Betjeman Type Blog

26 July 2013

Picking straight up after I left off on Monday, after checking out of the leisure spa, or B&B, in which I’d spent the small hours of the morning contemplating the rude end of the Preiser catalogue whilst experimenting with Strong Continental Lager, the Volvo and I set sail for Cardiff, via my old chum Parky’s brass and woodwind shop in Taunton. It sounds like a bit of a detour from Bristol, but when viewed from the Home Counties idyll that is The Gables, Taunton is practically on the way to Cardiff, and I had a few hours to spare. It’s been a while since I’d seen Parky, so it was good to have a catch-up. As well as the shop, Parky has quite a substantial business manufacturing instruments and then selling them to other retailers around the planet. Tubas are very big in Peru, apparently this season. He’d also just closed a deal involving six hundred Clarinets in G going to Turkey. That last sentence will bore most of you, I know, but to the clarinettists out there it would have amounted to the very invention of pornography itself. Clarinets in G? Six Hundred? Laid end to end they’d stretch all the way from Parky’s woodwind practice room to Istanbul.

As well as enjoying a Nescafe with Parky, I had it in mind to visit Gary The Repair Man, who can bring life to a flagging hooter. My own clarinet had been on the blink for a while, and recently had stepped up its campaign for a bit of TLC by raising the game from the occasional squeak to simply not going at all. On stage at Ronnie’s the other week it packed up completely, but rather than thrash it with a small branch torn off a nearby tree a la Basil Fawlty and the non-functioning Mini, I took the lenient approach that enough was enough and as I was shortly to go that way down the M4 that the old Boosey & Hawkes could go and see Dr. Gary. However, Clarinet turned out to be poorlier than I thought, and I was instructed to make myself comfortable. Having emitted as much woodwind geek musk as I could before I bored myself to the extent of doing permanent damage, I wandered into the Brass department where I came across this-


Yes, it’s a trumpet with two bells. A small valve controls which one the air goes through, and if a mute is placed in one of them, amusing duettish effects can be achieved. Mainly though, it looks weird. What a great present for Her Indoors! This year’s must-have romantic gesture gift! Everybody knows that nothing says “I Love You” more than a novelty brass instrument. To add to the romance, Parky offered me a price I couldn’t really refuse. Buoyed by the heady, if unusual blend of passion, thrift and a serviceable clarinet, at around two o’clock the Volvo and I left Taunton and made our way to the St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

I’d been booked to be the guest there with the Capital City Big Band, so was already feeling quite smug as I neared the stage door. The smugometer’s needle flew off the dial when I saw this-look- a poster with me on it!


Now then- I’ve warned about the perils of smugness on the Plog before, but do I learn? Exactly on cue, the great levelling celestial kick in the crown jewels arrived as I stepped out of the Volvo at the Stage Door (Where I was allowed to park- well done Cardiff!) and was ushered inside by a friendly doorman, up some stairs and out onto the main stage of the beautiful concert hall. I stopped to take in the beauty of the stage and the design of the vaulted ceiling. I was really outsmugging here, all wrapped up in the euphoria of feeling that I’d made it! Me! The star soloist in here! This fabulous space, built specially for me to play jazz in it! Me! Me! Mememememememememe!
The hammer blow fell at about the point when I was snapped out of my solipsistic reverie by the voice of the doorman saying “Follow me up ‘ere- you’re the event in the foyer”. Aha. Reality returns. And then the fitting kicking of a smug git when he’s down with “No point putting jazz on in this bloody great room- we have a job filling the bloody foyer”.

The Foyer was lovely though, and the lads in the band couldn’t have been more helpful, or patient with me as I proceeded to royally cock up my big cadenza during the bandcall. It’s a funny old thing, being a visiting soloist. In that context, your job is to be the featured thing about a gig, but in order to do the job you have to accept that the public expects you to play in a way that the band regulars won’t. Higher, louder, faster, slower, lower, quieter, and more soulfully are all expected of you, but it’s tricky to balance this with your own appraisal of the fact that you’ve got the same skills as the chaps behind you, and that you desperately don’t want them to think that you’re a poncy show-off from bloody London. Given that being a poncy show-off from bloody London is part of the reason you got booked, you can understand the tricky emotional balancing act this represents. Anonymity usually helps to keep the facade of seriousness going- if they don’t really know me, then they might not spot the fact that my playing has got more holes in it than a cheap colander, which is now broken and has bigger holes around the holes. This last bastion was then neatly denied me when I noticed Tom Harris sat in the saxes.

Through the seventies and eighties, Tom was the resident tenor player at the Talk Of The Town, and knows pretty much everything about playing a sax for money. When I was a young shaver in the John Simons Rhumba Showband on the QE2, Tom played tenor sax, and I was thrown in at the deep end next to him on the alto. He taught me virtually everything I know about the delicate art of doing gigs, coping with the business and operating a saxophone under pressure. That was in 1988, and I’ve not seen him until last Monday. To this day I often find myself repeating his teachings when I am stood up in front of a training band, and to this day I am consequently amazed that the basic truths he imparted still appear to be absent from any college syllabus you could name. Faced with the task of being the visiting nob in such august company, I experienced the uneasiness which I’d imagine you’d experience being caught at a branch of Spearmint Rhino by your old P.E. teacher. Predictably, he was still the bigger man, and immediately offered me a pint of lager, and calmed me down. There was then a good old chat about old times. What a splendid bloke. By the time I was to play, he’d made me feel all right about myself. Again.

It’s been sunny here at The Gables this week. The Gables are situated very near to the north western tip of the Metropolitan line, on the stretch coined “Metroland” by John Betjeman. He really loved the intriguing mix of rolling countryside, engineering, civic infrastructure and Arts and Crafts architecture which abound in this neck of the woods. Here’s a segment of a poem he wrote in praise of Middlesex which consists of a series of vignettes of suburban life. Ruislip Gardens Tube is on the Met line, just like The Gables. You get the picture-

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.

One of the things that Her Indoors and I had promised ourselves when we had the correct blend of weather and disposable quality time was to get on at Moor Park tube and spend an afternoon in Metroland to see what all the fuss was about. I think my favourite feature of the whole thing is the amount of detailed thought that’s gone into this bit of the system. Years ago, whoever designed the platforms thought it would be a particularly good idea if the distance between platform and train door was organised so as to virtually disappear. Look at this- it’s a shot of the floor of our nice new air-conditioned train (itself a marvel of public infrastructure) and the platform at Chalfont & Latimer. That thin diagonal black stripe running down the middle of the picture is the gap. All 20mm of it. Although the photo doesn’t show it, the heights of the two things are absolutely dead-on too. Trains and stations are huge buggers. This is engineering even the Germans would be proud of-


Moor Park station is a wonderful thing. It sits in the middle of the Moor Park housing estate on a huge earth bank. Given that Moor Park is comprised of huge 1920’s houses in vast leafy gardens, to have the Met line running through the middle of all this gives an odd juxtaposition of the recreational and the industrial. It’s kind of like a benign Berlin Wall, with a West Berlin on each side. Look- here’s the earth bank. This is in the middle of all the houses and has very much an other-worldly feel


The station itself has the distinction of being the only privately-owned station on the network. This explains why it is spotless, old fashioned, and never, ever smells of wee. Charmingly set into the earth bank, it is an attractive 1950’s portal into the great infrastructure. In one go from here, you can go to Amersham, Aldgate or anywhere in between.

And here comes the train- all new and shiny, that rarest of things, a brilliant use of taxpayers’ money. Air conditioned too- great for nook and cranny sufferers like me. Just look at the distance between train and platform. It brings a tear of pride every time I see it.

At this point, the camera conked out, so the rest of the photo essay will have to wait. Suffice it to say that Metroland on this bright sunny day really lived up to expectations. The stations are in the main, very beautiful examples of Victorian architecture, with water towers for the steam engines still in evidence. One of the things the tube is not noted for is the view from its window, and fair enough. Metroland is the exception which proves the rule. Past Rickmansworth, the Chilterns start to arrive, and as the train thundered over hill and dale, it was all I could do to stop myself from breaking out into a rousing version of Coronation Scot. In point of fact, it was Her Indoors that stopped me, with one of her Hard Stares. A splendid lunch at the Italian in Chalfont and Latimer ensued, and then out to Chesham, with its beautiful signal box and ladies’ lavs.

It’s proper Thomas The Tank Engine stuff up there, as the line goes to a single track and chugs through a cutting in a forest. Unbelievable. And all for three quid on the oyster. Good old London Transport.

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