On a railway platform somewhere between Boston and Philadelphia, the shoulders of a young woman droop in defeat as the train pulls away from her. All her belongings shrink inside as it rounds the corner out of sight. She aims the string of curses away from herself towards a train she can no longer see. The mutherf*ckin’ train.

An aggressive window-knock commands her eyes from across the tracks. From the stationary carriage she can make out a smiling stranger pointing enthusiastically to the seat opposite him. Except it is not a stranger but the bloke she had been flirting poorly with on the train that just pulled away. Except it wasn’t the train; she turned left onto the opposite platform on her return from the bathroom.

Her belongings are exactly the same size as before; her complexion a little more flushed as she composes herself.


“Did you enjoy your day then?”, he asks, holding the prosecco bottle up to the light to read the x-ray of its emptiness.

“Sure. It was very relaxed”, she replies, sniffing the glass twice to make sure it’s hers. It is the only one on the table.

By relaxed, they both mean the successful suspension of mutual hostilities. And the absence of political ‘debate’.

“Courtesy and civility assured at all times, as Mary used to say”

“There was plenty of food to go round, too”

“And what about the speech?”

She arches a brow before looking away.


“For a moment I thought of interrupting him to ask if I was dead. And you seemed a bit emotional”

The accusatory tone is a reliable indicator that the thick wall of the garage succeeded in concealing the cracks in sibling civility; his crimson face chalked up to investment in the moment. The moment his father’s rehearsed words tumbled out feet first masking the sincerity of thanks for the sacrifices she made down the decades.

Not the moment his twelve year old self suddenly lost it with his ten year old sister minutes before he handed toasting duties over to him. When he rashly pulled her pride until it hurt as much as it once did her hair. He instantly regretted it but, like cranberry sauce, sorry isn’t something ever known to be brought into the house. Like all regressive juvenile combat, it will lie forgotten until next time a land-mine is unwittingly trodden on.

“Aye. I guess so. I’d just never heard him talk that way before”

His overriding memory from today will tumble out in correct incorrect order. He will always be glad to have been of third party service: to have enabled one of them to say things to the other the soundproofing of a long marriage prevents them from hearing when alone.


“What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?”

“There is not always an answer to every question”

“No, I mean –“

“No, that’s the best piece of advice I was ever given”


Top 5…music documentaries

Searching for Sugar Man followed me around all weekend giving me a hankering for more of the same. More on that film in a minute, but first a nod to a few others that took up residence among my favourites and never left.

1. Buena Vista Social Club

Not long into this iconic film, children gather in a vast baroque hall in Havana. Sunlight swamps the interior showing off a faded glamour that has seen more opulent days. Young girls raise their legs to their ears striving for ballerina perfection, young boys swashbuckle forward with straight-armed determination during their fencing lesson. Headless horses are mounted and cartwheeled off, pirouettes are synchronised, bars are leapt on and rolled around. All against the backdrop of playful tunes swirling through the air from a piano in the corner. This is what passes for a gym in modern day Cuba. Undiluted joy without dialogue.

The pianist is snow-haired Ruben Gonzalez, one of the now-famous Cuban musicians from the 1950s that time had forgotten until Ry Cooder discovered they were alive and well. Wim Wenders takes care of directing duties, but the magic is all theirs. Any discordant notes come from the consequences of Castro’s vision and question marks over ideas of freedom and success in the viewer’s head.

2. The Last Waltz

“They got it now, Robbie”, Neil Young nods to Robbie Robertson as he strikes up the opening notes to Helpless. The sound glitch may have had less to do with the error of his fellow musicians than Young’s own timing. Robertson later quipped that editing out the remnants of white powder around his guest’s nose was the most expensive cocaine he ever bought.

Lyrical has been waxed and wrung on Mawti Scorsese’s legendary finale concert from The Band and their band of off-their-tits merry mates, but how many have singled out Van Morrison’s high kick for comment? You probably read it here last. One for the wee small hours somewhere between that impromptu first and fifth beer. The perfect sing-along party for one. “Turn it up!” and try not to injure yourself emulating Van.

3. Strange Powers

Giving us a rare glimpse into the off-limits world of Magnetic Fields’ misfit and lyricist, Stephin Merritt, this fly-on-the-wall film follows him over a decade. Magnetic Fields inhabit that category of bands that registers near obsession from fans, or blank faces from everyone else because they’d never heard of them. There is a disturbing growth of a third group that well-up at weddings over Peter Gabriel’s sacrilegious re-hashing of the doleful Book of Love. Insert your own imagined withering response from Merritt to that.

We know little more about Merritt by the end. The complexity of his character remains in the shadows as the light is shone on the process of making the music that bends us double. His weary baritone is cooked up in a tiny apartment over ukuleles, his loyal cellist in the bathroom, the dutiful bassist in the sink (probably), all conducted by Fields’ stalwart, Claudia Gonson. Access is given to the touching, if sometimes painful, dynamic between Merritt and the expressive pianist, the other half of his on-stage double banter act, and sometime manager. Gonson worries aloud she will be creatively left at sea if the ensemble were to wind-up. What’s left unsaid is what will be lost to her personally if they part, but it’s written all over her face.

They’re still together. So try to see them, and this, while you can.

4. Dig!

What do you get if you cross The Dandy Warhols with Brian Jonestown Massacre? Two bands united by a love of psychedelic sounds and a professed urgent need to jointly get the revolution started. Followed by parallel rivalry, success and failure, orders to beat up their fans, one-up-front-manship, and a lot of sheer madness in this romp of a film that has guaranteed both bands a certain cult status and their surly faces in the pantheon of documentary greats.

5. Searching for Sugar Man

And so back to our man, Sugar. Look away now if you’d prefer to see it fresh.

The film follows a pair of South African music-lovers in the 90s on their trail to track down 70s troubadour, Rodriguez. The Detroit native’s two albums of peace, love, and gentle political resistance, met with paltry US record sales and he was deported back to obscurity. Meanwhile, his music went on to achieve iconic status in South Africa, overtaking Elvis at the tills with his face becoming a poster-boy for a mass of white students united in their unreported resistance to apartheid.

I’ve since learned on watching the film, that the obscurity Rodriguez was condemned to was not altogether permanent or exclusive. It left a slightly funny aftertaste. That his music was an instrument of protest among white South Africans was independent of his success elsewhere, but the latter not entirely from the portrait of him as an artist who was exiled in commercial failure. That is the parallel subject of the film, along with the meaning of success, and the force of an indomitable spirit that will find a valve in civilian life. The more wry and philosophical comments on the relationship between class and dreams came from the mouths of the most ordinary people featured in the film.

For those reasons, any inaccuracies can be forgiven since it’s still a great yarn. It tells the story of a remarkable man, and gives a riveting insight to part of South Africa’s hidden history.

Feel free to share any recommendations, or views to the contrary.