Summoned by Big Big Train – A Passenger’s Journey

The Train now arriving. Photograph by Willem Klopper.

Big Big Train and Saturday night’s carriageload of Passengers. Photograph by Willem Klopper.

There are occasions in your life when everything happening within your sphere of earthly existence suddenly makes perfect sense. Musical happenings form the greater part of mine and I count my blessings that there have been quite a few along the way.

But sometimes, one occasion pulls up at life’s platform, welcomes you on board and the ensuing journey opens up spectacular new vistas full of dazzling natural insights into the world you inhabit, rather than prog’s more usual far-out cosmic visions.

This particular journey probably started later here than for many others, prefixed by a simple statement, “Oh by the way, Greg (Spawton) would like you to hear this.” That came from Rob Aubrey as I was leaving Aubitt Studios just over three years ago when I had returned to the inner sanctum to retrieve a jacket misplaced after a previous interview. “This” was English Electric Pt 1 and all I can tell you is that having put it straight on the CD player in the car, I recall ending up in parts of nearby Chandlers Ford that I had never consciously visited before.  This was truly a case of getting lost in music. Having finally got my bearings, Winchester From St Giles’ Hill came on as I was turning off the M3 to return to my then home in the ancient capital and, like the river in the chalk hills, the tears started flowing.

Fast forward through a painstakingly detailed and full-on review for DPRP (9  out of 10), interview in Classic Rock Society Magazine, major scale purchase of back catalogue, acceptance as a Passenger on the Big Big Train FB page, the big big idea for a weekend in Winchester, English Electric Pt 2 (9.5 out of 10), the staging of the weekend, (we must do it again sometime), with the presentation of advance copies of Make Some Noise EPs and Big Big Train beer, then EE Full Power (10 out of 10), and what’s this you now say? Live gigs?

That’s the history but this is not a review: this is simply a chance to meditate out loud to reflect on the Big Big Weekend (Part 2) and pinpoint the reasons why it all made perfect sense.

I see so many pointers now as to why the three gigs could only have been staged at Kings Place. The venue is just a platform’s length away from where Mallard began her east coast racing and it is also beside the Regent’s Canal where the inland navigators (navvies) once worked and then later moved onto the railways themselves.

Within a railway shed’s length is the British Library,  a bedrock of universal learning and knowledge, where a major Magna Carta exhibition provides the story of  800 years of democracy Britain has enjoyed since its historic granting at Runnymede, a place whose Anglo-Saxon name literally means “meeting place in the meadow”.

Next door to the British Library is the magnificent railway cathedral, St Pancras Station – no longer just a link to Britain’s golden age of Victorian (brickwork) architecture, which gave us the great museums and the Royal Albert Hall – but is also now the main railway connection to the continent.

Those are the historical and cultural aspects of the area but, for the benefit of the occasion, we have to factor in those other necessities in life, such as a fine selection of hostelries, some named to reflect the presence of the two great railway termini which overlook them, and an abundance of curry houses, the symbolic food staple of the latest influx of Passengers to the area.

Ah, the Passengers: how far some of them had travelled having been summoned by Big Big Train. There were Scott and Russell from New Zealand; John from Australia; Andrew from British Columbia, Canada; Duane from Chicago, USA:  Nick from Johannesburg, South Africa and closer to home, Rosie from Greece, Tobbe from Sweden and Yvon from Holland to name but quite a considerable few.

However, this coming together was only made possible through the power of the internet and social media, which got me thinking about the prophetic words of Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan.  Remember him from Fly On The Windshield? In the early 1960s, he proclaimed: “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of the global village.” Welcome to the global village of Passengers. And, for the record, the learned Prof McLuhan said: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

Without the worldwide web, this global gathering would probably not have happened. Imagine trying to seek out information without the aid of Google or Facebook, then trying to book flights, hotels and most importantly, a curry house. It does not bear thinking about.

In fact, the pre-gig curryfest, carried out over a period of multiple sittings, proved a great hit, (thank you Spike Worsley), though the staff seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer numbers involved and the amount of pilau rice that had to be produced as a result. The 4pm and 5pm sittings somehow morphed into one huge bhaji banquet – not that anyone was complaining.

However, the Train was now boarding at Kings Place, an impressive, spacious, modern architectural cathedral of culture with two art galleries, two auditoriums, Rotunda Bar/Restaurant and café.  Even the critical mass of 500 excitable Passengers appeared to be absorbed by the sheer scale of the place – and that takes some doing.

Actually, the building was part of the Guardian/Observer newspaper HQ, so if they were looking for a good story, it was all kicking off downstairs in the basement.

The most remarkable part was the sea of familiar faces assembled there. It was a shame there was a band playing that evening otherwise there would have been a chance to talk to everyone.  However, my greatest thrill was reconnecting with a friend from journalism training college days back in the mid-70s, who happens to be the brother in law of a fellow Passenger and had come along for the ride.

Without embarrassing him too much, he had not changed an iota in the 15 years since I had last met him. He is also still living down the time when he set fire to his jeans during a Steve Hillage concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London back in 1977.

Passengers – what a wonderful bunch of people they are, free of all inhibitions about acting their age, proud to wear their “badge” tee-shirts, which, in the circumstances, veer in the main towards Sarah Ewing’s wonderful Green Man Wassail design.

Talking of tee-shirts, there’s a constant queue at the Merch Desk for the “available for one weekend only” goodies with BBT jute bags and lapel badges proving especially popular nice little earners for the band.

The programmes edited by Geoff Parks are also flying off the desk. It is with some pride that Passengers are the chosen subject for a feature I was commissioned to write by Dr Parks, with photographs by my husband to be Martin Reijman. How proud and humble we are to have made a small contribution to prog history.

Ah, then there was the main event itself. Now, I am not going to review the musical content of the show itself as many of my learned fellow scribes will be providing their own narratives for this. Suffice to say, it was all overwhelmingly breathtaking and emotionally charged throughout.

What I remember most of all is having the pleasure of sitting next to the wonderful and ever animate Tobbe Janson.

To know Tobbe is to totally love him.  He is one of the administrators of the Big Big Train Facebook group – lovely Sue Heather, the other administrator, was just a couple of seats away beyond him.  He has the onerous task of moderating the Passengers, rather like a guard would on board a train, i.e. keep your feet off the seats and leave that emergency cord well alone.

Tobbe is the equivalent of a giant Viking Tigger, full of energy with endless passion for his music. His enthusiasm is infectious, boundless and forever bouncy – and Saturday night was no exception.  So, my total experience of the concert was richly enhanced by his effervescent presence to one side of me while Martin, sitting on my other side, was totally absorbed throughout and in tears, like many people were, after set one’s closer, Victorian Brickwork.

It was so lovely to be totally subsumed by actions both on and off the stage. Never did my attention waver from the splendour of the music and visuals –from the jokey audience notice: No sprouts, no cowbell, no mobile phones, to the evocative Eric Ravilious artwork to illustrate the incredibly beautiful Curator of Butterflies (biggest standing ovation for a single song) and the audience participation during Make Some Noise, Wassail and Judas Unrepentant. Yes, it really was singalongaprog.

The brilliant brass section positioned on the balcony above the stage offered another texture both visually and musically, and the intimacy provided by the simplicity of the modern wood-panelled auditorium had the effect of melding musicians with merrymakers.

The defining moment on my part came with the visuals for the majestic East Coast Racer, now one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. Watching on film the way in which those great engineers of the past constructed Sir Nigel Gresley’s Mallard;  bringing her to that defining moment of her record- breaking zenith was a total joy.  “She flies”: indeed, that can be said of everything connected with this Big Big Train.

There was not one soul that night left untouched by the evening’s alchemy. No-one emerged the same person as when they went in.

The Green Man had exerted his life-force over us, the Passengers, in the most modern of ways.

Final fond farewells said, selfies taken with band members and autographs scribbled on different pieces of merchandise, this remarkable journey is at an end for now. However, no-one is really disembarking: not while the visions of hedgerows, ancient kings and queens, churches and factories, along with the sound of a dog barking, bees buzzing and rhythmic motion of a great locomotive, still remain.