Sunday, 19 November 2017

Billy Bragg:The Milkman of Human Kindness,

"I love you. I am the milkman of human kindness. I will leave an extra pint".

No words, by this or any other artist, sum up what it feels like to spend two hours in the company of Billy Bragg when he's at the top of his game. Which he usually is, and he most definitely was when he played Islington Assembly Hall last week.

An evening with Bragg can certainly put you through the emotional wringer, Levi Stubb's Tears are rarely the only ones running down cheeks, but you're always left feeling inspired, impassioned, and, part of something. Part of something good. At various points the gig can feel like a sympathetic chat with a beloved friend about their romantic woes (The Man in the Iron Mask outlines the landscape of the heart in an almost brutally stark fashion), an indie disco (Greetings to the New Brunette and Accident Waiting to Happen are just two of the songs that elicit fervent singalongs), or even a good old fashioned left wing political rally. I was one of many glassy eyed old Trots raising a fist to There is Power in a Union).


As a callow youth, and huge Billy Bragg fan (he helped me through some difficult teenage nights), I couldn't truly resolve the duality of these wonderful, heartfelt songs of relationships (Love Gets Dangerous and A Lover Sings, neither played in Islington, were my favourites) with the politicised likes of It Says Here and Between the Wars (again both sadly absent from the set list).

I'd clearly created a false dichotomy. For what underpins, and guides, everything in Billy Bragg's now extensive back catalogue is love. Love of one's partner, love of one's friends, and love of humanity. I seem to recall reading interviews when Billy said that some people thought his songs were all political but actually about 80% of them were love songs. I'd go so far as to say they're ALL love songs.



Kicking off with Sexuality and The Warmest Room he's clearly in no mood to hang around and knows how to get a party started. Each time I go to a Bragg gig there's a point where I wonder why I left it so long since the last one. This time it happened about five seconds in to the first song.

If Levi Stubb's Tears and The Man in the Iron Mask were the most lachrymose ballads performed it's fair to say there was plenty of competition. I Keep Faith's tale of a couple (or perhaps the Labour Party) determined to make it through a tough patch or Handyman Blues' depiction of a lover so hapless at DIY that he's given up on putting up shelves or building garden sheds to write poetry beautiful enough to build a roof over his loved ones heads.

Handyman Blues is as funny as it as sad and that's an oft-overlooked part of the Billy Bragg experience. He's one of the few artists where the bits between the songs are as good as the songs but he doesn't stop there, chucking in ad-libs in between lines, and altering entire lines, even entire verses, to reflect the current political climate. It's like a less smug Have I Got News For You with better tunes.


The one song that is ripe for, and always gets, that treatment is Waiting for the Great Leap Forward and, surely enough, we're not left disappointed there. But even more powerful is new song Saffiyah Smiles, written in honour of Saffiyah Khan who was famously photographed defiantly smiling in the face of a neo-fascist EDL supporter during a march in Birmingham. A couple of verses critiquing 'Cosplay Nazis', 'angry white men dressed like Elmer Fudd', and spurious and ugly notions of 'soil and blood' are punctuated with Victor Hugo's maxim that 'to love is to act' before ending on the line 'this is what solidarity looks like' repeated ten times.

 
You can call us politically naïve, you can accuse us of virtue signalling, you can make haughty and punctilious rejoinders until the alt-right cows come home but that's part of what's got us into this great political mess of nationalist nonsense, rampant individualism, and dehumanising the other. I prefer Bragg's world of solidarity and comradeship, a place where you can even try and understand the point of view of your political opponent.

Take the rather cornily titled Full English Brexit (if anyone was gonna call a song that it might as well be Billy Bragg) with its list of immigrant related woes:- 'folks speaking Russian in Tesco', eating unfamiliar food, drinking coffee instead of tea. Correctly it skewers the absolute calamity that is Brexit and, even more correctly, it's not afraid to make clear that racism and xenophobia played a large part in that vote. But, and the song could be taken many ways, it also suggests that these people aren't so much monsters as confused and marginalised. Any serious discourse should always challenge its own assumptions, pandering to an accepted narrative is a coward's way forward.

The sort of person who'd think building a wall between Mexico and the USA could ever be anything but an absolutely terrible idea. With his love of Americana and Woody Guthrie (Woody's She Came Along To Me cropped up early doors during the show), Bragg's always had one eye on the other side of the Atlantic and at the Assembly Hall we're treated to a cover of Vermont folk singer Anais Mitchell's Why We Build the Wall, a song that pulls no punches in pointing out that the real enemy, to Trump, is not Mexicans but poor people. He just hates them. Bigly.

Nobody could be more in the business of bridge, instead of wall, building than Billy Bragg and, after a rousing finale of A New England, there's time enough to reflect on just how hagiological anything I'll end up writing may sound. Very, as it turns out.

Billy Bragg's not a saint, he'd have played Strange Things Happen, The Myth of Trust, and Tank Park Salute if that was the case, but he's a brilliant songwriter, generous performer, and, like the milkman of human kindness, he has left an extra pint. Not just for you - but for everyone. I'll drink to that.

 
With thanks to Pam and, especially, Gary. x


Monday, 6 November 2017

From the Pacific to the Baltic:Travelling across Russia with Simon Reeve.

"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." - Winston Churchill.

There's something about Simon Reeve's boyish enthusiasm, his willingness to get involved (witness his stay in a sanatorium on the Black Sea coast that, alongside exercise and asthma inhalers, involved having leeches applied to his bare stomach as a 'nurse' strokes them to encourage them to suck away 'bad blood'), and his undoubted passion for listening to the people he meets on his travels that means you just can't help warming to him - even as you go green with envy at the sheer cushiness of his job. Whether he's travelling round the tropics of Cancer or Capricorn, the edge of the Indian Ocean, taking a pilgrimage to Israel's Holy Land, or taking comparatively short hops round Ireland, Greece, or Turkey you'll probably find yourself wishing you were there with him, listening to The XX's Crystalised and VCR together on your iPods as you explore new lands.

On the centenary of 1917's Russian Revolution we find him tackling the largest country on Earth in a epic, at times possibly soul destroying, journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Russia is more than seventy times the size of the United Kingdom so his chances of bumping into Levison Wood who's also incorporated parts of Russia into a recent travelogue are slim to say the least.

When I describe Reeve's trek as "possibly soul destroying" I mean for him, not us. We get the pleasure of marvelling, from our armchairs, at the great beauty of this vast nation. Starting with the erupting volcanoes and beautiful snow covered mountains of Russia's far eastern Kamchatka peninsula, a land where fire meets ice and one that is a full nine hour flight from Moscow.


When Reeve arrives ice seems to be winning out against fire. It's -30 degrees and the tea with fish in it that the local reindeer herders are drinking doesn't look the most appetising winter warmer. In fact, the lichen the reindeer themselves are eating looks tastier. For the locals, and the reindeer, dietary concerns are the least of their problems. Here at the sharp edge of climate change reindeer are literally starving to death and it's a constant fight for the farmers to ensure they don't do the same.

So isolated is the Kamchatka peninsula there are no roads linking it to the rest of Russia so it's a lengthy, often bumpy, off road journey, to Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, sometimes described as Russia's San Francisco. Along the way we get to stop off at the start of a sled race where mushers and Orthodox priests alike head off into the hinterland for a competition that lasts for three entire weeks.


Vladivostok is near to the Chinese (and the North Korean) border and that's almost definitely why Vladimir Putin has lifted the ban on gambling that extends over most of Russia for the city. The snappily named Integrated Entertainment Zone is Russia's largest casino building and there Reeve meets with Craig Valentine, a turf accountant from Dundee, for a night at the tables. Of course with the usual disclaimer, to stop the Daily Mail and the Daily Express getting their knickers in a twist, that no BBC money is being used for this.

While the Russians want the Chinese money, many of the Chinese want their land back. Parts of Russia once belonged to China but, after the Qing dynasty suffered a series of defeats to Western powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tgey were compelled to sign a variety of treaties handing over land to their victors. As nationalism and anti-imperialism has risen in China in the last hundred years these have become known as the 'unequal treaties' and, fuelled by the Chinese idea that their nation has suffered a 'Century of Humiliation', many now want balance restored. As China grows ever more powerful, and as the West squabbles amongst itself, the chances of this escalating shouldn't be overlooked.

When Reeve touches on geopolitics like this his shows at their most interesting - and in Russia there's a lot of geopolitics to touch on. Putin's figure looms large all through his journey and it's hard to say, sometimes if Russia feels like a police state or if Russia, in fact, IS a police state. Reeve is regularly followed, hardly subtly, by unmarked cars, almost definitely belonging to the FSB. The FSB is The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (the acronym works in Russian), the successor organisation to the KGB, and responsible for counter intelligence, counter terrorism, border control, and, somewhat sinisterly, surveillance. It's believed the FSB employ a quarter of a million people so they're rarely short of someone to spy on a foreigner who might be asking too many questions. Even a seasoned traveller, with a presumably reasonably large film crew, like Simon Reeve allows himself to get the heebie jeebies about them as they make a very crude art form of harassment and general unfriendliness.


It must be quite a relief to ensconce one's self on the Trans-Siberian Express. With a length of over 9,000 kilometres it's the longest railway line in the world and they've not finished extending it yet. Although branches of it dip into China, North Korea, and Mongolia the Russian stretch alone covers seven different time zones, Russia has eleven different time zones in total. When people are starting work in Moscow they're clocking off in Vladivostok.

The train takes Reeve, and us, into the vastness of Siberia. Siberia alone covers one twelfth of the planet's entire land mass. If it was a country in its own right it would still be the biggest in the world by some margin as its nearly half the size again of Canada. The boreal forest of Siberia, the taiga, is bigger than the Amazon jungle and as befits such a large area the animals that live here are pretty big too. The tigers of the taiga are Earth's largest wild cats, they're half the length of a London bus.


These Siberian, also known as Amur, tigers are now threatened. Some locals do their best to protect them and in doing so they've worked up a fairly extensive knowledge of tiger behaviour. They can even tell by the bristly turds left behind by the tigers if they've eaten boar recently or not. The forest is being lost at a colossal rate, each year an area the size of Wales disappears as logs are sold to China so the Chinese can make products to sell to the United States. As the forest goes the boars go, and as the boars go the tigers go, and the amount of corruption inherent in today's Russia means ecological concerns can simply be bought off.

Yakutia, the coldest inhabited region on Earth, is, on its own, the size of India. Ice road truckers tell tales of driving in -55 degrees, the temperature in which steel breaks. In the tunnels beneathYakutsk, Yakutia's largest city and capital and the world's largest city built on permafrost, one's breath is quickly crystallised in the air. There are impressive ice sculptures of archers, elephants, and chess tables and there's even an ice bed should you find the nights a tad balmy. The Batagaika crater is a kilometre long gash in the Earth's surface, one hundred metres deep and growing, the 'megaslump' was caused by the thawing of the permafrost. As with the reindeer herders of Kamchatka, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth here becomes simply a truth, a potentially lethal truth.




Deeper still, considerably deeper, is Lake Baikal. In fact it's the deepest lake on the planet (normally some kind of qualifier is called for when making these claims but in Russia they're rarely necessary) plunging more than a mile down at its most extreme points. 20% of the world's fresh water resides in Lake Baikal.



Not far from Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a pretty city. If you're a fan of onion domes and brightly painted architecture you won't go short here. Neither will you be left dissatisfied if it's parades that float your boat. Irkutsk's World War II Victory Day parade was made up of 40,000 marchers. In Moscow, where it's known as the March of the Immortal Regiment, Putin himself led twice that number through the streets.

It's just eighteen hours on the train from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk and, on arrival, it's not as impressive a looking place. Industrial, polluted, and generally a bit grotty, it's the sort of city that'd have you heading to a bar fairly quickly. Although if that bar happened to be The President's Café you may find yourself feeling a little spooked out.


After wiping your feet on the American flag you enter a room absolutely festooned with images of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, he's everywhere. There's even more images of Putin in The President's Café then there are of bears - and there are a lot of bears there. Post-Soviet Russia was bedevilled by gang activity and Putin is, for the most part, given credit for cracking down on it - but did he? Or did he just happen to lead the biggest, most effective, and most corrupt gang of all? If you keep your head down and don't question authority in Russia today you can get by, just, but if you start to look like a problem then punishment can be brutal and fast. Just ask Pussy Riot.



Perhaps it's no wonder some have retreated to vaguely semi-autonomous mountain communities. Russia's large enough to have loads of these but the one Reeve takes us to seems to consist mainly of disaffected intelligentsia seeking answers they can't get in modern Russia. Shown round by a retired rock star the place, initially, looks idyllic. People have learnt to build their own houses, there's no smoking, no drinking spirits, and even no swearing (if you're daft enough to be offended by that) but it soon becomes clear this isn't so much a commune as a cult.

The people here are followers of Vissarion. They believe Vissarion is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and they call him the teacher. While their singing, their churches, and their robes are as beautiful as the surrounding forests and lakes, the upbringing of their children leaves a lot to be desired. All children are raised to unquestionably worship Vissarion and the girls are taught to be shy and weak and accept that males should hold all power.


Reeve, quite astoundingly, is granted an audience with Vissarion himself. Vissarion is a 56 year old former traffic safety officer who claims to have been reborn in 1990, a year after losing his job. He talks in metaphor and deflects any awkward questions or, in fact, any questions at all with a sinister beatific smile. In exchange for the 'hope' he gives his followers they give him their labour and their money. It's as obvious a cult as anything you've ever seen and it's one of many in Russia.

Russia, it's often said, loves great leaders. From the Tsars to Stalin to Putin and Vissarion, putting faith in these men seems to be second nature to generations of Russians and, looking from the outside, it doesn't seem to have served them well. It's worrying that elsewhere, with a particularly prominent example currently in the White House, others are beginning to look for answers in the same disastrous places.


Snow covered roads dotted with crashed juggernauts lead to the grassy plains of the Eurasian steepe and our next stop is Tuva. Tuva was once part of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in human history, and it looks to me very much like Mongolia. The amazing outfits, the breaking of horses, and the distinct sound of Tuvan throat singing all mark it out as a very singular place indeed.

In similarity to a lot of the rest of Russia though there's a huge problem with alcohol. 30% of all deaths in Russia are attributed to alcohol and Tuva has Russia's highest rate of people committing crime due to alcohol abuse as well as Russia's highest murder rate. The government's policy of stiffly increasing prices on booze has just led to an explosion in the making, and availability, of potentially deadly bootleg moonshine.



Reeve buys a bottle in Tuva's capital Kyzyl and even he's not prepared to try it. It could have anything in it. It could kill and, in Russia, it often does. The problem is compounded exponentially by the fact that many small towns in Russia have no medical infrastructure whatsoever. As with the alcohol there is always someone willing to supply the demand and, again as with the alcohol, they may not be the most trustworthy of types. We see an alcoholic being ordered to pray to a stuffed bear to cure his condition. It seems that such quackery and demented shamanistic surgery thrives when people are desperate and the state are unable, or unwilling, to help.

Stavropol feels much wealthier than Kyzyl. Founded by Prince Grigory Potemkin as a fortress at the request of Catherine the Great, many Don Cossacks settled there and became defenders of the Russian empire and military enforcers of the Tsarist regime. The post-Revolution years were not particularly kind to the Cossacks but after decades of Communist suppression Putin is now funding Cossack schools. The Cossack values of faith and militarism tie in very neatly with those of the President.


The coal face, though, for the Russian military in recent decades has been in the Caucasus, in Chechnya and Dagestan, the land of the mountains, where Dagestanis are still engaged in sporadic fighting with Islamist insurgents using Kalashnikovs. Dagestan has one of the highest rates of terror attacks anywhere in the world so it's a bizarre, if welcome, piece of light relief when we stumble across a troupe of extraordinary talented tightrope walkers practicing their moves in a pass by the roadside.

Even more newsworthy, and just as war torn, of late has been the Crimean peninsula that juts spectacularly out into the Black Sea. Only Russia sees the Crimean frontier as an internal border, elsewhere it's widely viewed an illegal annexation, though, as with most things, it's not as straightforward as it first seems. Crimea was historically part of Russia until, during the days of the USSR, it was handed over to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 for reasons that seem somewhat unclear.

What is clear is that that decision has caused a lot of problems since the break up of the Soviet Union. Many in Crimea fly Russian flags and fully support the annexation but Oleg, a Russian patriot himself, looks back to the Ukrainian times as civilised and fears that Russia, under Putin, is going back to Soviet ways and dragging Crimea with it. Ukraine, in retaliation, has turned off the taps to Russia and Crimea is struggling for water.

Both the German army and the Soviet army, in the past, attempted, and failed, to build a bridge across the Strait of Kerch, where the Black Sea narrows into the Sea of Azov, from Crimea to Krasnodar Krai in Russia proper. Putin is determined to finish the job and he's handed the commission to one of his old judo sparring partners who, for some reason, all seem to be heads of hugely successful companies.


Oleg isn't just a maverick when it comes to political commentary. His day job is running a safari park where he, either bravely or insanely, wanders freely among the lions and even chases them round their enclosure. Many of the animals (and they're big 'uns:- giraffes, bears, camels) have been rescued from Russian homes. Some Russians like their pets to be as strong as their leaders and you can even buy tiger cubs on the Internet in Russia.

Another eccentric is Vladimir, a jovial farmer who distils alcohol from goat's cheese. Unlike Oleg he's bought in to the lie of the strong leader and believes Russia, by her very nature, can do no wrong. It's the sort of wrongheaded patriotism that has brought Trump to power and is bringing Brexit to pass. A belief that the nation of your birth is simply good (or great) by design and not because the people who were born there, or have chosen to make it their own home, do good (or great) things. It's idiocy writ large and it's, quite frankly, terrifying.

While it makes a great song and dance about taking power from the elite or the experts in reality the politics of nationalism and division does the exact opposite. It creates a two tier system where more and more money and power is shared among an often corrupt group of leaders and everyone else is forced to fight for breadcrumbs under the table. You can see it in Moscow, a city of 12,000,000 people, where there are traffic lanes set aside solely for the use of government officials, bankers, and their 'friends'. If that's one of the most visible examples of corruption and inequality its far from the worst.



Many in Moscow live in khrushchyovkas, low cost concrete or brick apartment buildings constructed when Nikita Khrushchev was in power and named for him too. Swathes of them are now being demolished and a population greater than that of Leeds will be forcibly relocated. Resident Natalya says what's happening "resembles fascism" and we see film of her being arrested while carrying out a peaceful, and legal (due to her being the sole person there) protest against the destruction of her block. When we meet her she's been forced to quit her job and she's awaiting her trial (or, more likely, trials) with no little trepidation. Russian courts have a 99% conviction rate.

On the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg you cross the Volga, foklorically the lifeblood of the country but now, just a few hours north of Moscow, virtually abandoned. Farm buildings stand empty as the younger generation have moved to the city where they can work in an office and have a decent internet connection. Since the end of Communism roughly three Russian villages are abandoned, possibly forever, every single day.


Those that choose to remain are confronted with a serious lack of infrastructure and, understandably, look back to the Soviet times as a golden age. Russia, amongst the world's major economies, is the most unequal country in the world and you can see why the appeal of Communism and collectivisation is there for many. In fact it's what created the Soviet Union a century ago in the first place.

Putin was born in St Petersburg and that's where we end our journey. There's no little irony that this most anti-Western of Russian leaders was born and raised in a city that was built and designed to make Russia look more European. The Venice of the North was Peter the Great's way of impressing, of making those in London, Paris, and Rome take note.


These days both Putin, and the Orthodox church who seem to do a fair bit of his bidding for him, promote homophobia and ugly nationalism alongside their anti-Western sentiment. In the former Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum, you'd expect that this year of all years there'd be something on to mark the Revolution but there's virtually nothing.

Today's Russia doesn't really know how to handle its history. They don't want to promote rebellion but equally they don't want to dismiss the idea of strong leaders like Lenin and even Stalin (along with Mao and Hitler one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century) so they just do nothing. A commentator remarked only the other day that in some ways the Russian Revolution hasn't finished yet. Watching Simon Reeve's wonderful three part series on this most enigmatic of countries you might find yourself asking if even the era of Tsars has finished yet, if Putin may be, in everything but name, the new Tsar and one far more powerful than Nicholas II and the latter day Romanov dynasty ever were. It's not enough to make you turn to vodka.







Thomas Truax:Full Moon Over Wowtown.

As fireworks exploded in the London skies I found myself in a small room above a pub on Pentonville Road. The Lexington was hosting a gig by Thomas Truax, someone I'd not seen live for many years.

I'd first been made aware of Truax's work when he played my old friend Richard Sanderson's avant-garde night Baggage Reclaim on Denmark Street's 12 Bar Club about fifteen years ago. With his self-made instruments, nods to Southern Gothic, and songs about being forced to marry someone's daughter against his will he had something of the young Tom Waits about him, a comedy Nick Cave even.

It was sheer coincidence that a few years after that I used to see him regularly perched in East Dulwich's gone but not forgotten dive bar/music mecca Inside 72, often staring intently into his laptop. Then he fell off my radar for a few years. I found out, last night from the stage, he'd been living in Berlin but other than that not much has changed in Truax's world, or Wowtown as his regular newsletter calls it. The home made instruments have mutated into his 'family', the back catalogue has got more extensive, and he's picked up a small, but loyal, following who mouth every word of the older songs with a passion you'd expect from the audience of a much larger artist.



First up, however, is Bird Radio. Kicking off a set with a minimal take on Einsturzende Neubaten's, already pretty minimal, The Garden is a brave move for any artist but Bird Radio just about pulls it off. He's a handsome chap but his luxurious mane suggests he belongs in some nineties band like Eat or The Wonderstuff which seems an odd fit with his music.

Generating live loops from flute, various percussive tools, and his own voice and then intoning heartfelt odes to Naples and the sound of birdsong over the top, he's engaging, affable, and generous in thanking the audience, the soundman, and Thomas Truax. He invites his girlfriend, Ciara, on stage to play guitar for a couple of songs and those, like the rest of his oeuvre, grow from unpromising starts into really quite lovely things. The only misfire for me is Who Killed Cock Robin? which suffers from being just a little bit too hammy for my liking. Judging by the rest of the audience, however, I was in a minority on this.



Thomas Truax starts the gig in the corner of the room by the bar wearing some silly glasses before marching through the crowd, singing and playing guitar as he goes, to the stage. He runs the risk of coming across as a novelty act and, at times, strays dangerously close to dreaded steampunk territory but his self-deprecating anecdotes, his gifted grasp of the guitar, and the percussion that Mother Superior (made of an old wheel full of buckled spokes and a horn) provides keeps it all charming, rather than irritating.

The way Truax's voice raises on the word 'tonight' during Full Moon Over Wowtown, the plucking loops he extricates from his Hornicator during Why Do Dogs Howl At The Moon?, and the acknowledgement of Tom Waits' influence in an aside about a dream where he had a fight with Pomona's greatest son. All of this comes together to create a show that is one third cabaret, one third comedy, and one third torch song.


Always rooting for the underdog (in fact going so far as to invent an entire town seemingly populated by nothing but underdogs - that's my kind of town), The Butterfly And The Entomologist tells its sad story from the butterfly's perspective, and Fat Spider's narrative of an unattached arachnid who's getting bitter about his long term singledom both tell of a writer, and performer, who likes to view life from our old friend, the wry lens. This could easily be done in a po-faced fashion but instead it's doled out with daft glasses, a not particularly musical sounding 'stringaling', jokes with the audience, and, on one occasion, exiting the room entirely to continue on with the song. Self-consciously wacky is anathema to some but Truax's songs are good enough to permit him some leeway on this front. He's never gonna headline the O2 like Cave or Waits but this was another small victory in a career that, nine albums in, has surely been full of small victories.

Thanks to both Valia and Leon for sorting me tickets for this gig. It was a shame you both couldn't be there to enjoy it with me.



Sunday, 5 November 2017

TADS #17:The Thames Towpath (or A River Runs Through It).

At the end of the 2016 TADS walking season I wrote a blog in which I decreed, honestly, that it'd been our best year of walking ever. In something that will hopefully soon become a time honoured tradition, I'm very pleased to report that that is no longer the case. 2017, and the walks that made it up, proved to be an even better year.

Last month's stroll around Wadhurst may've fizzled out a little but the deer of Knole Park and the ponies of the New Forest more than compensated. Better still was our beautiful April afternoon around the gardens of Blenheim Palace, a spectacular clifftop constitutional from Hastings to Winchelsea, a strenuous two day trek along The Ridgeway, and, of course, my brilliant birthday weekend in Cambridge.

Better still Neil, Bee, and Eamon had joined us for many of the walks, and for our last walk of the year, along the Thames Towpath from Richmond to Twickenham, we had the pleasure of welcoming Eva (our 12th TADS member) into the fold. Hopefully she'll be able to join us again when we start the 2018 season.

Unfortunately Teresa had cried off with earache, Rachael was otherwise engaged with firework based activities, and Virginie remains a long term absentee due to parental duties but that still left nine walkers (Pam hadn't let her poorly ankle deter her), all to be found loitering around Richmond train station at midday on Saturday moaning about rugby and horse racing fans taking up all the seats on the trains.

 
From Richmond's High Street, The Quadrant, we took a right down a snicket whose moniker, Brewer's Lane, belied its narrowness. Brewer's Lane opened up on to Richmond Green, verdant and autumnal, cushioned with crisp brown leaves and home to more seagulls than people. It's so posh round here that the guy sat on the bench on his own was drinking coffee, rather a can of Tyskie.
 
Cutting a diagonal swathe across the green towards a crenellated villa we then turned down Old Palace Lane to the riverside. Past the site of the former Richmond Palace (erected in the early 16c by Henry VII and home to him, his more famous son Henry VIII, and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I), past a 'Trumpeters Lodge' (which sounded like something more at home in Viz's Profanisaurus), and then past some lovely white terraced houses and the very inviting looking White Lion pub. A fascinating stretch before we even reached the water but TW9's answer to 007 might need to be a little more subtle in the future if s/he's not to be found out. 








 
Just south of Twickenham Bridge, the brown silty water of the Thames was flowing with some pace down to Corporation Island and Richmond Bridge. Canoes and swans both took advantage of the unusually speedy currents while, on the towpath itself, half and full marathon runners (many caked in mud) streamed past on a regular basis.
 
The jumble of pubs at Richmond Riverside were beginning to fill up but if we'd not stopped at somewhere as enticing as the White Lion the likes of The Pitcher & Piano and The Slug & Lettuce were not likely to pull us in. Instead we passed under the oldest surviving Thames bridge in London. Richmond Bridge was built in the 1770s to a design by James Paine and Kenton Couse and you'd have to go way upstream, as far as Abingdon, before you'd find an older bridge still standing across the river.







 
As the river gently curls round in to Petersham Meadows, inscriptions on benches sit as misty eyed memorials to those who've loved the water here in the past. This spot has long been seen as an Arcadian idyll and the views stretching back to the enormous Richmond Park or across to Marble Hill Park can be quite spectacular in summer. Even on a grey, but mostly dry, November day they impressed.
 
One of the runners passing us wasn't interested in the view though. Most politely trotted by, some thanked us, some looked too knackered to talk, but the guy who seemed to think shouting "I'M IN A RACE, I'M IN A RACE, I'M IN A RACE" at us would make us walk through a kissing gate quicker was to find his plans backfiring. The angrier his interjections got the more time we seemed to have. I've done a fair bit of running over the years (including races) and, usually, the organisers make very clear at the start that, as runners, we're sharing the towpaths, parks, and roads with walkers, cyclists, and even cars and to treat them with respect. Perhaps the guy was on for a personal best. Let's hope he didn't get it!


 
There's a ferry, Hammerton's, that takes interested visitors across the river to Marble Hill House at this point. It wasn't running, and we'd not have had time anyway, but the creamy Italianate, Palladian, facade looked quite pretty from a distance. It's the former home of one Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk, who was George II's mistress and lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Caroline. A menage a trois that, according to the trusted tome that dictates our walks, was no secret and continued despite, or perhaps because of, the story that the two women "hated one another very civilly". Howard's lavish lifestyle in Marble Hill House included entertaining the poet Alexander Pope and writer of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and 'man of letters' Horace Walpole.


 
On our side of the river stood Ham House. Built in 1610 it's more than a century older than Marble Hill House and, like Richmond Bridge, it's Grade I listed. A grassy avenue of lime trees flanks, and frames, the Stuart pile, built for the first Earl of Dysart (a whipping boy for Charles I) and greatly expanded by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband the Earl of Lauderdale, variously Charles II's Lord High Commissioner and Secretary of State.
 
The upkeep and decoration of the building left the family debt ridden, however, and little changed within Ham House for the next three hundred years until, in 1948, the National Trust acquired the property and commenced with restoring it. Now it's open, at a price, for visitors to experience its cherry garden, its 'Wildernesse' maze, and its orangery which, by all accounts, serves up a decent selection of scones and veg tarts. We weren't hungry yet. We marched on.



 
Not far from Glover's Island a heron was spotted in a nearby willow tree but the next major point of interest was Eel Pie Island. Eel Pie Island can only be accessed from the Twickenham bank, the west bank, of the river and we were on the east side, on the Ham Riverside Lands. In the sixteenth century pies and ale were sold on the island and legend has it Henry VIII stopped off en route from Whitehall to Hampton Court to sample the wares, which certainly seems plausible looking at the size of him.
 
It's most famous now for its sixties heyday when steamers would bring revellers down the Thames to watch assumedly riotous gigs by The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, and no lesser act than Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men. I visited the island on another walk about fifteen or so years back and found it, these days, to be a very self-consciously artsy place, with no vehicles except bicycles and canoes, where people had dismembered doll parts, in lieu of flowers, decorating their front gardens. Quirky and twee but nonetheless likeable.



 
This stretch of the Thames marks the end of the Tideway. An obelisk marks the point where the Thames ceases to be tidal (or starts to be tidal if you're walking in the opposite direction). Looking over to Strawberry Hill the landscape on our side of the river was surprisingly rural considering we were in London.
 
It's not what it seems though. Prior to World War II the meadows between Ham House and Teddington Lock hosted gravel pits and industrial landscapes that offended many a sensitive aesthete's eye. Land reclamation began in the forties using rubble from bomb damaged parts of the capital further east. Since that day the land has been carefully managed to give the impression of unspoilt countryside. The photographer Fay Godwin, in her series Our Forbidden Land, showed how even something as seemingly innocuous as landscape itself had become politicised and weaponised. Here was one clear example of that in action. 





 
The runners were finishing their race somewhere near Canbury Gardens and we too were in need of a brief rest. We popped in to the bustling and agreeable, if understaffed, Boater's Inn where a few of us sampled a pint of Southwark Brewery's Jaocb's Island Amber Ale. Sat in the garden on one of those delightful days that blesses the change of seasons from autumn to winter with a generous helping of sunshine, the pint proved as potable as the company was clubbable.
 
There was to be no 'two pint mistake' however, time was of the essence, and we continued on Kingston Bridge where, alas, Shep had to depart the walk. Like Rachael he was another one who'd fallen foul to the fireworks. He'd agreed to help out lighting rockets etc; at a family event and his parting wish was that should we source some of his favourite Bangla beer in the Indian restaurant later that by no means whatsoever were we to send him photographs of it to rub it in. Hmmm.






 
Crossing the river, now bathed in the wistful tones of the late afternoon light, in to Hampton Wick we picked up the wide open Barge Walk that winds it way for a couple of kilometres around Hampton Court Park and the Home Park golf course. It's not until the river takes something of a dogleg that Hampton Court Palace comes into view. The chimneys longingly reached for the skies that, all of a sudden, had taken on an amazing orange colour. Either Shep's fireworks were more impressive than we could've ever guessed or some other shepherd somewhere was very very delighted.
 
The sky, the palace, and, now, a rainbow if we looked north. All these sights aligned to create a most delightful aspect and it was only ruined by Pam having to leave the walk at this point to head off to a 50th birthday party in London Bridge.








 
Now there were seven. Looking back across at Hampton Court Palace (built for Cardinal Wolsey in 1516 and purloined by Henry VIII thirteen years later before Cromwell moved in and, later on, Christopher Wren renovated it during the reign of William and Mary) and turning into Bushy Park (where me and my friend Cheryl, in 2012, competed in a 10k race without having to be rude to any of the park's regular visitors) we were beginning to lose the light. There was certainly no sign of the park's supposedly abundant red and fallow deer.
 

Around the Diana Fountain and down Chestnut Avenue we'd done nearly a full 180 degree turn and found ourselves back in Teddington. Kathy and Eva hopped on a train and myself, Adam, Bee, Eamon, and Neil retreated to The Hogarth pub on Broad Street for a couple of pints of London Pride and a chat about music and politics - as ever.


 
On the High Street we chanced upon Prem Indian restaurant where a table for five was found promptly. Not only did they serve Bangla beer, they also served something called Bangla naan! Pictures of Bangla were taken and despatched to Shep as promptly as possible before we tucked in to a tasty, if fairly standard, Indian menu. It was just right.
 
Adam was the next to leave so the now dwindling group repaired to The Teddington Arms. There was a live duo knocking out Otis Redding's Hard to Handle and various other covers. A table full of half eaten cheese and cakes, a sign wishing someone called Borg a happy 30th, and the duo launching into a highly spirited rendition of Patty and Mildred Hill's timeless birthday anthem was all it took for us to realise that we'd, rather unwittingly, crashed a private function.
 
Everyone was friendly but a further round of drinks was ruled out, a tough decision at the time but definitely the right one, before I bade a fond farewell to my Hillingdon based friends and took a train from Teddington to Clapham Junction, the overground from Clapham Junction to Peckham Rye, and a 63 bus up the hill. I was home, in bed, just after 10.30pm on a Saturday night. I'd have probably stayed up later watching Match of the Day if I'd had a night in but I'd had a lovely day and I was quite happy to quit while I was ahead.
 
Thanks to everyone who made this year's TADS season of walks so very enjoyable. That's Shep, Adam, Teresa, Pam, Kathy, Rachael, Neil, Bee, Eamon, and Eva. Thanks also to those who popped out to meet us along the way. That's Stuart, Rachel, Luke, Sam, Jake, Bugsy, Carole, Dylan, Tony, Alex, Ben, and Tracy. I, for one, can hardly wait to get going again in 2018.