Norwich to Aberdeen: 'Ditching J G Ballard, Hallucinating in the Highlands of Scotland and Discovering London Pizzas

Wednesday 14th May 2014

The drive into London is warm and the sun shines on the Ford plant at Dagenham casting it in a light that I suddenly find homely and familiar. I know the A13 like the back of my hand; the green and yellow rape fields make way for heavy industry and dockland traffic before entering the suburban spartanism of Dagenham and Barkingside. I’m leaving it all behind today, all the hubbub of a daily toil, to go to Liverpool.

The real tour starts today, that’s what we have all been saying for the last week. I am opening for my friend Blue Rose Code but also playing as part of his band on pedal steel, resonator guitar and backing vocals. The first three shows had sprawled across the previous week, taking in Norwich, Leicester and Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. Norwich had been one of those serene gigs. After the show I drove through small villages back down onto the A140 and A12, the midnight air cool, the trees dark and sentinel in the blacked out fields around me. So quiet the night, I was half expecting to see the ghosts of lost cavaliers come bustling through the hedgerows, awoken from their eternal slumber to continue the defence of the King’s divine right.

Leicester was the challenge gig with its one way systems and what seemed like an endless amount of traffic lights. A late, late night that sucked at the soul, the dog welcoming me home at the front door shortly before 3am. Finally, Waterbeach (near Cambridge), hosted us with such welcome. A small Methodist chapel built in 1863, an attentive crowd and homemade cake. Cambridge and Norwich have always felt so much like home. In Waterbeach we were barely fifteen miles from Ely and I recalled the times I had visited that town with my parents. I had walked on the roof of the cathedral once and had visited Oliver Cromwell’s house.

But back to today, Stoke Newington is fairly quiet and I manage to park in a leafy street near JP’s house. Ross and Samantha join us and we are soon ambling the van along the high streets of Bounds Green and Green Lanes, heading through Finchley to the M1; our exit out of London and on to Liverpool.

The journey is fraught with traffic jams but we eventually get there and sound check for the gig, which is housed in the function room above the Leaf Cafe. The cafe is bustling and the upstairs room is decked with multi coloured lights and garlands of bunting. It was instantly shaping up for a good night.

Post gig we end up in a cocktail bar near our hotel, The Nadler. The streets are sprawling with the young and the drunk. Women loiter on street corners crying or yelping with equal enthusiasm. The bar is warm and clinging. For some reason, I can’t recall why, I had foolishly brought my reading book out with me. A drunken girl tries to engage me on what book it is...it is J G Ballard’s misanthropic 1965 killer ‘The Drought’. The conversation mercifully dies quickly as she ricochets off punters into the night.

There is an air of danger about Slater Street where our hotel is situated and where we wait for some greasy pizzas. A fight is imminent; we can feel it in the air as three well dressed lads stumble in and try to make eye contact. We leave sharpish. Lights are out around 2am.

Thursday 15th May 2014

A day off. JP needs to catch a mid-morning train back to London so we break the morning with a vegetarian breakfast. The coffee is good and we are left to chat. Ross and Samantha are keen to hit the charity shops, which Ross swears are the best in the country. We duly head down the streets and back ways in pursuit of Oxfam. The architecture of central Liverpool is simple but awe inspiring. Everything seems taller than other northern cities and divided into blocks, a little like New York, which are mostly composed of large warehouses (no doubt converted to flats). Charity shop shopping fulfilled, we hit the road for Derby.

Ross is due at a studio to record parts for a new children’s album by David Gibb. Myself and Samantha tentatively head towards the Cathedral Quarter of the city. We are not holding out our hopes but when we get there, the road leading up to the high street is pretty and keeps us occupied. Samantha buys some new earrings and we eat the best coronation chicken sandwiches ever, courtesy of the Old Bull Inn. I fit in a strawberry milkshake, the sugar pepping me up enough to get back into the van.

Recording done, Ross suggests we just drive north until we find a place to stay. I suggest Whitby but all agree it might be too far of a trek east. We settle for Berwick upon Tweed. Ross knows some people there. The drive is never-ending and we stop at a service station near Lucker. The place looks abandoned by life and haunted only by the ghosts of travellers. Truckers bed down in their cabs in the park adjacent, their shadows playing across the windscreens. It’s quiet as a grave. A man in denim dungarees wanders round the back. He looks like a killer. The air is thick with pollen. You can smell it.

We arrive late in Berwick and head for Spittal and the Roxburgh Bed and Breakfast, which is an eighteenth century house sitting right on the beach. We drop our stuff off in the rooms and head straight for a curry, which is over the bridge in Berwick itself. As we cross, the moon hangs low and red on one side and a viaduct, lit in greens and reds, stands proud on the other side. Berwick is dead and we trace the roads until we reach the Magna Indian Restaurant. The waiter, chin in hand, looks vacantly from the window but stirs when he sees me enter, putting on the charm and patter on cue. We are the only customers so we order and eat quick.

Friday 16th May 2014

This feels like a holiday. Samantha and I share a room and we wake to the bright sun and the beach. People are walking dogs so we make tea and look out of the window while springers play across the sand. J G Ballard is proving tricky. His prose is fantastic but the subject matter is bleak and I’m not in the frame of mind. Samantha meditates. The particular form she practices is also championed by David Lynch and we discuss how he has set up a school to support it.

Berwick boasts its own pleasure hut in the form of The Fun Pavilion. It’s not a patch on Southend but we wander the machines anyway to relive some of our youths. An old lady pumps a machine with 2p coins. It looks like she does it all day, every day. She doesn’t seem sad about it but I do. We make eye contact before I move on. We take a leisurely drive down to Alnwick and wander the gargantuan Barter Books, which is a second hand book shop established in a train station. There’s free coffee and every genre of book you can think of. A toy train completes circuits on top of the thriller and history sections. I wander for at least an hour. I am attracted to a folio society edition of Meso American civilisations but its £40 and will get trashed in the van. I grab a complimentary coffee and try to ring home. My girlfriend is at an awards ceremony in London and I want to hear from her. I don’t get through. We eventually head into the town and have lunch on the square before heading off to Newcastle.

We pick JP up at Newcastle train station. I am elected to go into the station to find him. I place myself next to an elderly man collecting for war heroes, which in turn attracts the charity and attention of an actress from Coronation Street, with someone from TOWIE in toe. The scene soon becomes hectic as people scramble for autographs. I side step and wait for JP.

The Cluny is like an old friend and it’s good to be back. The place is packed and the weather is sweltering. Ross, the soundman, is there and we catch up. He’s professional as ever. We are feeling the vibe on this and I’m flying good. I even manage to avoid a spilt cup of Espresso that Ross launches across the dinner table mid flow. My support show goes really well and I settle into a great set with the band. I meet old friends and myself and Ross (Wilson) end up chatting the night away both at the venue and at the hotel. We order two exotically titled ‘London Pizzas’ (Margaritas with chips on top) from a takeaway close to the hotel. The man delivers four, so we munch away, relinquishing one to a drunken Irishman in the hotel bar. He’s stunned and thankful.

I unsuccessfully try to enter the hotel room without waking JP but he has left his double bass on the floor, prompting a comedic bluster across the darkened room to my bed, where I sleep fitfully.

Saturday 17th May 2014

I wake up with a fug in my head. We leave Newcastle in short order and take the scenic route to Glasgow. The city is one of my favourites. Great Western Road and Byres Road capture my imagination every time. We head to a secluded road of mansions where we are met by Nick, an independent radio producer. We huddle into the studio and record a session for BBC Scotland’s ‘Morton Through Midnight’. Morton himself is listening in from the Shetland Isles and as he interviews Ross I lie on the floor of Nick’s office, relaxing my back and looking up at the ornate carvings on the ceiling. I try and take a photo but it doesn’t come out well.

We spend some time trying to find our hotel which is further out of the city by the Glasgow Rangers stadium. The Swallow Hotel is a tired looking place but we each have a room to ourselves, which is fantastic. We get ten minutes to relax before heading to the venue.

The CCA is a stylish Arts Centre in Sauciehall Street. The front is taken up with a book and gift shop. As you move further in, you enter a tall hall with a mezzanine, Cafe, a cinema and the venue itself, which sits on the first floor. Ross has invited a number of musicians to join us: Mattie Foulds on drums, Jesse Moncrieff on Violin and Rachel Newton on Harp. It’s a beautiful sound when everyone is playing together and I feel privileged to be among them. The crowd is attentive and with over one hundred people there, the after show hubbub is manic. I am feeling tired and exhausted following our late night in Newcastle so it is with some relief that we head back to the hotel fairly early and have a whiskey in the hotel bar before drifting off to sleep while watching ‘Meet the Fokkers’. I do not have a TV at home so it’s always a novelty to watch it as much as I can when away.

Sunday 18th May 2014

Refreshed, alive and happy we converge in the Swallow Hotel lobby the next morning. The breakfast room is very busy and the breakfast sub standard. But I’m hungry and in need of caffeine so it suits me fine. We stumble into the morning light. I’m excited because we’re breaking new ground today, I am entering into unknown territory, for today we head to the Highlands. We are off to Aviemore via Edinburgh.

We have an in store gig at Coda Music and it’s a struggle to get everything in and set up in a small space. It’s a superb record shop. A man feints about four songs in but he is OK and is surrounded by care and attention. A quick sandwich in an Italian cafe before we head to Aviemore. Over the Queensferry Bridge into Fife, the Highlands and Speyside, we wind around the base of mountains behind articulated lorries. The tops of Ben Macdui and Braeriach are snow capped while the lower foothills are barren save for stone and gorse.

The Aviemore Bunk House is our bed for the night. It is a hostel for walkers and the walls are paper thin. Myself and JP pick our bunk from the six on offer and take some time to ourselves. I’m worried we’re going to have to share our room with four burly sports fanatics but JP isn’t convinced, after all, we’re the entertainment for tonight. The Old Bridge Inn which sits snug next to The Bunk House is a pub come restaurant for the local traffic, which includes hikers, holiday makers and locals. The gig is noisy and sweaty. A couple from Inverness are staying in their mobile home in the car park opposite and advise me that Aberdeen, our next stop, is not as wonderful and bright as I imagine.

Post show we wander up to the twenty four hour garage to buy snacks and I leave the others to their soup and rolls and retire to bed. From the corridor I can hear the three male hikers in the room next door snoring. I’d met them on the stairs when we had arrived earlier in the day. Thankfully, the noise doesn’t penetrate to my room just the muffled clacking and subdued chat of my band mates in the kitchen below.

Monday 19th May 2014

JP gets up early for meditation and a run. I linger in bed tired and disorientated. We bumble to the Active Cafe opposite the Inn and up the ridge. I settle for Summer Isle Salmon with scrambled eggs. We chat and laugh and eat Banana loaf. Who knows when next we’ll eat. Today is the last day of the tour, Aberdeen.

I have long waited to visit Aberdeen. There are numerous reasons why but it has long held my attention. I have recounted this wish to many a Scot on the tour and have been met with incredulous looks. The opinion in Scotland is that Aberdeen isn’t worth the travel. The Granite city, the oil city, even Jonathon Meades made a documentary on its architecture. How bad can it be?

As we close in on Aberdeen we hit a run of Whiskey distilleries – Dufftown, Aberlour, Knockando and GlenFiddich, there is one behind every mountain turn it seems. We enter Aberdeen to the strains of Fleetwood Mac, heading for a session with Bruce MacGregor at BBC Scotland. Bruce talks to us on a speaker from Inverness and we set up in the cafeteria while staff eat their lunch, eyeing us suspiciously. Will they be there when we play? Will someone ask them to refrain from making a noise with their crisp packets? It is a good session and Samantha battles courageously though the giggles in the first song.

I speak to a man outside the studio. He’s been painting the white lines in the car park and helps us out of the space while avoiding his new handiwork. He was having his lunch when we were setting up. He’s interested in what we do and I’m likewise impressed with the neatness of his paintwork. I have a trembling hand and all the edges of the walls in my kitchen at home are unpainted. We wander Union Street and grab some noodles, wander through an impressive HMV and get my first caffeine fix for the day.

The Lemon Tree is reminiscent of a working men’s club and has a good sound. We all feel a little jaded from travelling. The audience are very sweet and welcoming. I would like to return. It is only after the show that I learn we are driving back to London. We leave Aberdeen around 11.30pm and stop just outside Montrose for a MacDonald’s. JP and me had sworn we wouldn’t eat one this tour but a post midnight burger outside the drive through on the steel and plastic picnic chairs feels good. It’s breezy and cold and we don’t stay long.

Thick fog, a diversion on the way to Carlisle, we struggle on. We pass mountains, dark and ominous, like beasts sleeping in the night. The moon is a dirty dull yellow and hangs crescent shaped over them, casting a spooky light. I wonder if anyone is sleeping out there tonight. I think of H P Lovecraft and close the window. I try to stay awake for JP, who is driving, but I crash awkwardly on the front seat as we enter Lanarkshire. I wake as we pass the turning for Kendal. The mountains of the Lake District range into the distance in the dusky morning light. It’s beautiful. Heavy dawn rain near Liverpool, the traffic starts to get busy around 4.30am and we reroute through Stafford for Petrol.

There is heavy traffic through Finchley, Bounds Green and Green Lanes. We unload, I repack everything into my car and drive through the suburbs of Stoke Newington and Homerton. The pavements throng with Hassidic Jews and Caribbean women. I will sleep when I get home, I promise. It will feel good. I promise. Curve up onto the A13, through Barkingside, through Dagenham like a life returning on itself. Grays, Tilbury, Pitsea, the white Hollywood style Basildon sign, the Estuary, silvery water breaking on the beach. Home.