst to Henley, 1 May 2017

Eleven months later we returned to Tilehurst to walk the next stretch of the river, to Henley. This was one of the most picturesque of the journey – once we had got past Reading! In fairness, once we had left Tilehurst, where we were walking along a fairly narrow path enclosed by a high railway embankment, the Thames Side promenade was quite pleasant. Caversham was opposite, recently connected by a footbridge called the Christchurch Bridge, after the meadows on the Caversham side.  It opened in 2016. There was a competition to name it in which one of the popular choices was De Montfort bridge. That’s a name I tend to associate with Leicester, but nearby Fry Island is known for being the site of a duel in 1163 between Robert de Montfort and King Henry II’s standard bearer, Henry of Essex. The latter was accused by the former of dropping the royal standard in a battle with the Welsh. A duel ensued, in which De Montfort triumphed. Henry of Essex was taken to Reading Abbey where he recovered from his wounds. Thereafter he became a monk!  


Evidence of Reading as a town dates back to the 8th century. Peter Ackroyd offers three possible sources of the name: the settlement of Reada, a Saxon leader who invaded the area; the word rhea, which means river; or redin, which is fern. My money’s on the Saxon leader. It was an important trading and ecclesiastical centre in the Middle Ages, with the Abbey at its centre. It suffered in the Civil War and was the scene of the only significant battle on English soil during the 1688 Glorious Revolution. The iron and brewing industries grew in the 18th century, and later it became well known for biscuits! Today it has become a major centre for high tech industries, taking advantage of its good transport links and proximity to London. And, of course, there is the Reading Festival, the biggest music festival after Glastonbury, and teamed now with a parallel event in Leeds. It has gained a reputation in recent years for being a post-GCSE gathering for all the 16 year olds; but it started as the National Jazz Festival in Richmond, London in 1961. It settled in Reading, next to the river, in 1971. By the mid-70s it was the main rock festival in the UK. I recall putting Reading fourth in my university choices for the sole reason that it was the home of the festival! But I have never been, having only started going to festivals in my 50s. I think I’ll stick with Latitude, End of the Road and Green Man now. Here’s hoping they’ll be back in 2021, but it may be a close call.

Soon after the Christchurch Bridge we came to the point where the River Kennet joins the Thames. That brings back memories for me and Jon. In the summer of 2013, in blazing heat, we cycled from Reading to Bath along the river and the Kennet-Avon canal, stopping overnight in Hungerford and then Devizes. It was a great adventure, quite arduous in places, but with some wonderful scenery and some interesting encounters. I wrote a piece about it at the time, which still gets quite a few hits to this day. See the link above.  

We passed by Sonning and Shiplake as we made our way to Henley. Sonning is another Saxon settlement – Sunna’s people – though there is a history of earlier settlements too. Shiplake means the stretch of water where sheep are washed. Tennyson married there and Orwell lived there as a boy. There is a college on the banks of the river, a private school. We didn’t know this as we approached. There was no-one around and it seemed possible to walk through some of the grounds. So we had a little look. Maybe it was half term. 

Sonning Lock

Led Zep alert!

Shiplake College

Close to Henley we came upon Marsh Lock and weir. It is an impressive construction, and the surrounding houses are equally striking.

The view of Henley as you approach is rather beautiful. The church tower looms over the town. The bridge is much admired  – compared in the past with those of Florence. The church itself seems to date from the early 13th century; the tower was built around 1550. Henley means high wood or old place. Today it is best known for its regatta. That began in earnest in 1839; but before that Henley was the location for the early boat races between Oxford and Cambridge universities. The first was in 1829, starting from Hambledon Lock, downstream of Henley. Soon after the race began the boats collided, and it had to be re-started. Oxford won.

We arrived in Henley and felt like some refreshments. We came across the Chocolate Café, on Thameside, upstream of the bridge. Highly recommended if you are ever in Henley and want to stop for a tea or coffee. The cakes – chocolate and otherwise – are sumptuous!

Henley to Marlow, 8 October 2017

This was another attractive stretch of the river. Just out of Henley we came upon Temple Island, which is the starting point for races in the Regatta. The Temple was originally a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court, an historic house, and was designed by architect James Wyatt in 1771. Today it is owned by the Henley Regatta and is both a place for grand functions and a nature reserve. Presumably the nature reserve has the upper hand at the moment.

Further downstream there was a brief diversion from the river bank, slightly uphill. From that vantage point we could see the distinctive white buildings that were originally part of Medmenham Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1201 under the ownership of Woburn Abbey. It was closed in Henry VIII’s purges, but not destroyed. It took on a number of lives after that, most notoriously when it became the venue for the Hellfire Club in the mid 18th century, a group of establishment figures who met to indulge in activities frowned upon by polite society, including “obscene parodies of religious rites.” Today the place is in more discreet private ownership. I didn’t know any of this at the time – it looked to me like it was probably a conference centre. This part of the world is conference centre land – easily reached from London, but a world apart.

Nearby Danesfield House, up on the hill in the next photo, is now a hotel. Way back, the site may have been a hill fort, occupied by the Danes. In the 20th century it was owned for a while by the RAF and was an intelligence centre during the Second World War.

Marlow means low and marshy ground. It has suffered from floods – the worst in recent times was in 2014. The approach from upstream is quite similar to that of Henley – the bridge and the church tower standing out. The bridge is relatively recent by local standards – opened in 1832. It was wooden before that. The architect, William Tierney Clark, modelled it on Hammersmith Bridge, a place dear to my heart, as a later episode will expound upon! He went on to design the bridge that connects Buda and Pest in Hungary. Now, that is something special.

Compare and contrast…


Budapest – way back in 2006

That’s it for this part of the journey. In the next episode, we will creep towards the outskirts of London, where the Thames grows mighty and tidal.

Posted in A Thames Journey | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Last Track

I was listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on BBC 6 Music the other day. She was about to play an Autechre track, which will be the last piece on the forthcoming album. She said she often listens to the last track on an album first. Various listeners responded on social media to say they did that too. It made me think, why would you do that? Or more precisely, what is it about the final tracks on albums that makes them so interesting?

Before I ponder further on this vitally important question – in the midst of covid, Brexit and the US presidential election – I need to acknowledge that this may be a generational thing. Listening to an album the whole way through, in sequence, may not be standard practice anymore. Or maybe generational is the wrong word. It’s the technology – it just tempts you to listen to standout tracks, the ones you’ve read about, or had recommended, or heard on the radio. It’s so easy. Stick them on a playlist and move on. Listen to a whole album? Too much hard work.

But it pays dividends when you do, because even now, the musicians making albums are putting their hearts and souls into these constructions: telling a story, their story. And the end of a story is always an important moment. With a book or a film or a play that is just stating the obvious. So why not an album too?

So, the last track on an album is always significant – let’s agree that and ask in what ways. I think there are a few possibilities. First, there are sometimes songs so epic they have to come last – anything following would be diminished, a trivial afterthought. Second, there might be a song that is just very different to the tone of the rest of the album. It might be experimental, a pointer to the band’s future direction. Or something that the artist just wanted to say, even if it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Third, it may be something that has real personal or political resonance for the artist, which, in turn, is transmitted to the listener.  Fourth, it might be a comedown song, a respite after the frenetic activity that went before. And fifth, it might just be the end point of a narrative, a story. In past days we might have called it the last act of a concept album.

All these things overlap, of course, but let’s look at a few examples in each category.

The epics

When I thought about this a whole load of classics came quickly to mind: “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan (which took up the whole of side four of “Blonde on Blonde”), “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (ignoring the brief national anthem), “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin… but wait a minute, “Stairway” was only the final track on side one of Led Zep 4. Since the age of the CD that just makes it track four of the album. How wasn’t it the last song? That honour went to “When the Levee Breaks”, which is pretty epic in its own right. These are all totemic songs, the artists at the height of their powers. The songs crank up and just keep going. They blow your mind when you first hear them, and most other times too. How could anything else follow?

Sometimes things do though.  Think of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” on “OK Computer”, which I used to think of as their “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it first came out. It’s track two on the album. Typical perverse Radiohead! Another one is “Marquee Moon” from the album of the same name by Television. One of the greatest songs of all time in my view. The guitar playing remains hypnotic to this day. It’s another one like “Stairway to Heaven” – the closer on side one of the vinyl. And continuing to disprove my theory, Bowie’s epic “Heroes” nestles in the middle of what was side one of the album. Maybe if he’d known it would be the anthem that signalled the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989…

 The odd ones out – or maybe not

 Initially I was thinking this category was about songs that presaged new directions for a band. But then, thinking about examples I couldn’t come up with many. One might be “Essex Dogs” by Blur, off their eponymous album, which marked a change in direction by the band in any case. “Essex Dogs” was the weirdest thing on the album, and confirmed that Britpop Blur was no more. Perhaps a better description is the odd one out.  An interesting example from last year is “Dublin City Sky” by Fontaines DC, on their debut album “Dogrel”. A great album, full of three minute rushes of poetic punk pop, evoking their home city of Dublin. But nothing evokes it like “Dublin City Sky”, in which the afterburners come off, the acoustic guitars come out and singer Grian Chatten sounds like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. It’s a song from the heart which somehow sums up all that has gone before, but in a very different style. Another Irish band, U2, took things a step further with the last track on their brilliant album “Zooropa”, which I regard as one of their finest. It’s their most Bowie in Berlin-sounding album, their most electronic. But then they go and stick a Johnny Cash collaboration called “The Wanderer” on the end. I can’t think why. Because they could, I guess. I just hope Mary Anne didn’t listen to that one first!

Another striking example in this category is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, which is the final track on one of his later albums, “Uprising”. It’s notable for its resonant lyrics, but also because it is just an acoustic strum. There is no reggae beat, from the king of reggae. And yet it has become one of Bob Marley’s most celebrated songs. Because of the political and spiritual resonance of the message.

One more in this category, courtesy of Louis Grantham, son of my friend Jon, and fellow festival-goer. The three of us have had a lockdown game going where we take turns in choosing a theme and then each of us comes up with a song that fits. Yesterday I suggested best last track. Louis selected “Take It or Leave It” from The Strokes’ 2001 debut “Is This It?, the album that heralded an indie revival. A suitable message for the last track of such an assertive album. But he also mentioned “Love, Love, Love”, the final word on the Murder Capital’s “When I Have Fears”, which was my album of the year in 2019. It’s a dark and dynamic album; and the title of that last track, and to some extent the music, seems out of synch with the rest of the album. But as Louis says, on one level it provides a possible answer to the angst of the rest of the album – though a somewhat ambiguous one – but on another it makes you asks questions about what went before. And as a result, it leaves you wanting more.

The personal and the political

Immediately, in this category, I thought of songs like “Sarah”, Bob Dylan’s paean to his ex-wife which closes “Desire”, one of his mid-70s classics; and “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, which brings the intensity and anger and celebration of “Born in the USA” to a reflective end. But I want to focus on songs of Stina Tweeddale that bring the three Honeyblood albums to an end. In each case they are unlike any of the songs that came before, so they could have featured in the previous category. Musically they are fairly simple, lyrically they are heartfelt and self-questioning. There is an internal dialogue taking place in Stina’s head which finds its way into the music. The closer to Honeyblood’s debut album of the same name is “Braid Burn Valley”, which is a park in South Edinburgh near Oxgangs, where Stina grew up. I’m not sure whether this song is autobiographical, but it feels like it. She is losing herself in the wilds of the park, pondering a love lost, and possibly a violent ending to the relationship. The song begins wistfully, picks up brutally as she sings of another f****** bruise and goes silent. Then a simple piano refrain emerges as she sings of a shooting stars and happier times. You are left wondering about the pain. She returns to Oxgangs for the final song of the magnificent second album “Babes Never Die”, called “Gangs”. Don’t let your fear keep you here, Stina intones. Self-explanatory you think, but is she addressing herself or someone else? She left for Glasgow, where Honeyblood is based, but does your hometown ever leave you? Not in Bruce Springsteen’s case – see above. Honeyblood’s third album is “In Plain Sight”. Musically, it is more varied and less guitar-based, and perhaps lacks the raw emotion of its predecessors. Until the last track, “Harmless”. With its simple piano motif, it resembles the last part of “Braid Burn Valley”, but for the feeling it emits it could have been called “Helpless” rather than “Harmless”. Stina is baring her soul and it doesn’t sound like she is in a great place. If you like the final song to leave you asking questions, in the way Louis describes earlier, Stina definitely obliges.

Straddling the personal and political, and in a rather self-reverential way, are the Clash in their first two albums. 1977 debut album “The Clash” is, for me, the greatest of all punk albums, an impassioned call to arms. It had everything an 18 year old armchair rebel could have asked for! Written mostly in the third person, the band turn to themselves in the last outburst. We’re garage band, we come from Garageland!  Raise those fists! They are less triumphal on second album, “Give ’Em Enough Rope”, having experienced the ups and downs of fame and the music business. “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” is addressed to their followers and the messages are mixed. The music business isn’t great, but it’s better than working in the factory.

Two other favourites from the late 70s got darker and more political in their closing statements. One was The Jam, with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, which closes their third album, “All Mod Cons”. The album was already getting pretty edgy with “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street; “Down in the Tube Station” really finishes you off!  It reeks with paranoia and right wing violence. Not a nice place to be. This was Jon’s choice for a closer, and he’s right to say how often you thought about this song when you were travelling back on the tube late at night. Note the past tense in these upended times. Equally dark, though not quite so direct, was Elvis Costello when he ended his tour de force “This Year’s Model” with the sinister “Night Rally”. After the personal disgust that threaded its way through the album, Elvis turned outward and political for the denouement, and left a nasty taste in your mouth. Great song though.

The comedown

After the party, the comedown. You look back at what went on and survey the wreckage. And hold on to the good memories. One of the best examples of this that I know is “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift, the last song on 2017’s “Reputation”. It’s a brash, even bombastic album, where Taylor really went for the R&B/dance sound. It worked brilliantly and was sensational live. But all good things come to end and “New Year’s Day” really did sum up that after-party feel. It’s a lovely, rather touching song, and gave us a pointer, though no-one could have expected it, to the beautiful lockdown symphony that is “Folklore”. More of that another time.

One of my favourite bands of the last ten years are Glasgow’s electro-indie-pop champions, Chvrches. Their second album, “Every Open Eye” signalled a move to a more pop-orientated sound (and look) after their brilliant debut, “The Bones of What You Believe”. It was mostly bangers until they reached the conclusion. “Afterglow” has you dreaming as Lauren Mayberry’s beautiful voice wafts around you. It was no surprise that the band lit the roof of the Albert Hall with a starry night sky when they played “Afterglow” there in 2016.

I have to mention another Bruce song here. It’s “New York City Serenade”, the final piece on his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”. A true masterpiece – album and song. The album has a variety of moods, but the penultimate song is the rousing “Rosalita”. A celebration of love, hope and rock’n’roll, and still a staple of Bruce’s live shows. After that where do you go? Well, as I said under Epics, that might be where you end. But Bruce had other ideas. He played his ode to New York, to midnight in Manhattan, to all the losers and the chancers and the dreamers. Starting jazzily, with some lovely acoustic strumming and then a mellow wall of sound, Bruce extemporising, before it all falls away again. One of my favourite Bruce songs, and the one I chose as my final song in our challenge.

Radiohead rarely do anything conventional, but they do have a penchant for the comedown song at the end. And they are all tunes of real beauty. From the ethereal “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” on “The Bends” to “True Love Waits” on most recent album “A Moon Shaped Pool”. And on the journey, “The Tourist” soothed the soul at the end of “OK Computer” while “Videotape” was weirdly mournful on “In Rainbows”. Things got weirder on “Kid A” with “Untitled” and woozily jazzy on “Life in a Glasshouse” from “Amnesiac”. Every Radiohead album takes you on a ride you weren’t expecting – they give you some time to reflect at the end.

The last act

Some albums tell a story. It may be from beginning to end, it may just occupy part of the album. But there is a distinctive narrative. It’s something that David Bowie was attracted to, especially in the first half of the 70s as he went through various personas. Ziggy Stardust was one and the Ziggy album ended with great melodrama as Bowie sang “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It wasn’t long before Ziggy was left behind. “Diamond Dogs” was even more of a concept album. The dystopian city with rats as big as cats. With overtones of Orwell’s “1984”: we love you big brother. And it ended with the disturbing but insanely catchy “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. What could it all mean? It wasn’t wholesome.

Two of the great soul artists had stories to tell that ended with songs that have resonated through the years. Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On?, a cry of anguish and bewilderment at America at the beginning of the 70s, began with the beguiling lament of the title track, drifted through meditations on the times, sought solace in God, but ended with the most powerful protest on the album: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. What an incredible song – and what a groove.  Stevie Wonder’s story was about love. Lost love, despair, self-realisation, recovery and then hope. All in three songs: “Blame it on the Sun” – but my heart blames it on me – “Looking for Another Pure Love” and the uplift at the end, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”. Anyone going through a break up should listen to these songs and take solace from the final message.

So where does the story end? Where else but “The End”? The last song on that amazing suite of songs that occupied side two of the last album the Beatles recorded (though not the last they released). “Abbey Road”. That stretch of music from “Because” to “The End”. The Beatles’ parting shot.

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make

Yeah, man!

Except there was a hidden track.

Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , | 2 Comments

lovelondonscenes 171 – From Putney Bridge to Kew Bridge

It was a pleasant day yesterday – the last for a while if the forecasts are right – so I took the opportunity to have a stroll along the river. I took a train from Brentford to Putney and walked home.  All in all I walked ten miles, mostly along the river.

I hadn’t intended to take photos, but there was something about the vastness of the river and the sky as I crossed Putney Bridge that tempted me. All the way back that combination was enchanting; it was enhanced later on by the reflections of the sinking sun on the water.

All iPhone 8 shots, no enhancements.

To begin, that view from Putney Bridge.

A couple in Fulham, after you’ve passed Bishop’s Park and walked around Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium.

From Fulham Reach, not far from Hammersmith Bridge, which is sadly not open to the public for the foreseeable future while repairs are carried out. Initially cyclists and pedestrians were still allowed to cross. I’m not sure what added to the caution. It’s a right pain though!

A favourite spot, scene of many past photos, by Chiswick Mall.

Under Barnes Bridge. I crossed over from the Chiswick side here and intended to walk to Kew Bridge on this side; but at Chiswick Bridge the towpath was closed for repairs, so it was back over to the Chiswick side and suburban Hartington Road until I reached Strand on the Green.

To finish, three shots from Strand on the Green: a lovely stretch, lined with pubs – not quite as vibrant as normal at the moment. Kew Bridge looming in the background, from whence I trudged past Brentford’s new football ground, up the west side of Gunnersury Park and on to Northfields, slightly footsore and ready for a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray!


Posted in Photos - lovelondonscenes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

“Everybody Hurts” – Two songs that resonated on a June day this year

I was looking through notes I’d made on my phone earlier today. I came across this piece I’d written on 16 June with the intention of posting it with some photos I’d taken of central London by the river on my first visit for three months, as lockdown eased a little. I posted those photos, but didn’t use the piece at the time. And then I forgot about it. But looking at it today, I thought it reflected well how I was feeling in June, three months after lockdown, and three months ago. Music and podcasts have been a lifeline for me in these last six months. They both feature in this piece. Click here if you’d like to see all the pictures I published before.

I went up to town today. Quite a big deal after three months. I went to Brentford for a train around 1.45. I wore a mask for the first time, which I found quite disconcerting at first. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly and my glasses steamed up. But I got used to it and started to be judgmental about the one third of passengers (not many in actual numbers) who weren’t obeying the rules. Of course I didn’t say anything.

I got out at Waterloo and headed up to the river – the lifeblood of London. I walked up to the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, stopping along the way to take photos of familiar scenes. But it felt important to capture them again on this special day. Before I did that I spotted that people were sitting around near the National Theatre drinking beers. I fancied one myself and went up to the bar, which was part of the British Film Institute. A man behind a screen and wearing a mask and gloves poured me my pint of Camden Hells. Six pounds! But I was ok with that. It was so good to be inching back to normal life. I stood by the river, looking out towards the City and watching the occasional boat go by. I was listening to a podcast in the History of Ideas series by David Runciman, a Cambridge academic, about Benjamin Constant, a French liberal thinker from the 18th/19th century. It’s a 12 part series about the philosophy of what we might call the modern world. His first talk was about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and this formed the base upon which many of the other talks were constructed.  I listened to three today as I walked a loop around my London by the river. Constant, De Tocqueville on America and democracy and Marx/Engel’s Communist Manifesto. Every one utterly relevant to our day.

As I walked and listened and took photos, I was engrossed, but not sentimental. It was great to be back, but not as emotional as I’d anticipated. I walked back to Vauxhall and got a train back to Brentford from there. As ever, I loved the sight of the river as we crossed Barnes Bridge. It was only later that I started to feel the true sense of today, as I was clearing up after our evening meal. I had a playlist playing which I made recently, called 40 from 2020. It should have been 20 from 2020 really, but as ever I couldn’t bear to edit myself that much – there have been so many good songs this year. I got a decent number of views when I blogged about the playlist. And I was listening to it tonight. There was this song by Alice Boman, called Everybody Hurts. She’s a Swedish singer and released an album this year called Dream On. It’s a beautiful album and Everybody Hurts is a beautiful track. But it is also the same title as another song that signified my love of London in 2005. I, my wife Kath, and friends Jon and Maggie were going to see REM in Hyde Park on 9 July. But there were terrorist bombs on the tube and a bus two days before. An awful, shocking time. The concert was postponed for a week – remarkable it was so soon afterwards. I suspect these days it would be a lot longer. But REM played a week later and we were there. And they played Everybody Hurts from their Automatic for the People album and it was incredible. So moving, so resonant. We felt our love for London in waves around Hyde Park.

And today I felt my love for London again as I wandered along the river. And when Alice Boman came on my playlist later I was reminded of that love for my city, of the moment when REM sang their song of the same title. And I loved Alice’s sentiment too, which was different but also the same. Everybody hurts, some time. A lot of times. Especially now. But music gives us the strength to come through these times. As ever it expresses what we can’t quite manage with our own words.

So, in a quite disconnected way, but a real way, Alice Boman’s Everybody Hurts summed up how I felt as I returned today to the place I love, just as REM did at Hyde Park in 2005.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Thames Journey: (4) From Oxford to Cholsey

Clifton Hampden bridge

This stretch of the river is about 26 miles long. Taking into account various diversions, we probably made it up to 30 at least, over three walks. As with previous walks in this series we completed them at different times, though not quite as initially planned. The first stretch, from Oxford to Abingdon followed the walk from Farmoor to Oxford, at the end of 2017. We did Oxford to Abingdon on 29 December. The plan was to walk from Abingdon to Dorchester on the 30th. However, after the flooding we encountered on the 29th we figured that it might be best to leave the walk to Dorchester to the summer. So we reconvened in August 2018, with the temperature in the 30s on both days: Abingdon to Dorchester on the 4th and Dorchester to Cholsey via Wallingford on the 5th.

While checking the Cicerone Thames Path guide and Peter Ackroyd’s Thames, Sacred River for interesting historical nuggets I was reminded that one story that brings together a number of the locations along this stretch of the river is that of St Frideswide (aka Frithuswith) a 7th century Saxon princess, who became a patron saint of Oxford. Legend has it that as a young woman she was being pursued by a Mercian prince called Algar, although was sworn to celibacy. With her sisters she fled to the sanctuary of the Thames near Oxford, where they met a youth who rowed them down river to Abingdon. Here she performed a miracle (as you do) before moving upstream to Binsey, where she constructed a chapel and established a healing well. She settled in Oxford where she established a monastery which, centuries later, became the foundation of Christ Church College. Her shrine remains in the cathedral of Christ Church to this day.

Oxford to Abingdon, 29 December 2017

The walk from Oxford to Abingdon was a little damp and, in parts, very muddy. At one point, just beyond Sandford, we encountered a stretch of path that was completely flooded – too much for the walking boots. We had no choice but to crawl through a barbed wire fence and make our way onto a nearby track. As we walked along a woman on horseback approached. This is trouble, I thought – we were obviously on private land. In fact she was very friendly and helpful and gave us directions for getting back to the river where it was passable. She finished by saying she hoped we didn’t bump into the farmer as he didn’t take kindly to people being on his land. A familiar tale. As it happened we saw no-one else and her instructions took us to where we needed to be, which was close to the Radley College boathouse.

Leaving Oxford

Iffley Lock

This is where we concluded a diversion was needed.

Back to the river here, at Radley.

Abingdon has deep roots. There was an abbey there from the 7th century, which lasted until Henry VIII did his worst. The town’s name means Aebba’s Hill, Aebba being an Abbess in the early days of the monastery. The most celebrated historian of early England, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1151), was based at the abbey for a while. He is perhaps best known for his tales of King Arthur and Merlin, which have resonated through the ages. Ackroyd tells a story of how, after the monks rerouted the Thames so that it would flow past the foundation walls of the abbey, all passing barges containing herring were obliged to donate 100 of them to the monastery cooks!

We walked through the abbey grounds towards the centre of town. It was pretty gloomy and I didn’t feel inclined to take the camera out, having put it away as we clambered along muddy paths on the approach to Abingdon. There’s an attractive market square, dominated at one end by the rather grand (though compact) County Hall, which was built in the 17th century by Christopher Kemper, who was one of Wren’s masons at St Paul’s in London. We sat in a café and stared out at the rain, if I recall.  It wasn’t really a moment for soaking in the history – there had been enough soaking that day.

We stayed a little out of the centre at a Premier Inn in the evening, but found a nice pub called the Brewery Tap which did very good food. Both were on Ock Street, so named after the nearby river which flows into the Thames at Abingdon. The Brewery Tap was a Tap House for the local Morland brewery, which was founded in 1711. Ah, Morlands! Or should that be aaaaagh!? Morlands was our house ale in University College beer cellar and it wasn’t very well-kept. But it was cheap – and sometimes even free, depending on who was running the bar. Many an hour of my youth was whiled away, you might say wasted, in those dingy surrounds, drinking that dodgy beer.

Abingdon to Dorchester, 4 August 2018

We got the weather right this time: if anything the worry was about it being too hot to walk for 8 or 9 miles each day. We stayed in Dorchester, at the White Hart Hotel. On this first day of the trip, having parked the car in Dorchester we took a taxi to Abingdon, and then walked back along the river to Dorchester. A peaceful walk, with pleasant scenery, though quite exposed under the sun.

Abingdon in the sunshine

We took a diversion to visit the church at Sutton Courtenay, named after the de Courtenay family, who were granted the land during Norman times – a familiar tale along the river. All Saints parish church has some illustrious characters buried in its grounds, including the newspaper magnate David Astor, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and the man we know as George Orwell.

The first of two cow shots in this blog! You could imagine Constable painting this scene. It was fascinating to watch them jostle for position – and let the little ones through.

Two perspectives of the bridge at Clifton Hampden. There’s another at the top of this blog.

Didcot power station looms.

Cows 2

This, I think, is taken from Little Wittenham bridge, near Dorchester. I have to do quite a bit of piecing together for these blogs! The Cicerone guide maps are invaluable.

We had Constable earlier, so how about Monet?

Dorchester is another Thames town with a bit of history, dating back to Roman times, when it was a garrison town. Its name means the city on the water. Peter Ackroyd describes it as one of the holiest places on the Thames, being the burial place of St Birinus, who founded a Saxon cathedral here. He is said to be the patron saint of the Thames. The Saxon church became the site for the abbey, which was established in the 12th century. Dorchester is situated at the confluence of the Thame and the Thames. In the debate about the relationship between Isis and the Thames, some think it is simply that the Thames is the Isis until it meets the Thame. Ackroyd dismisses this notion, but given that the Thames is called the Isis in Oxford, it has a certain logic for me.

Dorchester to Cholsey, 5 August 2018

The highlight of this walk was Jon going for a swim! I declined the opportunity and amused myself taking close-ups of thistles instead. Each to their own…


By Shillingford bridge

The swimmer

My alternative to swimming.


This is near Benson, I think. The following photo is at the lock in Benson. There was a major battle here in 775, between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. Mercia, led by Offa – he of the dyke – was victorious.

Wallingford then came into view.

The spire of St Peter’s church in background

We didn’t linger in Wallingford, which was near the end of the walk, but it is another town with a rich and ancient history. Its name reflects the fact that it was on the main road from a foreign land – Wales – to London. As a settlement it is as ancient as London.  I think it’s also one of the places we moored for the evening on our infamous barge trip while at uni – see previous blog. Into the town for a few beers. Food too? Can’t remember. I don’t think we created quite as much mayhem as Cromwell did in 1646, when he crushed Royalist resistance and destroyed the castle after a long siege. It had survived multiple sieges in the past, but this time it fell. The soldiers who had defended the castle were decapitated and thrown in the river on Cromwell’s orders: “Let the river have them before they corrupt the land as the King corrupted England…”

The cleansing, healing power of the Thames… we began with the story of St Frideswide at Abingdon and Binsey; St Birinus baptised Saxon kings and princes in the waters at Dorchester and had a spring where sick cattle could be treated; Cromwell purged his enemies. Many powers have been attributed to the river over the centuries.

For me, serenity is one.

Cholsey is just beyond Wallingford. The town is not on the river, but a bit of a walk inland. We went up to the station to get a taxi back to Dorchester. As we waited we debated why we hadn’t asked the taxi to come down to the river – there was a road. We’d walked another mile or more for no good reason. Blame it on the heat!

Posted in A Thames Journey | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sportsthoughts (167) – Premier League predictions for 2020-21

Hot on the heels of my assessment of the season 2019-20, here come the predictions for 2020-21! Who knows what this season will be like with the pandemic far from over and with every chance of a resurgence of cases in the winter. But, for now, it’s all-systems-go, with one glaring exception – there still won’t be any crowds. At least not at the start – there is talk of some limited admissions in the near future; but in some ways that will be even weirder than empty stadiums. The people’s game – by invitation only.

Anyway, straight down to business, here are my placings for 2020-21.

1 – Man City

2 – Man United

3 – Chelsea

4 – Tottenham

5 – Liverpool

6 – Arsenal

7 – Everton

8 – Leicester

9 – Wolves

10 – Sheffield Utd

11 – Leeds

12 – West Ham

13 – Southampton

14 – Burnley

15 – Newcastle

16 – Brighton

17 – Fulham

18 – Crystal Palace

19 – Aston Villa

20 – West Brom

OK, the thing that stands out is Liverpool’s slide to fifth. Highly-unlikely-to-impossible, I hear you mutter (or splutter). You are probably right, but I had to do something to stir things up. I was going to put them second; but City and Liverpool the top two again – that is soooo boring!

So, let’s construct the argument about how it might happen. First, I think City, after a disappointing last season by their standards, are set to win the title again. I was impressed by the way they cut most teams to pieces in the post-suspension part of the season, including Liverpool. By then Liverpool had won the title and had relaxed a bit, but City absolutely shredded them.  David Silva has moved on, but Foden/ Bernardo Silva/ Mahrez aren’t bad replacements. The defence has been strengthened by the arrival of Nathan Aké (admittedly from Bournemouth, whose defence was decidedly leaky) and they are after Koulibaly from Napoli. And, you never know, Messi might still turn up…

After that, I think Man Utd and Chelsea both have a case for finishing second or third. In both instances, it rests mainly on their attacking riches. United with their exciting young front three of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood, augmented by the likes of Fernandes, Pogba and maybe Jadon Sancho; and Chelsea with the results of their recent shopping spree – Ziyech, Werner and Havertz – as well as the players that took them to fourth last season, including English youngsters Mount and Abraham, and the American Christian Pulisic. Both teams had wobbly moments in defence last season – only Liverpool, of the top teams, had a really solid rearguard. United have strengthened their defensive midfield with van de Beek from Ajax, and have the option of playing Dean Henderson –  who had two great seasons on loan at Sheff Utd – in goal if De Gea falters again. Chelsea have brought in Thiago Silva from PSG to provide some experience and leadership in the back four. He’s getting on a bit, but may be a good temporary solution. They haven’t sorted out the goalkeeping position yet, but no doubt they will. I still fear, too, that they might come after West Ham’s Declan Rice from West Ham. He would be perfect for them, either in defensive midfield, or as a centre back.

But that would only push Liverpool to fourth. Why Tottenham ahead of them? In two words: Jose Mourinho. This will be his team now, and that should mean they will be miserly in defence and break forward fast, before Harry Kane finishes it off. I’m assuming both Kane and Son will be back to their best. I also think the purchase of Docherty from Wolves is a good move – an excellent right back (or wing back) who is good going forward and chips in with the odd goal. He’s in my fantasy team for sure.

So, Liverpool fifth… Yes, I know it’s unlikely, but my reasoning is as follows. The club, the city, were so desperate to win the league again, after thirty years. They’ve done it now; attention may turn more this season to the Champions’ League. Also, other teams may have worked them out to a greater degree. They are a relentless pressing team and it takes great reserves of energy and purpose to keep on doing that. Furthermore, the midfield, by top standards, is fairly prosaic – they have relied on getting it quickly to their lethal front three, Salah, Firminho and Mané. There has been a brilliant supply of crosses, too, from Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. So teams will look to block those supply routes. And do Liverpool really have a Plan B? Their bench is solid, but not terribly exciting. The club has also been quiet on the transfer front (so far). And let us not forget that these last two seasons have been exceptional. In the previous six seasons Liverpool’s positions were: 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 4th and 4th. I rest my rather flimsy case…

Mention of flimsy brings us nicely to Arsenal. I usually predict third place, more in hope than expectation. There is always a batch of promising youngsters, a couple of interesting purchases. That’s no different this year, and there is the promise of Mikel Arteta as a manager too. But it’s hard to see which of the five ahead of them they could displace. Tottenham are the most likely candidates I guess, but that Mourinho effect, if it is still there, is going to make them steelier rivals. No, I think sixth is the best Arsenal can hope for this season. I hope I’m’wrong – maybe they’ll come third this year!

And then there was West Ham… a perennial tale of hopes dashed by reality, usually after two or three games. And this season the fixture programme has dealt the team a very difficult opening hand. The first game of the season, home to Newcastle, is an absolute must-win fixture, as the next six games are Arsenal, Wolves, Leicester, Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool! We’ll spring a couple of surprises along the way, but that is tough. Bottom by November is a real possibility. Having said that, the season ended pretty well, with Antonio discovering his shooting boots and Soucek and Bowen proving excellent additions to the team. Soucek has now signed a long term contract – he was on loan from Slavia Prague before. There is enough talent in the squad to secure a mid-table place, particularly if the likes of Lanzini and Anderson rediscover their mojos (assuming the club doesn’t find buyers for them). Maybe Haller will prove his worth – all £45m of it – too. Maybe. He has combined well at times with Antonio. I’d like to see a bit more strike power brought in – maybe someone like Ollie Watkins from Brentford. And the defence still needs strengthening. But I don’t think there’s much money available. They just got £17-18m from West Brom for Grady Diangana, a promising youngster who was on loan to the Baggies last season. I don’t think manager David Moyes wanted to sell him; and club captain Mark Noble spoke out against it on Twitter – an unusual move. That suggests all is not well at the club – a worrying sign a week before the season starts. Still, I do think the quality of the squad is mid-table level, and I’m going to plump for 12th place – my lowest for a few seasons. Just don’t sell Declan Rice!

Relegation candidates are many – including West Ham – but I think we’ll see West Brom, of the promoted clubs, head back down. There’s not much in their squad, as far as I can tell. I like their manager, Slaven Bilic (once of West Ham as a manager and a player) but I don’t think he has a strong hand. A lot of people to have Fulham to go down, but I thought the wily way that they performed in the Championship play-off final augured well for this season. They have recent Premier League experience, a proven goal-scorer in Mitrovic, and Scott Parker is shaping up as a good manager. A future West Ham boss? I think the fans would love to have him back at the club. My other two to go down are Aston Villa, who were very poor last season and lucky to stay up; and Crystal Palace, who don’t really have much about them other than a well-organised defence. They’ll have even less penetration up front if Wilfried Zaha finally leaves, although the purchase of Eberechi Eze from QPR was a smart move (they pipped a number of other clubs, including West Ham).

Surprise team of the season? Leeds seem a popular choice. They won the Championship comfortably, have a top manager in Marco Bielsa, and have made some interesting buys, notably Argentinian international midfielder Rodrigo de Paul, from Udinese. And, of course, Leeds is (or was) a big club, brought down by some terrible owners over the years. It’s good to have them back in the Premier League (he says through gritted teeth). So, not really a surprise if they do well, though top eight would be pushing it, with battle-hardened teams like Wolves, Burnley, Leicester and now, Sheffield United, all competing in that same space. Leicester really blew that top four place right at the end of last season – I wonder what impact that will have on them. And how long can they keep only relying on Jamie Vardy to bang in twenty-plus goals a season? I see a slight decline for them this season, with Everton, under Carlo Ancelotti, overtaking them. They have bought ambitiously. It will be fascinating to see if James Rodriguez has it in him to light up the Premier League. If he does, Everton could be the real surprise team and break into that much coveted top six.

So there we have it. The anticipation is always a lot of fun, the reality not always quite so much. It all kicks off next Saturday, 12 September. West Ham 3 Newcastle 0 would start things off nicely. Pleeeeze!

Posted in Sportsthoughts | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments