Drumsheds and other short stories – Where There’s Brass

Firstly, apologies for the long break between blogs. I caught Covid which cost me a fortnight, followed by a tour that took another week. I will update again this week. While I’m writing a longer piece, here’s a collection of smaller pieces with no overarching theme that I’ve been saving up.

Drumsheds

It was late in the evening and I was on my way back from a wedding gig I’d been booked to play for, a ceilidh in one of England’s many repurposed barns, out in deepest Kent. Farmers all over England have worked out that wedding parties pay rather better than agricultural work these days. I parked my car in a housing estate north of Tottenham, the first place free to leave it north of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone and started to make my way back to the boat via late services on the public transport network. I walked to Meridian Water station, somewhere I’d investigated before and remembered as an empty set of platforms in a completely deserted industrial estate. At this time of night, I thought, I should be the only customer, and I looked forward to having the train to myself.

As I approached the station, I found myself being swept along in the most enormous crowd, a slowly flowing tide of young people, flooding out of the Drumsheds, a large blue building made of corrugated metal by the side of the river Lee. I asked what had been going on, a question that took a while to get across, owing to the chemically enhanced state of the participants of this crowd and the difficulty of comprehending there being someone being in the crowd who hadn’t just shared their experience .

“What do you mean? Aren’t you there?”

“I’m just coming back from work.”

“Oh! Last ever night at the Drumsheds. Incredible lineup.” And he reeled off a list of acts I was far too old and unfashionable to have heard of like they were household names. Perhaps they should be. “Absolutely incredible lineup.” He concluded and looked at me for validation, a little unsteadily.

“Absolutely amazing.” I agreed, “All that in one evening?”

“Started at midday.” And he steadied himself against a lamp post. “Excuse me, I’m somewhat pissed.” My friends are high but I just stuck to the drinks. I don’t know where they are. Tried to buy cigarettes in that big Tesco there but they had left the counter unstaffed. Don’t know why.”

The police were in attendance, not because there was the slightest chance of unrest in this sated mass of humanity, but to politely ensure that we kept moving and didn’t just sit down wherever we were to watch the kerbstones settling or discuss the constellations. We were slowly corralled into a long series of barriers before the station and we flowed ever so slowly along. It really was the most chilled out queue I have ever been in, and despite the train leaving in five minutes, there was a total lack of urgency, with people stopping to roll cigarettes, inspecting the railings in detail, just taking it all in for a moment. Nobody minded.

There was something almost voyeuristic or duplicitous about being the only person there not engaged in what must have been a transcendent shared experience. I felt like a spy behind enemy lines, only able to report back to my masters what an excellent and chilled out place it was. I couldn’t even pledge to become one of them, for this was their swansong, the final night of something definitive for so many. I recognised the feeling, a cultural moment so intense and emblazoned on your soul by the fires of youth it becomes that by which all others are measured. The mood was tranquil beyond words, and one reveller stood by the entrance to the platform, struggling to stand, but gently fulfilling his civic duty of reminding every one of us to pay our fares.

“Don’t forget to tap in!” He repeated, and each person in turn bumped up against the barrier, stared at it for a moment, working out what it was and what action it demanded of them, before fumbling for a card.

On the platform we washed around like flotsam and our train drew in. I found an abandoned wallet on the floor and shouted, “Has anyone dropped a wallet?” There was some searching and a woman identified it as hers, confirming the name on the driving license. All her friends began chanting “Legend” at me, not loudly but with gentle voices, and those around broke into a smattering of applause. I was uncomfortable now, exposed as intruder, and slunk off to another carriage.

The entire train was suffused with the afterglow of something magical, and I wished I’d shared the experience with them. There was a togetherness about the mood that manifested in a calmness and quiet. There was nothing that needed to be said because it was already entirely understood.

With a degree of sadness to see the party breaking into progressively smaller fragments until each reveller was at home and asleep, scattered all over London, I changed for the Victoria line at Tottenham. On the tube I sat opposite a man with a stack of Tupperware boxes all containing chips and a tattoo of what appeared to be Elvish around his ankle, as if Sauron had poured his vast power into some dude’s leg by mistake.

What is he doing? I recognise washing his hair, but what are the others?

The quiet of the evening allowed a moment’s reflection on tube advertising. The difference between North and South is particularly pronounced in the posters you encounter on public transport. A Northern advert might read “Grimthorpe’s pies. As good as the day we opened our first slaughterhouse”, but here it was Contemporary Male Grooming, ‘Humanery’, whose poster showed a young man indulging in four different sorts of self-grooming activity, only one of which I was able to identify with any confidence. Another poster warning me that ‘A stronger, fitter you is just around the corner’, which simply felt like a threat.

—-

Just down from Spey on the moorings was a lifeboat, bright orange, and very much looking like a hungry hungry hippo from the game of the same name. It had some tentacle murals painted on the sides, the name ‘Milda’ on the bows, and a couple of windows let into the structure, and I stopped to have a look. The owner came out. I’d been hoping to ask about one of these. There are quite a few now, around the London waterways, lifeboats from North Sea oilrigs and elsewhere, converted into homes. I mentioned the hungry hungry hippos, but he hadn’t heard of them. As a conversational ice-breaker, it hadn’t been my best. Still, he was happy to tell me more.

“They’re very safe. Built for idiots really. We fitted a vintage Lister engine, mostly heat and bubbles and off we went.”

“Oh aye, where have you taken it?”

“Bulgaria was the furthest we got. We did 2000 miles on the Danube over two years. The channel was the scary bit, nearly got run down by some container ships. Other than that, this thing is pretty indestructible, it has to be really.”

This certainly put my own trip into the shade. Bulgaria and back in a bright orange lifeboat.

——

Sometimes the details are fleeting. Heading towards Islington I got a momentary glance through the window of a houseboat, and I swear I saw a plump little Kim Jong-Un throw cushion.

Another boat has a gigantic bone on the roof. It must be six foot long, and I’ve wondered about it all winter. Finally, I was passing whilst the owner was present.

“Why have you got an enormous bone?”

“Enormous dog!” he shouted.

At Maida Hill tunnel, it was clear something extraordinary was happening. A dazzling orange light was flooding through, like everything the other side was on fire. It was half an hour till sunset, and this was not the setting sun itself, but its reflection on the strip of flat water between Little Venice and the tunnel. Spey entered the tunnel, and we were spot-lit by the far portal, the sun illuminating the entire space and casting our shadows behind us. In a lifetime of boating, I had never seen anything like it.

I posted the pictures online. One reader suggested that it might have been a trick by the engineer, John Nash, just like Brunel at Box Hill tunnel, the sun shining through on his birthday. A brilliant and slightly arrogant demonstration of engineering prowess. We checked the dates. Nash had been born on the 18th of January and this had been ten days later, so it didn’t seem to fit. Then someone else pointed out that Nash had been born in the final months of the Julian Calendar being used in Britain, and if you allowed for the 12 days slippage between the two then it was pretty much spot on. It’s a beguiling theory. Nash would have known that the lie of the land would have prevented the setting sun from shining through as it would have been obstructed by buildings and higher ground but using the reflection on the approaches would buy the extra couple of degrees to pull the trick off. I doubt I shall ever know for sure, but I love the idea that we were the first to work it out, a chance journey where perfect timing and conditions combined to create an effect first imagined as an Easter Egg, a little riddle in the mind of a great engineer, two centuries prior, and never before solved.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

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