Not so wintery break 3

So after a great gig and a late-ish night for an old bloke like me, it was a lie in to watch Match of the Day – at least the bit featuring Watford’s win, which had been followed by all in the sound check yesterday through my phone updates. After a leisurely breakfast I took a tram ride to Central Station ready to catch a train to Utrecht. Once again the ease and efficiency of travel were everywhere apparent, And to make things better there had been an upward temperature shift of more than ten degrees. We were now in + degrees and layers were back in the suitcase. I knew I’d arrive ahead of normal check in time but went to the Dom Hotel first to leave my bag, Getting out of Utrecht station is a bit like getting into the London Stadium – you have to go through an enormous shopping mall, Hoog Catharijne. And it could easily double as Westfield as, sadly, almost all the shops and cafes are international brands. Just one caught my eye that might not do so well in England – a menswear shop called Sissy Boy.

Dom TorThe hotel was an easy ten minute walk towards Utrecht’s defining monument, the Dom Tower. Even I couldn’t get lost looking for Domstraat. I did have a slight worry when I had to ring the doorbell to gain entry. It’s a hotel in progress as the eleven suites (they are worthy of the epithet rather than just rooms) are all there and beautifully appointed but the bar and restaurant won’t open until next week end, Staff were helpful and went to check whether housekeeping had a room available and I was quickly signed in and shown to a spacious second floor room with windows on two sides and views out over the inner city.



Dom Hotel suite 3

I got a call from Alan to say they were leaving their hotel and would be at the venue in about an hour, Just the right time for a stroll back towards the north side of the station via a modern bar restaurant for lunch and a beer. It was so modern that it’s the first I’ve ever been in where you can only play by card – no cash accepted.


Tivoli Vredenburg extI haven’t Googled it but I guess there was an old Tivoli theatre as there is an older building behind the massive new music centre which opened in 2014. Do we have so many modern music and/or theatre venues in the UK? If not, and I suspect not, maybe the “creative industries” should step up their lobbying. This place had several gigs on and a cafe that must have been making good money for it. There are nine different halls each designed with an acoustic suited to particular music forms. We were in Cloud Nine the blue semicircle that sticks out at the top. A good name for a jazz club. I make my way up through the public area and collect my guest ticket which ominously bears no number but the words “Rij Stoel ” but also the legend Vrijkaart which meant I was a guest and there indeed I later found an isolated chair to the right side of the stage. But again a helpful employee said “You must be Mike” and I was escorted through to the green room and met up with all my new friends from yesterday and Skid. They had done the sound check by the time I got there and we had time for a few jokes and general chatter and it was time to go on stage. This was a 4 pm Sunday Afternoon Jazz slot. Again it’s a very modern room but with a great atmosphere.

They played a slightly different set list from yesterday but the saxophone summit was soon burning up the hall. There was a long bar along one side but it was notable that very few people got up to get a drink during the set and then there was a rush at the interval. Truly jazz at the highest level and I don’t just mean because we were on Level 9. The Rein de Graaff Trio play together frequently and are a tuneful, slick and inventive rhythm section worthy of playing behind anyone. I’ve long admired Alan Skidmore‘s ability to play the hardest of hard bop and tender lyrical ballads always with solos that intrigue, dazzle and entertain. I had not heard Benjamin Herman before but was very impressed with his performances and likewise Tineke Postma was unknown to me before these gigs but her albums will be on my download list very shortly after I get back home. She, as they say, really ripped the place up.

Another chance to chill after the gig and take my farewells from Benjamin, Tineke and Eric – I went to the garage again with Alan, Rein and Marius who were heading off back to their hotel out in the countryside. It was not too difficult to get out this time and I popped back to the hotel to sort out photos before going out for a pleasant dinner in the busy heart of Utrecht to a restaurant recommended by the helpful staff at the Dom Hotel.

Canal with Dom TorI had some work-related stuff to do on Monday but once that was complete had a chance to walk around other parts of this delightful city. I decided that my feet were too old to climb the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower and of course the top part is clad in scaffolding  at present during restoration – well it was built in 1382 to it probably needs a bit of tlc. It rises to 112 metres making it the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. I did take a look at St Martin’s Cathedral next door which has a very fine cloister and then walked along the Oudegracht or old canal, sparkling in the unexpected warm spring sunshine and with the Dom Tower dominating the skyline. Then back up through another canal-side park towards the market place and the old centre. I realised I was running short on euros and consulted Google maps for the nearest ATM. I dutifully followed the steps but there’s no bank in sight. The map said it was bang next door to Lush, the soap shop. Now I’m not very fond of the odours that emerge from Lush but I manned up and walked in with my phone to enquire if they knew where it was. Total blankness from the first assistant but then her colleague said that it was inside the Hema shop opposite. Now able to buy a coffee I continued to walk through old Utrecht.

Cafe societyIt was interesting to see that the minute the sun comes out again people love to eat and drink outdoors and there were many examples of lunch time cafe society as I moved through the city. I joined them and then it was then time to catch a train back to  Amsterdam, the Thalys to Brussels and Eurostar back to London, completing a highly enjoyable short break.



Winter break 2

Amsterdam did have a flurry of snow overnight so I took the concierge’s advice and caught the tram to Museumplein for my art morning, Transport was easy to navigate, trains are informative so you know where you are. One thing I noticed with taxi driver, waiters, hotel staff and the tram employees was that they are Dutch. As one used only to being served or driven by east Europeans, this came as quite a shock and was continued throughout my stay. Are such jobs better paid here by comparison or as in Spain just treated with greater respect? Proper jobs perhaps?

I think it was probably more than 30 years ago that I was in the Rijksmuseum and rather like the BM and V&A they have built a great glass canopy over the courtyard which makes for a more pleasant and warmer experience. And what a delightful museum it is. Paintings displayed with space to view them. Only a few cases where you have to crick your neck to look at images high on their walls. Which incidentally I did in the concert last night – the stage in Concert Gebouw is very high and I thought I may have been better off with a seat in the balcony rather than the stalls.

I’ve seen reproductions of the Night Watch before but it does take your breath away with the staggering amount of narrative detail Rembrandt included. There’s a brilliant printed guide in the gallery that points out the most salient aspects – I would not have spotted them all without. There are several brilliant other Rembrandt’s and a series of gorgeous but surprisingly small Vermeers. The galleries are well supplied with benches from which to sit and contemplate and although it was getting busier as I left around two o’clock, it had been a very pleasurable visit. No eye-glazing and a  handy highlights leaflet to save you looking at absolutely every Dutch landscape which – heresy – can start to look a little samey and as we’re in the Netherlands dare I say flat.

3207F4F2-F621-4F79-825D-6924C6CF3120Just along from the museum is Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark so I went for a stroll  there with loads more skaters on the lakes including an impromptu ice hockey game, joggers on the pathways and cycles ridden it seemed by Michelin men and women – puffa jackets seem de rigeur. Leidseplein is the tourist epicentre for bars, restaurants and clubs so it was now time for a beer and a snack. I found a good traditional bar Reynders and after refuelling I walked back to the centre. On the way I had a very reassuring phone call from my neighbour John who had heard me coughing in the night earlier in the week, noticed that the  window shutters were closed and called to check that I was alive and well. Aren’t neighbours just wonderful?

BimhuisIt was a great route crossing all the big central canals and finishing up in Dam Square. From there it was a further kilometre or so to Central Station and then along the Ij to reach Bimhuis a magnificent music venue built about ten years ago where I was due to meet my friend Alan Skidmore for the sound check before their concert that evening. It was quite fun arriving across a angled bridge over the canal up to the empty venue and being escorted from reception to the green room with the greeting “You must be Mike”, They knew I was coming, had they baked a cake? Well no but there was beer in the fridge and an unbelievably warm reception for a random Brit who just happens to be Skid’s mate and webmaster. Despite being an ace saxophonist, Skid’s a drummer manqué and got a chance to sit at the kit in the sound check.


While waiting for crew dinner, I bought my own by the way from an excellent menu in the Bimhuis café, we discovered an advertisement in a magazine for the Skidmore Jazz Institue so this deserves further investigation and maybe some royalty payments. I have to say that I’ve always found jazz musicians a friendly bunch and these were no exception. Jokes were told – which many had heard often before no doubt – but were well received. Then it was time to leave the backstage and get up to the venue again.

Alan Skidmore (tenor), Rein de Graaff (piano), Tineke Postma (alto and soprano) Benjamin Herman (alto) Marius Beets (bass) and Eric Ineke (drums) about to mount the stairs for the saxophone summit.

The gig was an absolutely stormer. A superb Dutch rhythm section who have played with all the jazz greats on tours in Europe really got things swinging and then the front line of Skid who doesn’t know the meaning of giving less than everything even though he’ll be knackered next day, Benjamin who is English but lives in Holland and is applying for a passport with some speed and plays a mean solo and the rose between the (t)horns Tineke Postma who was an absolute revelation to me. Where does all that power, lyricism and invention come from? There were two sets which were rapturously received by the full house. John Coltrane’s Impressions was the closing number and he would have been nodding his approval had he been here.

Bimhuis Benjamin soloing   Bimhuis Tineke alto solo  Bimhuis Skid close up

Then it’s back to the green room for more beer and wine and try to chill a bit while adrenaline levels are raging. I then help the guys down to the basement car park with their gear as they set off for a hotel near Utrecht ready for tomorrow’s gig. I then try to find my way out of the nearly deserted building into the very cold night air. Fortunately I was able to flag down a cab before too long. They didn’t play Round Midnight but that had long gone so walking back to the hotel was not really on tonight.

Wintery break 1

I went to a Japan Foundation talk by Hideo Furukawa called Murakami and I at King’s Place on Wednesday the last day of February. It was touch and go as to whether Southeastern Trains would get me to London Bridge in time to get a tube to King’s Cross. At least I didn’t have to walk along the tracks at Lewisham. It was odd being back at King’s Place because last year at this time I was there every Wednesday for six weeks on my Guardian masterclass writing course. By a coincidence I had just finished the first draft of the promised novel that afternoon. A layoff for a while and then much revision lie ahead followed by the quest for an agent and publisher. The talk was interesting and as much about Furukawa as Murakami and a bit too narrowly focused on a couple of  books for my liking but worth struggling through the snow for.

Thursday should have seen the official opening of the Watford Community Trust’s 25th Anniversary exhibition at the Watford Museum but it was sensibly postponed. So my plan to drive after the opening to Southend for a flight to Amsterdam on Friday morning needed revising to. EasyJet had cancelled all Southend flights on the Thursday and after a lengthy time on hold I spoke to a customer services person who  advised me that they wouldn’t be flying on Friday either. So in the hope and promise of a refund I booked a Eurostar train for Friday morning as being the more likely option. The train from Lee to London Bridge on this occasion was on time and I got to St Pancras in good time only to discover that there would be a one-hour delay before departure. So it was off to Pret for a coffee and read the paper patiently. Because of the late departure and slow running speeds on the UK track I’m entitled to a partial refund. There was a bit of confusion at Brussels where we had to take a different connecting train to Amsterdam (of course there’s a direct London Amsterdam service but that starts next month!) but in the company of a young trainee doctor whose luggage I’d pulled down from the rack we made it onto the Thalys to Amsterdam expecting to stand all the way but miraculously there were two seats and we enjoyed a lively conversation all the way to Amsterdam. I was very surprised given all the weather maps displayed on TV this week to find that there was no snow at all in France, Belgium or the Netherlands. But it was very cold so I took a cab from Central Station to my hotel which was opposite Amsterdam Zoo – I didn’t visit but was regaled with a wide variety of animal and bird calls. It’s in a pleasant part of the city and I chose it because it – according to Google Maps – was less than thirty minutes walk to my main destinations in the city: Concert Gebouw and the Rijksmuseum to the west and Bimhuis to the north east.

The concierge at the hotel was amazed that I was setting out to walk and advised me of suitable trams or I could rent a bicycle. However you see a place better on foot so I set off for Museumplein winding across canals, being terrified by whizzing cyclists who seem to have all rights of way. I knew it happened by it still came as a shock to see people skating on the canals, especially those that included liquid water too. Despite the Winter Olympics I resisted the temptation. D5570E3A-12E5-42AA-91C2-7A74B3A56A71After a pleasant stroll, well wrapped up against the minus 8 according to my phone, it was time for a pause in the journey for a beer. A fine old cafe Mulder presented itself on my route and it seemed rude to refuse. Wooden bar and tables and a good old-fashioned atmosphere with a selection of drought and bottled beers – just what was required. I soon after arrived outside the imposing Rijksmuseum which was on the agenda for tomorrow. 4AD41ECE-0EE5-4E20-B018-9DDA462E7D0DAcross the park behind it was the concert hall for which I had tickets for 8.15 pm in an hour and a half. Perfect time to find another bar and have a pre-concert snack. Again I was lucky to find a table in a very popular place Gruter – it was reserved from 7.30 but I promised to be gone by then. It was very lively and I struck up a conversation with a couple from just outside Utrecht who were flat sitting while their daughter was off skiing. They said I’d done well to find the bar as it’s reckoned to be one of the hidden gems.

Time for classical music. I’d never been to Concert Gebouw and as one of the world’s most famous auditoria I thought I should. The programme with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and Choir was fairly safe: Vaughn Williams Tallis Fantasia and Faure’s Requiem both of which I know well. But the first item was the world premiere of a piece by Guillaume Connesson, a French composer who I’m afraid had escaped my radar. Called Liturgies of Light it was an accessible piece which did indeed depict the idea of light falling in different ways. The choir sang beautifully and the music progressed serenely to a great climax. The Faure was a poignant experience because the last time we saw it performed was in Canterbury Cathedral where our good friend from Boston Pat Weiler was singing in a visiting choir. Dee and I had dinner with Pat after the concert and sadly neither of these two wonderful women is with us any longer, so I sat through it with a rather lumpy throat. It is a great concert hall with a fine sound and I enjoyed my evening thoroughly. They even provide a free glass of wine at the interval. I was idly admiring the plaques with composers’ names that surround the hall when I was struck by Dopper whom I’m afraid I’ve never heard of and Roentgen who I thought invented x-rays, among most predictable candidates like Bach, Mahler and Wagner. The walk back to the hotel was extremely cold so I was grateful for my many layers. So Friday was travel and classical music, tomorrow brings art and jazz.