Briefly, Vienna …

In some ways, the three-day visit daughter Molly and I recently made to Vienna in search of sachertorte and culture  – see photo below – was overshadowed by the journeys we made there and back by train.

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Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

After an overnight stop at Zurich on the outward leg, we travelled much of the following day through the Alps – vista after vista of snow-capped mountains outlined against the brightest of blue skies. Magnificent! The return journey proved to be something else. Vienna to London St. Pancras in a day: leave for Frankfurt at 6.50am, arriving in Frankfurt at 1.36pm; a snack lunch in the station before the 2.29pm hustles us off to Brussels, arriving at 5.35pm in oodles of time before the final Eurostar departure of the evening at 8.22pm.

What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?

We were leaning nonchalantly against the counter on Frankfurt station, eating ice cream, drinking espresso, when two of the young Inter-railers we’d been chatting to earlier, and also Brussels-bound, suggested there seemed to be a problem with the 2.29, which should, by then, have appeared on the Departures Board.

Oh, probably just late, we thought, no need to worry, but, to be certain, Molly crossed the concourse to enquiries. The official she spoke to was clear: there was no 2.29 to Brussels. It was not a case of it being late, somehow delayed, engineering works, shortage of staff: it simply did not exist. The fact that we had tickets for said train – not just tickets, but seat reservations – was irrelevant: there was no such train. No train, in fact, leaving Frankfurt for Brussels Midi until well past 4.00pm and due to arrive at 8.03pm – barely time to meet the Eurostar departure time of 8.22, even if they were generous enough to grant us the ten minute boarding time that was extended to first class passengers, rather than the usual twenty.

A couple in the same situation phoned Eurostar and explained, but got no satisfactory reply. Each time the train slowed down, we checked our watches and tried to pretend it would all be okay. What was the worst that could happen, after all? A hotel in Brussels and the first train out in the morning?

At Bruxelles Nord, one stop away, we held our breath while passengers disembarked casually, not a care in the world, before finally we pulled out and arrived at Bruxelles Midi on time. 8.03pm. “Run!” the couple opposite us shouted and, leaping from the train, proceeded to race around the concourse like headless chickens in search of the Eurostar terminal, with Molly in close pursuit and me gasping in their wake. 

Channel Terminal – there it was. The official examining our tickets did so as if there were no urgency whatsoever; the security officer actually smiled. ‘Why are you so late?” one of the officials asked. There wasn’t time to explain. We were bundled on board and almost before we had time to find out seats the train doors slammed closed. The 8.22pm to London, St. Pancras International, arriving, allowing for time difference, at 9.33pm.

Trains, they’ve got it over planes every time. As long as they actually run, that is. More about Vienna in the next post in a few days time …

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Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Shining a Light, Keeping Track …

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It wasn’t a bad night [though that came, and with a vengeance, later]. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at the Union Chapel in north London, the second night of the UK leg of their Shine a  Light tour, which began in Nashville, Tennessee and will finish, after appropriate breaks, in Melbourne, Australia. A tour about a tour.

It began in back in March when the two musicians, plus a little recording equipment, plus guitars, boarded a train in Chicago and began a journey that would take them south and then west across the United States, stopping at St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson on the way. Some 2,728 miles of track. And here and there along the way, they would find a waiting room or similar space in which to record a song. A song that, in one way or another, was inspired by the rails, boxcars, the iron horse, the lonely whistle of a freight train passing through the night. Train songs, folk songs, Leadbelly songs.

Two men with a couple of guitars each and an upright piano standing off stage right. Henry’s voice is the higher, distinctive, slightly nasal; Bragg’s, a deeper baritone, takes on an American tone. [An American tune.] Two of the first three songs – Railroad Bill & John Henry – I know well from my own fledgling skiffle group days,  as, it transpires, does my companion for the evening – jazz aficionado and crime writing critic and commentator [I like to refer to him as the thinking man’s Barry Forshaw – sorry, Barry!] – Bob Cornwell. Bob shared with me, as I discovered in the interval, the distinction of having played single string tea chest bass in a youthful, enthusiastic and, by the sound of it,not overly successful skiffle group in our teenage years. Both of our initial public appearances seem to have ended precipitously with a request to pack up our things and leave the building. No matter, those songs brought it all back in its dubious glory – as, later on, did The Midnight Special and, of course, Rock Island Line.

While we were talking about this that Bob raised the name of Lonnie Donegan, not quite the first but certainly the most famous British skiffler, saying that he thought Donegan had never quite got his due. It was a point taken up strongly by Bragg during the second half, when he mentioned a book he has just finished writing which marks Donegan’s recording of Rock Island Line – the first record to top the UK charts featuring someone singing and playing guitar – as the major turning point in popular music; where previously it had been, to a greater or lesser degree, based on or around jazz and jazz instrumentation, from hereon it, it would be about guitars.

In addition to the songs they performed together, each man played a short solo set, Henry taking to the piano for a Randy Newman-influenced This Was My Country [painfully prophetic in the light of what was to come through the early hours of the morning, but leavened by hope nonetheless] and finishing with a beautiful and deeply felt version of Alain Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion. Unsurprisingly, Bragg, digging into his back list for  Accident Waiting to Happen and There is Power in a Union, voice reverting to its London twang, was the more directly political, pointing up the links between Brexit and what was happening politically in America, and drawing a clear connection, via Woody Guthrie, between the treatment meted out to the Okies when they left the dustbowl in the 30s and headed out to California looking for work and a better life for their children and what was being done to refugees in various parts of Europe on our behalf.

We stepped out into the night knowing we’d experienced something special. The UK leg of the tour takes a break two-thirds of the way through November, picks up again in January. You can find the details here …

If they come near you, try not to miss out.

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