Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Because, it's end of summer and I'm busy figuring out how to run this year's Golden Afternoon, which is a scant month away, I haven't been keeping this journal up very much lately. Here, though, in response to Ruth's comment on the message board, is another excerpt from my weekly writing for the East Anglian Daily Times, the world's finest regional daily...
Autumn With Malcolm
I have a very good friend called Malcolm. Years ago, following the collapse of our respective relationships, he needed to make up the mortgage and I needed a place to live. I moved in on the top floor of his house. Originally meant only as a few months stop-gap, the arrangement lasted three years. We became an Essex version of The Odd Couple. Apart from a shared love of Led Zeppelin, The Stones and repairing to the pub to commiserate with each other about our disastrous love lives, we couldn't have been more different. He was urban south of county and I was country north. He was casually messy and I was neurotically tidy. He drove cars, whilst I rode bicycles. I christened our accommodation Bachelor Central. If the state of things really got to me, I'd spend a long morning blitzing all three floors, only to have Malcolm come in, plonk a four-pack on the table, switch the TV on and then proceeed to empty the cans whilst filling all the ashtrays. Occasionally, when a rare female visitor arrived and asked how often he tidied the place up, I'd yell from the kitchen: “Once a girlfriend!” A Jewish-Italian hybrid, Malcolm's wit was sharp and left-field. He came home from a training course in London one day and remarked: “Hey, you know Schindler's List? Well, I was in Schindler's Lift today.” There really is a firm called Schindler who make lifts. Well, you had to be there really.
Malcolm hardly noticed the passing of the seasons – a thing which I was always very aware of.I'd notice in autumn, for instance, that the hedgerows were dripping with sloes and elderberries. He'd only notice the resultant purple action-paintings left by the birds on the washing line. I would notice, in late October, that next door's birch tree leaves looked like gold ingots. He might notice, eventually, that his shed had blown over in a gale. I'd be curled up reading Betjeman. He'd be studying the scheduled TV films, and quality-checking them in a copy of Halliwell's Film Guide. I'd be in the local woods, walking the dog and watching the lost summer shot down in flames. He'd be watching a film. I enjoyed the keener air. He turned the central heating up. I observed that the climber-rose by the front door had produced a late flush of blooms. He noticed that its overgrowth was tapping at his bedroom window in the wind and keeping him awake. My walks ranged through woods, fields and along the river banks. His ranged between an office around the corner, a shop up the road and the pub.
One year in the mid-Nineties, however, a year which was meteorologically, similar to the one we're now in, the autumn really took off. The segueway from summer was seamless. We'd had a dry, almost windless September of the type that we sometimes get on the Essex coast. When October snuck in through the picket gate, the nights gradually got chillier and damper and yet, the days remained warm. The woods were tinder-dry, the fields were full of horse-mushrooms and autumn hawkbits flowered at the edges of playgrounds and on the street verges. With colder nights, the leaves began slowly to turn but mostly, remained on the trees. Drinkers sitting outside the quayside pub watched a rouged sun sinking wantonly down in the west, with a few raiments of purple-brown clouds draped on it. All the big chaps who like to dress as giant American children, with those strange, three quarter-length multi-pocketed trousers, still felt warm enough to continue wearing them. An early morning rail journey to London was a pleasure to do – especially with the low mists across the fields and the stunning colours on the trees by Ingatestone.
Now, there's one thing that I remember about living in a male household. When someone suggests going for a pint, with no women around you can be out of that door in a shot. In a routine which only involves grabbing your keys, your fags and some money, two blokes can be throwing their jackets on while they march down the street. There's no fiddling about with dresses, make-up, hair or handbags. Oh, actually, in these newly-empowered times of ours, I've heard that this may have altered in some areas. It wasn't the case with the boys of Bachelor Central, though. Our average time from “Locked doors? ” to “What's yours?” was usually about three minutes.
One Friday evening that particular year, as we ambled down the road, past an overgrown abandoned shipyard, I observed that the leaves on the trees across the river at Fingringhoe seemed to be aflame. The gardens which we passed were a symphony of loveliness. It was like walking through a Thomas Kinkade painting. A low-flying skein of geese went honking through the still sky above us. With a sweet waft of an autumn bonfire in the air, the season had really outdone itself. It was, for that brief moment, perfect. We got to the pub and ordered the first round. After taking a good draft of his beer, Malcolm looked seriously at me and said: “It's giving good autumn this year, isn't it?” That was about as poetic as it ever got during those three years. He was right though. And with luck I reckon we could be in for a similar sort of thing this year. Golden days.
This was taken from my East Anglian Daily Times column, two weeks ago
Of Chappel and Wakes Colne Railway Station...
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton cum Hardy or Chester-le-Street
We won't be meeting again, on the slow train - Flanders and Swann
When I first saw Chappel & Wakes Colne Station, it was in bright winter sunlight and I was the only person on the platform. It felt like I'd accidentally stumbled through a rip in time's shower curtain, out onto some railway station remembered from my distant childhood. Here was the old green LNER livery and there were the slatted benches, and the blue enamelled signs above the waiting rooms and toilets. The ticket office wasn't called a ticket office but a Booking Hall. Walking farther along the platform was the Lamp Room and opposite, sitting patiently in a siding. were a couple of flaking old carriages. I'd half-expected to see Bernard Cribbins dressed as a porter, come whistling along, pencil behind his ear and a sackbarrow stacked with parcels. It was a classic quiet country station, of a type which was common all over the country before Dr. Beeching's Axe hacked its way through the 1960s. Chappel is a railway museum now but luckily, still very much a functioning station stop.
The Gainsborough Line, which runs hourly between Marks Tey to Sudbury, stopping at Chappel and Bures, once ran all the way to Cambridge. The section which once continued from Sudbury to Cambridge finally closed at the end of 1966. The part of it still running today survived several other attempts to close it, but was finally reprieved in 1974, for the sake of the local community. Seasoned rail travellers will, of course, know what a sod it can be nowadays, to get by rail from Colchester to Cambridge. You either go into London and come back out again via West Anglia, or you go via Ipswich and Ely, occasionally halting at Dullingham, a sleepy-looking stop which I've always promised I'd visit, yet never have.
Even though it's only about fifty miles, from Colchester to Cambridge, it means that the journey can take up to two and a half hours by train. In AD 2010, this is averaging speeds of twelve m.p.h or less, between two major urban centres. Space Age stuff, hey? Welcome to the future. It would probably be only marginally slower going overland in a small cart pulled by four sheep. Because of such modern efficiency, therefore, one or two of us will still get a little tearful when confronted with the eerie beauty of an edifice such as Chappel railway station and what it once represented.
With summer having passed its zenith, then, and the grainfields now the colour of mustard left out on the table, let's you and I take a train in early August out across the West Colne Valley to Sudbury. Having got to Marks Tey, we board a little two carriage diesel-powered sprinter, which grumbles out across medieval-looking farmland, over the Chappel Viaduct and through the trees to the low slopes of Suffolk. Alighting at Sudbury station, a fellow passenger remarks to the woman meeting her: “What a brilliant train ride!” Her host replies, “ It really is. It's one of the ones that Beeching didn't get.” That name again. Almost half a century later, and an entire nation has still not forgiven The Man Who Took Our Trainset Away.
It's market day in Sudbury, but we don't hang around, because today, we're mainly here for the train ride. On the way back through Bures, I remember that Douglas Adams, in his Book of Liff defined 'bures' as: “The scabs on knees and elbows, formed by the compulsion to make love on cheap Habitat floor-matting.” This affords me a moment of cheap merriment before we alight at Chappel Station, where, once again I wander up and down the platform admiring the various bygones. I also notice the surrounding countryside and its skies. Because it is exactly on a day such as today, with its great billowing clouds like a fleet waiting to set sail, that you can see what Gainsborough and Constable were getting at, whenever they painted. There are more dramatic regions for scenery, I grant you, but I don't think, apart from the Lake District, that there are any which can rival us for epic skies.
At lunch, in a beamed country pub by the River Colne, we sit, a middle-aged couple surrounded by four rather more elderly couples. The food is good, the décor is idyllic and the service is fine. Except for one thing. Thundering non-stop out of the pub's sound system comes a selection of 1980s mainstream pop. We get Seal. We get Tears for Fears. We get ABC, with an impassioned-to-hysterical Martin Fry, yelping Tears Are Not Enough. Nobody is grooving to it. Least of all, the man behind me, who with his solid check jacket, could be a retired military historian. He shows no inclination whatsoever to bound up, yelling, “Aw ‒ well wicked!” and then begin shimmying. If he ever did, they'd probably panic and yank the music off, pronto. Who comes up with these things? Does someone at hotel management courses tell all the trainees: “And remember, team; Thursday is pension day. You're gonna be seeing a lot of silver citizens out for their lunches. So get that Eighties compilation on and crank it right round to ten. They may not look like they're enjoying it, but believe me, they really dig it.” Now, I ask, what might be wrong with a bit of Bach harpsichord stuff instead? But I grow old, I grow old.
Greece ‒ Not the musical (Part 1)
I must have been mad. “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” laughed her best friend, as I left the flat on Hangover Hill, with my guitar case and my small zip-up gig bag. Ever since I'd known her, every few months, as soon as she'd saved up a bit of money, off she went to Greece. Or Italy. Or France.
Uusally she hitch-hiked. In 1976, certain young middle-class Englishwomen still regarded this as a relatively safe thing to do. If she had a bit more money, she'd book a cheap flight from what we used to call a 'bucket-shop' ‒ a fly-by-night travel agency, usually somewhere around the Earls Court area, selling cheap flights.
She'd finally persuaded me that I couldn't stay in England all my life and why wasn't I a bit more adventurous? I reasoned that least I'd be able to keep an eye on her, I was deeply unhappy and chary of the whole thing. I've always hated foreign travel. I regard it neither as a privilege nor a treat. It's, just something which I have always had to do, either for work or because, in earlier days, my parents made me do it. If they took away my passport and ordered me to stay in England for the rest of my life, it would be absolutely fine by me. I've seen the world. It was boring. I don't believe that travel broadens the mind. I think in many cases, it narrows it. I know people who've been to Thailand or Egypt and only know beaches and hotels. What the hell, though. I was twenty three. My new band Gypp wasn't yet on the road. I said I'd go with her.
So now I was sitting at Victoria Coach Station, with a mixture of hippies, students and sundry other wazzocks, waiting for a thing called The Magic Bus to leave. I was also staring down three days of bum-numbing tedium, which would occasionally be punctuated by paranoia, till we got to our holiday destination. I don't take holidays. I have no idea what is required for a holiday, since I am incapable of doing nothing, I hate being a tourist and I don't want to meet new people. I'm one of those rare souls who, most of the time, is quite happy with what he's got and where he already is.
The fun started, as per usual with H.M Customs at Dover. Now I expect trouble with customs on my way back into the UK. But I don't usually expect it on the way out. Out of a whole coachload of people, it is me whom they come aboard for and request to step off the bus. They search me and my meagre baggage. They ask me lots of questions. “I don't have any drugs.” I tell them. “What makes you think we're looking for drugs?” I tell them that I have shoulder-length hennaed hair, I'm wearing a bright red jacket and I'm carrying a guitar. I ask them, surely this might be enough? They seem cross about my reasoning.
They discover that I'm travelling with the young woman. They pull her off the bus now. They go through all her stuff. They pull out her box of tampons and start cutting some of them up in order to look for drugs. Naturally they find nothing. They tell her to get back on the coach. They keep me with them. The senior customs guy doesn't like me. Even though I am being neutral and polite, he seems to dislike both my appearance and my attitude
“How much sterling currency are you carrying?” he asks. I tell him that I have about a hundred quid and that I had not found time to either change it, or buy travellers' cheques. “A bit over the top, isn't it? “ he barks. Mr Heath, our Prime Minister had only recently ordered that no one took more than £25 out of the UK. This was due to some kind of currency crisis or other, of which I can't remember the cause. “We could actually confiscate it, under the new ruling.” says the customs chief.
I have had absolutely enough, now. I look him in the eye. “Right then, Mister.” I say. “I'll tell you what I'll do. If you're so intent on busting me for something, I will go, right now, back onto that coach. I'll get my guitar, I'll take my bag and I'll walk back down that hall, get on a train to London and fuck right off back to Essex and I'll never pester you again. You don't appear to like people like me leaving the country. Well, I'll tell you something: I don't even want to go abroad actually. You'll be doing me a fucking favour. ” He tells me not to swear.
“Fuck off. What are you gonna fucking do? Beat me up in front of all these people? Go on then.”
He seems taken aback. I sense that he's not used to this level of defiance. “Okay, let me collect my guitar, I'll go. You've beaten me. A hundred quid is all the money I have in the world. I have to carry cash, because I don't have a bank account and if I'm going to get this much hassle just leaving the UK, what's it going to be like across half a dozen other borders to Greece? ” I begin to walk towards the coach. One of the other customs officers, asks. “ How long do you intend to be in Greece?” I tell him, “I dunno, maybe three weeks.” He looks at me contemptously. “And that's all you're taking?” I tell him it's all that I've fucking got. “Language.” says the boss.
" Fuck off.!” I spit.
“Okay, we've decided to overlook it, this time.” he says. “Can't be bothered with the bloody paperwork, more like.” I say. “What?” he asks.
“You heard.” They all look at me, like they wish it was a different world, one where they could beat my kind to death on the quayside. Shaking with nerves and anger, I rejoin my girlfriend on the coach. On the ferry, an hour later, wandering about on deck, the smartly-dressed but long-haired courier of the Magic Bus, approaches me. “They gave you a bit of a bad time, didn't they?” Yeah, I tell him, they always do. They're looking for dope. It's my appearance.”
“Never mind,” he says. “Took the heat off me, anyway. Wanna blast of this?” With that, he offers me an elegantly-made little joint. I'm really angry now. But I also sense a possible trap. I remember my dad's words about the ferries. He was working as a port health inspector at the time and knew very well how Customs and Special Branch operated. “They've got people of their own on those ferries.” he said. Caution takes over. “No thanks.” I tell the courier and I walk back down to the bar.
Some time later, we're sitting on the coach, having just picked some people up in Antwerp. The whole of our section of the coach stinks of dope. A long haired Swedish guy, with, not so much a joint, as a garden bonfire on a stick, shouts: “Anybody want shome dope? It's really goude dope. It should bee. I goddit in Amshterdaam!” The chubby student and his mate sitting across the aisle from me look nervous and refuse the offer. My girlfriend takes a blast. I refuse, politely. The Swedish guy finishes the joint and stokes up an even bigger one. A while later, we're approaching the German border. Peaked-capped men with silver hair and severe teutonic faces are already studying us, from a distance. The chubby student, sitting there in his clean white t-shirt and tennis shorts, is visibly freaking out. He calls:“ Swedish guy? Swedish guuuuy? We're coming up to the German border, now. We don't want the whole coach to be busted, do we? Can you ditch that joint and open some windows?” The Swedish guy, tells him not to worry. But he is worried. As for me, I'm just resigned now to the fact that it'll be me whom they haul off the coach again. And yet, it doesn't happen. The German border guard , who has a pistol, asks me for my passport, looks at the picture, studies my face, hands the passport back and moves on. The English student is quivering with nerves. The German border guard studies him a little longer. A few seats back the Swedish dopefiend is keeping up a loud barrage of stoned jokes. And the coach still stinks of dope. The border guard doesn't even look at his passport. We move on. I sleep through most of Germany and Austria, only briefly waking up in Salzburg to think about The Sound of Music before suddenly, we're in Yugoslavia.