|Roll On, Columbia...|
|Thursday 28/02/2013 12:38|
Departing King Street Station heading north was a new experience, and once out of the tunnel the tracks swung onto the waterfront alongside Alaskan Way. The grey afternoon reflected in Puget Sound, giving the scene a quiet, wintry beauty which oddly reminded me of Scotland. It was strange - and more than a little emotional - to look on this scene which had signified so much which was new and different about these past few months, and to consider how things would soon be changing again. The tracks hugged the coast through Ballard and Mukilteo before swinging inland at Everett and starting the long slow climb into the Cascades. The scenery shifted - a rural patchwork of farmland not dissimilar to home in Snohomish County which became sparser, tougher country as we climbed through Monroe and Sultan towards the Cascades Tunnel. Suddenly, in the darkness outside the dining car there was snow beside the line. Deep, thick, virgin snowfall which was unlike anything I'd seen before. I was entranced. As we curved and twisted through the mountains, navigating Stevens Pass at ear-popping altitude, we chatted to a family heading home from a week in Seattle. We told them our plans, and once again we found a genuine happiness in strangers' responses which warmed the heart despite the cold outdoors. Our destination was Wenatchee, and we alighted at Columbia River station late in the evening. As the car drifted along the city's streets I recalled my first evening in the USA, looking out at the passing strip-malls and eateries of Granite City, Illinois - this was oddly similar, save for the looming mountains on the horizon. I felt comfortably familiar with this middle-American scene.
Waking to sunshine and mountains was a surprise after the usual slate skies in Seattle, and as I began to make sense of the surroundings I also began to rather like this little outpost of a city. Yes, it carries all kinds of emotional burdens for people close to me - and it shares my own former home town's ability to wind me back in time to a bored, ill-fitting teenager at a moment's notice. It's also an oddly conservative colony - a distinct contrast to things west of the Cascades - but in its little eateries and dusty corners, there is something here. History, events that were inconsequential at the time, but lead up to now - and my own entanglement in the story.
A day or two into the trip and we head out in the car to Yakima. It's a three hour drive across the plains of central Washington, largely following the valley of the mighty Columbia River and it's dams. The mountains loom on both sides of our route, but here between them it is flat, dry and empty. The river snakes in and out of view, running slow between its reservoirs now. Appropriately, the scene opens out at Vantage - the river a long, broad lake between steely ranges of rock. The highway swings west, across a low bridge which leads towards another climb. The sky feels closer here somehow. I'm moved to silence, taking in the broad-angle view. I've never seen anything quite like this before - never appreciated scale in quite this way. The midwest is a bit of a distant memory now, but it lacks the reference points which the mountains offer, and which dwarf the tiny strip of highway rising into the western sky.
At Columbia River station absurdly early and just a few mornings later, we're boarding the train back to Seattle. It's not been an easy visit for many reasons, but it has placed more markers in my mental map of the state, and in the timeline which stretches back. I think of my historical links to the area - the endless letters launched overseas to obtain music, the curious kinship of the low-tech labels. It's truly strange how the strands of the story should re-entangle here in this little gap in the mountains...
|Worlds of Possibility - A New Year Excursion|
|Friday 11/01/2013 15:18|
But London hasn't always been like this of course - and just a week ago there was another trip here. Originally it would have been the trip on which I wrote about how painful and harrowing things were, but illness and re-arranged flights have changed things - strangely for the better. This left us with half a journey to London booked, which meant a Saturday afternoon departure from home. On arrival we checked into the Hilton Paddington - a hotel I'd always wanted to visit, and which I'd ended up getting an absurdly good deal on. It was by far the best hotel we'd visited during the trip - a beautiful haze of art deco features and furnishings, a curved staircase leading to a period frieze, and rooms which echoed the same heyday of the Great Western Railway perfectly. We settled into this immediately. It was our kind of place.
Inside the Hilton it's still inter-war London....
The purpose of the trip was to take in a comedy show in Wandsworth. I've walked these environs before in search of William Kent, and I knew that this wasn't going to be a salubrious jaunt. We took the bus as far as the ludicrous but oddly interesting ski-ramp roof of Vauxhall bus station, and negotiated the crossings to Wandsworth Road. Passing the hulk of New Covent Garden Flower Market, I reminisced about my 2004 wanderings here to find the address of Kent's father's print works. As we made further progress, side-streets stood out - Larkhall Park, sharing a name with one of his street addresses. Wandsworth has changed little in the intervening eight years - except for the area immediately around Vauxhall. Rebranded St.George's Wharf, an absurd skyscraper is beginnning to loom above a modern, waterfront development which rivals anything the north bank has to offer. But a walk south into the Local Authority blocks sees a distinct cultural and demographic shift. The Lost Theatre is tucked into a curious, modern building - a small but well-equipped venue which puts the audience close to the performer. The audience was a little sparser than I expected - but this provided a perfect, conversational air to Andy Zaltzman's performance. Despite asserting that he's "not a banter-based comedian", his set was gently interactive despite hauling in some of his 'greatest hits' too - including the sprawlingly silly, and very funny tale of "Mickey Paintbrush".
Heading back on the bus, it's good to be out of the cold evening and watching the lights of the city rising as we head north again towards Vauxhall. A quick change here sees us on a 436 heading along Park Lane, the hotels and car dealerships glittering in the winter night, while taxis line up to take people home from the whirling, gaudy fairground rides which are still operating in Hyde Park. It's strange to be arriving at the front of the Hilton and walking up the red carpet into the beautifully appointed reception hall, and even stranger not to be heading into the station for the ride home. There is a sense of luxury, not least at the extra days which seem endless now, and which mean that an early morning trip to Heathrow tomorrow can be deferred. London has rarely seemed so intimately scaled, so rich with possibilities and options for future visits. I think about my plan to head back into the city after the Heathrow trip - at this point almost a week away - and it still seems like the best possible idea...
Arriving at Paddington in uncommon style...
Back at Paddington, the falconer has moved on and the pigeons have returned to an unconcerned search for discarded food. My train will soon be ready for boarding, and I'm aware that it's going to be an effort to drag my aching back and legs onboard. The flight will have been airborne for almost two hours now - and will have cleared the tip of Scotland for sure. I think of Scotland, of future trips planned - and of desperate dashes around Glasgow last October. Feverish 'phonecalls from dingy music venues, pictures of junk shops, revisited locations seen through new perspectives. The year is starting from a whole new viewpoint for me, informed by that trip and all that came after it. London will figure large in this future I'm certain. It's time to go home - but it doesn't feel quite like home just now. There is something missing...
|London Reappraised: There Is No Ending...|
|Monday 31/12/2012 23:54|
The first new horizon broached was Camberwell. Until now for me, a conspicuous gap in the atlas. It has no railway station anymore - despite once being a desirable village suburb on the southern fringe of the city. In the intense, hot whirl of the summer the BBC ran an episode of "The Secret History of Our Streets" which covered the rise and fall of the area, and the durability of some pockets of leafy perfection. At the time this seemed like an interesting but anodyne programme - why did I care about this southern suburb which wasn't even worth a stop on the train? But arriving at the junction of Camberwell Church Street and Denmark Hill, we found the intensely busy hub which is repeated all over London. The locus of thousands of lives - which really is their London, and bears little relation to the gilded gates and ancient towers north of the river. Buses edged around the traffic, the Sophocles Bakery leaked enticing fumes, the pubs belched merry punters onto the after-work streetcorners. In the midst of this, the Church Street Hotel. A strangely latin influenced hipster boutique. A strong vein of Catholic iconography, lots of bold colour and crazy tiling. A beautifully detained interior behind a suitably anonymous, toned-down grey frontage. This was our home for a couple of nights - and a base to make some early forays into the city. First impressions are of course important - but where places are concerned they are malleable. Few cities more so than London, which throws surprises in at each turn of a corner. Starting as we meant to continue, the first night was a whirl of activity. A bus to Waterloo, and dinner under a railway arch. A walk along the river, Parliament lit yellow and looking deceptively benign across the water. Then another bus along The Strand and through the City. St. Pauls gleaming above the Thames, the Bank, the towers of Bishopsgate. Then south over London Bridge and through The Borough to return to Camberwell. It was dizzying - perhaps over-ambitious for a first trip into London. But it was an arc through the layers of history which is something I've always tried to convey in words and likely failed. Tired and bewildered, Camberwell felt strangely homely on our return. The little knot of streets still busy with traffic and pedestrians, little open now except the supermarkets and convenience stores. We stop into a pub, where there is surprisingly good music being played and a pleasant babble of conversation. Despite the incredibly cosmopolitan nature of the district, the clientele is surprisingly uniform.
Catholic chic at the Church St.
Regular readers will know that the West End is a closed book to me, as is much of Westminster and the more traditionally tourist side of London. This isn't wilful obscurantism - I'm really not fond of crowds, and my first visit to London during a cold December many years ago included being swept along Oxford Street in horribly dense eddys of humanity. I've avoided the place since - I've rarely the urge or the means to shop, and there has always been something more interesting elsewhere. Aside from the area immediately surrounding Victoria station, the environs of Buckingham Palace are equally obscure to me - but it was here that we ended up. After a superb and lazily drawn-out breakfast at a tiny cafe near Victoria, we skirted the back wall of the Palace - the drab, spike-topped cordon which would appear entirely un-royal if not for the frequent plaques warning of its special legal status, posted in suitably discreet white on grey and in a less-than-officious font of course. This approach has the advantage of concealing the grandeur until the very last second, the great facade suddenly appearing to our left, St. James' Park and the public space around the Victoria Memorial opening before us. As ever, a crowd of tourists milled and photographed. We did the same, and I confess I enjoyed it. It might have been the company of course - and certainly the novelty - but seeing this at the end of a year when royalty has been ever-present was odd and surprising. It hasn't felt particularly real to most of us I'm sure, and the dreadful TV coverage of the Jubilee did nothing but distance the Royals from the viewing population. But here, in the middle of the whirl of the city is the iconic balcony - smaller and lower, strangely close to the people milling about. Guards march back and forth, cameras flicker for the shot. We walk along Constitution Hill - our original plans changed by jetlag and time constraints. Another bus ride later I'm in more familiar territory around Marylebone, a stroll up Baker Street marvelling at the line for the Sherlock Holmes museum even at this late stage of the tourist day. Sick, dizzy and tired - it was time to head home.
At the gates of Buckingham Palace
But this wasn't the end of the London experience... Travelling on the last day of the year, we returned to more familiar ground for me, descending on Bishopsgate in the early evening. If the first part of the visit had been a confusing, sometimes disconcerting whirl - I wanted this at least to reflect a little of the London which I experienced. A city where one can step back from the tumult and see the accretions of time. We wasted little time into getting out into the evening - the city was shifting into party mode, the stores closing early and the crowds beginning to appear on the street. New year in London is an event, a public spectacle of fireworks and drunkenness. We skirted this and turned east, heading for The English Restaurant in Brushfield Street. Oysters and robust, excellent fare in the dark, wood-panelled dining room was a fitting way to spend the evening. It was possibly the best meal I've ever eaten, and it was distinctly of the city. The dark but warm interior of the building discharging atmosphere, the solid Englishness of the dishes completely in context with the surroundings. In true London style, we were served by a range of non-natives - Australian barmen (naturally) and a genuinely pleasant northern waitress who was enthusiastic about the food. We wandered in the chaos of the late evening happily fed and watered. This was a new experience for me - this part of the city is about desperate, high-speed runs, about snatched moments in busy days. So to be here with accommodation on the brink of the east was a luxury. We plunged into Spitalfields, navigating around the glowering hulk of Christ Church and sliding into the darkness of Fournier Street. This part of the city seems so familiar, but it's new to see it in the dark of a winter evening. The buildings glow with an inner warmth. Generations of ghosts cluster at the windows, clamouring for a look at the gaudy, neon swirl of Brick Lane. We emerge into the maelstrom. The curry houses are doing fine trade - but still the patrons send their staff out to press-gang more trade from the streets. The New Year has been adopted by the locals here, and Indian girls totter by on impossible heels while another of their number tries to loudly encourage a drunken colleague back onto her feet. She hasn't quite made it to the new year - slumped against an old brick wall which has propped up the dissipated for many, many years. We turn a corner and regard a significant spot - the sundial on the Jamme Masjid. It's odd to be here now, tonight - completing a circuit begun years ago when I first took the picture of this curious device and it's sonorous motto. Then continued when I sent the picture flying across the world last summer - a significance which only now begins to reveal its magnitude. We stand a while, and yes - it's an emotional moment - one which closes the dizzy, unbelievable swirl of 2012 in an appropriately reflective tone.
We want to get back in time for the bells and fireworks, and take a crazy dash through the detritus of Petticoat Lane market and the commercial edgelands which divide the City from the East End here. It's been a whirl of new experiences these past few days - endless dashes from train to bus and back, time spent renewing my acquaintance with the city through entirely new eyes. I appreciate again what an enormous, unmanageable churn the city is. I remember how early on I learned to break it into chunks - the villages of London, so well illustrated by our entry point at Camberwell. Real life, of course, is always different - but to be reminded that this is practically on my doorstep is never a bad thing.
|A Flood of Festivity|
|Tuesday 25/12/2012 21:22|
So, I find myself scanning weather reports and trying to determine just how badly the floods will affect travel when the network grinds back into action. With two days of almost no trains, it's impossible to gauge the disruption as there are no reports to evaluate. I'm anxious, nervous almost - the worry about getting to Heathrow on time tumbling into the concern about a first visit to the UK and what impression it will make. This past few cold, wet weeks have been hard going - separation and distance becoming acute and painful to bear. Looking forward there are travels - as ever at this time of year - but they'll have an entirely different significance of course.
At this time when people are coming together and I'm normally standing disdainfully off-camera, perhaps I suddenly understand all this a little better?
|Saturday 24/11/2012 22:47|
From our temporary home on Stark Street, Powell's World of Books is not far away. A city-block sized store across four floors and several crazily confusing sub-divided areas, this is a truly remarkable place. With used and new books filed alongside each other, there is a wonderfully Portland-like sense of being offered a fair deal here. The selection of books, the range of subjects and the surprising depth of the range is astonishing. We set out with a basket which increasingly filled - not just with books but with smart, well-chosen arty cards and suchlike. Eventually, after several hours here we paused and common sense descended. We had to weed out our purchases carefully. We found a spot and showed immense restraint in selecting a few choice things to purchase. Oddly, here in this mecca of books, it didn't feel painful to have to surrender a title or two - being surrounded by books you could never hope to purchase seemed to assist in that.
Voodoo Donuts, PDX
The remainder of this short visit seemed to involve lots of food and beer - both of which Portland is pretty good at supplying. But a special place will always be reserved for Voodoo Donuts. We'd talked about this place and it was an essential visit. Forget the antics of Heston Blumenthal - this place has been making giant donuts for years, and has dabbled in the absurd by including pepto-bismol fillings and crushed aspirin for the badly-hungover. With the rain blown away by a Pacific wind, it was a bracing but perfect walk down Burnside towards Voodoo. We'd been warned off walking this way at night - and while it was fair to say this was a colourful neighbourhood of adult cinemas and empty lots, it felt no worse - and far less menacing - than many cities I've passed through. Finally we found Voodoo by virtue of it's line - even this early on a weekend morning there was a queue around the block for this local institution. The gaudy pink building with it's Alice-in-Wonderland like diorama of giant donuts and paraphenalia was hot, dizzying and smelled strongly of melting sugar and hot dough. Our purchases in hand we slipped over to the adjacent coffee stand which was doing equally brisk business with the sugar-sodden masses. The return walk was via the outdoor market and Chinatown, the iconic ironwork of the bridges in the background. The older buildings in this neighbourhood had achieved state protection - perhaps a rarer status here than at home, but welcome. It seems that here, redevelopment is at least a little bit more sensitive than elsewhere in the US.
One last trip before we left the Ace, and indeed Portland, was to the line of tiny boutique stores along the street adjacent. Among these was Tender Loving Empire - a record label, distributor of local artists' work, and generally surprisingly packed with strange and wonderful items. The store was busy, bustling with people - and not just hipsters. We browsed the music - listened to Loch Lomond which completed a circle right back to Song, By Toad in Edinburgh, my blogging exploits and Scottish links. In fact we almost missed the train back to Seattle in our leisurely browsing. But finally after a haphazard cab ride to Union Station we settled into the seats and watched the Columbia River slip by as we began the journey north. For me, it was the beginning of a longer journey home too in some ways - and with the novelty of just $14 between us, we celebrated with overpriced beer and watched darkness fall on the Pacific North West. The couple of days we spent in Portland were an eye-opening, intriguing rush through a city that I'm certain I want to revisit.
|Thanksgiving on The Cascades|
|Thursday 22/11/2012 23:26|
The train to Portland is a new experience - fusing the frustration of air travel with the familiarity of railways. We check in and get assigned a seat, then wait in the booking hall which only hints at the grand opulence of the under-reconstruction King Street Station. When called we shuffle out to the train - a strikingly modern Talgo set hauled by an EMD locomotive which yings just like their products do here in the UK. It's a comforting sound in some ways, and reminds me I'm about to hit the rails for the first time in this vast continent. Sure, I've done light rail systems all over the place, but this is my first intercity journey. It's a strange sensation at first to be travelling on the 'wrong' side of the formation - but I'm soon distracted by the novelty of double-height containers in stockyards, endlessly long trains of soy bean hoppers, and more immediately the luxury of settling into my seat in company - something which has almost never been a feature of my travels. Certainly, it's never been like this - and I don't want the journey to end. The route turns west to call at Tacoma, then hugs the coastline of the Sound under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - veteran of science documentaries about harmonics, the iconic image of it swinging and bucking now replaced with a sense of awe at its fragile grace in the half-light. As we approach Olympia we retire to the Dining Car to sip beer and look at the water shimmering under the silver sky. Rakes of evergreens march up the hillsides away from the tracks, as we turn south again and head inland.
Inside Union Station, PDX
Between here and the Columbia river is something of a haze of warm, comfortable travel in rare company. It seems all too soon that we're clattering over the gridirons and bridges which dominate the northern flank of Portland, passing into previously uncharted Oregon in the process. It's early evening - a little before six - but it's dark and the city twinkles invitingly beyond the illuminated tower of Union Station. Crossing the tracks to enter the building, we're the last passengers to leave because we've been taking photographs. The grand hall of the station is a surprise - a marbled palace of generous proportions, with remarkable similarities to some of the stations back at home. We head out into the chilly, dark evening and line up for a cab to the almost painfully hip but cleverly decorated Ace Hotel - and what will be my first ever Thanksgiving. I can't help but think our way of celebrating, a long way from everything which is usually associated with this resolutely un-British occasion, will be far from traditional. As we shudder our stop-start progress through the traffic lights of Burnside and Stark, and catch the first sight of the exterior of the old hotel I recall reading that it was once The Clyde. I'm never far from Glasgow, even when I'm truly a long way off. I can't help but hope that we get to cross the other Clyde very, very soon indeed.