St Paul's Cathedral At Night

It is almost a cliché by now to comment that everybody sees a place with different eyes. Some of that comes with different associations, expectations or memories. Some of it, though,  can come from mere familiarity and I guess it is a cliché too to point out that tourists and residents will have very different impressions of famous landmarks. The subject of the last column, the Thames, is a case in point. For the Londoner it is something to cross sometimes, or perhaps  a source of livelihood, or something rarely seen from one month to the next. For the tourist, however, a trip down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich – passing Gabriel’s Wharf and the Globe and the Tower en route – is one of the must-do items on an itinerary :just as going to Paris involves a trip down the Seine and Budapest means boating down the Danube. In each case, the river takes on a different  and inevitably more romantic guise than when seen on a daily basis.

This probably applies to most famous sights  – the Acropolis: Temple to the Goddess Athena or a load of old rocks? - and it is often the tourist perspective that provides the inspiration for the most famous songs about them. Like Tulips From Amsterdam, for example, or Under the Bridges of Paris, by Eartha Kitt or Dean Martin: you can almost see the accordion player coming round for money as you chug past the Eiffel Tower. Maybe that accounts for the antipathy to  tourists that sometimes surfaces in songs, a feature already pointed out in the column on Boston and  the Mighty Mighty Bosstones They Came to Boston – “They came, they saw, they annoyed me” -   and in Summer in the City with Madness and A Day On The Town –“Getting the tourists into their traps, taking their money, the shirts off their backs”. The same attitude can be found in Suggs’ Camden: “There's a great crowd of tourists and they're coming down the street, pleased as punch with brand new Doctor Marten's on their feet”

London, of course,  is stuffed full of  iconic buildings but often, in fact, the best songs  are not those about the well-known landmarks but about the small, often unremarkable, things, about scenes that will rarely appear on a tourist’s holiday photos: Kirsty Maccoll’s empty bench in Soho Square or Cath Carroll’s night bus from Camden in London, Queen of My Heart. By and large, those songs  of the sights on the tourist trail - those that feature most on the postcards and guide books - lack, for obvious reasons, the little personal touches  that make those just mentioned so effective.  Oddly, two of the city’s most famous sights – Big Ben and Westminster Abbey- have been musically captured by ragtime piano tunes from the 1950’s: Winifred Atwell’s Big Ben Boogie (with a left hand walking  bass rhythm that makes you see why Jet Harris was inspired to take up bass from listening to her records) and Russ Conway’s Westminster. Then there is the Tower of London. Steeped in history and infamy as it is, what musical epic has it inspired? Well, actually, an ABC track –Tower of London, what else - sounding so 80’s you can feel the shoulder pads on it and lyrics that maybe fall a bit short of epic: “Tower over centuries, tower over London, Tower up and frankly I’m amazed”.

There are a few songs, however, that combine both the tourist landmark and the personal with good effect. One is another song inspired by Big Ben, by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera (and sounding strangely like Phil Ochs at times on this track): a little story told in poetic imagery and with  Big Ben in the background.

Another is the .track here from 2001, St Paul’s Cathedral At Night by  Trembling Blue Stars (largely a vehicle for Bob Wratten) , a rather lovelorn lament  veering on self-pity that has echoes of the Pet Shop Boys in its sound. St Pauls is certainly one of London’s most recognizable sights, the tallest building in the city for centuries and  captured in the iconic  photo/postcard of the dome highlighted during the Blitz of World War 2. It was also the setting for the 'Feed the Birds' scene in Mary Poppins - and currently the site for the Occupy London camp.

 My own associations, however, are largely built up round two memories of it. One was a visit there on one of my  first trips to London up from the coast, at the age of 5 or 6 I think. No doubt the size and grandeur of it all impressed me but I remember two things in particular. One was the Whispering Gallery, which actually struck me as a disappointment as it didn’t really seem to work as promised. The other was climbing a vertical metal ladder to stand inside the small golden globe right at the top. I sometimes wonder if this is a false memory as it doesn’t seem possible to do that now but I distinctly remember it, partly as the woman in front trod on my fingers in high heels. I am sure there are people who pay good money for that sort of thing but it rather spoilt the view at the time.

The other was taking a succession of French or German school exchange pupils there with my daughter or son. Going round St Pauls can be expensive so I worked out a ruse that satisfied everyone once we had viewed the outside of it. I would say that St Pauls was unfortunately shut to visitors due to a special religious ceremony but luckily we could go nearby to the Monument to the Fire of London, also designed by Christopher Wren and with splendid views from the top. The advantage of this  was that  the cost was only about £1.The disadvantage was that it has 311 steps ,on  which even the plumpest French schoolboy passed me en route to the top.

St Paul’s, like other famous buildings shared by millions, becomes a trigger for personal associations. Bob Wratten’s song here is a bitter sweet one of nostalgia wakened by a postcard , wistful memories of a relationship taking place in a cinema or St James Park. Mine are more mundane – but still my view of St Paul's.



Like Waterloo, the River Thames has sporadically cropped up in past columns, flowing through songs like London itself: the dirty old river in Waterloo Sunset, the sullen River Thames in Grief Came Riding, the echoes of  the lapping of the dark  river waters on a foggy evening in London, Queen of My Heart. As a city river, its place in songs is not unique. Lindisfarne are best known for their  sing-along ode to Newcastle and its river, Fog On The Tyne. There was Liverpool and Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Seine too  has had its share of songs - Down in the Seine by the Style Council, for example.

The Thames, however, has always held a special place in London and in films and songs alike has been both a focus in its own right and as a background to countless scenes played out visually or musically before it. At times, it is used as  shorthand for  conjuring up traditional London/Britain, like  showing a red bus or Big Ben. Take this clip from a 1964 pop film vehicle for singer Joe Brown, 3 Hats for Lisa: ‘traditional London’ is spelled  out in capitals by a backdrop of the Thames and Tower Bridge –plus Sid James (South African born) as a typical tap-dancing Cockney taxi driver.

 Indeed, its bridges and banks were also part of music’s landscapes, as seen with Grief Came Riding and Battersea Bridge. Then  there was Cilla Black’s London Bridge, a ‘B’ side from 1969. Her 60’s singing career has got over-shadowed by her rapid move from early Beatles’ connections  into light entertainment, Tory Party conferences and general showbiz chummery. She was also a prime example of a  60's home-grown act whose  own version of a particular song was more successful than the original and definitive classic. Baby I Need Your Loving was a UK hit not with the Four Tops original but by Liverpool second-division outfit, The Fourmost. The version of the Curtis Mayfield-penned Um, Um, Um, Um ,Um, Um that was the hit in Britain was by Manchester’s Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders rather than Major Lance, rather losing the enigmatic quality of the lyrics in the process. Sound of Silence was more successful for the Bachelors than Simon and Garfunkel. Cilla Black managed it twice, with number one hits with Anyone Who had A Heart (Dionne Warwick) and You’ ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (the Righteous Brothers). London Bridge, however, is an unexpectedly charming little period piece from the time when London Bridge  indeed wasn’t there :it had been dismantled and flogged off to an American real-estate developer to put back together in Arizona.

The Thames is also often used as a metaphor, as rivers tend to be because of their paradox of constantly changing whilst staying the same. Elton John’s Across the River Thames, a rather self-conscious 2006 recreation  of his early to mid 70’s sound (complete with Davey Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums) had the Thames as a symbol for his own career, ie still there; “But I'm still here and the fog still rolls across the River Thames”. In Richard Digance’s Dear River Thames, the river takes on another symbolic guise:” Stay by me, stay by me, And don't let me down. .... For the ride, I must confide that you are my friend.” (For some reason, the song is often seen as credited to Ralph McTell). There have been numerous versions of Ewan Maccoll’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly - Planxty, Rufus Wainwright, Cherish The Ladies amongst them. I suppose history and continuity is what the river mainly represents in all these songs.

The song here, Earlies, is rather different. The Thames has only a small walk-on part in the lyrics about doing an early shift in the London of 1981 and the IRA bombing campaign  but it somehow permeates the whole song. There are 2 versions here. The first is a live version by the original artists, the Trashcan Sinatras, a Scottish indie band with a harmonies- and -  jingle/jangle sound reminiscent of Teenage Fan Club  - or the Go-Betweens of Streets of Your Town. The second is a more gossamer and ethereal version from 2011 by Lotte Kestner (aka Anna-Lynne Williams).

The precise meaning of the words/location is hard to pin down: County Kilburn is clear enough  ( a name for Kilburn in north-west London because of its large Irish population) but goodness know where Cakebrick Road is. That hardly matters though, for the song is really about nostalgia and wistfulness for times and places past, and the Thames is a perfect setting for that. There is something about it that can create a mood of yearning and  false or real memories, like the mist rising from it. It was in Waterloo Sunset, with Ray Davies saying the lyrics were shaped by his trips over Waterloo Bridge as an art student in the early 1960’s and by a spell as a child in St Thomas Hospital, seeing from the balcony the views described in the song.

Like anyone who has spent time in London, it has also figured in my memories there. Travelling down it on a boat  to Greenwich on a school trip up from the coast; or a spell doing my own ‘earlies’ after first arriving in London, crossing the river en route to work at 6am; or standing on the banks with my son after his graduation and looking over to the London Eye, not there at the time this song was set. You cannot step twice in the same river for other waters are ever flowing on to you - maybe that is where the nostalgia comes from.


Waterloo Guildford

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?