Lille; A short break.

Thursday 26 January 2023 – Lille, France

It was cold in Lille, much colder than London, the shock of the cold cutting through my open jacket as I got off the train. We stopped in the almost empty concrete wind tunnel that is Lille Europe Station to don the scarves and hats we pocketed when we got on the tube in Leytonstone almost four hours earlier. Eleanor wore gloves, I was map reading on my phone as we walked  the 20 or so minutes to the guest house.

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It was Tuesday morning, Europe is in the grip of an air pattern generated by storms in America, the sky is a solid even block of grey and there’s a firm but gentle breeze that feels like it could cut through lead, its sharp. The light is weird, and would remain so until Thursday morning when the rain comes. Though we are six hours early the guest house owner shows us to our room and we can dump our bags; I change into a warmer jumper, then we head back out to explore Lille. Neither of us has been here before so everything is new. Other than some recommended places to visit over the next couple of days we have no plan. The best way to travel somewhere different; slow and at the whim of fancy.

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We’ve come to Lille for a short break to celebrate the 25 of January, when, 10 years ago I met Eleanor for the first time over a drink or three in Camden’s famous rock and roll pub, the Hawley Arms. They’ve been a very happy 10 years and life without her would be a lot less bright. We chose Lille as it’s easy and quick to get to on the train, it’s not in the UK and we want to travel in Europe more than we have and as I said earlier, we’ve not been here before, so there’s plenty to explore.

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We spent Tuesday afternoon walking aimlessly around the old town, a lot of the shops were closed, early in a winter week I guess. nothing seemed permanently shutdown or derelict mind, a healthy sign for the city. I have the camera with me though didn’t take a huge amount of photos.

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Lille is in northern France, close to the Belgian border and architecturally is a mix of French and Flemish, a lot of the old houses would not be out of place if they were picked up and dropped into Ghent or Bruges. I like the mix of styles.

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There are lots of churches; including a Notre Dame. The touches are so gothic (it is a famous gothic cathedral), but also a touch Gaudi-esque; though he was Spanish.

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One of the things I like about European towns, and it does seem to be unique to mainland Europe rather than UK, London at least, is big old double doors, either as an entrance to a courtyard or direct into a house. I particularly like them when they are faded, grubby and time worn.

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I also found the narrowest building ever, none of those doors would have worked here.

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We had an amazing run of finding great places to go for a drink or an evening meal during our short European break in September and I pleased to say that luck stayed with us on this trip as well. I found Soultrain bar online, I was looking for an ‘alternative’ bad and one that was preferably a few minutes walk from the guest house. Soultrain met those requirements and lived to up to expectations; the food was basic bar sharing plates, We were the oldest people there but we loved the vibe, and the cocktails and the bar staff were great. I didn’t think a bar playing (mainly) French hip-hop, though not too loudly, would be my sort of place, but it was. Thanks internet. This was only our second drink, honest.

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Anniversary night was Wednesday; Eleanor had been recommended a small local bistro by a friend of a friend who lives in Lille and made a reservation before we left London. I booked the guest house based on its close proximity to the bistro. Bistrot Brigand is small, maybe a dozen tables, the music was soul/funk/jazz, and like Soultrain the night before, it was unobtrusive. The food was fabulous, combinations of things we hadn’t eaten before, mainly vegetarian, which seems unusual in Lille, and the staff were brilliant; this is a small inner suburban bistro, not a tourist place, and we were welcomed even though we have little French.

There was no rush on Wednesday, breakfast in the guest house; coffee, cheese, bread, fruit and pastries, more coffee. It was cold again, grey, low clouds, we wrapped up and walked to the nearby Metro station and caught a train to nearby Roubaix, near the border with Belgium. Our destination is La Piscine museum of art and industry, recommended to us by my cousin’s wife who is from Lille; she recommended a few places to us. The gallery was the day time highlight of the three days, not so much for its art, there was little that wowed me specifically, it’s the building that is the real highlight of the show.

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The gallery first opened in Roubaix in 1835 with an emphasis on textiles, a key industry in the city. Like many museums and galleries across France and western Europe it was closed during the Second World War and the artworks secure elsewhere. What is somewhat ironic is the gallery had just finished an exhibition of textiles by the great Victorian socialist and craftsman William Morris, who’s home and now museum is a five minute walk from our old house in Walthamstow. You can take the girl out of Walthamstow…

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The museum had trouble finding a new base until 1990 when the city council agreed the 1932 municipal swimming pool building, closed in 1985, would make a good home for the collections. No-one who has visited since it reopened could argue that this was not an inspired, if very brave decision. The place looks fabulous and I particularly liked the way the old dressing cubicles are being used to show works. The tiling is beautiful stupidly I didn’t take photos of the tiling. I did take a photo of this bath though.

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We had lunch and for me a very nice 4 Euro glass of red wine in a nearby café, then took in the town square before catching the tube back to central Lille.

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An afternoon nap was in order, but it was slightly too early so we wandered about the old town a bit more. I finally found a few narrow streets with not too many cars in to take some photos. I love these cobbled lanes as much as I hate there being cars in my photos.

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I was a bit gutted that the book, record and print  market wasn’t properly open on either of the days was walked through it.

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This is a holiday, so we picked up a bottle of cheap wine before climbing the three flights of stairs to our room then slobbing on the bed with books for a couple of hours before dinner. Note to self, next time you go to France take a cork screw as virtually no wine comes in a screw top bottle.

Thursday, today, our last day, dawned wet, though much warmer than the last two days. We’d planned to walk to a nearby market for a look, and maybe pick up some cheese to take home, but decided in the end to just hang out in the guest house room, enjoy another leisurely breakfast then walk to the station when the rain abated; stopping for a decent coffee on the way.

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I’d booked us seats on the 13:35, time for a last walk, if we’d wanted to get wet, though early enough for us to be back home by mid-afternoon, leaving time to unpack and get ready for work the next day (Boo hiss).

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It was a very enjoyable 10th anniversary trip and I’m looking forward to more visits to Europe this year and of course 10 more years plus with the lovely Eleanor. xx

St Magnus House

Saturday 07 January 2023 – London.

London, London, London. I do love you so. Sometimes I question that love as it’s very one-sided, and, though today wasn’t the best outing, it also wasn’t a day to be questioning how I feel about this magnificent, crowded, dirty, occasionally smelly and deeply frustrating city I have chosen to (mostly) live in. I wonder if you can have a truly bad day here; other than something untoward happening, which I guess is always a possibility, however unlikely it seems. Of course, if I lived in Paris, Rome, New York or Berlin or any other major city I’m sure I’d feel the same way there as well. Much as I love the wilderness. if I’m honest with myself cities are my real habitat. I should just embrace that more. You can be alone in a crowded place if you want to be, and today I was after a little solitude.

It’s cloudy and grey and cold and windy and rain is threatened, there’s also a train strike affecting all the mainline services into London, though thankfully not the tube. It sounded like a perfect day for a random street walk photo mission into a Saturday deserted city. I had a loose plan, walk about a bit and then take some photos of St Magnus House on Lower Thames St then cross London Bridge and take some photos of Colechurch House on the direct opposite side of the River Thames. Both brutalist buildings. The owners of Colechurch House appear to have big plans for a renovation which I suspect will lead to the destruction of what is already there so it would be nice to capture a little bit of its brutal loveliness.

I have been wanting to take photos of Colechurch House for a couple of years. It is directly opposite the always busy London Bridge Station which is where I leave the train when I go to St Leonards and it’s always busy with far too many people hanging and basically getting in the way of my image taking. I was hoping that with a train strike today it would be quiet. I was going to be disappointed.

Popping out from the tube into the ‘London fresh’ air at Liverpool St Station I was pleased to see it was pretty quiet on the streets with only a handful of people on the ever crowded footpath. I usually come to this part of the city on a Sunday morning; this is the business area so there is little need for anyone to be on the streets, the shops are closed and other than a few stumbling zombies heading home from the Shoreditch clubs the whole area is quiet. I crossed the road and went straight into the back streets and the private Devonshire Square.

I took a couple of photos here, nothing worth sharing and carried on walking through, with no real plan other than ending up by the Thames near London Bridge. I was happy to be aimless and let my camera lead me around.

On the far side of Devonshire Square to Liverpool St is the Middlesex Street Estate, built between 1965 and 1970, with the 23 story Petticoat Tower as the centrepiece, it is named after the much older and world famous Petticoat Lane Market which crowds Middlesex Street during the week then explodes into many of the nearby streets every Sunday. The estate was an unexpected brutalist bonus.

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The walk took an unplanned turn for the negative once I left the estate and discovered to my horror there were loads of people about, not thousands but enough to put me off, there didn’t seem to be any reason for the volume of strollers, maybe everyone else thought that a random stroll around London on a train-strike day was a good idea?

I crossed Whitechapel and plunged into the back streets, usually the best bit of any city. I have no idea of the names of the streets I actually walked down as I looped back and forth towards the river. I took a turning here and popped through an alley there though found very little that piqued my photographic interest.

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I ended up much nearer Tower Bridge than expected and walked down the riverside towards London Bridge, capturing this reflection of The Shard on the way.

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St Magnus House, it appears, was built in 1984 though has the look of classic late 60s brutalism, though missing some of the flourishes. It’s a tough building to photograph as it rubs up closely with its neighbours.

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There is a dance school in the building and a number of young dancers were eating lunch and practising on the balcony between the building and the river, prowling around taking photos felt a somewhat inappropriate so I took a couple of images from other sides of the building and then left, hoping for better luck on the other side of the Thames.

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For a strike impacted city and train station there were loads of people milling on the streets outside Colechurch House. The roof bar was unexpectedly open, it’s late morning,  and there were two bouncers minding the door on the walkway outside; a graffitied  area I wanted to take photos of. I left without getting the camera out of my bag, crossed back over the river and walked up to Chancery Lane where I caught the tube home.

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it was great getting out for the first time in a while and I really enjoyed the walk, but was ultimately disappointed that I didn’t get to take many photos; however, as I said at the start it’s hard to have a really bad day walking in London.

Needles and Plastic–A history of Flying Nun Records by Matt Goody

Sunday 08 January 2023 – Leytonstone, London.

Eleanor came back to bed with the morning’s first ‘coffee in bed’ coffee with the news that there had been a not quite record shaped parcel left for me outside the front door this morning, perhaps it was left last night, who knows. Nevertheless it was on the doorstep before 8:00am on this miserable grey damp Sunday morning and I had an inkling as to what it was; mainly because I don’t actually have any records on order at the moment. I was a little excited but played it cool, drinking that first coffee while mindlessly scrolling Twitter in between casually looking at pictures of dining room tables that Eleanor showed me.

When it seemed like an appropriate amount of time had passed; and a new table had been chosen, I took the cups and headed back downstairs to make the second coffee. As soon as the first pod was in the machine and the milk frother was frothing I ripped open the package and there it was, in all its, slightly damaged on one corner, glory; Matt Goody’s epic history of Flying Nun Records 1981-1988, ‘Needles and Plastic’. I have been waiting for this book to be published and released in the UK for quite some time.

Matt contacted me via Instagram in May 2021 regarding some photos I had uploaded to social media of Flying Nun bands from gigs I attended in the 80s. He said he was writing a book about Flying Nun Records and asked if he could use those photos and whether I had any more. I, of course, said yes, then caveated this with my usual lack of self-confidence, by saying they were probably not good enough for a book but he was welcome to use them if he liked.

The good news was he did like, and I was excited to find this morning there are a number of my photos in the book. The book is a weighty tome, an encyclopaedia-like review of every Flying Nun release from 81-88, when the label moved from Christchurch to Auckland. 1981-1985 were prime gig going years for me and bands on this New Zealand record label put on shows that I frequently attended; I now regret not taking my camera to more of them.

The label is highly regarded, probably more so globally than it is at home, and it’s first few years saw some fabulous, influential and very collectable records released; it still releases fabulous records, and I have quite a few of them in my collection.

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The book was released at the end of last year in New Zealand and the US; to rave reviews and I jealously watched on social media as Matt undertook a tour of New Zealand’s main centres promoting the book alongside some of my favourite writers and Flying Nun musicians. What makes this book more unusual is Matt is Canadian and still lives in Canada, he just happened to fall in love with Flying Nun Records from afar. Like so many others of us have.

There has been an element of sadness with the release of the book, Hamish Kilgour, the drummer with seminal band The Clean, as well as a number of other groups, tragically took his own life just before Christmas. This meant there was only record to play as I opened the book for the first time, The Cleans first 12 inch record ‘Boodle, Boodle, Boodle’. This has been made a sadder affair as Hamish is the one standing up on the cover of the book.

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Having my photos printed in a book is really special for me, unexpectedly special I will add, and I really appreciated Matt making contact.  Here are a couple of phone snaps of some of my photos in the book.

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It’s not something I talk about much but I have a ‘thing’ about legacy, an unhealthy obsession with leaving something behind; other than my children of course. This obsession with legacy is balanced by completely lacking self confidence, hopeless will power and an overall laziness, brought on in some part by that lack of self confidence. I know I’m not a bad photographer and I know I can string words together coherently if I put in the effort and I know I could have, or could still do something with those skills, but something always prevents me from doing so. Maybe this is a start of a new phase , though at least the pressure to leave something tangible behind is gone.

I still have the camera I took those photos on, I just wished it still worked!

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Hollow Pond in the snow.

Monday 12 December 2022 – Leytonstone.

The temperature has taken a turn for the cooler in the past couple of days, though I was still surprised last night when Eleanor called out from the kitchen to tell me it was snowing. I jumped out of a slump on the couch and stood watching a decent fall out the window for a few minutes. I love fresh snow fall and was a little disappointed that it was coming down in the dark of a late December Sunday afternoon, never the best time to be going out to take photos. I was even more surprised, pleasantly so, to see the snow was still coming down when we went to bed a few hours later and there was already a good layer on the ground. I got the camera and some clothes ready for the morning; just in case.

Which as it turned out was very wise. I was awake early (as usual) and a quick peer out the window showed the snow had stopped falling but there was a good solid four inches on the ground in the garden. The most I’ve seen since coming to the UK ten years ago. I had to be patient as it was still dark and there wasn’t sufficient light and it’s Monday so I’m going to be a little late for work; oh well.

I waited till there was enough light to take photos and headed out the door, given how much snow there was on the ground it was surprisingly warm. Or rather it wasn’t that cold and by the time I got home I had my beanie off and my jacket mostly undone, the gloves didn’t even make it on to my hands.

I took a photo of the front of the house before I left.

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I’m not writing much these days, nor am I doing much photography, or much of anything else either if I’m brutally honest with myself. Due to this lack of writing I have failed to mention that we have moved house. Eleanor sold her house of 26 years in Walthamstow and has bought slightly further east, in nearby Leytonstone. We moved in early November. The ‘new’ house is 150 years old, doesn’t appear to have any 90 degree angles inside it and is very charming and we are quite happy now we have fully moved in and unboxed our stuff. Though I must confess to not yet putting my records into any sort of order; and I hope they all made it to the new house.

The walk from the new house to Hollow Pond is about 10 minutes, significantly less than the old house. Once I get back on my bike, which I promise I will do in the new year, I can easily ride from Hollow Pond to Epping Forest, though there will be a few shorter rides to be made to get my legs and lungs back into shape. Unsurprisingly the streets were quiet for a Monday morning, it was slippery. Suburban London looks lovely on the first morning following a night of snow.

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I was surprised to find there was hardly anyone at Hollow Pond, I expected it to be busy with people experiencing the snow or like me and taking photos, I guess many have to go to work and perhaps schools were open, I don’t know. Maybe folk just don’t like the snow as much as I do. I like it on day one anyway, London snow on day two and onwards is more a grey icy slush than a pristine cold white blanket.

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I took a few photos as I gingerly walked around the outside of the lake; it is beautiful.

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I’ve tried to take photos of this tree on numerous occasions in the past, it’s my favourite dead tree, though I’ve rarely been successful enough with the images to share them here. I liked both of the ones I took today.

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This is a Monday, a work day, and while I was happy to be a little late to the ‘office’, I didn’t want to linger too long, though I could easily have wandered for much longer and tried to get a few more photos in the trees. I did take a lot of photos though and was very happy with my work and with getting out of the house.

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I’m hoping for more snow as the winter progresses, though I guess I ‘m happy there was at least one good fall that I managed to experience.

A brief moment of solitude.

Saturday 26 November 2022 – Epping Forest.

There was a moment this morning when I had no idea where I was; I mean I knew within a few hundred metres where I was, I was in Epping Forest somewhere roughly around Loughton Camp. What I didn’t know was where I was in that bit of forest, or to be perfectly honest, where Loughton Camp was. This bit of forest has changed since I was last here and I was discomforted by this, normally I know exactly where I am and which direction is home. What was worse was I knew I should walk towards the sun, it had been behind me on the way in, but it felt wrong, and it was an effort to ignore the wrongness and keep walking into the low-cloud covered sun. I ended up back at the broken chair I’d photographed 30 minutes before. I never did find Loughton Camp. Next time I will take the path straight to it.

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It’s been so long since I was last in Epping Forest proper that I had to do a blog search to find the date; 23 May 2020, over two and half years ago. This would have been inconceivable a few years back when I was going there almost weekly. Admittedly I’ve walked in the forest fringe, in Walthamstow Forest and Wanstead Park since returning from New Zealand in February, but today was the first venture into the main forest. Once back under the tree canopy I realised how much I had missed it. One of the prices I pay for trying to live in two different places.

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This trip was made specifically to take photos so took a couple of lenses and the tripod, which for a change I made extensive use of. I chose Loughton Camp as the first section of the forest to visit after my absence as it is reasonably easy to get to from the new house in Leytonstone; Loughton Station is only two stops up the Central Line from home, and it’s a only ten minute walk to the forest from the station.

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I took a lot of photos in what was really only a sort visit; a couple of hours spent wandering and snapping. It was extremely enjoyable, for a change I hit autumn just about dead on.

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A memory of 10 years ago.

29 November 2012.  Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda.

I’ve had some wonderful experiences in my 60 years; I’m a dad, I’ve travelled extensively, met loads of great people, have great family and friends, had decent enough jobs and have the best partner anyone could wish for, you can definitely say I’ve never really wanted for anything. I’m a lucky guy in short.

If I take family and friends out of the frame then November 29 2012, ten years ago today, was undoubtedly the best day ever. I went to the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and spent one hour in the presence of the Agashya family group of mountain gorillas.

This was the ultimate day of almost 12 months of memorable and enjoyable travelling and will remain a high point in my memory until the day memory blurs and disappears.

I wrote about it at the time; here, so won’t blather any further now.

I have re-edited five photos I took on the day. Adobe Lightroom has improved significantly in the last 10 years so I think these are better versions than those I uploaded at the time.

These were all taken with a 50mm lens and have only been slightly cropped for framing purposes; we were that close to the gorilla family and they were not bothered by us in the slightest, we were in their home and they are kings of that bit of jungle.

It was a day I’ll never forget.

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Wrong Speed Records all dayer @ The Strongroom.

Saturday 8 October 2022 – London.

Wrong Speed Records is a small and vital record label created by Joe Thompson, bass player with Hey Colossus and Henry Blacker, during the early Covid lockdowns. The label is the centre of the Hey Colossus multiverse, with most of the (at the time of writing) 38 releases on the label coming from bands associated with current or ex-members of the band, and there are quite a few of those. I don’t own all those records but I have at least one by all the bands playing today, or I do now as I picked up the Gum Takes Tooth record from the merch stand after the show.

Today was the Wrong Speed Records all-day gig at The Strongroom bar in Shoreditch. Six bands, five on Wrong Speed Records and one (Gum Takes Tooth) about to be, all for the amazing price of zero pounds; yes it was free. Fantastic, and such a good line up as well.

The first band was on at 3:30 and I arrived just before The Mute Servants hit the stage, meeting Sean, a Walthamstow friend at the venue. The Mute Servants are a two piece formed around the songs of one of Hey Colossus’ three guitarists. The songs were short, sharp and fun, nothing over two minutes in length; garage punk at its finest. They did (at least) two covers, The Breeders ‘Do you love me now’ and The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’. It was a great start to the day.

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The Strongroom is not a bad venue, I’m not sure if hosts a lot of bands, but it is well set up for them, with a couple of bars, a huge outdoor space with loads of seating and a gig room that would hold a couple of hundred; it seemed really well air-conditioned as well which I appreciated. The one downside for day time bands was the glass fire exit doors letting in too much background light which made it hard to take photos of the musicians on a very dimly lit stage. I had a lot of trouble getting images of the next band. Shooting was hard for all the bands with my ancient beast of a camera, the light was very dim and mostly a horrible red or even more horrible blue.

Haress (prounced hairs) were second on, and the band I was most looking forward to seeing, and they didn’t disappoint; not that any of the bands did. Another of the Hey Colossus guitarists plays guitar in Haress.

Haress play a very quiet gentle gothic country, slow mournful tunes, that build slowly to a gentle peak, I play their records a lot while I work. They all play their instruments while seated, which sort of reflects the vibe of their music. There was even a sing-along with handed out lyric sheets for one of their songs.

I thought they were great and my photos didn’t do them justice, I would have loved to have been on the other side of the stage but someone else was taking pictures there and it seems a bit weird having the only two people taking photos standing in the same place.

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Thee Alcoholics were the third band of the day and the third band of the day without a bass player. Definitely the heaviest band so far (it gets heavier), a grungey-noise rock four piece with an ex-Hey Colossus drummer on guitar and vocals. There was a guest vocal by an ex-Hey Colossus vocalist/current Hey Colossus guitarist on a song that which was very reminiscent of the older sludgier Hey Colossus sound. I liked them.

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Fourth up were Nottingham punks Blind Eye, the only proper punk band on the bill. They play a fast melodic hardcore and had the crowd buzzing; there were even a small number of people slam dancing through their short and furious set. From where I was standing it was impossible to get a decent photo of the guitarist, he was mostly in the dark, one of the only musicians I didn’t get a photo of.

The venue was at ground level with the locked glass fire door on Rivington Street, opposite a restaurant and bar. It was very early evening when Blind Eye took the stage and I was amused by all the fancily dressed young folk peering in through the glass of the doors, wondering/bemused at the thunderous racket going on inside.

Four bands in, and the first band with a bass player and also the first without current or ex Hey Colossus member.

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Not owning of their records meant I was not that familiar with Gum Takes Tooth, only really giving them an online listen in the days before the gig. I liked what I heard and was keen to see them, they were the real outliers on the day; no bass, no drums and no guitars, as well as being the only band on the day yet to release anything on Wrong Speed, apparently something coming in 2023.

The played a set that sounded very techno to my electronic-ignorant ears, and they got a very good response from full venue, I enjoyed their set a lot.

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Headliners for the event were Hey Colossus, a last minute addition after another band had to pull out. I always like seeing Hey Colossus, and I guess with so many members at the venue it made sense that they played. It was a cracking set as well, with a couple of new tracks being aired as well as songs from the last three records. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the epic closer, the 16 minute Trembling Rose. Paul, the vocalist is such a fun photographic subject.

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This was the first time I’ve been to a multi-band event where every band was excellent, it was impossible to pick a favourite. They were all different enough that direct comparisons would be impossible.Big thanks to the bands, the fans, the bar team, Joe, Chris, Baba Yagas Hut and anyone else who was involved in organising the day.

Roll on the next event in mid-2023.

Big thanks to the bands, the fans, the bar team, Joe, Chris, Baba Yagas Hut and anyone else who was involved in organising the day.

Roll on the next event in mid-2023.

Amsterdam

Wednesday 21 September 2022 – Amsterdam, Holland.

Amsterdam. The final city in our three city whistle-stop holiday, which sadly was all over far too quickly; both the holiday and our stay in this wonderful city of canals and cobbled streets.

I deliberately chose to go to Amsterdam on a Monday rather than over a weekend, I’m not a party person and the thought of a city full of stag-dos and hen parties was horrifying. I want some semblance of peace and quiet while I holiday and don’t want to be lumped in with the louder drunken English tourist.

All our inter-city travel has been via train, it’s long been my favourite form of travel. Headphones on and gazing out the window as we move through the world is one of the true joys of travelling. I like to take photos through the window as we go, mostly unsuccessfully; a lot of attempts went into a virtual bin to get a couple that I liked. The countryside is mostly flat and rural, I was looking for olde worlde windmills but didn’t see anything other than large modern wind turbines; though there is a beauty in those as well; I’m glad I don’t live near them though.

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We loved Amsterdam, as in Brussels and Gent we stayed outside the centre but within easy walking distance; though we really didn’t do much in the centre, a quick walk through and that was it. We missed all of the central city attractions, mostly deliberately. I’m not that sort of tourist.

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We walked past Rembrandt’s house, I knocked, though he wasn’t in.

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The view from our hotel room in the Jordaan.

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We spent most of our time walking around the canals that fringe the centre of town. Canal side walking was such a joy, just like Gent the inner suburbs were dominated by cyclists and pedestrians. There were cars, but few and they all seemed to give way to those not in tin boxes, it was quite civilised. I don’t recall the constant blaring of horns at any minor inconvenience caused by someone cycling slowly up a cobbled single lane road. The Heineken sign is above the door of my favourite bar of the whole trip.

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One of things that I found very amusing was the number of (often white) vans parked on bridges, I have so many photos with unexpected and unwanted vans in them.

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I took a lot of photos of canals and bridges. Did you expect anything else?

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There were some great houses here, though not all of them were straight. I like the variety of residential architecture in the different European towns and cities I’ve visited over the years; different weather and environmental conditions has led to a different style of building. This makes urban walking so much more interesting.

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I loved these tiny cars, there were a lot of them about, some powered by cranky old petrol engines that sound like they’re held together with gaffer tape and ancient congealed grease and street dust, the newer ones are electric and silent; neither seem to move very fast. I’ve not seen these anywhere else.

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As in Gent and Brussels we found a number of quite chilled cafes and bars (not the ‘special’ kind’) to hang out in, mostly out of the main tourist areas. There was a bar round the corner from the hotel that I spent a couple of hours in over a couple of small beers while I read my book and listened to the dub reggae they were playing. It was the local bar I dream of having where I live but have never found. I guess everything looks better through the rose-tinted glasses of a holiday. On our last night we found a whisky bar that had a nice range of whisky based cocktails, we stayed for a couple; the music was good and they place felt nice; admittedly there weren’t many other customers. Like the gin bar in Gent on our first night this place also had ladderlike stairs going to the toilet, not a place for cocktail wobbly legs.

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When we planned the trip we intended to visit the world renown Rijksmuseum art gallery, but wow, it’s expensive!

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We decided we would visit the MOCO Modern Art museum instead, it was a bit cheaper and was focused on street and pop art rather than the classics. Amongst the Banksy and Warhols they were exhibiting a couple of Stik paintings, the kind of thing you normally see painted on city walls.

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MOCO was in the same precinct as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, another nice part of Amsterdam about 30 minutes from where we were staying.  There were quite a few people here, probably the largest volume of other tourists we’ve seen. A lot of accents and languages being spoken around the coffee and waffle cart tables.  It was nice and I miss that sort of thing quite a lot; I find a joy in being amongst strangers, who have all come to somewhere else to gather a drink coffee. Of course I don’t talk to them, that would be madness.

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All too soon it was time to head back home; a week away was enough to refresh, and enough for a taste of the low countries, but I left wanting more; which is a good thing. Like most other places I’ve visited, I would willingly come back.

The train back to London was really busy and I really should have checked out seats before we left, our view was, um, limited. At least we were near the bar.

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Brussels, Belgium, where I turn 60.

Monday 19 September 2022 – Brussels, Belgium.

I was 60 on Saturday 17 September, a milestone that pretty much snuck up on me. I don’t feel 60, it sounds old and most of the time I don’t feel old; I feel like a young 59. This trip was primarily to celebrate my birthday and I wanted to, and should have, spend more time on planning it. I’m good at planning holidays and get almost as much pleasure from the planning as I do from trip.

I struggled with organising this trip, possibly due to being too busy, but I mainly think it’s a Covid hangover; a lack of trust that we will actually be able to go mixed with a nervousness about being in crowds again and not being in the mood to ‘have fun’. I had a few attempts at making a trip work but couldn’t get time, location and budget to fit. In the end I just thought ‘fuck it, let’s go to Brussels’. I chose Brussels as it isn’t Berlin or Amsterdam, Rome or Paris; it’s not a city you go to celebrate something and it’s the centre of the ‘hated’ EU. It sounded perfect, and I don’t hate the EU by the way. I would rejoin tomorrow if it was my choice.

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We arrived in Brussels after two great days in Gent on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t raining then, it saved that for my birthday. Not that rain put us off roaming the streets to check a place out. As with Gent we stayed a little off the beaten track in what seemed to be a largely residential area in the suburb of Ixelles, a thirty minute walk from the old centre and a similar distance from the EU Parliament sector. It was a great spot, close to some good places to eat; a critical consideration when I book a holiday. We had three great meals in Ixelles, all different; including a very nice birthday dinner I had booked before we left London.

We enjoyed Brussels; of course it’s a big city, and it isn’t particularly touristy though it has a number of interesting attractions. I took a few photos, as you would expect.

On Saturday, we took a walk into the centre, it rained off and on during the morning, getting quite heavy at times. It didn’t put us off too much; it also kept the crowds down.

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We took a break from the drizzle over beer and cider in a small  bar before visiting the Magritte Museum, an adjunct to the art gallery. I quite like some of his work; especially his later ‘apple’ series.

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There is a bit of art around the place, both modern street and the more traditional sculpture, including Brussels number one tourist attraction, the Manneken Pis fountain.

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I especially liked this terrible statue of Jacques Brel.

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We went into a couple of churches, one had the most amazing modern abstract stained glass windows, which is very difficult to see in this photo.

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I was really surprised to find a Phlegm painting in the city; one of my favourite British street artists.

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We spent Sunday walking to and then around the European Parliament area and up to the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the Triumphal Arc. The walk through the lovely old cobbled streets of Ixelles towards the EU Centre was so quiet and pleasant and we wondered at the absence of cars and the abundance of pedestrians and families on bikes.

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It was not till we were in the centre that we realised it was Brussels annual car free day… It explained a lot, we thought this bit of Brussels was just like this all the time; a dream for me is a mostly car free city.

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Sadly the Royal Court of Justice was covered in scaffold.

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I want trams back in London.

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Gent, Belgium.

Friday 16 September 2022 – Gent, Belgium.

There won’t be a lot of text in this, nor the following couple of posts, though there are quite a few photos in all three. Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam are photogenic in their different ways.

We loved Gent, I think we possibly could have done with one more day, though we saw most of the things we planned on seeing. The main thing we missed was the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral. Something for next time; I like to think we will go back one day, it is a place to return to.

Gent is a medieval town surrounded by canals, very similar to the more classically beautiful Bruges. Gent had the edge for me as it has a student population and is a little more ‘grunge’ than Bruges; there is street art and some graffiti and student type bars with decent music. It’s not just a tourist town, though tourism must be one of its primary income sources, it’s a lived in and loved place. For an ancient town it is young and it felt right.

Some highlights.
Gin.

Le Alchemist. We popped in because it was raining and stayed for two very nice, and expensive, glasses of gin and tonic each. They had a nice range of different gins and tonics, the music was great and we were the only customers for a while; it was mid-afternoon. The steps to the bathroom were not for the faint hearted; nor the drunk.

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t’Druepelkott. A number of people advised us to visit this tiny canal side bar in the tourist area, and all those people were right. What a place! The (I assume) cigar smoking owner only serves hots of flavoured gin, poured into a large or small shot with a shaky hand. The glass is filled to brim and you have to sip from top before lifting it from the bar to take back to your seat. 70s and 80s funk sound tracked our couple of drinks and it is up there with the top moments of the trip.

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The food was great as well, vegan food is common, we found a couple of places that were 100% vegan; it’s not overly cheap, but it was very nice and we ate well.

Walking.

Gent is an easy town to walk and cycle, there were definitely fewer cars than most other places. The narrow and cobbled streets twist and turn and cross the canals that edge the town. We walked a lot, an awful lot. It’s the only way to see and feel this place.

I took a lot of photos. Castles, cathedrals, wonky ancient houses and street art from throughout the ages, who could ask for more?

Street art. 

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Castles and cathedrals.

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Streets and canals.

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S.M.A.K. The museum of contemporary art is lovely gallery with a great exhibition featuring some small works by Derek Jarman part made from items found around his Dungeness Beach home. As a recent Jarman convert these were the first pieces of his I had seen up close.

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