(This is a) Strange Affair

As is my wont, I have been listening to lots of music as I travel. “What, on a motorbike?” I hear the uninitiated cry. Yes. I have access at any one time to seven CDs, and an iPod containing 400 tracks. Several hundred more if I plug in my iPhone too. All piped in stereo to my helmet. Bless you, Autocom.

There is a real intimacy from having music piped in this way. Yesterday it really added to the almost video game quality of the journey, blatting along near-empty, perfectly surfaced French motorways at a steady 80mph, cocooned from reality behind a perspex screen, a visor and sun shades. Mind you, The Bad Shepherds (punk songs set to British/Irish folk tunes) wasn’t that “intimate”, perhaps.

But today, meandering round hairpin bends above the Lac d’Annecy, the dark velvet voice of my musical heroine June Tabor grabbed my emotions by the throat and gave them a right good shaking.

“This is a strange affair.
The time has come to travel and the roads are filled with fear.
This is a strange affair.
My youth has all been wasted and I’m bent and grey with years.”

(The rest is here.)

Said to be based on a Sufi poem, written by the ever present Richard Thompson, and performed by June Tabor on Martin Simpson’s new album “Purpose and Grace“. That’s some pedigree. And I’ve known it for more than 30 years from earlier versions by all of the above.

This is indeed a strange affair. I am in exile from significant human company for another two days yet, before landing on the doorstep of my good friend Pino and his family, in Lucerne. Tomorrow, as I write, I will be taking the motorbike over the Col du Galibier for the first time. I’ve been defeated by bad weather or the road still closed by snow every other time I’ve set out for this. Tour de France fans will know the attraction of this particular road, but I am fretful about it, because I have made my route dependent on it, if I am to avoid a big detour to get to my next stopping point. I am then in Briançon, and a more stupid starting point in order to get to Lucerne I cannot imagine!

Mind you, though I am very conscious of being alone, I am not lonely. There’s a difference, as anyone who has been lonely will testify. I can still conjure up the feeling I had, suddenly, one evening, in July 1986, in a one person tent, miles from anywhere, in that vast lung of wild country NW of Ullapool. That gnawing, leaden feeling of being totally isolated and self- dependent. I know the date, the spot, the meal I’d just cooked. That’s the impression it all made on me. Just part of me wasting my youth. Had I made too much of a habit of carrying the rucksack I had that day, I’d now be “bent and grey” as in the song, too!

All this and more came back to me today, through the wonder of song.

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