Tuesday April 2nd
I’m in a Brussels hotel. The eve of my first dates in Holland and Germany. Five nights in a row then two nights off before sixth show in Berlin. My first tour as Joe Murphy, Sergeant Buzfuz now being used just for the band.
I’m feeling bad to be out of the country while in Sheffield my Dad is waiting to see if he can have an operation for oesophogeal cancer. He has fitness tests while I’m away (blood pressure, heart rate, lung function, etc) which will determine whether or not the surgeons assess him fit enough to survive an operation. I could cancel the tour but the time when I’ll be most useful is at the time of, and after, the operation if he has one. And I’ve spent months booking and preparing. My Dad, Brendan (brother), Rose (Rosaleen, sister), Melly (Imelda, sister) and Polly (partner) all agree I should do the tour and that it makes little difference me being away at the moment. My Mam thinks otherwise.
It’s early evening and I go to find food. Next to the hotel is a promising looking place offering Niçoise salad, one of my staple choices. But I want to look around before eating so I carry on strolling.
I walk around Anderlecht. An African neighbourhood. Shops closing down for the day, young North Africans on street corners trying to flog me mobile ‘phones. It’d be interesting to eat here but it’s all very meaty. I’m pescetarian. I eat fish but not mammals or birds. Pescetarians get grief from meat-eaters and vegetarians.
I stock up on bananas and cashew nuts in a local shop and head back to the restaurant by the hotel for a few hours of reading, red wine and Niçoise salad, which is good, all ingredients being present and correct, not a usual occurrence. I’m reading “The Count Of Monte Cristo” as recommended by my friend Sally. “Be sure to get the unabridged version with the lesbian sex scene.” It’s a ripping yarn if ever there was one.
At the hotel I quietly rehearse a last time before tomorrow’s first show. Last summer me and Polly played as a duo at the Edinburgh Free Fringe. The same set every night (Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself, the show of the album telling fourteen centuries of papal history). Sixteen nights and six afternoons. I’d never played the same set so many nights in a row before and was struck by how my performance improved over the run. So I’ve rehearsed a lot for these dates.
The room is stuffy and the window won’t open more than a crack. A bad night.
Wednesday 3rd Bielefeld
I start using the ten day rail pass. The tour starts in Bielefeld in central north Germany. Brussels to Bielefeld is six journeys and five changes. I’m armed with print-outs from Bahn’s excellent website. Why can’t British train sites give you platform numbers for connections?
My first gaffe almost happens when changing at Maastricht. I gather my rucksack, holdall and guitar case and am about to depart at “Maastricht-with-suffix” when a fellow passenger tells me this isn’t the main Maastricht stop. It’s tiny and he’s guessed I want the main station. Not the last time I’m to be grateful for the uncalled-for help of strangers.
Changing at Venlo I learn that advertised platforms can be subject to change as I make a last second dash to the correct train.
Soon I’m in Germany, a new country for me. The next change is Wuppertal where my friend Birgit used to live. Hills at last after a flat trek through Belgium and Holland. I get off at Wuppertal-Vohwinkel. As the train pulls away I notice how tiny the station is and a conversation in broken English confirms I got off too early . Luckily there’s a train to Wuppertal Hbf in 6 minutes and I make the next connection. Lesson number two: main stations are suffixed Hbf.
At the Desperado in Bielefeld I’m greeted by Mike, mein host, with baby daughter Mandita. It’a small bar with a relaxed vibe. Mike takes me to the pub over the road and buys me pizza. I’ve played in Belgium and France before and am reminded how musicians get treated with respect on the continent. One of the reasons I want to play over here more.
Mike knows the 12 Bar Club in Soho where I promoted my monthly Blang night for ten years and is good friends with Barnet the bar manager. He’s a nice guy and we chat about music, football and politics.
Most people in the pub are watching Dortmund play in the Champions League, they’re a fairly local team, eighty kilometers away. A few months later the beer will be flowing here as Dortmund reach the final.
“I don’t know why no-one came out tonight, you can never guess, it’s random.”
“It’s okay, I know what it’s like. Thanks for putting me on.”
Mike’s given me E50 despite there being only ten people in the bar for the show.
For the first three songs only one person watched me. The other nine people just chatted, most with their backs to me, some ’round the other side of the bar. Pavlovian claps after each song before chatting resumed.
Then I slung my guitar behind my back to recite “Popes 1”. I started doing this at Edinburgh, inspired by some shows I did with storytellers, transforming the seven minute song into four minutes of spoken word. During this I had the rapt attention of all and you could hear a mouse fart. I’d got them at last, four songs in. I introduced the next song, “Popes 2 and 3”, as the next part of the papal story but they were already merrily chatting away again, which they did for the rest of the two sets. Maybe I should’ve put my guitar down and recited lyrics as spoken word for the rest of the evening.
So tonight was an extra rehearsal. I had flu several weeks ago and still have a cough, and I made various mistakes. No matter how much you practice the best rehearsing is performing. It’s always harder playing to one person than to thousands. Not that I’ve ever played to thousands but surely it’s a piece of piss.
German and Dutch promoters expect you to play two forty-five minute sets, which is great as normally you play one thirty minute set back home (and in France and Belgium in my experience). I’d rehearsed twenty-six songs for the tour, including four covers. I played a ten song first set and curtailed the second at six songs.
Tomorrow is another day (is that Dylan or Bond?) and I’m now availing myself of free wine at the bar and chatting to Mike and the guy who listened and bought singles. Mike talks about how Facebook is owned by an ex-CIA guy and how the US can easily spy on people online. One of his privacy precautions is to use different browsers for different social media. So he’ll access Facebook through Chrome, Twitter through Firefox, emails through Safari, etc. This may seem like paranoia but Edward Snowden is two months away from revealing otherwise.
Mike drives me to his place ten minutes away and bids me goodnight, he has to leave early next morning. I’m in a self contained flat adjacent to his. I have a double mattress and read myself sleepy with a book I haven’t seen before, John Peel’s “The Olivetti Chronicles”. A collection of his writings for papers and mags edited by his wife.
Thursday 4th Amsterdam
After a morning shower I read more Peel. He writes about Patti Smith, Springsteen, The Fall and acts exhorting audiences to clap their hands (he approves of one of these) with insight and a droll, sometimes savage, humour.
After initially catching a tram going the wrong direction I’m back at Bielefeld station. My train doesn’t appear. I ask at the Bahn desk (each German station has one and they’ll print your itinerary with times and platforms). A jolly guy with a dusty grey mop of hair speaks little English (“I just sing it a lot”) but we manage to talk (no singing needed). My train was moved from platform two to six. It was announced. In German. So a new itinerary via Duisberg. I check the types of trains involved, some aren’t part of the Rail Pass deal.
I’m met at Amsterdam station by Jack. He’s a good-humoured fellow and we tram it to his flat where I’m staying. I’ve twice been to Amsterdam, both times in January, and have always wanted to see it in Spring but the endless winter which has hung over us so long has extended its scaly grip across Holland. Jack lives in De Pijp, named for its pipe-thin streets. We pop in to Molli. So to speak. It’s tonight’s venue. In the UK it would probably be “Molli’s”. It’s like having a bar called “Neil”. It’s Amsterdam’s longest running squat venue, established in 1979. It’s small and homely.
Jack has two cats Ya-Ya (Ja-Ja?) and Skille. One plays with my iPad cat game (boosting its interest rating to one in five cats), trying to bat the randomly moving light with its paw.
Jack banks with ING, Holland’s second biggest bank. This is the second day their customers have had no access to their money. At first ING denied there was a problem but have now had to admit it. And that they don’t know what’s happened or when customers can withdraw their money. On the day before access to funds stopped those depositing money had the amount put in doubled to their advantage while people like Jack who withdrew money had the amount taken out recorded as doubled. So if you withdrew E100 your balance dropped by E200. This has sent Jack overdrawn which should be impossible as he has a block in place to prevent this happening.
It’s the main item on Dutch TV news. Another item is the UK story about unemployed Mick Philpott who killed his six children. I see Osborne is exploiting this story by mentioning it in the context of the welfare state. Someone needs to serve this nobsack with an OSBO. (An OSBO would be a restraining order preventing the upper classes from sharing their ideas about real life in the media.)
After the Molli gig I’m sharing beers with Jack’s friends who think ING may be a cyber attack. Maybe it’s the Chinese government? Are we conspiracy theorists? A few days later ING confirms it was a cyber attack. By unknown enemies. Another nail in global confidence in banks after Cypriots recently had savings stolen in the latest banking trend: the bail-in. Coming to a country near you soon.
These people are fun. They’re friendly, intelligent and politically aware. They talk about Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch extreme right-wing party and of the reception his followers got when they attempted a march in Amsterdam. They like the fact the UK refused him entry.
The gig was fun despite another low crowd. I’d been alerted to this possibility beforehand by Alex who runs the joint. Gigs happen each Thursday along with cheap vegan food. But a kitchen refurbishment, due after my visit, was brought forward and recent food-free Thursdays had attracted scant crowds.
But they were a great little crowd (around twelve) and despite some major coughing episodes in the second set and a few mistakes it was great fun. It’s all on YouTube (see link at end of diary), filmed by Gustav, a Polish raconteur who works at the Paradiso where he hopes to run a folk-punk festival next year.
Being a political and punk-style venue I thought they may not like the slow ones and non-political ones but I thought wrong. Great place and I’d love to go back. When the kitchen’s cooking.
Later at Jack’s he plays me recordings by Cosmo, an English songwriter I’d never heard of. It’s political but not in an obvious way, musically inventive with funny platitude-free lyrics.
I sleep on a water bed. The last time I did this was at my brother’s years ago. Brendan hadn’t switched it on beforehand and it took several hours before I could take any clothes off. Jack keeps his plugged in so all is fine and the cats lie at my feet as I float away.
Friday 5th den Bosch AKA s’Hertegenbosch
A single journey south to den Bosch. I soon find the venue Knoflook (it means Garlic). It’s an ex-car showroom, now squatted, with venue and living quarters upstairs and give-away shop downstairs. I meet a few people, drop my bags and head into town as it’s early afternoon. It’s a bit late to see the Bosch museum, as suggested by Scrappy Hood, so I just stroll around town. It’s pleasant but not as picturesque as I’d hoped. It retains some medieval charm but most of the centre is occupied by US chain shops. I don’t see a cathedral but go for a decaf in Cafe Voltaire. A curious little place where women sew and make fabrics while a few tourist types nibble at cakes. I can’t read much with the fabric makers talking loudly in English but it’s a nice vibe as I watch the world from my window. Everyone in Holland speaks perfect English. In Germany about three quarters seem to speak English. Good reasons for singing here. When I played in France a few years ago few people seemed to understand what I was singing.
I have another decaf in a bar with Beatles and Stones album covers on the wall. Where I sit is signposted as “Rolling Stones Avenue”. I drink a decaf and read. Rock’n’roll. The owner plays cards loudly with his mates and I don’t read much.
I find a pub on the other side of the rail tracks and actually get some reading in amongst the noisy Friday night drinkers. I remember I like Westmalle Dubbel beer.
The guy who books gigs at Knoflook (which happen sporadically) left last month to spend time on his boat, forgetting to tell the others about tonight. They noticed my booking in the diary a few days ago so there hasn’t been much promotion. Another lower than normal crowd.
The evening starts with a communal vegan meal for about thirty people. About twenty stay for the show. I ask for a red wine at the bar and they give me a litre bottle. Hospitality on parade. Albert seems to be in charge and makes me feel at home. He and Lotte show me the give-away shop downstairs. It’s like a charity shop except they give the stock free to people in need. People leaving the police cells up the road often pop in for a new jacket or shirt on the way home. One of the problems the venture faces is well-off people coming and taking what they fancy. The Knoflookers have their hearts in the right place and the squat is popular among the townsfolk.
A thick pole at one end of the shop under the stage helps keep the ceiling from collapsing. A surveyor recently assessed the building and declared it safe for another four years. But you can’t have more than fifteen people dancing upstairs and they don’t book full bands with loads of kit.
They fondly remember my friend Seth from the US who played here recently and stayed on for several days. More recently my mates Sheepy from Liverpool and Vamos from Mayo played on the first night of their joint tour. They played until 3 am and made a big impression. The sight of them lumbering in for their “acoustic gig” with amps and mic stands caused some consternation though.
Five AM and time for bed. The guest room is a converted pantry off the kitchen which just about contains a double bunk bed. I again fall asleep with two cats on my bed. There’s a main road outside and the window’s open. It’s not long before a random orchestra of horns and howls punctuates my sleep but I’m too tired to be more than vaguely aware of it.
The show was great. I still had my cough but it was far less debilitating than in Amsterdam. I made 40 Euros (8 in Amsterdam). So far I’ve only sold vinyl singles. No-one has bought a CD, they just want vinyl. The continent is known for this. If only I had vinyl albums. After the show I drank and chatted until the bar closed at five. I sat for a while atop a massive old stove in the centre of the room on which people took turns to warm themselves up. People couldn’t believe I had found the coolest cafe (Voltaire) but not the Cathedral.
The last hour was spent at the bar with two late drinkers and Lotte as bartender and DJ. She played loads of Sheepy via YouTube. We sang along to Ket Party three times in a row. It’s just one of those songs. John Peel famously played Teenage Kicks twice in a row. He’d have loved Sheepy, especially with Sheepy himself (AKA Luke) supporting Liverpool.
Saturday 6th Kaiserslautern.
I’m finally on the first connection of a seven hour trip to south west Germany.
When I got up this morning there wasn’t a soul in Knoflook. As I left at noon a few people were waiting outside the shop door. I got to the station in time for the 12.23 to Utrecht but there was no train. I hadn’t thought of weekend maintenance existing outside the UK. The information office suggested a bus to Utrecht but I’d arrive too late for the next connecting train.
So I’m on a train to Arnhem instead, where I change for Frankfurt. Sorted. Hey, let’s write a few notes about last night. I’ve been jotting things in my iPhone for a possible tour diary.
Hang on, I normally keep my iPhone in this pocket.
Heart races as I check other pockets.
Heart thumps as I double-check the places it could be. Jacket. Trousers. Bags.
I left it on the bed.
I packed my bags quickly and didn’t use the guestroom light. I must’ve left it on the bed. Bollocks.
What am I going to do without my ‘phone?
I can’t go back, I’m running late as it is.
I can ask them to post it to London. No, after Sunday’s gig I have two days off before the Berlin gig on Wednesday. I can return to den Bosch on Monday, they’d let me stay a night there. Then to Berlin on Tuesday. I’ve booked a hotel from Monday to Wednesday. I could ‘phone and cancel the first night.
No ‘phone for two and a half days. What are the implications?
One. I can’t ‘phone or text Polly.
Two. I can’t ‘phone my parents or sisters in Sheffield. And I need to keep up with my Dad’s news.
Three. I’m hooking up with my old friend Uwe in Berlin on Monday. I haven’t seen him for years and he, Antje and their son are going on holiday on Tuesday morning.
Four. No way of contacting Carsten, tonight’s promoter, if I need to.
Five. Nor of contacting Michael at Sunday’s venue. He’s collecting me from the nearest station. And driving me the twenty minutes to Eschbach.
Maybe people will let me use their mobiles or landlines or I can work out how to use public ‘phone boxes. And I can send emails if I have access to wi-fi.
As I curse my stupidity the train slows and a station is announced. Right! I gather my clutter and hastily squeeze past people offering sorries in English. I can’t think quickly in German.
It’s a tiny station and I cross to the opposite platform. There’s a train back to den Bosch in six minutes. I left there fifteen minutes ago. Thank God the train stopped here.
Outside den Bosch station people are offering free hugs but I’m in too much of a hurry for the kindness of these strangers.
It’s ten minutes walk. I hope someone’s home. I’m sure they said the shop is open Saturdays. Yes it’s open. The guy at the counter isn’t Dutch and speaks no English but allows me through the back to the stairs. Where’s the spoon? A dessert spoon kept on a ledge opens the lock to the living quarters if you know the knack. There it is on a lower ledge. I’m in.
Jochem is at the opposite end of the long corridor.
“I think I left my ‘phone here”
“Yes. I’ve got it.”
He gets a hug.
Carsten from K.O.K. Roach in Kaiserslautern ‘phoned me and Jochem answered, so Carsten knows I left my ‘phone behind.
Back at the station I get a new itinerary and eventually a train to Arnhem. I call Carsten. If I get the 18.50 from Frankfurt I should get in at 9 PM which is stage time but if I’m much later they’ll have to cancel the show.
A three hour journey to Frankfurt. Whenever I go through Dusseldorf on this tour I see Neu graffiti. At Koln a guy from China sits next to me. He’s been to meet an old friend there and during lunch her bag got stolen. Next week he has an interview in Dublin. He’s in IT. Returning to the subject of theft I tell him about Allied Irish Bank and Ireland’s ensuing austerity. He doesn’t know about it but why should he? No-one I know in Ireland seems to.
Frankfurt station rings to the din of football chants. Moenchengladbach fans celebrating an away win. I have to push through them desperately looking for the platform (it’s been changed) and resort to queuing at the BAHN desk.
The last connection, from Mannheim. At one stop everyone in my carriage gets off. I half hang out of the door until a guard tells me to go to platform six so I gather my clutter and scuttle. This had better be a good gig. I’m feeling confident about it. Sheepy played another venue in Kaiserslautern and saw posters for me there. Signs of good promotion. The tour is getting better each night although I’m prepared for a corresponding tail-off at the end. I’ve heard Berlin is the worst place in Germany for attracting an audience. Capital city spoilt-for-choice syndrome. But it’s mid-tour and it’s Saturday. And I’ve performed better each night. And the cough’s going.
Approaching Kaiserslautern we pass through Frankenstein. No sign of a castle on a hill.
At Kaiserslautern a guy at the top of the station steps scans the crowd. I wonder if it’s Carsten looking for me but we hadn’t arranged this and I’m the only passenger with a guitar and surely he’d have spotted it. Three minutes later I’m ascending the stairs of Roach House when Carsten ‘phones.
“Hi Carsten. I’ve just arrived.”
“I’m at the top of the steps waiting for you.”
“I’m walking up the steps now so I should see you in a second.”
A woman at the top of the venue stairs is laughing at this conversation and explains that Carsten means the station steps. This is Ute and she are Carsten are perfect hosts. They ask if I want pizza but it’s nine and I want to be professional (it’s my fault I’ve arrived bang on showtime) so I just take a beer and start setting up as a Jeff Lewis album plays on the system. Jeff’s familiar James Stewart croak makes me feel at home and I’m soon set up. It’s like a cosy living room with about thirty people sitting on comfy-looking sofas. All very civilized. A swig of beer and I’m off.
Nine hours travelling and I’m suddenly singing. I’m using the PA but there are random noise bursts and I can’t figure quite how close to get to the sensitive mic which picks up my every post-cough throat clearance. I’ve played unplugged every night of the tour so far so after a while, with audience assent, I unplug. The set gets better as I settle and focus. At half time I do an interview with the local paper’s arts reporter who asks about the papal history songs and “3.15”, my song about Hillsborough. The second set is great, ending with an encore of “Collection Plate”, the song I finished my Edinburgh shows with. I’m a poor parish priest telling the audience why they need to give me their cash. They laugh even more than the Edinburgh crowds did, getting every joke. Excellent English speakers. I earn 150 Euros and sell CDs for the first time. If I could play venues like this every night.
It’s eleven-thirty and Ute is going home. Carsten is staying until finishing time, ie when everyone’s supped up, two AM or later, so I decide to crash at Ute’s. She drives to a village twenty minutes away.
Kaiserslautern is home to a massive US army base. The soldiers keep to themselves and the locals feel almost as though they’re still being occupied. The US have been changing planes here on the way to Afghanistan and everywhere.
She’s a big fan of the Kaiserslautern football team who, like the Blades, are going for the play-offs. The crowd had laughed earlier when I remembered Kaiserslautern knocking Wednesday out of the UEFA Cup. I forgot to mention about the town being twinned with Rotherham.
Over a much-needed supper of cheeses, Rye bread, olives and white (for a change) wine I find some of my ideas about Germany are media-skewed. Although it’s the EU’s economic powerhouse this doesn’t translate to a higher quality of living for everyone. Ute recently lost her job and is only allowed to claim benefits at a certain rate for a limited period before dropping to a meagre amount. And she has to participate in something similar to UK Workfare. As in the UK, workers’ rights are being gradually eroded and there’s been an explosion of zero hour contracts. So much for das gras being greener.
I sit up checking the Internet on my iPad until the electricity cuts out (a local power cut, I discover next morning). The Blades have drawn at Wallsall, we’re playing with such nerves that automatic promotion is slowly but oh-so-surely slipping from our grasp.
Sunday 7th Eschbach
The next morning we skirt forests where Sunday walkers can dine on roast boar as we head back to Roach House where the K.O.K organisation are putting on a free lunch buffet with a slightly jazzy laid -back rock group. K.O.K stands for “culture without commerce” in German. Hence their events at Roach House are K.O.K. Roach nights. They put on talks and gigs and all involved are interesting friendly people who care about what’s happening in the world. They’ve been active for three years.
I thank these lovely people and get the first of two local trains to Landau, where Michael from Taverne Barreto in Eschbach is picking me up. Landau is the nearest station so I’m grateful for the twenty minute lift. We pop into the Taverne, a charming traditional alehouse where I meet Michael’s wife Annette and decide I’ll play unplugged again. It’s a tiny village and it’s Sunday so I’m not expecting swarms of Buzfuz fans.
Michael’s cousin Pedro is currently living here so I’m in a hotel in Leinsweiller a few kilometers away. Michael drives me there and picks me up later. Annette has cooked a veg bake in my honour and I eat with the family including two nice kids, cousin Pedro and Wilma, a huge dog who slumps at my feet.
The audience of ten listen attentively, laugh in all the right places and buy CDs. I break a G string as I re-tune for Infinite Kingdom Of Dirt, a new song about ATOS and the Olympics which is in DAEEAD tuning, perfect for string -breaking. I play it with five strings and finish. One of the guys borrows and re-tunes my guitar and sings some obviously very bawdy songs in German with his friends hysterical at the pay-off lines and joining in on the choruses.
I’m invited back upstairs for more hospitality. Michael’s family are Portuguese. Pedro is here looking for work. They give me real Madeira cake. “Not like the kind you get outside Madeira” I’m told. And they’re right. And the local Leinsweiller wine is as good a red as I’ve tasted. Smooth and dry and too easy to knock back. Another misconception about Germany out the window.
Michael puts on music here at the weekends and works in Landau in the week for a mobile company based in Slough. He hasn’t heard of The Office but Pedro enthuses about it. I’m surprised it was a hit in Portugal. Would love to see a dubbed clip.
Michael asks if I remember a news story from the Eighties when three German tourists were arrested for breaking into the grounds of Buckingham Palace. I vaguely remember. One of the intruders was an old friend of his. They were looking for somewhere to camp for the night and thought they were scaling the walls of Hyde Park. In the morning they emerged from their tents to find a man in uniform watching them in horror before turning and running. Soon they were under arrest and trying to convince the police of their innocent intentions. They were soon released to face questions from the press before setting off on the next leg of their trip.
Arriving in the evening they walked into a pub to see their faces on TV. They couldn’t believe they were on the news. The Dubs in the pub couldn’t believe they were in their pub. People queued to slap their backs and present them with pints. They stayed the whole night without having to buy one drink.
Monday 8th Berlin
I’m the only person in the breakfast room. I’m there before the barely awake attendant. There’s food laid out for fifty diners. Michael collects me and we drive to Landau station which is on his way to work. Both slightly hungover. Another marathon journey today but I’m on schedule to arrive early evening in time to meet Uwe.
I’m waiting for a connection at Hannover when my ‘phone buzzes. A text from Uwe.
“Thatcher died today. We can celebrate.”
I’m standing on the platform punching yeses into the air when my ‘phone rings.
“I know why you’re ‘phoning me.”
“Thatcher. I just got a text from Uwe.”
Then a text from Kate, our downstairs neighbour and ex-Buzfuz dulcimer/violin player. “Ding dong the witch is dead!”
I’ve known so many people over the years who’ve solemnly promised to shit on her grave. “They’ll have to bury her at sea” I text to Uwe.
Soon I’m on the train and feel an urge to tell the passenger opposite me. A young woman in a business suit.
A look of confusion.
“I thought she was already dead.”
“No. She died today.”
“But there’s a film about her.”
“Yeah, she was alive then.”
“So are you sad?”
Uwe was to explode with laughter later when I told him this punch line.
I can’t find the words. She’s quite young and obviously knows little about the Grantham Ghoul. What can I say without subjecting this poor stranger to a lecture? How do I explain about our manufacturing industries? The unions? Financial deregulation? Privatisation? Redistribution of wealth? Northern Ireland? The Belgrano? Pinochet? South Africa? Section 28? The loathing of her by the vast majority of Britons outside the South of England? (And even the South could muster a pilgrimage of shitters visible from the moon.)
“She was an evil evil person. There’ll be lots of parties in the UK tonight.”
It’s crap but they’re the only words I can find. I want people to hear a different view to what they’ll get on German TV. I look around to see if anyone else is interested but it’s like I haven’t spoken. I feel like Cary Grant in one of those Hitchcocks where everyone else’s bland everyday behaviour seems to negate what he knows is the darker reality.
I feel a mix of emotions. Because of senility Thatcher has been dead for years. I think how it’d be much better news if Duncan Smith had died. Someone with fresh blood on their hands. Or Blair. Thatcher may be dead but Thatcherism lives.
I think how I’ll miss the celebrations. Then realise I’ll be missing the platitudes, the horseshit on TV. I’m glad I’m not in Sheffield this weekend to listen to my Mam. She’s always been a Tory. Like most who vote for them, a working class Tory. A Mail reader.
Despite my Dad losing his job at fifty-three and signing on for the rest of his working life after the Iron L-, no, the Steely Sociopath, hammered our most unionised industries including steel and shipping (the factory where he worked made piston rings for ships).
Despite him now waiting to see if he’s allowed a life-saving operation in an under-funded NHS slowly being privatised after thirty-four years of Thatcherism. No, in my Mam’s alternative universe the Tories are her friends. And you can’t argue with someone with a personality disorder and selective deafness.
So just as well I’m in Germany.
I return to post-Napoleonic France. I can’t believe they’ve made films of this book. Normal length films. Surely it needs a twenty hour TV series. Sally was right, it’s a cracking story.
I think I should have cancelled the Berlin gig. I have two days off before it and have been warned not to expect much of a crowd. If I was going home now I’d have broken even, if not made a small profit.
In Berlin I catch an overground to the Zoo area and find my hotel. This district is all massive department stores, like Kensington or Victoria. The hotel is old and high ceilinged. The lifts clank quietly up and down with zen-like patience.
I’m meeting Uwe at Kottbusser Tor and find the U-Bahn pretty easy to understand. In Berlin I listen to my iPhone tunes more often. Before I left home I downloaded nine albums, something I rarely do. I deleted everything else in the phone and have been listening on shuffle when not reading or sleeping on trains.
Bowie – first album with the Anthony Newley singing, I love it. Brendan had this when we were kids but I never listened much.
Bowie – Space Oddity. A huge step forward but not half as funny. Or enjoyable.
Django Django – eponymous first album which I’m really enjoying. Inventive and melodic.
Tame Impala – Lonerism. I love Elephant off that advert. Even though it’s on an advert. Most of the rest is gormless candyfloss. But Elephant is fantastic.
James Yorkston – Moving Up Country. Not so keen on most of it but love the first track In Your Hands.
Scott Walker – Tilt. Not one track from this has shuffled itself forward until now when it starts revealing its secrets regularly but only in the hours of darkness, which suits it perfectly. I’ll now associate it with night-time in Berlin.
Sandy Denny And The Strawbs – All Our Own Work. Includes their version of the immortal Who Knows Where The Time Goes.
Billy Bragg – William Bloke. I’m playing a Bragg tribute event in Brighton when I’m back and am thinking of singing Brickbat, a wonderful song I taped off John Peel about twenty years ago. Who says home taping doesn’t result in a purchase? I’m tempted to cover Qualifications, but it has to be Brickbat.
Incredible String Band -Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air. I’m playing an ISB book launch in London the afternoon of the Bragg event (how’s that for incongruity?) and need to listen to a track I don’t know which I’m playing guitar on (Polly’s singing). It’s about twelve minutes long.
I ended up cancelling these tribute shows as my Dad’s operation was the day before. In Brighton the Bard of Barking showed up and joined all the acts onstage for a finale of A New England. And I missed it. Bollocks!
I haven’t seen Uwe since 2000. We eat at a Turkish joint, apparently the birthplace of the revolving spit kebab, first rotated here in 1962. I guess the medieval roast hog on a spit doesn’t count….
Uwe has a photo of his and Antje’s beautiful six year old son. Called Lens, he is of course photogenic. Uwe is still lecturing in Birmingham. These days he escapes to Berlin every weekend.
We then visit six or seven pubs. We start in a great place which is all dark and candle-lit. Then a punk pub, also darkly lit as most pubs seem to be, then various others, my favourite being Vor Wien,’towards Vienna’. He shows me the building where Iggy and Ziggy went Nightclubbing.
I see the streets where the Wall stood. Uwe points to traffic lights that would have been in the East. No hint of the fact this street was once divided between two different worlds.
This area is Kreuzberg. He lives here and compares it to Camden, saying my hotel area is more like London’s West End. He reckons my slow lifts will be pre-war original with the rest of the hotel a post-bombing rebuild. He agrees Berlin isn’t the prettiest of cities, but then it was heavily bombed. “So it’s your fault” he quips.
He recently saw Kraftwerk play a 3D show in a tiny club in Dusseldorf. Projections of trains and robots moved past the bespectacled audience as a circuit of surround-sound speakers sent the accompanying train clanks and machine melodies orbiting around the room. I’m jealous.
He tells me of the time he interviewed Jeffrey Archer back when he used to write free-lance for German publications, Antje in tow posing as a photographer. They then bumped into Archer again as they walked past his house the next day. There was definitely a very funny punchline to the story here but my memory banks are flooded by wine from this point. Sorry readers. Kind of a sauvignon blank.
On my day off I lay in and then watched BBC World News. For five minutes. I hadn’t realised Mother Theresa had died yesterday. I got the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor again and tried and failed to find last night’s restaurant but there are plenty of Turkish places for cheap veggie food. (With Polly being vegetarian I’m effectively veggie most of the time apart from occasional cravings for Nicoise salad or fish and chips about once a month.)
I did a bit of sight-seeing, succeeded in finding a very old church which was very disappointing and went for a decaf and an hour catching up on emails and news (the hotel’s wi-fi was down). He spouts a lot of horseshit these days but that old cove Morrissey summed up Thatcher well.
In the evening I went to check Wednesday’s venue Intersoup. Since booking this I’d heard it’s not a great gig and you have to work the PA yourself (not that I was planning to use it). The first thing I noticed was there were no posters for my show despite me emailing the stuff asked for. The room was hidden downstairs, like the kind of room tucked away in an Edinburgh pub where you imagine nothing happens outside August. It was empty except for an English songwriter talking to three English friends. He then started his set and I sneaked upstairs after one limp ‘singer-songwriter’ kind of song. I finished my wine and read at the back of the bar which was furnished Amsterdam coffee-house style.
Okay, so his audience were his three friends. With Uwe and Antje gone I knew no-one there. Ergo I’d have no audience tomorrow. Oh well, it’d been a good trip overall, I’d found some great venues, met some great people and had I gone home after Eschbach I’d have broken even. Not bad for a first (mini) tour here.
Before heading home I found Vor Wien for more wine and reading. A stranger handed me my hotel pass which had fallen from a pocket. The kindness of strangers. Karma for giving my change to a woman on a U-Bahn platform earlier.
In the overcast daytime I walked to the East from Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn, crossing the Spree. The streets were long and straight, the buildings austere, colossal and grey. It was fascinating to think of the Cold War and the Stasi here not so long ago. In a large vegan shop I bought chocolate and biscuits for Polly and vegan cat biscuits for Pickwick. Not that either are vegan.
Some interesting clothes shops and then a charity shop the size of a department store. Five floors of second hand clothes. I was drawn to a fantastic green linen jacket with red checking. Which fitted me. Bingo! Very creased but only fourteen Euros, that’s twelve quid. I was served by a pair of suspicious eyes, one brow raised in disdain, a set jaw and lips which didn’t speak. All assembled on the same face like troops on a training ground. I imagined her itching to ‘phone the Stasi about the English speaker stealing their best jacket at a snip. I smiled cheerily, pleased with my bargain. Maybe she was having a shit day.
Back at the hotel I ‘phoned Melly. Great news, my Dad had passed his fitness tests and the doctor said he can have surgery. This should give him three years remission.
The next day the surgeon was to disagree with the doctor’s assessment. The operation was off and my Dad was looking at probably twelve months. I’ll cut a long story short. My brother is a doctor, a psychiatrist in Melbourne. He spoke to upper-gastro specialists there. In Australia his fitness scores would ensure an operation. In the UK he needs higher results. He very narrowly failed the lung function test (walking 140 meters before becoming out of breathe instead of the requisite 150). And Australia have a wider variety of checks compared to our cruder testing. The other reason given for not operating was “the way he looks”. After some diplomatic persuasion from Brendan and a shopping trip with Melly to buy new clothes Dad returned for more tests. Which he passed. So finally they agreed to operate. He was saved by having a son a doctor. Very lucky compared to most people in his situation. Sadly this is the UK’s statistics culture. They’re less likely to operate on an older person. A higher chance of failure and negative impact on stats. Apparently this is worse post-Staffordshire Hospital scandal. It’s the same in teaching. Statistics for politicians to show to the electorate are more important than treating and teaching people.
At Intersoup I try to drum up interest in my set among the drinkers at street level. Some say they’ll come down. But people are here to chat and it’s just not set up for live music. People are surprised there’s music in the cellar. And there’s a ‘DJ’ in the bar.
I’ve been given ten drink vouchers, a band’s supply. I don’t care if no-one shows up, I’m celebrating. My Dad’s having his operation and it’s been a (mostly) successful trip. From the stage I hear the gormless muzak the DJ is dripping into the bar upstairs. It’s to early Warp what Bon Jovi are to the Stones. Department store techno. I tune up in an alcove to the side of the stage. My new-ish Guild guitar (bought in December after I slipped in the street and dished in my Yamaha) sounds great in the reverb of this alcove and I play three songs to myself in there, marvelling at the echo. I play loud ones and shout and scream. Maybe someone upstairs’ll be intrigued. I give up and wander around the stage, swigging wine, thinking, listening to my iPhone playlist and occasionally going upstairs to use another drink voucher.
After the non-show the barmaid is amused I’m so jolly and unaffected by it. After another voucher I head back. Tomorrow’s a long one.
Thursday 11th London
Eleven hours of train rides. Berlin to Koln (much better spelling than Cologne). Koln to Brussels. The Eurostar passengers have to queue in the main station where three obvious thieves eye up our bags. The train is only a third full and I spread out. St Pancras. Bus. Polly. Bed. Sleep.
Saturday May 11th Sheffield
I’m outside the Northern General looking over the hills of north Sheffield. My Dad’s in the High Dependency Unit after his operation yesterday. It’s one step down from Intensive Care. He’s looking better than yesterday. It’s going to be a rocky road ahead but he’s getting there. One day at a time. The nurses in there are top quality. Down-to-earth Sheffield lasses with hearts of gold and laughs of silver. I walk down to the bus-stop and think about the kindness of strangers.