lovelondonscenes 170 – Back to the heart of London

Last Monday I took a train for the first time in three months to central London, and some of my favourite locations down by the river. I stayed away from the tube and caught a near-empty train at Brentford to Waterloo. I have spent so much time by the river, especially since my retirement; and it felt wonderful to be re-aquainted with old haunts. It was a cloudy but pleasant day. I brought my camera along and snapped away. Places I have photographed many times, but it felt special today.

I walked up to the Tate Modern, so that I could cross over the Millennium Bridge. I stayed on the north side on the way back until Hungerford Bridge. Initially I had planned to walk all ten or so miles home, but after stopping for a beer (see photos) and taking a lot of photos, I decided a couple of hours walking was enough, and caught a train home from Vauxhall.

So yes, these are familiar photos, but with a special resonance.  Hope you enjoy.

Starting with Hungerford Bridge from below.

The British Film Institute had a takeaway bar open. Couldn’t resist a cold pint of Camden Hells by the river!

A few people around, but not many.

Some views from the Southbank.

A very quiet Blackfriars Bridge.

The Andy Warhol exhibition was only open for a few days. I missed it. Hopefully it might return, given that it was scheduled to go on until 6 September.

Views of and from the Millennium Bridge.

Zoomed in for Canary Wharf.

River of bridges.

Waterloo Bridge.

The London Eye motionless.

Views from Hungerford Bridge.

Still functioning, though barely.

Albert Embankment not heaving.

Land of hopes and dreams.

It felt oddly reassuring to know it’s all still there. Of course it was, but you know what I mean…

 

 

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40 from 2020

BBC 6 Music has just had a day where all the DJs played their favourite tracks of the first half of 2020. I listened to quite a lot and loved it. And, as ever, discovered a few new tunes I really liked. There is so much music out there, even in lockdown, that you can never keep up. Best just to cherish what you do hear, rather than worrying about what you don’t.

So, in the spirit of 6 Music’s Recommends day, I thought I’d offer you 40 of the tunes I’ve liked this year. The tip of the iceberg – same as it ever was. Most of them I’ve picked up from listening to 6 Music. Whenever I hear anything I like, I try to stick it on a Heard on 6 Music playlist that I keep on Spotify. You quickly forget otherwise. There are other sources: Rough Trade does a good podcast called Rough Trade Edits which has some great recommendations, for example. And there have been one or two things that I’ve been alerted to on Instagram – Maisie Peters being one such.

We’ve all had our different reactions to lockdown. I found myself at first listening to a lot of the classic artists – the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen especially. I guess I was just seeking reassurance from the very best, the roots. I also made a jazzy playlist, which now runs to over a hundred tunes, which mixes some of the jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with artists who have fused jazz, soul, funk, rap, electronica, you name it, over the years. I called it All That Jazz, even though a lot of it isn’t jazz. It’s in the same spirit. I listen to this more than anything now. Not only is the music brilliant, but I find I can keep writing while I listen to it – it has a groove. The perfect combination!

But as we’ve continued in this state of limbo, I’ve found my way back to new music. And I never gave up on it completely. 6 Music is my guide more than anything else. All the DJs – to single out any one of them would be invidious. They are all brilliant. And, between them, they cover the waterfront. So, in a new burst of enthusiasm, I’ve compiled this playlist of some of the tunes I’ve loved this year. There are one or two from 2019, I think, but I first heard them this year. There’s a Spotify playlist to accompany it, if you have access to that. Sorry if not. I’m sure all the tunes will be on YouTube and other platforms.

40 FROM 2020

The List by Maisie Peters – Circle the Drain by Soccer Mommy – Dear Sweet Rosie by Freya Beer – Texas Sun by Khruangbin and Leon Bridges – Space Samba by the Orielles – Shift by Lilly Palmer – What Moves by LA Priest – Melt! by Kelly Lee Owens – Cherry Baby by Bess Atwell – Hallelujah by HAIM – Daily Routine by Disq – Dip by Tina – Sunrise over the Flood by Eli Winter – You’ve got my Number by Margaret Glaspy – Too Young by Phoenix – Conditions (Petit Fantome remix) by Rozi Plain – Give it up 2 Me by Ojerime – Slow Drive by Moon Panda – Face Down in Ecstasy by Number – One Rizla by AJ Lambert (cover of the Shame song) – Question it All by Lucy Rose – An Afternoon of Endless Drift by Awkward Corners (good lockdown title, that) – Switch by Biig Piig – Light Turn Green by MXXWLL and others – Paper Thin by Lianne la Havas – Felt by Cloth – I Used to Dream in Color by Eve Owen – Stranger Than Fiction by Moses Boyd – Paper Cup by Real Estate – Home by Caribou – Everybody Hurts by Alice Boman (not the REM song) – Boulevard by Isobel Campbell – A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC – Black Dog by Arlo Parks – Lizard Street by Oscar Jerome – Scarecrow by Wilma Archer – Pace by Nubya Garcia – Five and Dime by Hazel English – Yeah I Know by The 1975 – School by Four Tet.

There’s no dominant theme to the selections. A fair number of singer-songwriters, quite a lot of electronica, a bit of indie guitar (but less than usual), some jazzy soul and a few jazz numbers too. If I had to choose a favourite, it might just be Boulevard by Isobel Campbell. This was a Rough Trade recommendation and comes from an album called There Is No Other. Isobel used to be in the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. She has also collaborated on a few albums with Mark Lanegan, as well as making her own albums. She has a beautiful voice and Boulevard is her at her most wistful, conjuring up hazy memories of Paris, even though the song may just be about those down on their luck. The lyrics are elliptical.

Best album of the year so far? I’ve not heard anything that has really blown me away, but I do like the new one from The 1975. It’s had mixed reviews, some critics saying it is over-ambitious. That’s what I like about it! Not everything hits the mark, but it is like a journey through pop from about… 1975. I’ve included one of the more electronic songs Yeah I Know on the playlist. Still six months to go before the year’s Best Of. The strangest year in our lifetimes for sure – who knows what the next half will bring.

Anyway, if you have access to Spotify and fancy checking the playlist out, it’s here.

My Heard on 6 Music and All That Jazz playlists are publicly available too if you want to have a listen.

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A Thames Journey: (2) From Cricklade, via Lechlade, to Newbridge

This stretch of the river, winding its way through Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire involves a walk of just under 28 miles. We did it over three days at two different times. The walk from Cricklade to a spot between Highworth and Inglesham, which aren’t far from Lechlade, was on 30 December 2016; the other two legs were the last of the whole walk, on 26 and 27 April 2019.

Cricklade to Highworth/Inglesham

We stayed overnight in Cricklade, at the White Hart hotel, after our walk from the source. Cricklade is just in Wiltshire, with the Gloucestershire border the other side of the Thames. We didn’t look around much in the mist, but while it is a quiet town these days, it has an interesting history. According to Peter Ackroyd, there are a number of theories about what the name means: it could be river crossing by the hill or stony/rocky country; it could be a derivation of Cerrig-let, the stony place where the River Churn meets the Thames; or it might be a corruption of Greeklade, which means an assembly of learned monks and scholars. It is said that Brutus of Troy arrived here in 1180 BC and established a university amongst the Britons. The story then fast-forwards to AD 650, when Panda of Mercia also established a university in Cricklade, thus beating Oxford by a few hundred years. The Romans’ Ermin Street passed through Cricklade, and King Alfred built a wall around it. It was sacked by Cnut later and seemed to slip into decline over the centuries, although in the 12th century King Henry II granted the townspeople a charter allowing them to trade in any part of the country as reward for protecting his mother Maud. By the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was known for its venality in general elections. The town had slipped into poverty. William Cobbett, journalist and MP in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wrote:

A more rascally looking place I never set eyes upon. The labourers seem miserably poor. Their dwellings are little better than pig beds, and their looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig. In my whole life I never saw such wretchedness as this.

It’s fair to say that things have moved on since then! The only landmark that we did look around was the old church, St Mary’s, which dates back to Norman times. It claims to be England’s oldest Roman Catholic church, having returned to the faith in 1984, after it had been deemed surplus to Anglican requirements by the Bristol Diocese – there is another church, St Sampson, in the town.

The day’s walk was shrouded in mist. It was icy on the roads and pavements too. A day for staying nice and warm indoors. But the river was there to be explored! Throughout the day, especially the first couple of hours, there was a rather spooky quality to the surroundings –you could imagine the retreating Saxons hiding in the rushes as Cnut and his fearsome Danes plundered the area. It made for some atmospheric photos though.

There was a stretch near the end where we were diverted from the river – I think the river bank was military territory. It may have changed since 2016, I’m not sure. Just one photo to share from this part of the journey: a lone tree in the mist. I liked this one and felt moved to try painting the scene. You can compare and contrast!

The walk petered out near Highworth. To get to Lechlade – the original intention – would have meant walking along the A361 for a few miles. That didn’t appeal, so we called a taxi and went back to Swindon station for a train to London. The Thames journey in these parts would resume a couple of years later…

Inglesham to Newbridge, via Lechlade and Tadpole Bridge 

This was two days of walking, the last of our Thames journey, but early days in the river’s own journey. We stayed in a house in an attractive village called Longworth, which is a couple of miles south of the Thames. You reach the village from the river by walking up Harrowdown Hill – a lovely spot, but now notorious for being the place where the scientist Dr David Kelly took his own life in 2003, having become embroiled in the Iraq crisis. As you walk along the bridle path, through the woods, with a beautiful vista of the Thames plain to one side, it is hard to imagine the despair that he must have been feeling.

Longworth itself had a nice pub called the Blue Boar which, conveniently, was about a minute’s walk away from our house. Just up the road, too, were some rather amusing residents.

Thanks to Jon for this one!

On our first day, Thursday, we walked from Farmoor upstream to Newbridge. I’ll cover that in the next blog. On the Friday we took a taxi to a spot on the river near Inglesham and headed downstream. You can only really be near Inglesham as it is a long-gone village; only a 13th century church and a farm remain. The church, St John the Baptist, has Saxon origins and was restored in the late 19th century by William Morris, the textile designer, poet, novelist and socialist.  Inglesham is also where the poet Shelley and companions gave up their attempt to sail to the source of the Thames. The river here is still narrow and winds this way and that. I think it is also very shallow in places. But the scene as we arrived at the river was one of great beauty: a rich palette of greens beneath a bright blue sky, flecked with wispy cloud. It was one of the loveliest stretches anywhere on the river: a classic, modest English beauty.

 

I got my paintbrushes out again quite recently to depict the first of these scenes. You’ll note that there is one major difference: the tree in the centre of the picture has leaves in my version. Artistic licence… and an emergency measure when I messed up the bare branches! Too many and too thick. But, you think, it should have had leaves by that time of the year – everything else has. Perhaps the real thing was diseased, despite its dignified presence.

The approach to Lechlade was gorgeous, with the spire of St Lawrence’s church rising as if from the river. The church dates from 1496 and was originally dedicated to St Mary, before changing to St Lawrence at the behest of Catherine of Aragon. On Sunday, before returning to London, we stopped for some breakfast by Lechlade’s Market Square at a café called Lynwood and Co, which was very good. Outside the spire loomed above us, but being Sunday and with services on, we didn’t get to look around. Another time, perhaps.

Lechlade means the wharf or crossing by the Lech, or today, Leach – the river which joins the Thames at this point. Four counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire – also meet at Lechlade, which itself is just in Gloucestershire. This is the furthest point upstream that commercial boats could travel; and in centuries past it was a thriving port, serving Oxford and London. A notable commodity that was sent down river was cheese; the stone that was used for St Paul’s dome in London was also transported from here.

Halfpenny Bridge was completed in 1793. It was made high to allow the barges to pass under it without lowering their masts according to Ackroyd, though to be honest it doesn’t look that high. Its name comes from the toll levied on walkers – except churchgoers and mourners – until 1839. It became toll-free from all traffic in 1875.

On the outskirts of Lechlade is the first lock on the river, St John’s. Today a statue of Old Father Thames rests here – it was originally situated at the source.

We passed near to Kelmscott, where the aforementioned William Morris famously lived in a manor close to the river. I don’t remember seeing it! A couple of miles further on we reached a village called Radcot and stopped to eat our sandwiches, aided by a pint from the pub, Ye Olde Swan. The original bridge here – over a side stream of the main river – is thought to have been built in AD 958, which makes it, the books say, the oldest bridge over the Thames. (That must be outside London – London Bridge, in its various guises, has been there since at least the times of the Romans.) A replacement was built around 1393 by Normandy monks who lived in nearby Faringdon. There was a Civil War battle here in 1465, in which royalist Prince Rupert fought off the parliamentary army.

None of the next set of photos are of either of those locations. But these ones were on the way and rather lovely.

While we were in Radcot the weather turned and it lashed down for a while, but we continued onwards.  As we progressed the river rippled in the wind and it seemed to be flowing faster. Our destination was Tadpole Bridge, which was in the middle of nowhere. But it did have a pub, the Trout Inn, which has rooms for those hardy walkers who like to walk from the source, or Cricklade, to Oxford in a couple of days.

The most pointless gate I’ve seen. Maybe there was a fence in times gone by.

Tadpole Bridge.

We ended our journey for the day with a pint in the Trout, returning there on Saturday morning to start the last leg of our Thames venture. This group photo was taken on Saturday by our friendly taxi driver.

 

We were heading for just near Newbridge, at the path leading to Harrowdown Hill. It was an incredibly windy day – the remnants of Storm Hannah – and for the most part, the scenery was austere compared with the lush greens of the area either side of Lechlade. We barely saw a soul all day.

One notable feature of this stretch was the old pillboxes, from the Second World War. The Thames has often been a border, a defence, a refuge. We weren’t quite sure why the Germans would be interested in this part of the river, but some googling in the evening revealed that it was all part of a defence plan should the Germans invade from the south coast. Territory would be yielded as far as the Thames; from there the invading forces had to be denied access to the industrial Midlands. I’m not sure the pillboxes would have offered much defence against German tanks, but I guess they had to do something to prepare for the possibility.

And then we reached our destination. The signpost that marked the end of our journey. We had covered the length of the Thames from the source to the estuary. 22 walks, including one around Canvey Island. Mostly downstream until Marlow, and all upstream in London as far as Hampton Court. We celebrated with a pint outside the Blue Boar; and later, a glass of champagne back at the cottage.

This blog, of course, is travelling downstream with the river, and the journey has only just begun. In the next instalment we will begin at nearby Newbridge and make our way to the dreaming spires of Oxford.

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lovelondonscenes 169 – Return to the Canal

I walked along the Grand Union Canal for the first time since lockdown today. It’s not that far away, but I have diligently been doing circuits of the local park, listening to podcasts, over the past nine weeks. I was posting a parcel in Boston Road, a few minutes walk from the canal, and the weather was lovely, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was much quieter than the park, pretty deserted save for the odd walker and cyclist.

One of the delights was to see a couple of families of moorhens, both parents and three or four chicks (I assume they’re called chicks). Growing up undisturbed apart from the odd passing swan.

The sun also brought out the reflections of the trees, the bridges on the surface of the canal. I hadn’t planned to take photos, but it was irresistible.

Here are a few of the shots that I took on my iPhone.

Mum and Dad take a dive

 

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A Thames Journey: (1) From the Source to Cricklade

Sweete Themmes, runne softly, till I end my song.

(Edmund Spenser, 1596)

Old Father Thames at St John’s Lock near Lechlade

One of the things I’ve missed most in this time of lockdown is being able to walk along the banks of the River Thames. I’ve whiled away many an hour of my retirement strolling along the river, mostly stretches between London Bridge to the east and Richmond to the west.  It’s good for the body and great for the soul. Fascinating, invigorating, soothing and inspiring in equal measure.

But if you can’t have the real thing, then the memories, the photos offer some sort of compensation. I have a lot of pictures, particularly of London, but also of the walks that my wife, Kath and I embarked on with our friends Jon and Maggie between August 2015 and April 2019, covering the length of the river from the source to Erith in Kent. With a bonus excursion to Canvey Island! I’ve been picking out the best of the shots for a photobook recently, at the same time as reading Peter Ackroyd’s magnificent book Thames, Sacred River. It got me thinking that it would be interesting to write about that journey, pausing along the way to reflect on other experiences that are related to the Thames in one way or another.  I hope it might be interesting to read too.

We didn’t do the walk in geographical sequence, upstream or downstream, but I thought I’d make this literary journey wind its way from the source to where the river opens out into the North Sea. From the bubbling stream of rural Gloucestershire to the oil refineries of Canvey Island.  From a trickle to a cascade, swelled by the waters of numerous tributaries, twisting and turning through country and town, ebbing and flowing with the tide as it reaches the capital.

The Thames in and above Oxford is often referred to as the Isis. Nowadays that word has an association with terrorism, but it is also the name of an Egyptian goddess. The Thames has been compared with the Nile for the fertility of its surrounds and its centrality in the country’s history and culture, and early Christianity did incorporate elements of Egyptian mythology. Some think that the story of Mary is in part derived from that of Isis, another mother figure. Who knows? The ancient names for the river seem mostly to have been variants of Thameisis. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the first half could derive from the Celtic word tam, which means smooth or wide-spreading.  Alternatively, it could be the Sanskrit tamasa, which means dark. The Thames has often been described as the dark river; and in its most polluted days it was positively black in London. And the isis bit might be a reference to the goddess, but it could also be a derivation of the Celtic word isa or esa which means running water. The Ouse and Exe rivers derive their names from the same source. So Thameisis could mean dark river or smooth running water. Throw in the goddess and it gets very complicated. Or maybe it’s simple: Thames just means river.

Just as unclear is where the Thames actually starts. There is a consensus these days it is at what is known as Thames Head, not far from the village of Kemble, which is near the ancient Fosse Way. But there are competing theories. One is that it emerges from the Seven Springs, just north of Cirencester. These feed the River Churn, which joins the Thames near Cricklade. So: is the Churn a tributary, or is it really the Thames? We will never really know.

Anyway, let’s assume the source is at Thames Head, in a field called Trewsbury Mead, near Kemble – the official version. That’s where we start this journey. It wasn’t where we started time-wise: that was in Erith – the other end. Let’s not worry about that. We found ourselves in Gloucestershire, in the middle of nowhere, on a beautiful, sunny, crisply cold day on 29 December 2016. We’d taken a taxi from Kemble station. As we walked across a ploughed field, the stalks of whatever crop had been there crunched under foot. The sun blazed, but it was freezing. It was a combination that made you feel truly alive.

We made our way down the slope towards a scraggy wood. Just in front of the wood was a small mound with a headstone and a small hole, encircled by rocks. The source of the Thames! Is that it? No water to be seen. A signpost saying 184 miles to the Thames Barrier. I could see, further across the meadow, evidence of a stream. We wandered down there. It was the emergent Thames, steam seeming to rise from it. I guess the kinetic energy of the water passing over the rocks made it warmer than the freezing air above it, creating moisture. It was something you’d expect in a rain forest, not a field in Gloucestershire!

Yours truly

The path briefly took us away from the stream through some lovely countryside, tinged with sparkling frost in the bright sunshine.

As we rejoined the river, it started to widen a little, bolstered by the input of other streams and rivulets.  It wound its way past Kemble and Ewen, both settlements dating from Celtic or Saxon times. Kemble means boundary; Ewen the source of a spring. The upper Thames was, in Saxon times, the dividing line between Wessex and Mercia. Whether the name Kemble denoted that, or simply the demarcation of local territory, I’m not sure. We didn’t divert to either – the daylight hours are precious at this time of year, and we needed to make it to Cricklade. On we walked, marvelling at how this unassuming river could be one and the same as the mighty beast that snakes through London.

Peter Ackroyd quotes from a poet called Thomas Love Peacock, who wrote a piece in 1810 called The Genius of the Thames. It’s apposite:

Let fancy lead, from Trewsbury Mead,                                                                                          With hazel fringe, and copsewood deep,                                                                                  Where scarcely seen, though brilliant green,                                                                                Thy infant waters softly creep,                                                                                                          To where the wide-expanding Nore                                                                                            Beholds thee, with tumultuous roar

We passed through a pretty village called Ashton Keynes, where the Thames resembles a well looked after canal. There are three villages in the area with Keynes in their names. It comes from a French baron, Sir Ralph de Keynes, who owned much of the area in the times of King John.

The banks became more manicured in the village centre

Soon after, as the sun began to descend, we found ourselves amid the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park, as the path briefly diverged from the river. There were some beautiful scenes as the trees glowed red in the sunset, reflecting on the water of the lakes. It was nature as art.

The mist began to fall now, adding to the beauty as we reconnected with the river. But it started to cause us concern, too, that we wouldn’t make it into Cricklade before darkness fell. None of us had brought a torch! Jon was reading his map with the light of his phone. The question was, where to come off the river and find our way into the town? Would fences or hedges bar our way? We ploughed on with fingers crossed and reached civilisation in the nick of time, through a farm if I recall.

Where are we?

How glad we were to walk into Cricklade! It was time for a celebratory pint and to reflect on a stunning walk along the infant Thames.

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Graceland – the Book and the Place

This is a blog I’ve been meaning to write since last year.

One of the many pleasures of the End of the Road festival are the interviews that take place in the mornings and early afternoon in the literary tent, tucked away in a secluded part of Larmer Tree Gardens. Last year one of the talks featured Bethan Roberts who had written a book called “Graceland”, a fictionalised account of Elvis Presley’s early life and, in particular, his relationship with his mother, Gladys. They were very close, but of course as Elvis found fame she began to lose her hold over him, for all sorts of reasons, not least all the girlfriends and the ubiquitous “Colonel” Tom Parker. The story begins and ends as a tragedy: Elvis was a twin, but the other baby died at birth; and Gladys turned to alcohol quite early in her life and died from heart failure at the age of 46 after suffering from hepatitis.

Bethan’s novel is beautifully written and captures the lives of Gladys and Elvis – and father/husband Vernon – with insight and compassion. She is herself the mother of an only son, which will have given her some of that insight. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the novel, but also a vivid narrative of Elvis’ journey in music, starting with his singing in the church choir with his first love Magdalene and his love for the music of the black musicians in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, especially the trombonist Ulysses Mayhorn. In her talk Bethan described how she grew up in an Elvis-loving household and retained an affection for his music, which eventually led to the writing of “Graceland”.  In the Q&A session I asked her what her favourite Elvis song was. The first she mentioned was “Mystery Train” which I thought was an excellent choice. I too love those early, raw, bluesy rock’n’roll sounds. Elvis at his most primal – and revolutionary.

I was reminded of all of this when I recently listened to a Word Podcast with Bethan Roberts on my daily walk around the nearby park during our lockdown. The subject was again “Graceland”. The podcast is hosted by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, and features talks about music and literature with a musical theme. The Word magazine was an indispensable music publication until it fell victim to online competition in 2012; but Mark and David have kept its spirit going with the “Word in Your Ear” talks, usually in an Islington pub, and the podcasts. Bethan’s interview is podcast number 314 from 18 February this year if you want to listen to it.

That also reminded me that I’d never written anything about my trip to Graceland in May last year. I wrote about Nashville soon after getting home, but never got around to Memphis and Chattanooga. Graceland was a pretty extraordinary place. The house itself is big but not massive, although there are extensive grounds. The delight for me was some of the décor – classic 70s kitsch. The indulgences of a wealthy man. There are some lovely photos of the family and the young Elvis in the house, and then, as you go outside, you reach the graves of Elvis and his mother and father. He was always a family man, even if it was a troubled family.

The other delights of Graceland are in the museum complex nearby – you get a minibus between the two. I met some very friendly people from Birmingham, Alabama on the bus. They were interested in where I was from and extolled the virtues of their home state. I decided it might be best not to describe the profound effect that the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis had had on me the previous day. We lost touch in the house and the only time I saw them after that was briefly across the floor in one of the diners in the complex. But it was good to meet them and was just one example of the friendliness that I encountered in all three Tennessee cities I visited.

The museum exhibitions were sometimes amusing – the over-the-top collection of cars  and the stage costumes for example – but also inspiring. They were a reminder of what an incredible performer Elvis was and about the revolutionary effect he had on music in the 1950s. This in turn inspired many of the great bands of the 60s and 70s and set off the musical journey that I, amongst others, have been on ever since. I think anyone who loves rock’n’roll music should try, if they can afford it, to get to Graceland one day. And they should read Bethan Roberts’ “Graceland” too.

A few photos from my Elvis experience in Memphis, Tennessee…

The House

Gladys, Elvis and Vernon. Vernon had problems holding down a regular job in Tupelo, and spent some time in prison for altering a cheque.

The Museums

Baby’s got a pink cadillac!

The favoured outfit of Elvis impersonators everywhere!

The primal Elvis. Imagine the impact…

Elvis’ debut album in 1956, featuring “Blue Suede Shoes”. Note where the Clash got the design for “London Calling”

I like the honesty and the commitment of this statement.

Of course Elvis had his own fleet of planes!

Sun Studio, Union Avenue, Memphis

Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio is the place where Elvis made his first music. Songs like “Mystery Train”. It’s in an area called the Edge, which lies adjacent to Downtown. Sam Phillips was a blues man first and foremost and he wasn’t convinced by Elvis at first; but he saw the light. The studio closed down in the early 60s and lay dormant until the 1980s when it was reopened for tours and recording. U2 were one band who recorded there – so the Edge was recording in the Edge! They left a set of drums which are still on display.

The Fab Four at Sun Studio: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash.

 

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Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton, 12 March 2020

Moses Boyd is a leading member of the new generation of jazz artists who have been causing a bit of a sensation in recent times. His new solo album “Dark Matter” ventures far and wide in its musical influences, but is rooted in modern jazz and, dare I say it, jazz rock. Moses himself plays the drums and plays them with real style, subtly driving the music forward. I saw him play with his band Exodus at End of the Road last year and was bowled over. It was one of the best shows of the three days.

He played the Electric Brixton on Thursday. Oddly I’ve never been to that venue before. The Academy many times, but never the Electric. I liked it: a nice size, similar to the Scala and Koko I’d say. My friend Annabelle and I stood up on the top balcony (near the bar!) and got a great, unimpeded view. And what a show!  One of the best I’ve seen for a while. An hour and forty minutes of musical bliss. The core band was sax, guitar, keys and Moses on drums. There was a guest singer for, I think, “Shades of You”, so it might have been Poppy Ajudha, who sings on the album.  And at the beginning and end, a team of drummers added to the percussive drive. I’d only listened to “Dark Matter” a couple of times so I’m not sure about the song titles, although the first piece was “Stranger than Fiction”, which has been a single and received a lot of airplay on 6 Music. Live though, it was truly awesome. The build-up to the central tune was electric (no pun intended!). And atmospheric: the epic quality of the music was enhanced by some clever lighting – quite simple but very striking. Light and shadow, silhouettes, black and white morphing to full colour and dry ice, and for the second song a barrage of flashing, which had me looking away a little.  Tried and tested techniques, but done with imagination and subtlety (apart from those flashes!).

Imagination and sublety. You could use those words to describe Moses Boyd’s drumming. He caresses those snares and cymbals. It’s intricate and intense, and smoothly powers the music along. It’s a mystery train. Listen to the song “Y.O.Y.O” on “Dark Matter” to get what I’m talking about. That one certainly featured in the show. He played a solo three songs in which was a wonder to behold.  The musicianship generally was amazing. There was plenty of opportunity for all of the players to show what they could do and it really was breathtaking at times. When the guitarist got going we were in definite jazz rock territory – I’m thinking of favourites from the late 60s/early 70s like Miles Davis’s two classics “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, and Santana’s “Caravanserai”.  It was a journey through the genres: dance, Latin, ballads, the jazz of Miles and Coltrane, Caribbean, the pulsating modern jazz sound with that rhythmic saxophone attack. As Annabelle said at one point, “This is just beautiful”.

Yes, beautiful, captivating music the whole night through. Inspiring me to listen to “Dark Matter” on the way home – and ever since! – and to go back to those jazz classics I mentioned above.  The rebirth of cool.

 

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BBC 6 Music Festival – the Roundhouse, 8 March 2020

The BBC 6 Music festival was held in London this year – Camden, in north London, to be precise. Tickets for the three day event sold incredibly quickly, but I managed to get a couple for Sunday for the main stage at the Roundhouse. The line-up looked excellent: Nadine Shah, Jehnny Beth, Anna Meredith, Kim Gordon and Kate Tempest. All women, in honour of International Women’s Day. But, as Nadine Shah said, that shouldn’t be so unusual.

Nadine Shah

I’ve always liked Nadine Shah, since she made her first album, “Fast Food”, in 2015. Her sound is sometimes described as post punk – a reflection of the fact that it shares the sharp-edged guitars and sometimes rather grandiose melodies of that early 80s indie sound. Two of my favourite songs from “Fast Food” – “Fool” and “Stealing Cars” – are good examples of that. “Fool” made it onto the seven song set on Sunday and was a highlight. The guitars were strident and the beats pounded. Three of the songs were from the 2017 album “Holiday Destination”, including the catchy title track. There was a preview from the forthcoming album “Kitchen Sink” called “Ladies for Babies” which keeps up Nadine’s reputation for trenchant social commentary. It’s done with a smile though – she is an engaging performer who takes the trouble to talk to the audience.

Another highlight of the show was a short jazz standard called “There’s No Greater Love”, which she used to sing with Amy Winehouse when they both lived in Camden. It was a nice touch in an enjoyable show, my second favourite of the day. The best was next…

Jehnny Beth

Jehnny Beth is best known as the dynamic singer with Savages, one of the most full-on punk/Goth/hardcore bands around. I was converted when I saw them play live at End of the Road in 2016. They were awesome and Jehnny was truly remarkable. The energy, the presence. Living the music.

It’s disappointing that they seem to have come to a halt after two albums, the last of which, “Adore Life” is a genuine classic. The hiatus seems to be the result of Jehnny’s need to explore her other interests. Jehnny is multi-talented: not only a musician, but an actor, poet and author. I saw her in a fascinating conversation with the new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage at King’s Place in 2018, discussing the relationship between music and poetry. “Adore Life” drew some of its force from poetry.

At King’s Place, venturing into poetry with an established poet, Jehnny was self-deprecating, even nervous, as she read some of her verse. But when she plays music she comes alive and takes no prisoners. I was thinking this show might be mellower than the typical Savages set, having heard the new single, “Flower”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The set was as in-yer-face as any Savages performance. And when Jehnny gets going, she energises the place. There was the obligatory crowd-surfing, which I think might have taken some of the older members of the audience by surprise. “Flower” did feature, but it was more strident than the recorded version; and the other recent single “I’m the Man” rocked. It was a brilliant, exhilarating show. Jehnny Beth is a true entertainer.

Anna Meredith

I’m not that familiar with Anna Meredith’s music, though I’ve heard it a few times on Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on 6 Music. She has a classical music pedigree and ventures into avant-garde electronics now and then. Her 2016 album “Varmints” was highly acclaimed, and she has a new record, “FIBS” out now. The show was very percussive and dynamic, with a band that included a tuba and cello. Anna spent a lot of time banging out the rhythms on a pair of timpani drums, as well as manipulating the electronic beats on the keys. Towards the end things went into dance mode, and the crowd responded really well to that. There was something upbeat and engaging about it all – a real sense of enjoyment. Maybe not the sort of thing I’d listen a lot to at home, but fun on the day.

Kim Gordon

Now Kim Gordon has a hell of a history: she was bassist in the epoch-defining band Sonic Youth. Formed in the early 1980s, they were post punk, alternative, hard core, grunge and more besides. Not often an easy listen, but intriguing (in small doses). I bought quite a lot of their CDs, especially in the 1990s, because I thought I needed to know how they sounded. And I liked a few tracks (notably “Youth against Fascism”) a lot; but mostly it blended into an artful noise. I never saw them live, though I did see Thurston Moore, the singer and guitarist, play at End of the Road and didn’t stay the whole set!

Kim also wrote a really good autobiography called “Girl in a Band” which was published in paperback in 2016. The title says it all: she describes the challenges of being a woman in a hardcore rock band. There were many! And she documents the break-up of her marriage to Thurston Moore. It is bleakly honest.

She released her first solo album in 2019. It’s called “No Home Record”. She played the whole of it on Sunday, mostly in the order of the album. (I hadn’t heard it at the time.) What I got from it was a sense of intensity and power – and alienation. There was no interchange with the audience until right at the end. It was full-on noise. Pretty impressive; but not overladen with tunes. There was a big video screen playing a kind of road movie – an image of endless travel through the American badlands. Fascinating viewing, but uncomfortable listening. A lot of shade, but not much light. The crowd was respectful, but tentative in its response.

I’m listening to the album as I write this, and I’m getting it. The sheer noise didn’t really let a newcomer like me do that on Sunday, though there was a fascination about it, partly because of the visuals. Looking back, the most thought-provoking of the shows.

Kate Tempest

I saw Kate Tempest last year at End of the Road. I really respect what she does. She’s a great modern poet, with her finger on the pulse of today. On record, the music enhances the words. Live it tends to drown them out. So you get the electronics, and the beats, and the cadences of her words. But the lyrics are submerged, the subtleties lost. It crossed my mind as I watched and tried to listen on Sunday, that Sleaford Mods have a similar problem. Except they have a few more chants that people know. Of course this all depends on how well you know an artist’s work when you go to see them. If it is familiar, you find yourself playing the song you know in your head, even as the live version is overwhelmed by distortion or the drum beats. What I would really like to do is go to a Kate Tempest show that had no music, and just relied on the rhythm and the detail of her words. That’s where the real power – and musicality – lies. Her lyrics, her poetry. They are resonant, heartfelt, a sign of her inner struggle and a sign of the times.  For me, all that was rather lost on Sunday, although the show was engaging. So I watched about half of it and started to think about getting the tube home on a Sunday…

An excellent evening anyway, and credit to 6 Music and all the performers for putting on such a great event. Did I mention how good the sound was? BBC class, as ever. Do not let this government touch this national treasure just because it doesn’t always tow the political line. It is a massively important part of our culture; and 6 Music, which has just turned 18, is one of its most vital offspring!

A few more photos, starting with Nadine Shah.

Jehnny Beth

Anna Meredith

Kim Gordon

Kate Tempest

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lovelondonscenes 168 – Sunshine on the Canal – or is it the River?

A familiar scene, the Grand Union Canal – and the River Brent. The two become one on this lower stretch, which leads at Brentford into the Thames. After two days of incessant rain and most of the news being about coronavirus, it was great to get out into the winter sunshine and stretch my legs. I walked down to Boston Manor Park, crossed over the wooden bridge there onto the towpath and walked north and west to Hanwell. It was pretty flooded in places, which was no surprise, but it was all passable in walking boots – you wouldn’t want to muck up your fancy trainers though. The whole walk ended up being about 7 miles, which blew out the cobwebs nicely.

A few photos below, taken with the iPhone.

From the wooden bridge at Boston Manor park, near the A4.

Clitheroe’s Lock, with a Brent River loop.

The lovely M4!

Crossover bridge.

This is parakeet territory, though they moved quickly away when I tried to take a snap. The bright green troupe are a bit of an anomaly in the West London woodland, but they must have escaped from somewhere, and now seem to be thriving.

The other end of that loop. There’s a lock nearby which is called Osterley lock, though it’s nowhere near Osterley. Elthorne Park is nearby.

This is where the River Brent parts company with the canal, or alternatively, where they are about to come together. The West London mangroves!

Going under the Uxbridge Road, water still dripping down. Still, this place is sometimes completely flooded.

The Wharncliffe Viaduct, from Brent Meadow. Built in 1836-7, designed by Brunel. Still a railway bridge.

Finally, the Brent looking lively. The canal absorbs it and slows it down.

It’s good to have this lot on your doorstep.

 

 

 

 

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Big Thief at Hammersmith Apollo, 27 February 2020

Big Thief are one of my favourite bands at the moment. I love their combination of folk, Americana and indie with an off-kilter element which reminds me a little of Radiohead. Singer Adrianne Lenker has a fragile but versatile voice which works beautifully with the folkier tunes and contrasts delicately with the moments of wild guitar that break out of some of the songs. The music is strangely conventional and unconventional. Last year the band released two albums: “UFOF” and “Two Hands”. I really liked “UFOF”, which was their gentlest album yet, but still rocked out with songs like “Jenni” and “Contact”, and had a lot of that Radiohead feel, especially on the title track. “Two Hands” didn’t do so much for me at first, but after a few listens songs like “Not” and “Forgotten Eyes” made their mark. I saw them play a couple of times last year too: first at SWX in Bristol in May, and then at Green Man, on the main stage, in August. I loved the Bristol show, which felt like a real celebration. Green Man, in the open air, with Adrianne wearing a silly wig and moustache, was good, but inevitably lacked the intimacy of the indoors.

So the show last Thursday seemed set to be kind of familiar, but also different, as the band change their set around quite a lot from show to show and they had a new album to promote in “Two Hands”. And what we got was a pretty perfect mix of the new and the old, over 19 tracks, including a rather short encore. The show started typically perversely, not with a rousing favourite or flagship new song, but two Adrianne solos, a song called “Zombie Girl” (according to Setlist FM) and the lovely “Orange” from “UFOF”. But then we got a run of Big Thief classics – “Masterpiece” (the song that first caught my attention), “Capacity” and “Shark Smile”, which rolls and rumbles after its rasping electric intro. We were all set up!

Other highlights were “Real Love” and “Not”, both of which featured some epic guitar, mostly from Adrianne; another old favourite, “Mary”, where Adrianne sets off on lyrical streams that feel like poetry; and of course the new old favourite, “Cattails” from “UFOF”, which verges on being a hoedown. Let’s say it has a bluegrass beat. With “Shark Smile” it’s the most danceable song in the set.

Credit too, to the people responsible for the sound (which must include the venue, as well as those on the mixing desk). It was really crisp and clear. I could even understand some of the words! The key, I think, was that it was loud enough to fill the space, but not too loud to distort the whole thing, which so often happens. It meant we were able to appreciate fully the excellent musicianship of the band.

So my best Big Thief experience yet.  Next up, End of the Road this September…

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