Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Eagle

I had never seen an eagle before but recognised him immediately, perched on the highest limb of a dead tree in the field before me. He was motionless, and the only striking thing was his size. As I walked up to the fence he dipped his head slightly, leaning forward into the air and gliding off the branch. He wheeled gently just above the ground and after two beats of his wings was as high as the tree again and now climbing languidly in a wide arc. Suddenly he appeared to hang still in the sky, and then he folded his wings back and plummeted, a dark blur arrowing towards the ground. There was a piercing squeal and then the eagle was in the air again with a small creature in its talons. He flew over to the edge of the wood and I continued my walk up the hill, but the ground in front was as good as invisible to me. My mind's eye was dazzled by him: an agile and lethal creature, and yet the most graceful and inspiring I had ever seen.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Fare Dodger

He staggered through the train doors just as they closed, so that he had to yank his flapping trouser leg out of the rubber seal. Nobody glanced in his direction as he blundered down the carriage, ricocheting between the seats, clutching at the inadequate bright yellow bumps that were supposed to be handles. Another Friday drunk in a suit. He gained the sanctuary of the toilet and sat down.

As it happened he wasn't drunk, but his hands still shook as he reached out to brace himself against the melamine walls. He suddenly realised he'd forgotten the crucial step of locking the door. As he turned back from it he saw his face in the mirror, dripping with sweat, his lips nearly blue. He slid down onto his knees and half knocked, half rested his forehead against the narrow ledge around the wash basin.

Forty minutes later the guard came past the occupied toilet for the third time, just as the train reached Earslwood. She banged on the door. As he levered himself up on the lavatory pan it occurred to him that an absent ticket would be just as invalid for the next station, but he pushed the thought away. For a moment he couldn't work out how the door opened, and then he was in the bright light of the carriage facing abruptly into a very plump West-Indian lady ticket collector.

He knew he could make it. Carried straight down the aisle by panicking feet, shoving past a pretty girl bending to gather up bags, he nearly fell as he stepped down to the platform. Running up the stairs to the bridge he heard the angry guard's voice shouting at him until it was suddenly silenced by the closing of the train doors.

His vision blurred as he got to the far side of the bridge. He took hold of the rail, swung his body over, and before the surprised stares of 32 people on the crowded platform, landed on the rubble and sleepers only a few feet in front of the Gatwick Express.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Rush at Wembley Arena, London

We had a fantastic time when we went to see Rush last night at Wembley Arena. The band had no support act so they played from 7:30 to 11 with a half hour break. I jotted down a few notes in the darkness, trying not to write on the same pages twice.

Long, long songs followed one after another, each a mosaic of complex rhythms and snatches of melody. This music really is in its own world - at one point a song reminded me of something and I tried to figure out what, until I realised it was itself. Louder pieces opened with a ferocious racket of hissing and spitting and then resolved into a scarcely controlled rampage. At the start of the evening it felt as though the band was performing more to the cameras supplying the screens than to the audience directly. Either I got used to this or they stopped doing it - I didn't notice which. The atmosphere was intense but fairly natural - no great stage posturing.

That said, singer and basist Geddy Lee's eyebrows are like a fouth band member. They never keep still, and have a completely independant existence both from their host and each other. To fill the space left by absent bass amps, this tour he has Henhouse rotisserie ovens, which are tended now and again during the evening by stage-hands dressed in kitchen whites. In the most energetic moments, Geddy skips and hops across the stage like a bunny. His voice pitches into the sound, an integral part of it in a way that surprised me given what I had read of his recording vocals separately. How on earth can he sing for so long? It's like a marathon - sprinted.

This show features pretty impressive pyrotechnics, but no fireworks could compare with the drums. I was awestruck and didn't write down much - I stared at the screens, watching as he switched grip for some songs. Neil Peart is an amazing drummer, but his tech must be no slouch either: the sound is superbly amplified - crisp, easy to distinguish yet resonant and satisfying.

Alex Lifeson opens on a guitar that glints in the light like burnished tortoiseshell. He is a model of restrained behaviour on stage. On his amps there is an array of what appear to be plastic dinosaurs; at the front are a matching line-up of something else - perhaps troll dolls?
At times it was too loud and distorted, but at its best his tone in solos seemed to vibrate in my head as though it were my own voice.

The audience, rows of pale faces in black Tshirts, sat or stood quietly apart from a crescent of more manic souls at the front. Some of the people near us sporting Rush Tshirts looked very bored; they were gone by the second set. Whenever there was near-darkness, blue lights of mobile phones showed up like glow-worms.

As well as the usual big lighting rig, there were several in huge blocks, suspended on cables above the stage. They swooped down like winged creatures coming closer to listen, turning their head as solos shifted from one musician to another. Green blades of lasers pierced the darkness, like beams from the eyes of a monster - and indeed there were lots of dragons on the screens behind. The videos and graphics are a performance in themselves, but of course I couldn't watch and write at once, so I only noted a few bits. In Hold Your Fire, splinters emanated from a ball. Later, images of people with added angelic wings were disturbingly beautiful. The high point was in the drum solo when the graphics were uncannily just what I would see in my mind's eye.

In the darkness at the end of a song, we noticed two very high-tech sound desks - I imagine controlling a lot more than the sound. The band members are like the drivers in Formula One - certainly the stars, but set in a firmament created for them by an incredibly talented team.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Dream

The island I live on is beautiful. A palm fringed beach surrounds it, and the interior is thickly forested with all kinds of tropical fruiting trees. A shaded pool overhung with creepers and fed by a crashing waterfall provides sweet water. Exotic birds fill the trees with all manner of songs and their plumage flashes in the sun. Life here is easy, with food to hand and time to spare for any diversion I can imagine.

Then one day a ship appeared on the horizon and sailed right in to the island's largest bay. From its anchorage the men of the crew were visible to me, busy with a round of mysterious tasks, swarming up rigging, mending sails, cleaning tackle. They shouted between each other, in raucous voices, curt jokes and harsh commands. I stood on the beach and watched.

The next morning it had gone. I searched along the strand and looked hard at the horizon but no trace of the ship remained. Turning back inland I walked through the trees to the pool and started to swim. The island's sounds surrounded me again and I wondered how long it would be until I forgot the ship, and the crew, and their voices sounding to me across the water.

Champagne and Red Bull

Last night we went out. B works opposite what used to be called the NatWest Tower - a huge skyscraper with a footprint the shape of the NatWest symbol, which is now owned by someone else and called Tower 42. Hmmmm - rather like the architectural equivalent of a tattoo to whoever has since become your ex. Anyway, at the top of said icon of capitalism is a bar called Vertigo. We went there as a special treat.

Vertigo has a dress code, but if you have to ask what it is you're not smart enough. The building is undergoing simultaneous radical refurbishment and enhanced security, so to get to the lift you have to be x-rayed, scanned, frowned at, and then bumble between the hoardings and round corners of a building site feeling like a rat in a badly-designed experiment. You emerge eventually from the designated high speed lift to be met by a yellow chaise-longue with accompanying decoration of submerged exotic plant anatomy. Squeezing past this, you get to another reception desk, and see your first glimpse of The View. The City has very few really tall buildings (which is probably an official name), so from this RTB you get to see pretty much everything in London from the height of bird equipped with an oxygen supply. Just by the desk, the view is amazing - the river, the Eye, Parliament, all the bits you know. Right at this point though a waiter dressed like Chris Tarrant will firmly escort you to you designated area, from where you get an equally amazing view, only this time it's of Shoreditch and Hoxton.

The drinks list is Champagne only (in fairness an enquiry revealed that they do also have fruit juice). Olives and nuts are 8 pounds (no, not each, fortunately). There are 4 stools between 13 of us. We are privileged to be here though, and it's nice to be out in a special place with everyone dressed up. I wander round and look at the view after a while, so you are allowed to. Opposite the windows there is a mirrored wall, which goes round in a circle, making the bar effectively a doughnut with the kitchen in the middle. The ceiling is low, and the accoustics rapidly begin to exercize my voice to the same extent as Pippa on Box Hill. We stay for about an hour and a half, by which time I am feeling stressed by the noise and even more spoiled than normal.

We adjourn to the Throg. This is B's usual post-work watering-hole, and now goes nearly to the top of my list of homes-from-home in London. It's on a side street in the City, the buildings around so over-endowed with interest to me that any companion has to be seriously exciting to compete. Inside the Throg (more properly the Throgmorton) is over numerous floors, nearly all of which seem to be underground. I gather the building was originally the flagship of J Lyons coffee houses, but I just can't imagine it ever as a coffee shop! The walls are covered in small gold tiles, here and there embellished with inlay to create floral motifs - it all has a hint of Arabia to it, combined with an enticing whiff of having seen better times. On the ground floor there's a food shop; below that is the bar, with a restaurant hidden away behind it, and below that again is a games room and a very tatty lavatory. The food (if you'll pardon this insanitary jump) is top-notch normal: I had a Hereford beef burger with cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce that was the best burger I've ever had. And, after all the hanging about watching other people drink Champagne, to my great relief they serve Red Bull, so that's all right.

A Country Park

This morning P and I went for a walk in a Country Park a few miles away. I dislike its tidied and urbanised nature but at its centre are two lakes which make it worth a visit.

We go briskly along the near side of the main lake without my really noticing it, and then break away from the main track to find a wilder patch. The bracken here reaches up to my chin and to start with the path I found here a few months earlier eludes me. Then I find it, and my hollow footfalls on the beaten earth sound as though I'm walking along above a secret tunnel. September's sun is low against my face.

On the far side of the smaller lake I sit down on a convenient fallen trunk, sprung against my weight across a gap, and the sun promptly goes in. Then I notice the mildly sulphuric smell of the backwater - too late: P is up to her elbows in stinking black mud. We move to a cleaner stretch of the lake and P continues her investigations along the bank, sending ripples through the reflection on overhanging trees. Tiny pin pricks all across the water's surface reveal the movement of insects below. Heavier versions of dragonflies hover like bombers, their wings a slow, nearly-visible blur. By now, P is trying to find something forbidden to get my attention. Failing repeatedly, she comes eventually to sit beside me. Time to move on.

The ground is thick with acorn cups, but where are all the acorns? The under-storey of the bracken is dieing and turning Pippa-coloured. Away from the pond, the fragmented glare of light bounces off a mass of small leaved trees and I pluck a sprig from them to check its identity later (unsuccessfully as it turn out).

We come back on high ground above the main lake, on a wide track with banks arching up around it, the sides held back by fingers of roots. Among the trees are a mature holly, its branches in gracefully swept dense layers, and a painfully slender rowan with ornamentally complex leaves.

Even up here the park management seems heavy-handed to me. Around one tree-trunk, a trio of next boxes is packed together, making me wonder whether birds care to be housed in such proximity. I suppose it saves on flying time for visiting - and also on ladder moving time when putting them up there.

We're nearly back at the start. The graveled path changes to tarmac. Just as I'm getting really annoyed by the growing traffic noise, we pass the last few bushes and suddenly the main lake is there - arrestingly beautiful. I remember why we come back here, as the sunlight glints on the water. Watching, I discern more and more patterns across is as clouds move above, the light changes, and wind ruffles the surface. It must never look quite the same for two moments together. Even the unconvincingly antiqued boat-house is in keeping in such an obviously picturesque setting.

No wonder they take such care of it all really.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

This blogging lark

I've been writing a blog for about three weeks now, first elsewhere and then here, so I'm having a think about it all.

So far I've had 2 comments, both from this lovely lady in Kentucky: - she has lots of dogs and posts super pictures and sweet stories about them. I wonder how she found me? I wonder also why nobody else comments. I'm a beginner, I must be getting loads wrong, but if everyone just keeps quiet about it I'll never know and just bumble along none the wiser.

And I've one other link, from Holly of which is called "A Liberal Life". Holly is a keen Lib Dem (and a keen lots of things actually!)

I know only too well how Holly found me though: I have been badgering just about everyone I know, and many who I really don't know, to come and read my stuff here. It should be embarrassing and that it isn't is probably not a good sign about me. Sorry.

Please let me know what you think of the show so far - which sort of post do you like to read most, is there anything that bugs you about the blog (other than my harping on about it), anything else you'd like see here?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Another Journey

We set off from Horley railway station: small shops, weedy car-parks, and the yellow stockbrick Victorian house with a neon sign upstairs advertising tattoos. I have to force myself to notice things so familiar.

South London arrives with angled lines of near-black brick terraces. Next to the track is a jumble of garden sheds, tarpaulin-covered shacks and secret dens. At Clapham Junction a weatherboarded station building with sash windows looks out of time. A sole trainspotter registers our engine's passing.

Into Victoria and onto the tube; from the outer reaches of the Picadilly line I see a sign for Heathrow Palace Guest House.

Carrying my bag along interminable corridors at Heathrow, the walking shoes begin to make sense: "Ugliness well spent" is B's verdict.

Eventually, we get out to the plane (18 rows of seats - not exactly jumbo). Aeroplanes puzzle me. They travel so fast, but no part of them appears to move: speed with zero haste. With rigid wings and engines whose working baffles me, they seem sustained by a joint suspension of disbelief in the intuitive truth that such a thing cannot possibly fly. No flapping, no feathers, not even any sails; only the sight of re-fuelling robs them of their mystery.

About three-quarters of the way to Munich, the pitch of the engines drops, and shortly afterwards my ears pop. For many more minutes we are in cloud, then suddenly we see land, much closer than I expected. Far lower than at Heathrow we are still over countryside, the fields divided into strips, not a scrap wasted or uncultivated. A brown river curls between separate halves of land.

Very close to the ground we are still turning, and as we land we seem to bounce and brake sharply. Then the opening announcement is in German: we have arrived. Glorious sunshine, Simpsons clouds, and the wonderful feeling of being just far enough away from home.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

From Toulouse to the hills by train

There was the usual high speed train trick: somebody started to move the platform. A few minutes later the train is darting forward, uncannily smooth for its speed.

The sun is out here just as it was at home, but here its heat seems stronger. Pale stony soil and bleached stubble stretch out on either side of the track's low embankment. Grey woods look even greyer in the distance, and cars as small as toys shoot along on an invisible road. There is an un-English absence of hedges. Suddenly against the sky I see a stepped wall of bells, improbable and over-dramatic as stage scenery.

We slow in respect of a small town but don't stop, like passing a lesser picture in a gallery. By unspoken agreement all buildings are ocher, cream, pale grey - anything but white. When we pass a lone exception it is clear why: it seers the eye with brightness, even in autumn.

Then for once the train is delayed, and we wait and wait in the middle of the faded dusty landscape. The small far clouds are unmoving and even in September the sun bakes the train. I look out and long for the garden I have been ignoring for the last six moths, and the verdure of England at the end of a wet summer.

Eventually we move off towards the next town. Gardens, edged with serried ranks of trees, all contain some version of a swimming pool. The houses are small, single storey, with shallow-pitched roofs bearing inter-crinkled red tiles. Everywhere everything looks rectangular. At each few houses there is a well, an orchard, immaculately tended rows of vegetables.

A line of plane trees, like English willows along a riverbank, marks a canal, from which a barge protrudes above the horizon. A few minutes further on, a driveway through fields is picked out by a double file of mediterranean pines.

Without my noticing, the clouds have gathered, and the light is no longer as clear. Vines replace stubble, overlaying each hillside with a directional grain as though a comb had been passed through them. Like trees in a plantation they seem a muddle until you reach just that point when you see plumb along the line. Each vineyard brings yet more long green walls, all on little wonky legs.

Beyond Carcasonne we travel up the valley of the Aude, through towering gorges with the modest river that carved them bubbling along below. The water is shallow and beautifully clear; as usual with natural things I ask it its prayer, not really expecting an answer. The following day I lean over the bridge on a wander through town and a reply comes to my mind. It is what it does, and it does what it is. So I began to write.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007