lights on a darkening shore
8 a.m. Friday morning. Up past Lambeth Bridge and through Archbishop’s Park, a shot of espresso sandblasts the senses and –
– then you rise, weightless, oddly hushed, up through the still-lifting haze. Small lives implode and drop away until – glass-capsuled, high in a sundrenched sky, with Waterloo station splayed out below like a rusty fan on a flattened waste of dusty, discarded streets (and the rest of London just beyond, and the rest of the world just beyond that) – you smile again to yourself and think: this is why I do this… because I love feeling like this…
Abba on the Jukebox was our debut, a list of happy moments recollected in numbed confusion, each somehow imbued with melancholic foreboding. It still haunts, still triggers those freefalling heartbeats. The press release said simply: a song about endings. What else could it say? That the song always reminds me of the M6, of driving up to Manchester for the Radcliffe session, and of how much I hate motorways – except for from the sky, of course (the carefree entanglements of Spaghetti Junction, the car-free chalk-sculpture dazzle of Twyford Down), or from below (the Westway, tipping out over the Grand Union at Westbourne Park, the canal a black slick skulking in the concrete’s shadow, even on the brightest day)? Of course not, that all came later…
Dusk falls across the city, lights come on along the river –
The best view of the Wheel is from the drab chasm of Westminster Bridge Road. For years, Westminster Bridge Road was nothing but a dark angry snarl of traffic raging up from the Elephant (and passing, oblivious, the gateway to the former Necropolis station, from where Lambeth’s dead were once ferried in black-suited, soot-blacked, steam-palled trains to the air, space and soil of the Surrey hills). But now there’s a white arc scorched through the blue above the railway bridge: the Wheel, pinned on its spindle, like a river-top fan poised to blast the heat from the simmering streets of London’s last apocalyptic summer –
The Shinkansen is the Japanese intercity express, what we call the Bullet Train: though the straight translation, more prosaic, is simply “new trunk line”. There’s one on the back cover of this compilation, on the fencepost. Behind it is the 11.10 to London Bridge via Peckham Rye – less punctual, less svelte and altogether less likely to return covered in cherry blossom, but you still can’t beat the ride along the Bermondsey viaduct, with the ghost-shipped wharves of Lavender, Russia and Greenland Docks away across the rooftops. Or the garret-shaking District Line, eavesdropping its way from Hammersmith to Chiswick. Or the DLR hugging the twists in the Lea on its way out to Beckton. Or changing trains in the snow at Pfronten-Steinach, halfway up a mountain on the Austro-German border, two hours out of Munich with the snow-line already crossed a dozen times from green to white to green and back –
From the window of this office, which is also our bedroom, I can see the unexploded tower blocks on Kennington Road, two horses, the MI6 building, the hot-air balloon tethered on the site of the old Vauxhall pleasure gardens (1660-1859) and the last concrete outcrops of Lambeth Walk shopping precinct being smashed into rubble. I love all this. I also love Southwark station, snowflakes, Socialism, Alasdair Gray, St Saviour’s Dock footbridge and Massachusetts when it’s late at night, even though I’ve never seen it. You probably do too.
And I’m trusting that the off-guard glimpse of a distant, lit-up city from the top deck of a 159 racing down Brixton Hill charges you with the same moment-melting urge to kiss strangers that hearing, say, Smile Again for the first time did – lights out, tucked-up under the bedclothes, in the bed of someone stranger and more wonderful than you’d ever dared hope – because then you’ll already know why I’m refusing to list here numbers, formats or pressing quantities, just like you’ll know whether to be scared, thrilled or bewildered when the conductor, handing you your change, bends low and whispers that talk at the depot these days is all of how we’re each of us made from nothing but the dusty insides of long-dead stars.
Anyway: I was down by the river at Battersea, the landing slip by the church (Saxon, rebuilt 1777, now a poor shrinking mute under the vast glass gaze of the Montevetro apartment block), musing on change, entropy, the probable irreversibility of Time and whether the Universe really is planning on a lonely cold dark suicide – and, if so, whether Science should quit being so bloody objective and start trying to talk it round – when a couple of Canada Geese splashing about in the flotsam at the water’s edge caught my attention.
Luckily, I had both a camera and a keen eye for the more gawky and awkwardly beautiful manifestations of the pop sensibility readily to hand.
Vauxhall, May 2000
This text originally appeared as the sleevenotes to a Shinkansen Recordings compilation released in May 2000, when the London Eye was brand new, the 159 was still a Routemaster, and I’d never seen Massachusetts late at night. Abba On The Jukebox and Smile Again are two songs on the album, by Trembling Blue Stars and Tompot Blenny respectively. The hot-air balloon in Spring Gardens disappeared that autumn after the Real IRA launched a missile attack on the MI6 building using a Russian-built Mark 22 anti-tank weapon, later found discarded in the bushes. And one of the tower blocks on Kennington Road really did explode – or, rather, a boiler in the basement did – it woke me up.