In discussions on philosophy and whether the external world is real, someone will sometimes say;”Is this table really here?”, usually thumping it at the same time. The same argument could be put forward for places, for perceptions of them vary so much it can be hard to say what is real and what is imagination. People bring different eyes, different expectations and take away different memories, sometimes seeing only what they wanted to see. A place may look different for other reasons, though. You may have a particular memory of it, perhaps from years ago, that colours forever how you see it, for good or bad. Or a passing mood may cast it in sunlight or gloom. The column on Grief Came Riding saw Nick Cave’s despair and melancholy by the sullen River Thames and the Battersea Bridge beloved of artists and poets.
The song here is the opposite of the last reference, a place made more golden than it appears to most people by the mood of the artist. Waterloo has cropped up twice before, in Ray Davies’ musings in Waterloo Sunset and in Jane Birkin’s Waterloo Station. In both, Waterloo Station was seen as a gateway into London: for me arriving to see my first glimpse of the city, for Jane Birkin returning from Paris on the Eurostar. But it is, of course, also an exit from London for points south and south west. To the South Coast and Portsmouth and on to the Isle of Wight, for example, where Birkin holidayed as a child.
It is also the station for commuter belt towns in surburban Surrey: Woking, Epsom, Surbiton- and Guildford. Guildford is an odd town. The name is synonymous now as much as anything with the Guildford Four, falsely imprisoned for 15 years for the IRA Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the subject of a song by the Wolftones. But you might also expect it to be like one the cathedral cities of Let’s Get Out of This Country. It has the ruins of a Norman castle, a university and a cathedral on a hill overlooking the town (and where some of The Omen was filmed). Yet you would never mistake being in Germany or France as you walk round the place and it certainly has its critics, who see drunken violence, boy racers in the Guildford Cruise and a centre with the heart torn out.(as in clip below). Robyn Hitchcock did a song tellingly called, No. I don’t remember Guildford.
However, this is where the ‘is this table really here’ question pops up for my image of Guildford is very different, being mainly based on images from my childhood visiting by train from Waterloo to Guildford an aunt and uncle who lived in a village a mile or two out of the town: a village where the war memorial had names from bygone eras like Balaclava Smallbone on it and there was a story about a nearby hill that pilgrims doing penance used to push peas up its slopes with their noses. What sticks in my mind most is a day once spent taking a rowing boat with my uncle from Guildford down the river Wey through a landscape that could have come straight from Wind in the Willows - and which came to mind totally unexpectedly years later on the River Trebizat in Bosnia, a memory mentioned in the Lyla column.
The song here by Guildford singer Frank Hamilton from 2007, Waterloo Guildford, acts as a kind of bridge between these two sets of images of the place, worlds apart. The route from Waterloo to Guildford is not one of the World’s Great Train Journeys at the best of times and a late night train depositing a carriage of drunks into a town centre of drunks doesn’t sound promising material . However, against all expectations the mood of the artist and song produce something rather touching. It is partly because of the innocence and optimism in the voice and words. It is also, I think, because of the musical accompaniment of a circular refrain on acoustic guitar with harmonica, an effective combination used in folk music from Woody Guthrie through Dylan and Donovan and beyond. (Oddly, it is heard too on Robyn Hitchcock’s song about Guildford mentioned earlier). It was also part of the hat-trick of hits by busker Don Partridge in the late 60’s, a kind of real-life version of Dick Van Dyke’s one-man band in Mary Poppins, only without the ‘cockney’ accent.. He went from busking in Leicester Square to Top of the Pops and UK tours and back again to busking , leaving a small but joyously sunny musical legacy with tracks like Rosie and Blue Eyes
There is something wistful and nostalgic about the sound of the guitar and harmonica here behind the words, not perhaps for Waterloo or Guildford but for the moment described that turned Guildford into something else for the author. Just as Guildford is for some a Crap Town; or the name of the pub bombings and the Guildford Four; or a memory of a boat drifting down the river past the willows and kingfishers. Which one is real and really here, like the table?