2017 slipped into 2018 with little fanfare for me. January has been slow, the cold and darkness seemingly endless. A malaise of inactivity punctuated only by flu and a period of even more concentrated inactivity. I’ve written a couple of new songs, ‘Icy Paw’ and ‘Sleep’, both are subdued, both about the bleak bones of winter but yet the one destination I’ve been waiting for through all of this has been a trip that will plunge me into even harsher cold, even greater hardships.
3.45am, 16th February. I’ve been unable to sleep – currently twenty one hours awake. I’m outside my home leaning on the front garden wall. A badger bundles down the street away from me, a couple of cats arch in surprise when they round the corner, this is not a time for men. It’s cold and the neighbourhood is hallowed quiet, the deepest of dark starts. I’m travelling light; a change of clothes, a book (a Tudor whodunit), notebook, comb, toothbrush, passport. Will’s car comes down the road. He moves fast. I picture his car, barely fifteen minutes earlier, cutting through the suburbs of Westcliff to pick Dave up and then over the main road past Chalkwell Park (empty of dog walkers at this time) and along the seafront to Paul’s flat; then the three will go up and over the railway track and turn back on themselves to my place. Everyone is subdued but excited for the journey ahead. We cut through Essex countryside to Stansted Airport.
Once in the air the sun is so bright above the clouds, like a summer’s day. Spring love fills me, the life above the clouds always sweet. Barely 90 minutes later we are flying low over white fields and pine trees, few houses dot the landscape. And then we land at Skåvsta Airport, Sweden and find coffee and muffins before the long journey by coach into Stockholm. The roads are quiet and straight, I try to sleep but can’t.
We enter Stockholm over a bridge, the city is composed of a series of islands bisected by frozen lakes or tributaries , no high rise, the air wide and inviting. A collection of mustard yellow and peach walls backdrop Art Nouveau balconies. We are put down at Citytermalin and it’s a short walk to T-Centralin where we take the escalator down to a plush shopping mall style hall. This is the main station – no-one rushes and there is a sense of calm even in the busyness. King’s Cross it is not. The Metro, green line heading south Hawk had said, any train going to Hågstra, Skårnpack or Farsta Strand. Four stops to Skanstull – count them off – Gamla Slan, Slussen and Medborgarplatsen. And we are up and out onto the wide open street. Snow is falling in big flakes but it does not feel cold. The city seems alive, I feel alive.
In Hawk and Sofia’s apartment we eat chocolates and strong coffee. I feel elated to have just arrived at our destination, safe to be directed and organised by a native. We’re all too exhausted to go out, it is just enough to look out the window (being warmed by the radiator) and watch the Stockholm afternoon go by. The street is like a wide boulevard, cars swing past with their wipers on, people are going about their daily lives, it’s completely the same as home over a thousand miles away. I’m a time traveller. I get lost in the busy vignette. More coffee is followed by a quick scout down the street for guitar strings and on to the venue, PSB.
Stage time 10.15pm, about forty hours awake. My body feels wrecked, Paul with his crushed finger all bloody and pussed is screaming behind me every time he forgets and uses his mushed digit on the fret board. We are medicated by booze, caffeine or pain killer. Words hang in my brain, my mouth just a fraction slower to get them out. People dance and people have fun. We finish and drink ourselves stupid. Ann, a lady who heard us on an Uncut CD back in 2013, comes with her daughter and husband and we talk so deeply that my brain feels rejuvenated by the conversation. Amongst the pounding music of Oasis and Dave ordering beer after shot after beer I remember the words my companion spoke – ‘Why? That is the question of the artist and you must keep asking as you get older, why? Why? The blood must continue to be heated even as you get older. The blood doesn’t have to boil necessarily. It is not always about passion but the growing companionship between a man and a woman’.
We have lost our Swedish friends and in our adventure home Paul writes swear words on the whited out screens of cars. Will trips over a pavement tries to recover but hits the deck. We shirk both off to a Swede called Yanka who is looking after them. 4am and we are still talking with Hawk and Sofia about social media, the show, the state of Swedish and British politics. My head is full of bad dreams and I wake before 9am on the parquet floor, my hip and ribs burn from the tiles. Coffee, coffee, coffee.
Saturday is the day we can explore and Ann and Hasse have offered to show us the town. We walk to the very edge of the island we are on and from a snowy peak we survey the black tiled roofs of Stockholm. The yellow and orange plaster of the old town and Knight’s Island. The Stockholm Concert Hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded stands proud on the bank south of us. A walk along a tow path and into the streets again for a coffee at Tårtan – where we are told a famous comedy sitcom about retired sailors was filmed. I tried to look it up but I find no trace. The coffee is good.
A quick walk back to Hawk’s flat and then tube and double decker train to Uppsala. Forty minutes through snowy hinterland and an interesting chat about Swedish word gender and we are in Uppsala. The cold feels bitter here and we leave the square brick train terminal up a wide boulevard and along a canal towards the HiJazz Club. Away from the station Uppsala seems empty of life, snowflakes occasionally fall, the wind slight but biting. Doors closed, curtains shut. We stand outside the club, barred windows, the crunch of snow under foot, everyone’s face wrapped up silent and focused on getting into the warm.
Jilal the owner of the club cycles up and opens up for us. Inside the bar is small, shop like, with a small counter serving bottled beers and an array of CDs in shelves. We are directed to an English Themed restaurant/pub called Sherlock’s. The pub dark with anaglyptic wallpaper is nestled amongst tower block after tower block of apartments. It reminds me of Clapton or another east London suburb where young professionals are massed and quartered. Fairy lights hang off most balconies, their twinkling on and off the only signs of life. It’s quiet, a commuter suburb deep in the delight of a Saturday night in. I am later told by a member of the audience post show that there is a Eurovision heat on and the Swedes take their Eurovision very seriously. People decry that the university culture does not mix well with the local population yet both could offer each other great things.
The show is good, a massive challenge physically, and I feel sad that we are leaving tomorrow, leaving the Plastic Pals who we have only just started to know. We’re all tired, Will and Paul especially. They sit in the front row hollowed and empty. The gig gets them back into the land of the living.
The journey back along the canal, the boulevard and the station which is thronging with young people heading back to Stockholm. Boys with tails and white bow ties, medals pinned to their jackets. They are too young for the military perhaps. It’s a tiring journey back to Hawk’s place and another late night. We say goodbye to Anders one stop before ours and then Bengt at the exit to our station and finally Olov on the corner of Hawk’s block. Rolfe, Sofia’s Boston Terrier meets us back at the flat. By 3am he is prized from his bed in the living room and relocated elsewhere. Another night on the parquet floor for me. An hour’s sleep at most before Dave’s alarm goes off. I feel neither alive or dead. The inbetween.
And so, with a note to Hawk and Sofia hastily written saying heartfelt thanks and love, we creep out of the flat and into a bright Stockholm morning. A deathly queue for the coaches back to Skåvsta and a long wait in the airport where Dave tries to set alight to my hair with a zippo and Paul and Will watch Italian football. An hour’s delay, a bus to the car and off into the Sunday night of Essex. When I return the chill in my bones hasn’t left me, the heating goes on – home.