Jay Stapley

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Memory Lane in Germany

this is the first of a small series: last weekend I did a series of gigs in Germany. Not unusual in itself in my history, but for the first time in 30 years I drove myself instead of flying and then sitting on a tour bus. Enjoy:-)

Today I did a drive that took me way back down memory lane: from Calais to Dusseldorf via Aachen.
In 1979 when I was a lad of 22 I used to do this trip regularly (albeit as a passenger) as part of a 4-piece New Wave band. (Think Elvis Costello meets the Beatles and you’ve got it.) We would drive from London to Dusseldorf in a day, swaying down the Autobahns in an old VW camper (you know: the one with a narrow wheelbase and high sides, an accident waiting to happen in anything other than the slightest breeze.)
There are few things in life that are as much fun as being a bunch of lads in a foreign country, a different city every night, and just enough money to be above the poverty line, but that long drive was a kind of suspended hiatus, a necessary trial to get through before the fun but started.

It’s flat most of the way: very flat as it runs up the French coast past Dunkirk and turns south-east towards Brussels, the road only rising where it crosses a river or canal. The band-leader cracked a joke : “What do Belgians do for fun on a Sunday? Go out and look for a hill” and I felt very grown-up and sophisticated, a member of a club who could make knowing jokes about other nationalities. There are no significant features on the landscape until you get east of Brussels and cross the river Meuse, where the land begins to fold and the road stretches out across wide valleys. I remember being impressed by the broad vistas, so open in contrast to the secret folds of the Kentish Weald where I grew up.
The most impressive sight was yet to come, however. As we entered the Ruhr I gazed awestruck as mile upon mile, acre upon acre of industrial infrastructure unfolded before me. Coal mines, steel works, railway yards, factories, lorry parks… It went on and on, one town merging into another with no apparent spaces inbetween, no borders that I could see, only the map giving any clue as to which particular section of this vast sprawl bore which particular town’s name.
Finally, we would arrive at Hildegaard’s flat in the city and drag ourselves, our guitars and sleeping bags up three flights of stairs and collapse into the worn sofas and armchairs of a dark wood-panelled living room. Hildegaard was the “Folk-mutti” (literally “folk-mother” of the Ruhr, a fixture of the folk music scene in this part of Germany, whose flat was a hotel/flop-house/casualty department for wandering musicians. At any given time the house would be full of them: 60-year-old Irishmen, skinny as a rake with hacking coughs and tobacco-stained teeth and hands; bright young hopefuls who still paid lip-service to notions of healthy diets and abstinence; interlopers like us who weren’t “folk” at all, but the band-leader had started out as a folkie and the exigencies of small-time touring obliged him to grab any free bed he could to save on hotel bills. We slept in these places all over Germany, friends flats, student houses, hippy communes in disused warehouses, anywhere as long as it was free. Coming home to my crumbling housing association Victorian terrace in Harlesden with its one habitable room was like falling gratefully into the lap of luxury after 3 weeks of back-to-back gigs, ludicrously long drives between them fuelled by little blue pills, and threadbare sleeping-bags on hard wooden floors.

Although we toured at all times of year, for some reason my mind insists on imposing a screen of blinding snow and treacherous ice on the remembered journey, possibly because of an incident in which we escaped death by a whisker. The road crosses these deep valleys on high bridges, and one day in a mountainous region in the south we came tiptoeing down a mountain highway on a surface of sheet ice and drove onto a bridge. As we came out of the shelter of the mountain the wind howling up the valley caught those high sides of the VW camper and sent it sliding towards the parapet, a narrow iron rail the only thing separating us from a 300-foot drop. That railing did its job and we ground to a halt along it, guitars and amps spilling out of the back doors as they sprung open in the impact. I have never set foot in a VW camper van since, apart from the drive home from that tour, when the driver’s confidence (and he was a nervous driver at the best of times) had been so badly dented by that experience that he had been driving with excessive caution and over-correcting at the slightest suggestion of any change of direction. It got so bad that the drummer and I wrested the keys from him and took over, sharing the drive home despite the fact that I didn’t even have a licence at the time. For the next tour we insisted on having a driver.

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