I was thinking about a fabulous pint in the Railway Bell…
This Friday I strolled through the grassy serenity and warm dappled sunshine to lunch among the staff and patients in the canteen at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting (London SW17). I chose curried mutton and rice. It was excellent! The quality in this place is usually very good but this meal was better than usual. And all for less than £2-50! I whiled away a couple more of the afternoon hours with Joan Bicknell and the girls and then I was off! Heading through the lowering sun to Tooting High Street. I passed the various halal butchers, sari shops and ‘phone card kiosks, stopping briefly in the humid heat by the Barclay ATM to collect some cash. I passed the roadside florist and walked down the steps into Tooting Bec Underground Train Station. The breeze blowing in the tunnels was refreshing after the heat of the street despite being spiced with the slight tang of Jeyes Fluid and people. I caught the first train and in a few minutes, alighted onto the island platform at Clapham North. I ascended the escalator and walked out into the sunlight again. I considered a catlama or samosa at Rufie’s takeaway or a festival dumpling or jerk chicken at the Caribbean place on the opposite corner. But I had neither, which was just as well as I only had to wait four minutes for the train to Peckham Rye to arrive at Clapham High Street Station. In a few minutes I was at Peckham and I quickly went via the back streets up to the shop. I clambered up the staircases and purchased a new breath of fresh air. I descended the battered steps and went into the newsagent where I bought the Evening Standard. I then returned through the bustling high street to the railway station.
“A single to Horsham, please”, I said to the smiling woman at the ticket office.
She said, “Which way do you want to go?”
“Via Sutton or East Croydon or somewhere.” I replied, vaguely informed.
“Ten pounds thirty, change at Mitcham Junction.”
The train arrived a few minutes later at the curving platform one. It was a commuter train from London Bridge and was very crowded. I had my travelling bag over my shoulder and my baritone ukulele in its cover in my hand. I had to secrete myself in a corner, standing by the door. The Edwardian suburbs rattled by in the golden evening light. At the Dulwich’s (East and North, two separate stations) the majority of the passengers got off. By the time it rolled into Mitcham Junction I was sat with only three or four other people in the carriage. I got off and read the information display. Twenty-six minutes until the Horsham train. Is that long enough to go and have a pint?! I decided to try it. The train after the next was another half an hour. So if I missed the one in twenty six minutes, I could always get the next.
Mitcham Junction station is situated right in the middle of Mitcham Common. This is an island about two miles square of undeveloped countryside plopped in the middle of suburbia. There is neither shop nor pub’ adjacent to the railway. So I walked up the slope from the station building entrance to the main road and hiked passed the traffic jammed cars and the rubbish in the undergrowth towards the Croydon Road. About a quarter of a mile along there is a roundabout, which is where the pub is. It is a big place originally built in the thirties and expanded in the eighties. It was busy. I had to wait to be served. I looked at the clock and mentally abandoned the first train. I thought this is good it gives me more time; I’ll get the second one. I sat outside in the shade and noticed how many customers seemed to sit directly in the sunshine on purpose! I read my Evening Standard. I read about a siege in a school in Southern Russia and squabbles between American political leaders over their military records during the Vietnam war during the run up to the election there. I also read Victor Lewis-Smith. He writes the TV reviews.
I strolled back to the station, cutting through an attractive wooded part of the common that was absolutely cluttered with rubbish and human detritus. I had a breath of fresh air. Back on the platform waiting for the train, the sun had hit a low angle and shone right in my eyes from just above the trees by the road bridge. I got my paper out and used it as a shade. The Horsham train arrived and I got on.
This train trundles, first, through the sprawling thirties suburbs: Mitcham, Carshalton, Sutton, Epsom. Then it trundles through the increasingly autumnal Surrey countryside; Box Hill, Dorking, Ockley, the promise of fall accentuated by the low golden sunlight. Between Warnham (the penultimate station) and my destination I was the only passenger in my part of the train, so I changed my top and shoes. Brown long sleeved T-shirt and Czech monkey boots into black 24 Hour Church of Elvis T-shirt and blue suede Cuban heeled winkle picker Beatle boots. Horsham station was prefaced by lots of old fashioned railway sidings cluttered with picturesque rolling stock. It was all run down and decaying with buddleia growing all over the tracks.
(Did you know that Buddleia is a native of China where it grows on dry cliffs and outcrops? It was brought to England as a garden ornamental and as a butterfly attractor. When it “escaped” from horticultural use, it found the thin poor soil of dry building sites and old roofs of cities very like its natural habitat and this is why it flourishes so well in the towns.)
I had no idea where I was going once I got to Horsham. The plan was to call James and he would “talk me in”. But when I called from the railway station public ‘phone, he said he and the other two band members in the car had not got to Horsham yet! He said he’s call Simon and he would come and meet me. I said, “OK. I’ll be in the Station Hotel Pub”. There were a bunch of mouthy idiots standing outside the entrance with glasses of beer in their hands. One pointed at my ukulele case as I entered and said, “Is that a machine gun?” I said that everyone my well find out in the next few minutes if it is. They looked away and left me alone. After about ten minutes James walked in. I drank up and left with him. Outside were two cars. One had James, Dave the Drummer and François in it. The other contained Simon and Hannah. Both were stuffed (especially the James/ Dave the Drummer/ François car) with musical equipment and instruments. It was dusk now but it was still quite humid.
James and I left the others and walked through the railway station, over the footbridge in order to be on the other side of the tracks. Very near to where the other station entrance was a two bar pub called the Bedford. This is where their gig was. By now the cars had driven round. I went into the busy bar and said that “we” were the band and where did they want us to set up. The woman I asked indicated the area by a bay window where the furniture had been moved away. We brought in the gear. I requested a couple of beer crates from the bar staff and was surprised to see them used as stands on the floor to put the public address speakers on! I thought they were going to be for the bass and guitar amps but they just went straight on the floor! Dave the Drummer’s drum kit fitted into just two containers. The whole band’s gear was very compact. Setting up took no time and sound check was just making sure that all the amps were working in the most basic sense. There was no run through of a tune or much “one, two-ing”. Everyone had a beer and at about nine fifteen they started playing. I sat at a table near the stage area with the lovely Hannah (Simon’s partner) and some of her friends.
Rattlin’ Blue has had a changing line up over the years. It is mainly Simon Stewart. Simon writes and sings his own tunes (also a couple of covers). He plays acoustic guitar and mandoline (and other instruments, but not tonight). Currently the rest of the line up is James Shephard: semi-acoustic Epiphone guitar, François Moreau: amplified double bass, Dave the Drummer: drums and cymbals. The overall sound is very unassuming, an often minor key transatlantic folk blend, Traditional English and roots American flavours with the grooves of Cuba and Jamaica breathing in the background. Simon’s voice is soft and arresting at the same time, James’ lead guitar is sympathetic and without FX pedals, just a guitar, a jack cable and a (clean sound) amp. François and Dave add a jazz thing and the whole lot gently bounces along turning apparent chaos into fruitful mellowness.
The drinkers in the pub applauded each tune enthusiastically. I went and sat at the counter in the other bar. The Rattlin’ Blue sound drifted in pleasantly. I saw lots of people tapping their feet. The band’s tuning was a problem though at times. As I have already mentioned it was a hot humid night and this makes guitar strings easily go out of the desired tension and therefore tune. Also the vocal sound through Simon’s decrepit PA left a lot to be desired!
During the break between their two shows I went and sat in François’ car with himself and James and we had a breath of fresh air.
The second show was more settled than the first and was improved by the more aligned tuning of the bands various instruments. At the end we packed up the gear and carried it out to the cars. The band hung around and chatted to the punters outside.
Soon we were driving through the warm night air along leafy West Sussex lanes back to Simon and Hannah’s house. I traveled with Simon & Hannah; the “band” followed up closely behind, François, the driver, nervous of getting lost in the English countryside! We were invited in and took in the instruments, leaving the amplifiers in the cars.
Their house is in a lane about a mile and a half from the nearby village. There are no other houses in view. Not that one could see that fact when we first got there. It was about 12.30 am.
We relaxed in the living room with beers and tea and listened to an album of improvised music by three acoustic guitar players: John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola. Outside, in the garden, the sky was clear and filled with stars. Ursa Major (a.k.a the Plough or Big Dipper) arched, low against the northern aspect. In the south: Pegasus. Overhead: Cassiopeia with Deneb and the rest of Cygnus draped in the Milky Way.
I decided to sleep outside. I put a sleeping bag down on the paved area near the pond. I lay back in the tranquil night. Orion was rising from behind a tree; the moon gleamed in Taurus, just bigger than a half moon and illuminated the scene brightly. I slept…
I woke at five thirty! It was cold and dewy; I took sanctuary in the conservatory/ outhouse and slumbered on.
The next morning was bright and fresh. I experienced that feeling that you get when having arrived at a rural destination in the claustrophobic dark. Come the morning and the light, the whole scene suddenly becomes visible and one’s whole awareness balloons out to take in the invariably unpredicted vista. I heard the distinct sounds of tea preparation! In the kitchen Hannah doing tea and toast duty! The time was about ten am. As the others blearily emerged, I took instruction from Simon on how to find the paper shop and pub. At about ten thirty I set off on foot, down Rectory Lane towards Ashington. I was in the South Downs. The undulating fields, surrounded by hedges, all groaning with autumn fruitfulness brought on by the hot wet summer. I walked down the hill and over the other side. There were no large scenic views but the whole atmosphere was totally bucolic in the late morning sunshine. Cows mooed, crows screeched, bees buzzed, grasshoppers rhythmically whispered. After fifteen minutes strolling I started reaching “civilization”. There were large houses along the lane with very manicured hedges. Further along there were small estates built off the lane with uninviting access roads. Shortly I arrived at a tee junction. This was the “main” road. I took the right option. The broad road with pavements (sidewalks) lined by grass on each side and the regular bungalows, each standing in its own plot reminded me of Springfield, the town where the Simpsons reside, especially with the luxury cars cruising quietly by.
The paper shop was in fact the Co-op supermarket. It was the only shop! I looked for a Guardian. I couldn’t see one. All I could find were piles and piles of Daily Telegraphs and Daily Mails! I found just two embarrassed Guardians on the rack with the publications such as “Farming Today”, “Horsham Borough News” or “Xenophobe Monthly”. This is obviously the counties! I missed the pub at first. I ended up under the A24 flyover where road curves off into grass-verged rural oblivion! I knew it couldn’t be up there so turned back. Then on the other side of the road I spotted the Red Lion.
It was a large house fronted by a green. There was no pub sign. Everything was very tidy and “not wanting to make a fuss”. The whole “village” was like that: Far too neat and unlived in. I went in the pub and the young bar staff were surprisingly friendly. I sat at a table near the bar, read my subversive paper, drank a pint of Stella Artois and smoked a Hamlet. A couple of elderly local men came in. I spoke to them politely in the style of a “Good Morning!” said to people you meet in the street in rural places. They would not let the conversation slip away from the usual patronizing clichés: weather, “how long are you in town” et cetera. I had another beer and, then, like the dogs and Englishmen in the Noël Coward song exposed myself to the midday sun. I went back to the Co-op and bought a pre-packed bunch of flowers, a bottle of Merlot and some chocolates. I stuffed all this, along with my newspaper, in the two plastic supermarket shopping bags. Then I re-traced my steps back to the house. The walk was hot and my shopping bag split, leaving me to walk along holding my stuff to my chest with my two arms.
I was going to return to London on this afternoon but on returning to the house I changed my mind and decided to go to the band’s gig that night. They expected to finish reasonably early and I could get a late train back from Brighton, which is where the gig was to be. Back at the house they were all there except for Hannah who had gone on ahead to the venue. I put the flowers, wine and sweets on the kitchen table. The band was getting ready to rehearse a couple of tunes. Their gig tonight in Brighton was a private party and someone was going to sing and/or play six-string devil. The tunes were “Not Fade Away” written by Buddy Holly as a homage to the style of Bo Diddley and famously recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1963 and “Honky Tonk Women” written by Jagger/ Richards in 1969. I was asked to help by, appropriately, acting a non-musician half-drunk vocalist that probably doesn’t know the lyrics!
Soon we were putting the instrument in the cars and we were off. We hit the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea. The English Channel looked dark blue in the September sun. As we drove Hove-ward with the sea on our right, the number of people slowly increased. They were mainly semi-naked family groups with ice creams and sun hats. As the large white buildings of Brighton got nearer we looked out for the venue. It was called the Babylon Lounge! We missed it at first and ended up right in the main drag where the Grand Hotel is. The “band” in François’ car flashed us from behind. They had spotted it some distance back. Both cars made an illegal U-turn as co-ordinated as synchronous swimmers. The venue (Babylon Lounge) was a seventies type of building. It had been built between the road and the beach and was a purpose designed pub/ party venue.
We unloaded the gear and set it up. Simon tried the PA, “One, two. One, two”. He sounded like a Dalek! James and I messed with the limited controls on this ancient mixer/ amp. It still didn’t work. Simon demonstrated his understanding of practical electronics by suggesting the amp might work OK if he set it up on another chair (?!). Unfortunately his theory proved wrong! We had to get a replacement and at six pm hiring one from a music shop was becoming unlikely. We were all a long way from home and couldn’t help. Hannah came up with the solution. She knew some people in Horsham that could lend us a PA but that meant driving all the way back to Horsham. So, Simon, Hannah and James took off back to where we had come from to pick it up. James went to supply any knowledge required of a technical type.
I left Dave the Drummer and François at the gig and walked down the boulevard towards Brighton. It was still hot and sunny. I walked passed grockles, smelly fish’n’chip bars, skateboarders, male couples, girls in bikinis, excited children, a whole nation in their underwear. Near the burnt out pier I turned left into town. The streets were busy. I went in a small corner pub on the outskirts of “the Lanes”. It reminded me of the sort of pubs in London’s West End. It was surprisingly empty. It was good to get out of the sun. I had a quick pint and Bob Dylan was singing, “It Ain’t Me Babe” on the jukebox. As I left Mr. Zimmerman continued, “She wears an Egyptian ring…” I went in another cramped pub, drank a beer and ask them to call me a car. The street and restaurants heaved with people. The car came and the driver was playing Cuban music. It was very pleasant.
Back at Babylon Lounge the birthday party was starting. Most of the attendees had spent he afternoon on the beach and were slowly migrating to the venue as the evening approached. Simon and James were wrestling with the newly procured replacement sound system. It would not work! Luckily I fiddled with it and Bingo! It worked. They were relieved to say the least!
Before their show François and I went and had a breath of fresh air on the beach and watched the sun go down. We had a good chat. I’ve known him for some years but never had the chance before to really converse at any length before. Then the others joined us. We all sat there on the pebbles having a drink until “Showtime”.
They went back in and played. Boy they rocked! They were OK at the Bedford the night before but today they were terrific! The borrowed system was crisp and Simon’s voice sounded better than ever, soaring effortlessly over the uncluttered band sound.
The guest singer and guitar player did their tunes. It was all right. It just goes to show how a bit of rehearsal pays dividends! The guitar player had a Strat!
After they had played I gathered up my stuff to make a run to the station. But it was 11.45 pm! I thought it was about 10 pm. I couldn’t have a lift in François’ car because there was no room. I asked if I could stay at Simon & Hannah’s again. They said, “No trouble!”
I didn’t travel in their Land Rover though. I got in some left hand drive car with Simon and two other people I had only seen at the party and not spoken to.
When we got back to the house I found out that the man was called Frederico. He and I went up onto the scaffolding currently wrapped around the house for a roof job. We shared a breath of fresh air and we looked at the stars and the silhouetted hills and I found out he was a lawyer originally from Mexico. Mine hosts and their guests all came and sat out on the patio. We really put the world to rights. Everyone there was an informed conversationalist. We drank into the night, ending up in the kitchen. Eventually we all retired for the night. I slept in the conservatory/ outhouse.
The next morning was foggy. It was really just early morning mist but in extremis. Simon & Hannah got up early (8 pm) because they had to return the borrowed sound system. By the time we had a cup of tea and loaded the Land Rover the sun was blazing down again.
We got to the flats where the musicians who had lent out the PA lived. I guessed it would be the top floor. It was!
They dropped me off at Horsham station. We made and said our farewells.
My train back to London went via Gatwick Airport. I got off at East Croydon and caught the tram to Merton Park. I walked home. It was about 11 am. I spent a quiet afternoon dozing in front of the TV. At about six I showered and changed and got the tube train to Tooting Broadway. I went to Mary’s flat and, from the balcony, watched a big oval and orange sun set behind Wimbledon Hill in a cloudless sky. I went and ordered a Chinese take-away meal and had a fabulous pint in the Railway Bell.
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