Musical Micropause U: 35 years of U2 live

Just as Q is dominated by Queen, so it is with U and U2. Underworld did have a great track with Born Slippy, and UB40 were nothing to be ashamed of in their early days, but it gets tricky after that. Did Ultravox have more than one song?

With a new album coming in 2014, U2 aren’t prepared to rely on their back catalog just yet, and there are few bands whose concerts can compare to a U2 experience. From humble beginnings in Dublin, over the last 35 years Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry have performed around 2000 concerts in over 30 countries. Fortunately for us, they show no sign of slowing down just yet.

1970s – Street Mission: live in Dublin (1978)
If every journey starts with a single step, every stadium filling band starts with an embarrassing video. For reasons unclear, there’s no shortage of confidence, and Bono clearly isn’t afraid of the camera. It would be a brave bet that this mob are destined to be the dominant band on the world stage for decades.

1980s – Bad: Live at Live Aid, London
Seven years, four albums, and countless hair stylists after their first steps on Irish TV, U2 were now not just sharing a stage with the biggest bands of the eighties, but stealing the show. Bono had long been dragging girls out of the crowd for some audience participation, but at Live Aid, the “grab” took longer than planned, causing Bad to be extended by five minutes. U2 may have missed out on playing their final scheduled song, but their performance to a global audience turned them into world superstars.

U2 live in Auckland, November 11, 1989

U2 live in Auckland, November 11, 1989

1990s – Until The End Of The World: Live in New York (1992)
The Eighties turned into the Nineties, and the acclaim turned into backlash. With references to Billie Holiday and Elvis, and performances by BB King and the Memphis Horns, Rattle and Hum was perceived as four Irishmen trying to teach the United States about their own music. U2 were forced into reinvention and the result was the stunning double-hit of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. The epic performances of desert songs where the streets had no names were replaced by electronica against a wall of TV screens and suspended Trabants.

U2 live in Auckland, December 4, 1993

U2 live in Auckland, December 4, 1993

2000s – Vertigo: Live in Milan (2005)
Between 2000 and 2009, U2 released three albums, all featuring a return to more traditional guitar-based rock, complete with singles that sounded written for stadium performance. Changes in the music industry were reflected in the decreasing album sales: “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (2000) sold in excess of 12 million copies, while “No Line on the Horizon” (2009) sold around 5 million.  Touring became the primary source of earnings with U2 embarking on major tours after each album.

U2 live in Auckland, November 24, 2006

U2 live in Auckland, November 24, 2006

2010s – One Tree Hill: Live in Auckland (2010)
Whenever U2 visit New Zealand, they are expected to play “One Tree Hill”, a song written for a New Zealander who worked for the band as a roadie in the 1980s, and who died in a motorcycle accident in Dublin.  “One Tree Hill” is a real place in central Auckland, very close to where I grew up, and my kids love being taken to the summit for 360 degree views over the city.  The song is now rarely played outside New Zealand, so it has become Our Song.

On 19 November 2010, an explosion in the Pike River Mine, northeast of Greymouth in New Zealand’s South Island, killed 29 people. When U2 played in Auckland on 26 November, they included in their performance of “One Tree Hill” a tribute to the 29 miners, listing their names on the screen above the band. Being at that show, it was clear that the crowd was touched by this moving performance.

U2 live in Auckland, November 26, 2010

U2 live in Auckland, November 26, 2010

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Musical Micropause: T

TV On The Radio: Wolf Like Me  (2006)
Rated as Spin’s album of the year, no 2 for Pitchfork, and no 4 for both Stylus and Rolling Stone, it was hard not to hear the positive reviews received in 2006 for TV On The Radio’s second studio album, “Return to Cookie Mountain”. Along with Neil Young and Arctic Monkeys, they were one of the three main reasons I thought I should get to the Big Day Out 2009, and they didn’t disappoint. I think they deserved better than a mid-afternoon slot, but they soon had the crowd’s attention. I’d love to see them do their own show – but maybe not in the same year that Springsteen and the Stones visit these shores. The year hasn’t started and I’m running out of budget.

The Temptations: Ain’t Too Proud To Beg (1966)
I’m not sure if the Temptations had a minimum height requirement, but these guys all look about seven feet tall. A classic that I never get tired of hearing. The Stones seemed to like it too – this is a live version from them with Amy Winehouse on the Isle of Wight from 2007. I’d be happy to hear them play this in April.

The The
: Slow Emotion Replay (1993)
If I had to make my list of underrated albums, “Dusk” by The The would be my immediate first choice. It has everything – production that doesn’t sound too dated, poignant lyrics (although maybe not the best choice if you’ve had a bad day), and a hefty dose of Johnny Marr. That’s his harmonica at the start of this track. As an aside, I had to check the difference between “dose” and “dosage”. Apparently, dosage is the rate of application of a dose. Anyway, this track is/was great for singing to yourself on a cricket field when you’re stuck on the boundary far from the action.

Teddy Thompson: Tonight Will Be Fine (2005)
I don’t know a lot of Teddy Thompson’s own music, but I love what he does with this song by Leonard Cohen. Possibly surprisingly, Cohen’s original is the raucous version. Thompson participated in a series of Leonard Cohen tribute concerts called “Came So Far for Beauty” alongside with Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and others. The concerts were performed in New York, Brighton, Dublin and Sydney, with the Sydney show filmed for the concert film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”. This video is from that performance.

Talking Heads: Life During Wartime (1984)
I find it impossible to listen to watch a video of Talking Heads without smiling, whether from the early pre-Jerry Harrison days as a three-piece, or the ten-person live line-up for the Remain In Light tour. These guys were took the visual aspect of performance into areas no-one knew existed.  Freddy Mercury or David Byrne as the ultimate frontman? Hard choice…

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New York – first taste of the Apple: May 1994

Manhattan from Empire State Building, May 1994

Manhattan from Empire State Building, May 1994

My neighbor is very chatty, and as she’s a New Yorker, I try to get some hints that aren’t covered by the guidebooks. I’m on the countdown now. This is my first visit to New York, and I’ve managed to get the window seat. Maybe she’s a recent arrival, because her answers to my questions always start with “Barry?” Her husband is sitting on the aisle, and doesn’t seem to mind having his reading regularly interrupted. I’ve learned quite a bit from Barry’s suggestions over the last couple of hours, but I’ve probably learned more about his wife’s family, friends, eating disorders and last vacation to the Virgin Islands.

I’m going to be staying with friends who live on East 47th Street, but they’ll be working late at the World Financial Center, and they’ve suggested I meet them there. One question Barry can’t answer is how I can get a bus there at this time of night from JFK. The passenger across the aisle from Barry overhears, and asks around his neighbors. They aren’t sure, and the row in front of them offers ideas. Soon there are six or seven people, with what I think are New York accents, all debating the best way to get to the World Financial Center. It’s all a very welcoming start to my first experience of this iconic city. And as hoped, the views as we approach the city are spectacular.

The consensus is that I should take a taxi, and I’m soon sharing a ride with an elderly Jamaican lady. I wasn’t expecting that, but she doesn’t look too threatening, or mobile. If she does a runner, we can give her a head start and still catch her by the corner. The driver’s name is Mustapha – he asks me where I’m from and I tell him New Zealand. I’m not sure he’s heard of it as he looks at me as if I’ve misunderstood the question. For some reason he sees me as an expert on leather sandals, and is very keen on getting my advice. He seems surprised and a little disappointed when I admit that it’s not my specialist subject. We need to stop for petrol, and then again for Mustapha to buy some peanuts. Waiting in a taxi in Brooklyn for my taxi driver to get peanuts feels surreal, but maybe that’s what life is like in New York.

As a music fan, one of the band I associate with New York is the Velvet Underground, and I’m a fairly recent convert. There had been optimistic rumors that their 1992 reunion would extend to Australia and New Zealand, so I felt the need to know more about this band. Every artist seemed to be listing them as an influence, so it seemed time to do more research. I’d previously been given a compilation of the Velvets, but I guess my mind wasn’t quite ready. How could I not have loved this the first time around? Dark and seedy, this music was captivating. I spent a lot of 1993 listening to the Velvets and read the few books that I could find on this short-lived band. I came across Tom Wilson’s name, whom I associated with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel – names that were eternally linked to New York City. The wonderfully jarring and grating noise from the Velvets seemed a world away from the Sounds of Silence. I soon discovered the connection with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. I’d love to track down that building. And this is where Lou Reed was walking on the wild side? I need to get to this city.

It’s now May 1994, and I’ve been in New York for a couple of days. It’s just before midnight in Manhattan, and I can’t get the relentless chug of the Velvets out of my head. Maybe at the next corner I’ll find myself confronted with these guys…

Cale and Reed

John Cale and Lou Reed in New York, 1968

This superb photo of John Cale and Lou Reed, the architects of the Velvet Undergound, was taken by Joel Meyerowitz on 5th Avenue in 1968, “just a casual shot of an interesting looking guy, only to discover later on that it was Lou Reed and John Cale”. He published it on his Facebook page on November 11 2013, after the death of Lou Reed.

Any why shouldn’t I spot Cale and Reed? This is their town after all. Well, because they hate each other (again), the reunion is over, and it’s not 1968, it’s 1994. It won’t happen – but I can’t stop hoping that it might. It’s as ridiculous as going to Stockholm and hoping to run into the four members of ABBA, holding hands and skipping down the street. Who would hope for that? But that’s another story.

I spend hours walking in New York City. Partially because I’ve been warned against using the subway, but partially to convince myself that I’m really here. There’s so much to see above ground and I see many familiar sights – the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building. I start to walk the length of Broadway heading south, passing Madison Square Garden, and Union Square, and get distracted by sidestreets into Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown. Eventually I get lost, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m in no hurry – which is just one of many differences between me and the locals. It frequently feels like I’m the only one in this city that is relaxed, or at least trying to relax. This doesn’t feel like a city where you can sip a coffee and watch the world go by; I get the impression here you that you are expected to either keep up or get out of the way. No-one’s being unfriendly to me at all – quite the opposite, but I’ve spent time in cities like London and Paris, and this city operates at a completely different pace.

Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

My explorations continue with a visit to Wall Street and the NYSE viewing platform. The courts around City Hall are cordoned off as the World Trade Center bombers are being sentenced today. On February 26, 1993, a truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing seven and injuring thousands. I hear later that all four are sentenced to life imprisonment.  I keep heading south and take the Staten Island ferry, passing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s a welcome change to let the ferry do my walking.

That evening my friends have to work late once more, but their roommate is there with her boyfriend. I’m not sure if the roommate is impressed, but I spend the evening with the boyfriend talking sport over a few beers. We also cover recent mafia history and the bloody events outside Sparks Steak House at 210 East 47th Street (my friends live at 212 East 47th), as well as Woody Allen’s frequent appearances at “Michael’s”. This ends sometime between 2am and 3am. These guys can talk.

Shooting of Paul Castellano outside Sparks Steak House, 1985

Shooting of Paul Castellano outside Sparks Steak House, 1985

Most days are spent walking with visits to the UN Headquarters, Grand Central Station, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and MOMA. Clutching my bag, I even brave the subway for the first time for a visit to the Guggenheim. Clearly a tourist (possibly because I’m the only person in New York wearing purple baggy surf shorts), I attract attention, but it’s soon clear that this isn’t some cunning diversion while the accomplice grabs my wallet. People just want to make sure I’m not lost. This isn’t the first time strangers have gone out of their way to help the weary visitor – which isn’t easy when they don’t seem to understand my accent.

Times Square

Times Square

Lunch is sometimes on the grass in Central Park, where I discover that pretzels are more filling than they look. One large pretzel is plenty. Being a Beatles fan, I have to locate Strawberry Fields and the Dakota building. I notice on the billboards throughout the city that they all have web addresses listed for the product advertised. This must be this internet thing I’ve heard of, but haven’t tried yet. Maybe it will catch on at home and we’ll have web addresses on billboards in New Zealand one day.

Evenings are passed in institutions with names like Edward Moran’s, Jamesons, and the Fulton Street Cafe. One particular night is spent in a bar watching a Stanley Cup playoff match between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, with the seven match series tied at 3-3.  New York scores early but New Jersey equalises with seven seconds to go in regulation time, causing overtime and major discomfort for my new friends. We need to get home, so we make flying visits into multiple bars on the way back to get updates. The match needs 25 minutes of sudden-death play, so we’re able to get home in time for the finish. Fortunately New York wins, giving a great night out a fitting ending. I’m not sure how my friends would reacted if the night had finished with a New Jersey goal. I suspect the night would not have been so memorable for them.

TV Hockey 5

A good night to be a Rangers fan

On my last day in New York, I come across the Turtle Bay Festival on 2nd Avenue. It’s a great place for souvenirs, which double as clean clothes, so I stock up. From there, I walk to the South St Seaport, followed by a wander across Brooklyn Bridge. They take the bike lanes a bit more seriously here than at home – again, it’s a mistake I make only once. Night is again spent with friends of friends, as mine are yet again working late. I’m not sure if people ever really stop working here – even when I’ve met people for a drink on the Friday night, they have had to go back to the office later that evening. That isn’t the Friday night that I’m familiar with.

Turtle Bay Festival - May 1994

Turtle Bay Festival – May 1994

Work is the last thing on my mind on my last night in New York. The door to the roof of their apartment building is open, and I take a seat with a view over the lights of Manhattan. The spire of the Chrysler building look close enough to touch, and I reflect on how lucky I am to have been offered accommodation in this part of the city. I have my trusty Walkman, and on New York radio I hear Crowded House, a band that New Zealanders like to think of as our own. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” sings Neil Finn, but with a flight to Paris tomorrow, there’s not much I can do about that. Could I live here? I don’t think so. In the last week I’ve been to so many fantastic places that I’ve read about for years, and people have been so helpful, but I haven’t really felt comfortable. Maybe that’s unrealistic after just a week, but I’ve been to other cities where I’ve felt at ease almost immediately. I’d love to come back, but I have no ambitions for a long-term stay.

Months later, I’m back in Auckland and daydreaming about my week in New York, and I realise that I was so busy I completely forgot to look up Andy Warhol’s Factory. I find that the original Factory was on the fifth floor of 231 East 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I can’t believe it. I was staying at 212 East 47th, also between 2nd and 3rd Avenues – almost directly opposite the Factory building, and I must have walked past it every day. Now I definitely have a reason for a return visit.

Andy Warhol with the Velvet Undergound and friends in happier times

Andy Warhol with the Velvet Undergound and friends in happier times

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Musical Micropause: S

Letter S

The Smiths: Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want  (1984)
I first became aware of the Smiths in 1985 when a friend who was far cooler than me took to wearing a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt at every opportunity. I was a little intimidated by anything cool, and was still quietly playing The Cars. A Smiths singles collection later pointed out my glaring mistake, and I quickly found all their albums. These days when I listen to the Smiths, I sometimes wonder why I bother listening to any other music at all.

Sugar: Helpless (1992)
Another band where my ravings to friends appears to have caused their immediate demise (as with Pixies, Luna, Grant Lee Buffalo and others). Bob Mould’s Sugar signaled his return to a band format after a pair of solo albums. Loud with great melodies – what else do you need?

Sigur Rós
: Ágætis byrjun (1999)
Icelandic for “A Good Beginning”, Ágætis byrjun was well named, as it brought Sigur Rós global attention and inclusion in high profile TV and movie soundtracks – Vanilla Sky, CSI  and 24 to name a few. Variously labelled as cosmic rock, ambient rock, or whale rock, they have a reputation for stunning live performance. They’ve been on my top 5 to see live for years, and it looks like the wait is far from over.

Straitjacket Fits: Down In Splendour (1990)
One of Flying Nun’s greatest successes, Straitjacket Fits thrived on the contrast and diversity that their two songwriters brought to their music. Shayne Carter’s songs were generally known for their rough edges, while Andrew Brough preferred more sparkle. Eventually the differences led to conflict, and Brough left the band after a lengthy tour in 1991. “Down In Splendour” is from their 1990 album, “Melt”, and in 2001 was voted as number 32 in New Zealand’s top 100 songs of all time.

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Amédée Island, New Caledonia: September 1991

I’m sure I’ve imagined this island, probably at about 3pm on a Friday, when the “to do” list for the afternoon is drifting into the “must do” list for Monday. And it exists – Amédée Island, 24 kilometres due south of Nouméa, New Caledonia. Just sticking a few french accents above letters makes a name sound that much more appealing – it does to me anyway.

Amédée Island

It even has its own shipwreck – not right on the beach fortunately, but clearly visible.  (thanks to

Not exactly prospering - the "Ever Prosperity"

Not exactly prospering – the “Ever Prosperity”

I do have one regret. I should have brought a book. Having skin that alternates between white in summer and blue in winter, I’m not here with any plans for the perfect tan. I’m here because my workmate and drinking buddy Pat suggested a week up here would be a timely break from the office, and he wasn’t wrong.

Actually two books may have been a better idea, because there really is nothing to do on this island except swim, walk in circles, and sunbathe. Having sunbathed for five minutes, I can now tick that off my list. Time for a dip.

Being the generous sort, I’m going to share my lunch, which I grabbed earlier from our hosts weren’t looking. It’s just a baguette, but in a matter of seconds, I’m surrounded. It feels like hundreds of eyes are fixed on me, mouths open in anticipation. All for a piece of bread. The water’s only about eight feet deep, but with one hand I’m clutching a rock to hold myself down, and the other is offering up the baguette. They love it, and I’m in the calm at the centre of the storm. Unfortunately, the lack of a third hand means I have no photos, but according to the wikipedia page on the Biodiversity of New Caledonia, they may be cousins of these guys:Epinephelus fasciatus "Fish A" Caesio cuning "Fish B".jpg or evenBalistoides conspicillum "Fish C".

Pat’s remembered his book, and he possibly doesn’t want continual interruptions, so I decide to do a lap of the island. That fills up another fifteen minutes.

It’s quite an enjoyable stroll, so I do it again. Then again in the other direction.  Then back to the original direction, this time twice. And then again in the reverse direction. I continue this for some time, which gives me time to reflect on the week.



I accidentally kicked a soccer ball into a fellow guest’s face yesterday. These things happen in beach soccer, and it’s so typical that the one kick that I really timed well was the one where the goalie chose to stop it with his nose. He was only a few feet away as well – poor guy. While everyone else was laughing I was the only one helping him when he regained consciousness.

There hasn’t been a lot of culture on this trip. The closest we’ve come to culture is trying frogs’ legs. I’m the only one who’s tried them, and they don’t believe me when they say it tastes like chicken. Actually, if french beer counts as culture, then yes, we’ve had plenty of culture.

Sticking to the day job

But we have tried to participate, unfortunately with success ranging from minimal to mixed. We were made very welcome for the aqua-aerobics in the pool. I think they appreciated having someone there who was born post-WWII. And archery was interesting. Possibly not surprisingly, my archery skills resemble my darts skills, and I’m rubbish at that. Pat suggests imagining the target as the head of one of my work colleagues, who we shall call “Jerk”. That does the trick – a perfect bulls-eye! Despite my new-found success and obvious potential, our instructor from the Maldives does not appreciate our attitude, and has a constant scowl. Maybe he sees me as a threat.

No prizes for fourth

No prizes for fourth

An Olympics Day is organised between the various nationalities, and we’re both keen to come away with a medal. There are several events where we think we have a show – tossing the boot on the beach, limbo, races in the pool, and maybe archery. Sadly our form has deserted us and we don’t feature in the medal table. Throughout the day, one elderly tanned and bearded gent from the States has been very vocal in his support, shouting “Go Kiwis!” at every opportunity. As the day concludes without any cause for celebration, we realise how badly we’ve let down our fanbase, known to us as Captain Nemo.

If they’d had a sailing race, we may have had more success. Pat’s an excellent sailor, and with him at the helm, and me providing ballast, we take out one of the hobie cats. We’re soon travelling with some speed, and it doesn’t take long before we’re a long way out, with a beautiful view back to the mainland. Not wanting to see my camera disappear into the Pacific, I’ve left it on the shore with newly-made friends. Eventually I’ll develop the film to find that they’ve kindly taken some surprising photos of themselves while Pat and I were offshore. How thoughtful.

There are many Australians and New Zealanders at the resort, with a broad spread of age. It’s my 23rd birthday during the trip, and we meet a few people with similar interests. We keep running into an Australian here with his wife and kids who seems more interested in talking rugby with us than being with his family. He seems genuinely sad when he has to leave us – it’s very touching.

There are also a few French people around, and I get the chance to practise my French again. It’s been over a year since I was in France, but it seems to come back quickly. I even get told that I don’t have an accent – and that was without wine. Languages are so much easier with the right drink in your hand.

Not a bad spot - Noumea, New Caledonia

Not a bad spot – Noumea, New Caledonia

There is one slightly awkward moment – actually it wasn’t awkward for me, so maybe it doesn’t count. A couple of the New Zealand guys are trying to chat up some local french girls on the beach. It really isn’t working, but these guys are persisting. The girls start to talk between themselves in french, with some fairly uncomplimentary comments. I leave them to it, and they are clearly unimpressed with the antipodean approach to romance. Finally I say something to them in French, and their jaws all drop. None of them reply to me, but they repeat among themselves several times “He speaks French, he understood everything” – which I could also understand, but it was a bit late by then. I’d always wanted to do that.

The other embarrassing moment is when we are sharing a table with two Japanese girls with limited english. Our “conversation” is soon reduced to names of cities where our firm has offices in Japan, followed by a series of nods and smiles. After a strong start with Tokyo and Osaka, the only names that come to my mind are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and mid-sentence I stop myself from mentioning those. Unfortunately those names aren’t replaced by anything else. My brain becomes instantly empty and there’s a silence that no-one seems able to shift. Luckily dinner soon arrives, and the potential foot in my mouth is replaced by snails. They definitely don’t taste like chicken.

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Musical Micropause: R


Commercially and critically, R surely has to be recognised as one of the most successful letters in the modern musical era. A micropauser is truly spoiled for choice.  Open up and say….R!

Lou Reed: Dirty Boulevard (live in New York, 1998)
My sole encounter with Lou Reed was an acoustic show in a tent in Skibbereen, Ireland during the 1998 Liss Ard festival. Having held my ground in the second row for a few hours, I lost control of my smuggled camera and blinded Lou with the flash. Fortunately he didn’t walk off, but he did a summon a very large gentleman from the wings who came down to me and said “Lou wants you to stop now”. Glad I didn’t spoil his good mood. He played half of Transformer, a couple of VU songs, and more recent songs, including this one – a perfect night.

Radiohead: Idioteque (live at Glastonbury, 2003)
Apart from Creep, which I dismissed as some MTV fodder, OK Computer was my introduction to Radiohead, and made me the Radiohead completist I am today. The electronica of Kid A was unlike anything they had released before, but in concert, Radiohead brought these songs alive.

Rolling Stones: Sympathy For The Devil (live in Austin, 2006)
Where to start with these guys? The 1968-72 years would be a good place – Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. No wonder they stopped trying. I spent 1997 in Moscow, and I was introduced to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”, which soon became my favourite book. I discovered later that this was part of the inspiration for Sympathy For The Devil, one of the many highlights from their golden years.

R.E.M: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (1987)
Similarly to Radiohead, I was introduced to R.E.M. through a hit single (The One I Love) that I heard so much on the radio, it put me off wanting to know any more about R.E.M. Wrong! During a series of uninspiring Finance Law lectures a friend managed to convince me to give them a try – and I became a R.E.M. completist as well. And I feel fine.

Roxy Music: Virginia Plain (1972)
One of my favourite songs, I never thought I’d be present for the final performance of this classic by Roxy Music, but it seems that their show at an Auckland winery in March 2011 may be the last time that Roxy Music takes the stage. Love the end of that organ solo by Eno at about 2.33.  I always thought that the early Split Enz guys were doing similar music at the same time without the acclaim. Guess it’s not just about timing, but location as well.

Roxy Music  - their last show?

Roxy Music – their last show?

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Weathering the Burns Day Storm: 25-26 January 1990

Burns Day Storm - 25 January 1990

Burns Day Storm – 25 January 1990

Is this really a typical Winter’s day in the UK? I’ve heard bad stories, but this is a bit extreme. It’s been a long day and I’m supposed to be in France by now. I feel the need for a change of scenery, so I take a walk outside – or as far outside as I dare to go. I’ve never experienced winds like this, and lighting poles seem to be swaying so much that I’m expecting to see one snap. This makes a blustery day in Wellington feel like an annoying draft.

The day has started with an uneventful train ride from London to Dover, arriving at 10.30, with plans for an 11.30 ferry to Calais.  I’ve passed through Customs, but the weather has deteriorated noticeably, and boarding has been delayed. I’ve learned from the trip over from Calais a few weeks earlier; this time I’m armed with an NME to pass the time. Although I’ve read most of it already, there are still less interesting articles to cover.

Around midday an announcement is made that the weather has improved sufficiently for boarding to commence. Passengers who have been sitting by their suitcases in front of the exit doors get quickly to their feet, protective of their place in the line. Suitcases are shuffled forward and we are slowly let through the gates to buses for the ferry.  Once on board, there is the usual rush for seats, with a sense of optimism that we will soon be making progress. Unfortunately there is no sensation of the ferry slowly moving forward, and eventually we hear another announcement. The winds have picked up again, and there will be a delay leaving Dover.  We’re to stay on board until conditions are again safe for the crossing.

I’ve managed to find a seat, so at least I’m comfortable. I’m hopeful that at any minute we’ll hear good news. Travelling by myself, I’m reluctant to leave my bags for any reason, so lunch can wait. I’m now getting very familiar with this NME.

After two hours of alternating between reading, not reading, staring out the window, and starting at other people, we get the news that it’s not safe to sail and that we need to return to the Terminal. It’s now 3pm – rather than waiting for a possible crossing later in the day, I decide to head back to London and then Cambridge, where I’ve been staying with a friend from New Zealand school days.

courtesy the Milwaukee Journal – 26 January 90

It isn’t until I try to leave the terminal that I’m told that no local trains are running, and that 33 people have died so far in the UK. My options are now limited to sitting tight in the Dover terminal and waiting. I wish I’d bought more than one music paper.

People are becoming noticeably more friendly now that it’s clear that we’re here for a while. It’s the usual exchange – where are you from, how long have you been away, where have you been, where’s next, and watch out for Italian men – but it makes the hours pass slightly more quickly.  Among my neighbours are an Argentinian couple and an Aussie from Perth called Emma. I suspect Emma has just changed her plans and is heading straight for Italy.

The Times - 26 January 1990

The Times – 26 January 1990

The Times - 26 January 1990

The Times – 26 January 1990

I feel I can leave my bags with my new friends, and I take a look outside. I’m able to stand outside the terminal in a spot that is completely protected by the wind, but I can tell from the noise of the wind, and the way that lighting poles appear to be almost flapping back and forth, that this is as far as I should go.  The security of the terminal isn’t such a bad place to be stuck – it may be a tad dull, but it isn’t going to blow away.

And so we wait … 4pm … 5pm …. At 6pm we get good news. It’s time to get back to the buses again. It seems to take an age to fill the bus, and once full we are all staring at the driver, willing him to shut that door and start the engine. He seems very reluctant to make eye contact, and instead, gets off the bus and starts talking to another driver outside. I wish I had my heavy vehicles driving license – it can’t be that hard.  As we wait with slightly more audible impatience, the chances of moving seem to decrease, and we’re finally told to go back inside. There’s a collective groan, but there’s nothing to be done but follow instructions. I’m sure the staff who are stuck here with us would much rather be with their families.

Dinner - 25 January 1990

Dinner – 25 January 1990

Another couple of hours pass and I have a Mars bar for dinner. It’s now pitch black outside. We seem to have been sitting for days – sitting on the floor in the terminal, sitting on a bus, or sitting on the ferry. I’m getting tired of sitting now. Sitting is exhausting. No-one can really be bothered talking now.

At 8pm we get good news – not for the first time today, but hopefully for the last time. We’re heading out to the buses for another try. Emma has disappeared somewhere, so I grab her bags and join the queue. She catches up with us before we get in, and the four of us are on the bus again. The mood has definitely improved and people are chatting and even laughing. One person is missing – the bus driver. He’s outside again, talking to someone looking very official. Surely not….but yes, we’re asked to get off the bus.  This is another moment where staying calm is hard, but there’s nothing to be gained by taking out frustrations on a bus driver.

And then, without explanation, we’re told to sit down again, and suddenly we’re heading to the ferry. There’s a cheer as the bus leaves, but we’ve been through this before. We board, and I head straight to the restaurant. I’m famished and take an ample helping of everything I can fit on my plate, and a pint of beer. For some reason, I’m the only one eating, but I don’t care.  At one point, I foolishly take my hand off my beer and it slides to the other end of the long table. It comes to a rest on the table railings at the end – fortunately without spillage – and I head off to fetch it.  A waiter approaches my unmanned plate and to my horror I see him reaching to take it away. I let him know without room for misunderstanding that I have not finished, and he backs away. Even if we’re told to get back to the terminal, I’ll have had a good feed.

Calais Dover Boarding Pass - 25 January 1990

Calais Dover Boarding Pass – 25 January 1990

Without being able to see much outside, I haven’t even noticed that we’ve left Dover.  The crossing is rough; it’s like navigating the aisle of a plane in heavy turbulence. Several people take a tumble as they’re thrown into walls, causing a few cuts and bruises, but nothing more serious. The crossing seems to pass very quickly – maybe through the relief of finally leaving, or maybe we’re sailing with the wind. It seems no time at all before an announcement tells us they we’ll soon be met by tugboats to assist with our arrival into Calais. It’s 11pm and we’ve made it.

Customs seems conspicuously absent in Calais. In fact, except for a ferryload of recent weary arrivals, there’s a conspicuous absence of anyone. The terminal is completely empty and has a slightly eerie feel. I see Emma the Aussie and a few others scanning the board of train departures and connections, and it soon becomes clear that the last train to Paris was scheduled to leave several hours ago – if trains had been running at all.

It seems odd to be back on french soil, with a complete lack of french people. Fortunately the folk at P&O haven’t abandoned us and they arrange a bus for Paris. Emma and I register for the bus, and once more we wait. I should be getting better at this by now, and I’m envious of my fellow passengers who can doze on demand. There are a few families with young children here, and I’m not envious of them at all. Today must have been horrendous for them. I decide that I’m in no hurry to travel with kids, but given my terminally single status, there’s no imminent threat of that.

Midnight passes with no sign of a bus. I realise that no-one actually mentioned the location of the bus, so maybe it’s coming from Paris? I try ringing home to New Zealand, as we may have made the news after the rugby scores. There’s no answer – they’re probably enjoying their summer….mmm summer. I remember that.  Looking around, almost everyone is asleep except for me.

At 1am a bus arrives – the end may be in sight! Emma and I drag ourselves on board and watch the bus fill up with other stragglers. All the seats are soon full, and the aisle is quickly crammed tight as well. I find that the passenger lodged to my left is Russian. The Berlin Wall has fallen only a few months earlier, I’ve watched Romania free themselves of Ceausescu live on TV a few weeks ago, and life is changing very quickly for Russians too. I’ve never met a Russian, and seemingly not many of the bus have either. As others hear him talking, he soon becomes a celebrity, or at least the most famous Russian on the bus.

We sit here for almost an hour, while the group of people waiting outside and looking hopefully through the window has steadily grown. I’m not sure where they’ve come from, but this bus is probably already past capacity.  I hope they have another bus coming. But no, after waiting for an hour, we’re told to get off for a larger bus. There’s general reluctance, but when we can see that the larger bus actually exists, and even better, has already arrived, we all start our trudge across the car park.

Just after 2am, we start the drive to Paris. I’m getting tired now, and try various strategies for supporting my head. My elbow keeps sliding off the arm of the chair, so I give up trying.

The next thing I know I’m woken by the feeling of a stationary bus. We’ve stopped in Arras, and for some reason we need to change buses again. I don’t think anyone has the energy to ask why – I know I don’t, and we’re soon underway again. I drift in and out of sleep, noticing the gothic spires of the Cathedral in Amiens at one stage, but not much else.

Amiens Cathedral by night

Amiens Cathedral by night

We finally arrive in Paris at the Gare du Nord. It’s just before 5am, and Paris is stirring. My train to Bordeaux doesn’t leave until 7am, and Emma has another train in a different direction, so we share a hot chocolate at a cafe in the station.  We’ve ended up on the same path only briefly, but together we’ve laughed in the face of boredom. We’ve covered a lot of ground in our chats over the last 24 hours, and shared a few stories, safe in the knowledge that we’re unlikely to meet again.

I make it back to Bordeaux later that day, just in time to see TV coverage of the damage that the storm has caused across Europe and the UK, including footage of our ferry during the afternoon, suspended in Dover. I have a well-needed shower and shave, and a quick kip, before heading straight back to Paris for a night-train to Copenhagen. My Eurail pas is ticking, and I’m going to squeeze out of it every last centime.

I also manage a quick call to New Zealand, where I hear more detail on the damage caused by yesterday’s storm, and I’m stunned to hear that the number of deaths across Europe and the UK has been revised to almost 100 people. Because the storm hit during the day, there have been more fatalities than expected for a storm of this magnitude. It’s been categorized as a Category 1 Hurricane, with gusts reaching 104 miles per hour (170 kilometres per hour). Power has been disrupted to 500,000 homes, severe flooding has been caused, and 3 million trees have been downed. The cost to insurers in the UK alone is £3.37bn, the most expensive storm payout ever for insurers.

Almost 23 years later, I find that this long day has earned its own names: it’s commonly referred to as the “Burns Day Storm”, as it started on the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and in insurance circles it’s known as “Winter Storm Daria”. As one of the strongest storms recorded, it’s the subject of a wikipedia page and youtube video, and is still referred to as a benchmark of severity when storm clouds gather. Next time I’ll come in Summer.

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