Monday, 22 October 2012

Trout at the Cafe

Yet more evidence today of my grumpy-old-man syndrome on its relentless march. Berko is well endowed with independent coffee shops (just about holding back the tide of identikit Starbucks and Café Neros, despite a sprawling Costa across two sites) some of which I assume pay UK tax. I had a cappuccino-sized gap in my morning and intended to fill it with a stroll down to Bel Caffe to mope over losing bets (of which more in another post) and write a gig review. I got as far as pushing the door a fraction when I noticed through the glass that the room was swarming with pre-schoolers and their well-heeled mums. I immediately released the handle and turned on my own trainer-shod heel. But not before my involuntary grimace and deep frowning was met by one of the mothers and returned with interest. I fled, frozen-blooded, and found respite amongst the crumby tables of the baker’s.

Settling down to write the review, I noticed the establishment now offered two varieties of full English. With the closure of my previous favourite fry-up haunt and the opening of another further on up the road, I made a mental note to revise the breakfast list .

In fact, there’s a third, now I come to think of it. Brownlow’s Café on the Ashridge Estate apparently serves up a breakfast of some repute. We were there only the other day, having conned the girls out into the fine Autumnal air by recklessly promising a café stop. It was a bit of a shame that, after a proper paddle through deeply rutted and muddy tracks under a colourful tree canopy, we blinked into strong sunlight and found said café doing a passable impression of a Ryanair check-in desk. Daughter no 2 and I decided to ascend the adjacent Bridgewater Monument whilst Mrs A and daughter no 1 gamely tackled the queue. In the time we had climbed all 172 steps, pointed out the landmarks to each other (Tree! House! Tree-house! etc) and returned, the queue had shifted barely four feet.

And this despite my causing a delay by trying to access the National Trust tower with the wrong card. “Oh, this is an RSPB ticket”, said the attendant. “Ah, I’m sorry.” Desperate grab at humour whilst I scrabbled for the right card: “Is this not a bird hide, then?” (Yes, yes I know. What would my hard-labouring, plate-laying Grandad have said in the face of such obvious establishment capitulation. Where are my working class roots now?) After our descent I chimed brightly to the attendant, “Lovely thanks, but not a bird in sight!” Cue dig in the ribs from small child that, without words, said “Don’t ever, ever try to make jokes in public.” We gave up on the café. The breakfast will wait for another day.

Which, by way of a Ronnie Corbett-sized ramble, brings me back to the gig review. Walter Trout at the Jazz Café was a-ma-zing. Amazing.

By a route even more circuitous than this implausible blogpost, I recently re-engaged with an old college mate. Jason and I had pretty wide musical tastes but they interwove around a classic-, prog- and pomp-rock spine. As circumstance invariably dictates, we lost touch. A couple of months ago I was mooching about on the UFO website and found an old link to an even older website of a rock fan called Jason Ritchie who was doing some fundraising for Children With Cancer UK. It had to be the same guy. On the old website I found a link to a new website and then to a facebook profile. The rest is social networking...  We met a couple of weeks ago for a catch up 24 years in the making. He now edits a classic rock website and this is where my review of the Walter Trout band lives.

Pre-gig, Neil and I met in the Earl of Camden. GC was arriving later. This was an arrival we were much looking forward to. GC had made a return to the rugby field the previous weekend after an absence of a good few years. This event had been foretold on facebook by his daughter who had said “Dad: ‘I’m playing rugby today’, Me: ‘I’ll call A&E then’!” Such predictive powers. Ten minutes in to the game, GC got his nose broken by a flailing boot. So when he arrived, there was a good deal of mirth to be had at his expense. In the murky half-light at the edge of the pub, I didn’t think the face looked too bad. Or at least I was expecting worse. When we went to the bar and I caught him under ceiling light, the evidence was much more obvious. “Ooh, ouch!” I muttered half way through an otherwise innocuous sentence. “I’ve thrown away the boots and all other rugby related paraphernalia in the house”, he confirmed.

I hadn’t been to the Jazz Café for 10 years or more. Then it was to see Emmylou Harris in her cross-over, Daniel Lanois-produced phase, backed by Spyboy which featured the stunning country rock guitar of Buddy Miller. In those days, Ms Harris was on Mrs A’s record label and we had some most acceptable seats in the restaurant balcony overlooking the stage. Very nice too.

But down here on the floor tonight, it was also pretty cool. Maybe the sight lines have been improved since my earlier visits, but we had a great view and the sound for support act Mitch Laddie was crystal clear. However, our pozzie over in the far corner was soon found to be less favourable when we discovered the bogs were in the opposite corner and the bar near us didn’t serve the black stuff. In fact weaving across to the other bar and getting served was a lot harder than wading back clutching three pints. There’s no better crowd-parter than fear of a Guinness down one’s party spanker. 

We liked Mitch Laddie and his down-tuned dirty old guitar sound. Neil pointed out the Living Colour references in one of the tracks and said that on no account should I nick that observation for my review… The maturity of his songs belies his mere 21 years of age and the same goes for the tightness and discipline of the rhythm unit. Though that’s where the comparison ends. With his receding hairline and contorted facial expressions, the disguise slips and Mitch is clearly a gnarled, time-weary bluesman from somewhere near Mississippi (as oppose to Newcastle). On the other hand his bassist and drummer are a couple of mere kids from round the corner who are grateful to be playing first because, as GC commented “they need to get back and do their homework for school tomorrow”.  

Walter Trout has a fine back catalogue. A clutch of albums in each of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then Canned Heat, plus a burgeoning solo cv. The latest platter, Blues for the Modern Daze is a proper power blues outing and was the basis for the set. We got indulgent eight minute solos, spiralling and squawking licks, fierce runs and chops. Passages of high quality blues guitar with only the briefest of nods to anything as conformist as a tune. Glorious stuff. Except, that is, for the first couple of tracks where the mix was all wrong. GC thought I was going to blow a gasket. The bloke on the Hammond organ – an overweight cousin of Gene Simmons, I swear – was allowed to stamp his size 12 Wurlitzer riffs all over Walter’s searing and carefully crafted virtuosity. But balance was soon restored…

Afterwards, I tried to cajole the boys into a kebab from a fine emporium I knew just near Mornington Crescent, giving the length of Eversholt Street in which to consume it before the train home from Euston. They weren’t having any of it. So I ended up with a scabby overpriced sausage roll from a ubiquitous concourse concession. Never mind. I can live with this tasteless morsel in what was an otherwise sumptuous evening of gourmet music. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cockles and mussels

East of London and north of Canterbury, this town is built around fishing, tourism and tarmacadum. It is famous for oysters, sunsets and real ale. Where on earth?  

Actually, no prizes. The only mystery is why, with a CV like that, it took us so long to get there. But eventually, we did. We do like our seaside pleasantries in Family Atkinson and Whitstable proved to be an enormously diverting pleasure the other weekend.

Diverting. Partly in the sense that I was deflected away from Team Europe’s foursomes and fourballs struggles; from Team England’s T20 World Cup shambles; and from Team Davoski’s unsighted racing selections. But more so because after an inexplicable gap of 15 years – a best estimate – we were meeting up again with our good friends Jan & Ian. The intervening period had seen them retire, become grandparents and relocate to this gem of a town in north Kent. Needless to say we had plenty to talk about.

unicorn hat front and centre
The harbour is a refreshing and very apparent mix of real industry rubbing shoulders with the inevitable shopping and leisure opportunities. Fish processing, coal and timber transport cheek-by-jowl with restaurants, craft and gift stalls and an excellent fish market. This interesting juxtaposition explains why Ian and I were all misty eyed over a fully working original Thames barge moored at the harbour wall whilst Daughter No 2 was buying a pink and white woolly unicorn hat from an adjacent shop.

**Local history warning** The original harbour was built in 1832 as a railway terminus for the "Crab and Winkle" line (if I didn’t know better I’d say the North Kent Tourist Board had a hand in that) to Canterbury. Incredibly, and I have checked, it was the third passenger railway ever built and the first in the World to transport customers on a regular basis. A sharp poke in the eye to the Victorian powerhouses of the industrial north, then.

From the harbour we strolled (it was the weekend after all) along the shingle beach past weatherboard cottages, huts and shacks in various states of repair and renovation to Louisa’s shop. Louisa is Jan’s daughter with whom Helen has been very close over the years, although their period of separation had been even longer. A lovely reunion. It was all getting quite emotional. Luckily, there was a choice of two decent looking pubs on the corner. Drinking Whitstable Bay IPA procured from The Quayside, sat on the beach catching up and looking out to the Isle of Sheppey. Pure joy. 

Later, in town we stumbled upon a record shop selling vinyl where I exclaimed with joy on finding some pristine UFO 7”picture discs. The shopkeeper grinned at the prospect of forthcoming purchases. “No, no, I’ve already got them. I just delighted to see them here!” His smile fell and was replaced by a look that just says ‘sad bastard’. The main shopping street was busy and pretty, but not too twee. It’s easy to see how the place appeals to visitors from cosmopolitan London, only an hour or so’s drive away.  

Back at Jan & Ian’s, we met Louisa’s husband, Dan and their two lovely young daughters, promptly adopted by mine and together they spent a full two hours exploring the attic. The catching up was now at breakneck pace. I was delighted to learn that Dan and I had some recent grimy experiences in common to do with a blocked drain, plumbers’ poles and the unique aroma of open sewerage.

Later still, after good food and better conversation, it fell to Jan and Mrs A to safely see in the early hours: revisiting old haunts, old jobs and older friends; nostalgia the oxygen of the conversation and red wine its lubricant.

We headed out to The Old Neptune Inn for a swift pint before lunch the next day. Ian says this is the only pub in England actually built on the beach. At least two earlier incarnations of the boozer have been wrecked by the elements. The warped floor and twisted beams of this one, dating from the last days of the 19th century, are testament to its travails against battering north-easterlies. The ‘neppy’ (you’d think I was a local) has live bands on at the weekend and Ian told me there’s a good music festival on the beach in Summer that accompanies the beer and oyster festivals. 

For lunch, Jan and Ian took us to the Lobster Shack at the other end of the beach. By now the wind is blowing with serious intent. Several dinghies have capsized at the mouth of the harbour and the kitesurfers are zipping over the foam at astonishing speed.

To get to the shack, we have to weave around East Quay and down a road with an industrial estate on one side and the imposing tarmac works on the other. This part of Kent was amongst the first in the country to adopt ‘blacktop’ roads. I asked Ian if he was taking us to the factory canteen for a bacon butty lunch. But just around the corner the road ends at a little square outside the famous shack. Inside, we found a huge open plan barn of a building with long refectory tables and large windows out to sea. Louisa, Dan and the girls joined us. Over fantastic moules marinieres, rock oysters and prawns, Jan shows me her stunning sunset photos taken from in front of the shack. Oddly, for a town on the east coast of England, the geography of the bay means a westerly facing aspect. I’m jealous.

Out in the estuary, it is clear enough to see the wind farm, and to just make out the spidery shapes of the Maunsell Sea Forts, hangovers from World War II where they provided platforms for anti-aircraft guns. They look more like an outtake from the final scenes in War of the Worlds. The barge we saw earlier can be hired to run trips out there. Next time maybe.

All too soon, it's time to head home. Jan & Ian have not changed a bit. Good people. The intervening years have been reasonably kind to us and we think we can make provisional plans to meet up again in 2027. It’s in the diary. 

Saturday, 6 October 2012


The closest I’ve come to the The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is a squinted view of the track where it is run from the top of La Tour Eiffel. “Look girls, that’s Longchamp! Where they run the Arc!” They were unimpressed. “Can we have another waffle, Daddy?” Mrs A mustered a little enthusiasm. Peering in the vague direction of the track and the vast wooded area in which it sat, she noted that “The Bois de Boulogne is lovely”. She’s good like that.

Following her gaze I was surprised to see another track nestling in the shadow of the main Longchamp Grandstand. I found an information board. It was ‘Hippodrome d’Auteil. “Ah, France’s premier jumps track!” I had no idea it was so close by and as momentarily lost in a swirling memory of Guillame Macaire plotting up Chelteham raiders from here, circa 2002.

Back to the present and another Arc swings into view. I still I haven’t made it to (either) track. The 2012 renewal has had a rocky week. Carelessly, the race has lost three of its principal contenders. Firstly, that wonderful mare, multi-Group 1 winning Snow Fairy was withdrawn after heat was discovered in one of her forelegs. Shame. It goes without saying that last year’s third would have added real quality to the field. In much more bizarre circumstances, defending Arc champion and brilliant mare Danedream will not line up. The horse has been confined to quarters at Cologne Racecourse after a case of a Swamp Fever was identified in horse at the other side of the track. Harsh quarantine arrangements will last at least a month preventing her participation. Further lowering of the race’s quality threshold came when two-time Group 1 winner Nathaniel was found to be feverish and ruled out by trainer John Gosden. It is not a vintage renewal.

All this, strangely, is good news for me. Last weekend I backed Sea Moon at 20-1 each-way, shortly after Stoute hinted heavily that the horse was Paris bound. Not because I had thought long and hard about his chances, but because quoted prices of 33-1 and 25-1 sounded like proper value. He’s on my 20-to-follow for the flat and I was always going to back him at some stage. In the event, those fancy prices had long gone by the time I was piling the pennies on. But I am happy with 20-1. Smike confirmed him as an intended runner shortly afterwards.

Then the rains came. Longchamp always has bog-like tendencies. The indications are that tomorrow’s race will be run through a tributary of the Seine. Sea Moon has some form on soft and heavy and may not be as inconvenienced as some. A harsh assessment of Sea Moon’s form would see him needing to find a few pounds. That’s not inconceivable. His 5th in the King George, on the face of it a touch disappointing, saw him barely two lengths adrift of Danedream. Not impossible to bridge.

The other drama of the week was Frankie’s decision to climb aboard Camelot (regular pilot JP O’Brien is unable to make the weight). This is not the first time Dettori has decided to work for his retainer’s arch rivals. But it’s the first time since the relationship between Godolphin and Coolmore really soured about six years ago. And he could hardly have chosen a more high profile race or horse. This seems significant, given that the operation has Masterstroke in the race who is far from without a shout. Godolphin have noticeably been promoting Mikael Barzalona and Sylvestre De Sousa this season, so is this the beginning of the end?

Camelot will no doubt be favourite, narrowly missing the Triple Crown and collecting three grade 1s in an outstanding year. The worry here is that the deep ground won’t be ideal and the suspicion that this year’s classic generation is a notch below par. That said, the three-year-olds have smashed eight of the last ten renewals. It’s not inconceivable that the 3yo fillies allowance might come into play. Sister to Nathaniel, Great Heavens must be taken as a serious horse, and continue Gosden’s remarkable year. Though she’s no Zarkava, the best three year old filly to win this. Then again, who is?

The money has come for Orfevre too. We can expect more of that. Memories of the landslide of Japanese cash that propelled Deep Impact to favouritism in 2006 is still fresh in my memory. Orfevre is the 2011 Japanese Triple Crown winner and has a real chance of becoming Japan’s first winner of the Arc.

But I’m sticking with Sea Moon. He can go close here. Closer than I’ll get to the track anyway, for another year.