Ask to Ayla

“The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying”
Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett

A LOT of border crossings are littered throughout this blog and, with a trip around Africa heading up, there are plenty more to come, complete with plenty of hanging around, filling in forms and no apparent activity from anyone involved.

But this is the first border for this journey through my iPod, arriving at the end of A section – all 537 of them.

We’ve gone from A to B and are about to embark on the trip to the C, via 755 tracks (to be honest, the journey’s already started but just haven’t had a chance to catch up on the blog over the past few days).

After last week’s detour on the subjects of my tenants and Gloucester’s sacking of Nigel Davies, it’s back to the main business of the music.

There’s been no real movement on a new director of rugby (although a big-name signing looks imminent), while the cleaners and decorators have been in to my house and, most importantly, the tenants have opted not to contest losing all their deposit – not that they had much of an argument.

So it is back to the music and another trip to Cardiff tomorrow to clear out the stuff they left – with a few therapeutic bank holiday weekend trips to the tip – to help make real inroads into the Bs.

The final stretch before the alphabetical border was, like many actual frontiers, a weird sort of no-man’s land just waiting to reach that final track – Ayla by The Maccabees – with a surprisingly high number of songs beginning Au, Av or Aw.

The aural equivalent of “are we nearly there yet?” Courtney Barnett

Highlighting that final drag was Avant Gardener by Courtney Barnett – my current musical obsession away from this journey.

It has emerged as my favourite track from her combined EPs, A Sea of Split Peas, as she somehow manages to shoehorn Uma Thurman, pseudoephedrine, asthma puffers, radishes and a chorus about having trouble breathing into a tale of suffering anaphylactic shock while gardening and makes it sound like another mundane Monday.

While agreeing with her view that paramedics are deserving of more credit, as a confirmed non-musician it is hard not to empathise with the view that “the paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar”.

Anyone who does anything well – particularly those who make it look easy – attracts my admiration, particularly musicians.

Despite a few stabs at tackling even the most basic things, it always proved beyond me – largely due to a lack of patience when younger and the guitar teacher who had seen my sister through a variety of grades insisting on constant repetition on basic classical techniques when all that was in my mind was imitating the guys with guitars on Top of the Pops.

It didn’t help that my childhood fingers barely reached the positions he was seemingly trying to force them into.

“Anyone can play guitar”, Thom Yorke once sang (a song sadly missing from this journey as Pablo Honey only exists in my collection on cassette), but my efforts proved just how wrong he was.

And we are the better for it as a lack of any noticeable musical talent has meant the option has been to listen to it and that’s fine my me.

This section started with listening to Ask – Sharon Van Etten before the better known song of the same name by The Smiths, who have been surprisingly quiet through the opening stretches of this journey.

Ask is not towards the top end of my favourite Smiths songs, although something has to be pretty special to work its way into those higher echelons.

Asleep, which followed a handful of songs later, is creeping towards that level which we will explore in depth at a later date.

Belle and Sebastian have also been noticeable by their absence (without checking, complete up to this point) which was rectified by Asleep On A Sunbeam – again, not in the pantheon of their great tracks but they have a fairly distinguished list of those.

REM have managed to pop up more regularly so far, but have continued the trend of doing so with some of their lesser tracks – generally the ones after Bill Berry left and… that’s a long rant we will save for another entry.

But the boys from Athens, Georgia (which is looking increasingly likely to receive a return, slightly longer, visit on a post-wedding* road trip later in the summer) appeared with one of their better later efforts, At My Most Beautiful, and hints of their early splendour with Auctioneer (Another Engine).

There was more Americana from Bright Eyes (one of the slightly overlooked acts which has piqued my interest so far during this trip) with At The Bottom Of Everything and White Denim, who chipped in with At Night In Dreams.

That song popped up a day before they performed it on Later… Live. Interesting to watch it on the small screen instead of live in Bristol, which would have been the case but for the clash of dates. That’s one for this week instead.

We had two trips to Australia, first with the Manic Street Preachers (whose song of that name was once used to advertise Wales ahead of the Rugby World Cup) and then The Shins, while we reached 500 with The Attack, one of two songs in this stint from Les Miserables. Happily with no sign of Russell Crowe.

And to wrap up the As, we retracked through the three A tracks added to the list since this journey started (been a bit quiet adding music in the last few weeks) – Advance Upon The Real by Perfect Pussy (a mix of noise and ambient background, but be careful Googling them), Algiers from the welcome return of The Afghan Whigs and Amber Veins by Eagulls.

So to B…

*Not mine, think that might have cropped up before now.

 

photo by: kingArthur_aus
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Antistar to Ashes of American Flags

THE past week has been dominated by departures – one expected but with a string of problems, the other unexpected but with a hint of better times ahead (well, hopefully).

Both have taken up the bulk of my time, thoughts and conversations, over the last few days, meaning this entry has been delayed and taken us a fair bit further along my A-Z journey through my iPod.

Departure number one saw the tenants leave my house in Cardiff.

Installed four years ago while the house stood empty on my overland journey from London to New York (helped by a string of calls and e-mails between Cardiff and China which had the agents trying endlessly to calculate time differences), they remained as my return to the Welsh capital was shortlived.

April_Skies_(single) Even as their latest contract ran out, that was one issue ahead of heading to Africa which looked simple – they sign another one and worries about paying my mortgage were sorted. That was until they announced out of the blue they weren’t signing and were moving out.

And move out they did, seemingly by grabbing a few bits and pieces, walking out the door and heading to pastures new.

At least, that’s how it appears, judging by what they have left strewn across the uncleaned house and unkempt garden, sadly bereft of a few pieces of my furniture which seem to have walked out of the door with them.

The constant amending of to-do lists for Africa, this blog and life in general has been replaced by a to-do list for sorting out the house, but only after a few very deep breaths to calm down.

As well as anger, their actions and attitude in leaving the house in such a state totally amazes me – how can anybody not be consumed by embarrassment to leave somebody else’s house in that condition?

When the time comes later this year, my flat will be attacked from all angles by an array of cleaning products and, bar a few dusty bits and one or two difficult to access places in the bathroom, it is already in a pretty presentable state.

Having just about calmed down from a trip to confirm what the agents had told me – via a journey that included an almost hour-long traffic jam in Chepstow, of all places, which helped scoot the A-Z journey along at a healthy pace and past the 400 mark (Apple Blossom by The White Stripes) – the second departure crept up on us on Monday morning.

The sacking of Nigel Davies as Gloucester’s director of rugby was not totally out of the blue – after all, the season has disappointed from start to finish and Saturday’s closing defeat at relegated Worcester was, frankly, laughable as the Cherry and Whites mixed touches of genius with splashes of ineptitude.

While the loud-mouthed bloke behind me at Worcester will not be alone in celebrating Davies’ departure (his main reason being that the outgoing boss is Welsh), his reading of the situation was remarkably misplaced and badly informed.

This, after all, was a man who only realised in the second half when he could see the names and numbers on the players’ backs that he had been slagging off the wrong player for 40 minutes while claiming that flanker Matt Kvesic had only made about three tackles all season and should be sold. His tackle numbers actually put Kvesic fourth in the entire league.

Personally, with reinforcements arriving, my opinion was that Davies deserved time next season to shape what is finally his squad – not short on talent this term, but lacking in depth and, at crucial times, leadership and direction – probably until the Six Nations at least.

But, having made the decision, the board were right to act quickly – stay or go, this could not drag on all summer.

And they now need not only to find the right man, but the right structure. Davies spent a lot of time during the season working on bringing in those signings and, from a distance, that was time Gloucester needed him sorting out the problems on the pitch – two jobs, one man just didn’t add up.

Of course, this poor season (and when we have had bad seasons before it was, unlike this one, largely expected) coincided with my first season ticket in four decades of watching rugby at Kingsholm, the first time when playing, working, travelling or living away did not keep me away from Castle Grim for long periods.

Fellow fans will be delighted that being in Africa for most of the season will mean no renewal.

So, that’s the background to the last few days, what has been the soundtrack?

wilco-ashes-of-american-flags-dvd-338-300Starting with the new longest so far (Antistar at Massive Attack comes in at 19.41, but more than half of that is largely silence bar a few background beats), we have seen classic first  entries by The Housemartins (Anxious), The Jesus and Mary Chain (April Skies, which a friend once tried to teach me the bassline to, without success) and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (Are Your Ready To Be Heartbroken?).

Also popping up for the first time – and blowing away a few emotions on the drive back from Cardiff – were At The Drive-In with Arc Arsenal while Prefab Sprout’s Appetite gave a more gentle first touch from their Steve McQueen masterpiece (the first side of which is almost flawless) and A-Punk by Vampire Weekend slipped from the opening track of the whole countdown on a previous attempt to somewhere near 400.

Arseholes, The Shirehorse’s much preferable version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, provided a rather different direction while The Clash and Joe Strummer have different readings of Armagideon Time.

To wrap it all up on a high note, Wilco provided two versions (live and original) of probably my favourite song of theirs, Ashes of American Flags.

And blasting that out on the drive home from work was enough to provide a great end to a testing few days.

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This World Rocks

SIX months out from heading out on a trip around Africa and there is a difficult balance to maintain between trying not to get too excited too early and wanting to find out more about what lies ahead.

You don’t want to get too obsessed or it can become like having 179 Christmas Eves (or so the countdown on my phone tells me) and you don’t want to bore people by going on about it. Well, not too much.

But people do ask, there are passengers on the current trip writing blogs and there’s a lot to be learned from reading a variety of different outlooks on the same trip.

For the best view of the trip and to answer a lot of questions about the trip, the places and even the trucks, check out this video from the people behind the This World Rocks website.

An American couple enjoying life on the road, they completed the 56-day Nairobi to Cape Town trip with Oasis, which we will do in reverse to kick off the second half of the journey, and highlights some of the amazing things which have lie in wait.

Even manage to deal with African Coldplay…

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The Long Road To Travelling

FOR the bulk of my working life, being asked what my job is was pretty simple. If not without the odd hazard.

Journalist hasn’t always been the most popular answer – although, like the vast majority of my colleagues, retrieving messages from my own mobile is a major test, let alone attempting to access anybody else’s.

And the Chinese certainly weren’t impressed by an unwise bout of honesty when applying for a visa (but were easily swayed when told  I had quit to go travelling), while our guide in Xi’an almost fell over himself to advise me not to mention it as we sat in a bar chatting to a group of locals.

The senior one, who insisted on buying all the drinks as he was the eldest, was evidently a party official and our guide was worried about his reaction and the consequences. Think explaining that most of my time was spent writing about rugby or designing sports pages would have got a bit lost in translation. And he was buying…

But from the moment my notice went in ahead of the London to New York overland trip in 2010, answering that question has required a little more explanation and – depending on who is asking or my mood – a variety of answers, ranging from the short to the complex.

The day job - designing pages like this (there were another 65 pics on pages 2-3)
The day job – designing pages like this (there were another 65 pics on pages 2-3)

For much of the intervening time, journalism has again been the main way of making a living. Not sport any longer, but the past couple of years has seen a return home to Gloucester – after more than a decade living and working in south Wales – news subbing for the Gloucestershire Echo and the Gloucester Citizen, my first daily newspaper an infeasibly long 20 years ago.

But mixed in with that for most of the last four years has been working in travel.

And what wasn’t there to love? Working for a small overland travel company – the one which organised that London to New York trip – large chunks of my job involved chatting about travel, answering questions and guiding people from an initial enquiry through the preparations and helping them out until their overland adventure came to an end.

When the company hit problems, a new owner failed to understand the specialised nature of such a firm and what was needed – both financially and logistically – and with the writing on the wall, it became clear that journey was over and a return to journalism was on the cards.

Without wishing to bore anyone with the full story – or to follow the lead of the former owner who responded to the company’s demise with a string of unfounded allegations, rewriting of history and what he liked to call straight talking, but was merely being boorish and rude – the company ended amid acrimony.

One day the full tale will be told, but now is not the time nor place.

But those trips – London to New York without flying and the initial London to Sydney – had got under my skin and that of my former colleague and we just could not let them die.

That is why Epic Overland was born and how, for almost two years, the majority of my spare time was spent in front of a laptop dealing with the new company – and how answering questions about my job became more drawn-out.

It was tough, there’s no denying that, as it has been for many new businesses over the past few years – particularly ones asking people to put lives on hold for three months.

We did it our way and never owed anyone a penny, but in the end changes in our personal circumstances meant a decision had to be made. Epic Overland is not dead – it is on hiatus and who knows what we can make of it at some point in the future – but it needed more resources than we could throw at it to reach a momentum where it would largely take care of itself.

And above all, ironically, working in travel had put travelling on hold.

So, as soon as that hurdle was removed, it became increasingly hard to find a viable reason not to listen to the voice in the back of my head going on about the Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip.

And so, six months out from departure, the tables have been turned and it is the staff of Oasis who may well end up regretting mentioning “you know where we are if you need anything” in a tweet. 

Don’t think they need to worry too much for now as most of my questions this far out are imponderables which they are unlikely to be unable to answer – the sort which differ for each trip and, more pertinently, each person. Africa and this style (and length) of overland travel is not an exact science.

The first kit - Variant sleeping bag and travel pillow, both on sale
The first kit – Variant III sleeping bag and travel pillow, both on sale

And for all the creating and editing of to-do lists, my plan is to leave the great bulk of my preparations until after a friend’s wedding in South Carolina in August – although couldn’t resist the first bits of new kit while exploring Nomad travel shop in Bristol.

During my time at their end of a phoneline or e-mail from anxious travellers, the questions were generally split into two types.

The first was the details – where were they staying in a certain place, how much time was there in each destination, what was the food like (particularly from one traveller who did not like Chinese food and wanted to know if there were KFCs in Beijing), what facilities were like on the Trans-Siberian Railway and, most wonderfully, a girl who asked if people were voted off the bus like on Coach Trip.

The second were those imponderables that were largely based on concerns and we really had no way of answering – were they fit enough, what made up a standard day (very different in Europe to Mongolia or Australia) and, remarkably often, what were the other people like and would they get on with them.

And they remain the imponderables which, cannot lie, do spring into my head every so often.

But tackling the unknown, embracing it and turning it into an adventure is surely what a trip like this is all about. And the people have as big a part to play as the places we go and the things we see.

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The Angel and the Fool to Anti-Pioneer

“Used to be the one of the rotten ones, And I liked you for that
Now you’re all gone, got your make-up on, And you’re not coming back”
Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl – Broken Social Scene

THERE is, as you walk to the northern side of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara, a big sign pointing the way to Canada. Just in case you have trouble spotting the world’s second largest country.

Just in case you missed it
Just in case you missed it

Musically, it has often been a bit more difficult to spot Canada, dwarfed as they are by their neighbours across the 49th parallel.

There have always been the flag bearers – Neil Young springs to mind, while Arcade Fire have carried the flag with distinction in previous years – but they have had a lot to make up for (“The Canadian government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions” runs the joke from the South Park movie. Oh Canada indeed).

And the less said about Celine Dion the better. Have never watched Titanic for fear of exposure to that bloody song.

But as befits such a large, varied and wonderful country, it has produced some, well, varied and wonderful music which, after the American takeover of the previous section of my iPod, annexed the closing stages of this prolonged leg with four of the final eight tracks.

Leading the way were the pretty much unclassifiable Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose Antennas to Heaven weighs in just two seconds shy of 19 minutes, by some distance the longest track so far (just checked and it is the 16th longest in all with 11 of the top 20 coming from the Montreal oufit).

Inadequately described as ‘post-rock’ on their Wikipedia outfit, they are not a band you are likely to sit down to for a relaxing listen and, followed as they were by fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen (Anthem), it was a drive to work strangely out of sync with the glorious spring morning outside. An interesting one nevertheless.

This section ended with Anti-Pioneer by Feist, another Canadian, but tucked in between was the song which brought us in to this entry – Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl by Broken Social Scene.

Hailing from Toronto, they labour under the moniker “musical collective” with an endlessly changing cast of characters (Feist among them at certain points), which normally suggests self-indulgent experimentalism that musicians aren’t willing to take a risk on under their own names.

But, while hard to pin down to any signature sound, Broken Social Scene have somehow managed to maintain enough coherence to make them a more than viable proposition, producing several top songs – none better than the hypnotic Anthem…

Sung from the perspective of an older woman to her 17-year-old self, it is simple, repetitive and keeps you waiting for it to launch full into something bigger. The fact it never does makes it all the better and by the time you realise it is just not going to happen, the relentless repetition has wriggled into your head and established it as a thing of beauty.

It is rare for me to remember a first hearing of a song – something other writers and bloggers seem able to recall at will – but Anthem… first popped up on the first aborted attempt to travel through my iPod.

More specifically, it came halfway through a walk to the pub to watch football and had to be instantly replayed, both to check what it was and because it had hooked into my brain.

Away from Canada – and there was also, old joke warning, Answering Bell from Ryan Adams, which is close but infinitely better – this leg has been dominated by Angels, Animals, Anthems and Another thing.

We came in with the angels, starting with The Angel and The Fool by Broken Bells and rattling through, among others, three versions of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Angels and Devils and Angels of Deception by The The, from Matt Johnson’s largely overlooked classic album Infected.

Amid the animals, we had Animal Nitrate by the weirdly overrated Suede (quite like this track, which was on Radcliffe and Maconie earlier, but don’t get the awe with which they are widely held) and a first outing from the far too overlooked Cadbury Sisters with Animals.

Stumbled across the three sisters (yes, they are siblings and, yes, they are part of the chocolate family) supporting Turin Brakes last year and was instantly smitten. Have seen them twice more since and it is great to see their close harmonies, perfect vocals blended to a sort of English Americana finally getting some airplay, although nowhere near what they deserve.

We’ve mentioned a few of the anthems, while starring role among the Another.. songs was Another Travelin’ Song by Bright Eyes.

Conor Oberst is one of those artists who has largely passed me by, but the more he crops up on my radar the more he impresses (even if he does seem to possess a Ryan Adamseseque need to release everything he does without that much quality control) and back-to-back versions of that track saw it being sung much of the day in the office.

Along the way, we have passed 350 (Another Invented Disease by Manic Street Preachers – another band which perplexes me as much as anything else) and Anonymous Club, a first entry for my current musical obsession away from this blog, Courtney Barnett.

But we’ve got a long way to go, so we’ll come back to both of them.

 

 

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