a back beat you can’t lose it (Nathaniel Rateliff)

Nathaniel Rateliff Cirque Royal 119 15.JPG

Tonight, for the first time in a while, Travelling Companion and I went to a rock gig. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Rock music is odd, it turns out, mannered. Visceral.

Mannered: Handclaps. The tuning of the guitars (Rateliff would throw his white guitar to the roadie far across the stage, playfully). Each song of similar length. Introducing the band. The encore.

Visceral: The blues – tension – 4:4 – the backbeat – sax.

These are songs. They have words. The singer is the star. Unless you know the songs, you can’t hear the words.

I love it of course. As  Thomas Beecham said, The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.

Physically, Rateliff as a rock star offers hope. But I wanted to be the bass player, skittering cat steps across the stage in black drainpipes and pointed shoes.

Visceral means simple. It doesn’t mean easy. I was thrown out of the last band I was in in 2010 for not being good enough. Fair enough. I could manage the bassline of Another brick in the wall. I didn’t mind not being able to manage The show must go on (not simple) but I did mind that I couldn’t play, remotely fast enough, the bassline of Can’t stop loving you (gloriously simple).

Writers don’t just write it down (Ian Buruma, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sybille Bedford)

On Sunday, Travelling Companion and I went to listen to Ian Buruma talk at the Bozar in Brussels about his memoir A Tokyo Romance.  We ate at the Bozar restaurant first; the picture is out the window from there.


‘You say you didn’t keep a diary at the time you were in Japan’, said the interviewer. ‘So is this fiction?’

‘Life isn’t coherent”, said Buruma. ‘So any attempt to make a narrative of it is a form of fiction’.

A couple of years ago Karl Ove Knausgaard gave a talk at the same venue. (He, though, got the big main hall.) Commenting on this question, he said this is why what he likes to read is diaries.

Last night I started Sybille Bedford’s novel A Compass Error. Her book A visit to Don Otavio is the best travel book I’ve read recently. It starts with a four-day train journey, in the 1940s, from New York to Mexico City. I found it in the big second hand shop at Alnwick in Northumberland, just over the border from Scotland.

I’m not sure where or when I got Compass Error – I found it in a pile around the house. I like the kind of thing it seems like it’s going to be – crisp books by posh women about posh young women – Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehman, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. It starts, though, with the protagonist, turning fifty, being quizzed by someone she’s met at a dinner party about the events to be recounted in the book:

Flavia said, ‘It takes two to tell the truth.’

‘One for one side, one for the other?’

‘That’s not what I mean. I mean one to tell, one to hear. A speaker and a receiver. To tell the truth about any complex situation requires a certain attitude in the receiver.’ […]

‘Wouldn’t it be simpler,’ he said, ‘just to write it down?’ […]

‘You forget that I am a writer. Writers don’t just write it down. They have to give it a form.’

He said, ‘Well, do.’

‘Life is often too… peculiar for fiction. Form implies a measure of selection.’

He pleased her by catching on. ‘At the expense of the truth.’

‘Never essentially. At the expense of the literal truth.’

‘Does the literal truth matter?’

She thought about that. ‘To the person to whom it happened.’

‘Even if that person is a writer?’

Round them there were signs of breaking up. People were standing, someone was dialling for taxis. Flavia too stood up, put down her glass. Before turning away, composed now, smiling, she flicked out an answer, ‘Then, there might be a clash of intentions.’

(The last sentence is clumsy. I can’t very well skip it.)


The temperature here in Brussels trickles, at last, below zero.

I think of a Tom Waits song, Hold On:

Down by the Riverside motel
It’s ten below and falling
By a ninety-nine cent store
She closed her eyes and started swaying
But it’s so hard to dance that way
When it’s cold and there’s no music

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What with one thing and another, democracy’s been on my mind recently.

Thinking about it, I got diverted by the bin bags in Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy:

I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming
To the USA

Bin bags feature in British political iconography too.


Piled up along the street, they evoke the end of the Callaghan government in 1979, the “Winter of Discontent” when strikes in the public sector meant that rubbish was not collected.

More recently, a senior official with whom I worked got stuck behind a bin lorry in his car on his way to work. In a policy document he was drafting, he proposed that rubbish collection during the rush hour should be banned. The democratic process meant that this proposal did not see the light of day.

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As for me, I think the regular rubbish collections our cities organise are one of the great achievements of our civilisation. Cities’ success in getting us to subdivide our rubbish (yellow for paper, blue for tins and plastics, green for garden rubbish, white for the rest) – even more so. This is something that democracy does pretty well.

Alkmaar – North Holland

Alkmaar, North Holland

Travelling Companion and I spent the weekend in Alkmaar, a city in North Holland.

As at home in Brussels, it was grey, cold and rainy.

Unlike in Brussels, people remarked on this. There’d been sun just a few days ago, they told us; there are rumours of snow next week.

We saw what you expect to see.


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Ground floor front windows showing the front room to the street.

(Our next door neighbour in Brussels, R., once told us that in the small town in Bavaria where she grew up, if you were going to have a lie-in you would set the alarm for six, go downstairs to open the curtains in the sitting room, and go back to bed.)

There was more to see, though.

In some ways, compared to Brussels, the place feels rather English. Houses have front gardens. Signs in shop windows express important details in the English language:

public writing English shop Alkmaar 119 JEANS & BASIC ITEMS ARE EXCLUDED.JPG


Sometimes these signs pick up English and run with it:

English HIGH TEA HIGH WINE Alkmaar 119.JPG


Church bells rang at midnight, recalling England; the key was major, though, rather than minor.

A fritkot (is that a Dutch word, or a Flemish one?) advertised Belgische Frites– Belgian chips.

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And some other things, too, didn’t feel English at all. Where England might have semis, Alkmaar has terraces. And although every house in Barnes in London, where we were last weekend, seems to have a loft extension, this one would never get planning permission:

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We noticed that these public clocks were telling the right time, had not been let run down.

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There is no English city as subdivided by canals as this. The only corner shop we saw was a windmill. We saw a combined café and shoe shop; and a combined petrol station and laundrette

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– reminding us of Tallinn railway station (combining a Russian and an Estonian language newsagent) or a shop down steps from the street in Suzdal in Russia (combining a grocers and a butchers) rather than England.

There were less dogs than in England or in Brussels. There were hooded crows (grey heads and black bodies).

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The feeling of foreignness, reinforced by the bike lanes, reinforced by having been in London last weekend, left us always a bit uncertain which side of the road to look for traffic.

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We liked it, the city centre in particular. We caught the Thalys back to Brussels from Amsterdam. I thought of Adieu Sweet Bahnhof by the Nits, a Dutch band. I’m riding through Brussels in the rain.

Brrrrrrrreussul, said the train steward joyously as we came in. She rolled it throatily (and you should hear the way she says Rotterdam). Brhouhksell, she said then in French, middlingly. Brussuls, she said finally in English, pallidly. The r was hardly distinguishable from the sounds that surrounded it.

West London

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With Travelling Companion and Daughter I spent some end-of-holiday days in west London. We stayed in a flat in Barnes and visited Putney, Teddington and Hammersmith. There were a few falsely sunny mid-mornings (I wasn’t up early enough for the false dawns) but basically the weather was the same grey we’ve been having in Brussels.

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On the tube train that took us from St Pancras to Hammersmith was a Boris bike (a street rental bike). It didn’t seem to be with anyone. The woman in the photo stood up and moved to to make it clear it wasn’t hers. A few stops later, though, a young man who had been made homeless and was begging down the carriage came along and rolled the bike off onto the platform.

When I lived in London in the 80s I was a north London boy, more or less. These places in the west are new to me. North London has hills. West London seems to have the river round every corner.

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This is where the Boat Race takes place. Everywhere except Teddington, people were out rowing.

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In Barnes we ate well in an Italian restaurant (Riva) and a pub (the Brown Dog). Elsewhere, not so well. We were told by Son, who  joined us, that Instagram has changed what people eat. Dishes that bulge have become fashionable.

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I like the snickets (back paths) in Barnes.

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It seems you can still get milk delivered to your doorstep there. I wonder if there are newspaper delivery rounds too.

In Teddington we visited a housing development whose residents share a broad lawn that slopes down to the Thames. They provide themselves with boats, apparently, to putter or row across to a pub on the opposite bank. It made me think of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which I’m in the middle of.

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West London seems to be the rugby-playing area of London. I liked this combined football and rugby goal.

To get to Teddington we caught a train from Barnes station, which is to be found, oddly for a station that serves an almost-inner suburb of a world city, buried in a wood.

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In Hammersmith we went to riverside pubs – the Rutland and the Dove, where, allegedly, James Thompson wrote the song Rule Britannia in 1740:

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never never never will be slaves.

We also went to see the pantomime, Dick Whittington, at the Lyric theatre.

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This is the Dame. Another character was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a pigeon who is mayor of London.

Not all pantomimes have a message but this one did: London is a great city, and anyone who lives here is a Londoner.