Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Breaking Glass

February 17th, 2013

Of their time” he’d said. A friend and colleague. I’d mentioned I’d just bought a copy of Hazel O’Connor’s “Breaking Glass” album. Felt obliged, not least because, in a random moment, I’d decided to go to see her perform in a regional theatre back in Wales, close to where I’d grown up in the 80s. So it’d seemed rather apt that I’d been listening to the album as I’d coasted over the Second Severn crossing into the Principality towards Cardiff. In fact, by the time I’d reached my destination, I’d built up a certain familiarity with all the tracks. Not just the one with the saxophone. Brought to a crawl through the bridge tolls and by stop start traffic on the M4.

I was supposed to be contemplating what anecdotes to recount in a little less than a week. Giving a talk about my two-wheeled exploits in the village hall. Toying with tales of fermented mare’s milk. Seemed a bit topical, given the latest horsemeat scandal. Most recent, I thought, because I was sure there’d been a dodgy pie episode back in the 80s. The whole affair had seemed deserving of humour, not least because what do you seriously expect to find in a pack of “value” burgers? I mean, really. Prime Angus beef? A few cuts of horse meat sound rather better than mechanically recovered beef, surely?

My Dad had seemed a little surprised I was going alone to watch Hazel O’Connor. Disbelieving. So, I’d gently reminded him that my ticket was rather less than the one he’d just got for another 80s act. And I’d booked one of a pair of seats left. Well, you never knew who you might end up sitting by…..

[Ken will be giving his talk – “Two Wheels One World” – in Fitzhead’s Tithe Barn at 8pm Friday 22 February 2013. Admission £3]


Neither Jam nor Jerusalem

February 10th, 2013

Hardly the most striking of epiphanies I’d admit, but I’d woken to the stark realisation that it was now a year since I’d finally ridden back to Somerset . Just a year. I lay there pondering this for a while, before the abrupt interruption of the bedside alarm. Not unexpected, for, even beneath my overgenerous duvet I could sense the warmth in the room, aware that the heating had already cut in as it was meant to do shortly before I rose. But it was a Sunday. I could afford a little lie-in.

I’d returned to the world of work about six months earlier. Found myself a suitably challenging second career, rather than simply a job, immersing myself in all that it offered. After all, why settle for being good, surely better to be the best. A sound aspiration at least. Especially when there’s skills from the road, and a few from a previous life, that could be put to good use. And there’d still been time to bid my tenants farewell and return to my cottage. And to audition for the WI. Not, I hasten to add, for a calendar, but as a speaker.

I’ve already given a few talks to local groups, with a couple more planned for later in the year. Heartily recommended to anyone with a tale to tell. Confirmatory note through the letterbox. Warmly welcomed on arrival. Tea and cake in abundance. Attentive audience. No jam as such, save for a generous dollop on the odd fruit scone, nor rapturous recitals of Jerusalem. No bad thing really if you’ve ever heard my efforts at singing, for I’d no doubt feel obliged to join in. Like my linguistic ability, very much enthusiasm over ability. Alarm once more. Time, I suppose, to get up. Much to do.


Writer’s block

February 9th, 2013

Difficult to say what exactly had stirred me to write once more. Scribbling of a more therapeutic nature than the last few months, for there’d been plenty of writing, but it’d all been of a largely technical, legalistic nature. Of course, I’d enjoyed crafting such missives, seeking to balance precision with the elegance of simple prose. But something had been missing, the jigsaw incomplete. I’d now found the mislaid piece.

But what to write? There’d be eyebrows raised if I’d ever venture beyond Dover. For a year or two perhaps. Not that such excursions, however brief, were necessary. Ample adventure to be had closer to home. Unfolding in forthcoming tales….


Back on the road

October 7th, 2012

I’d a bicycle I’d named Emma, so it hadn’t seemed so untoward to christen the car Clarissa. After all, my four-wheeled friend had now become as much a companion as my two-wheeled trusty steed had been. My new vocation necessitates a good deal of travel, which I rather like. Of course, just as having a decent bicycle is a great help riding around the world, so is a well engineered automobile when purring up and down that network of interconnected car parks we sometimes generously refer to as the motorways. The M6 Toll exempted of course.

A firm advocate of better to get there alive and a few minutes adrift, I like to encourage others on the road seemingly possessed by evil spirits to simply get out of bed a bit earlier. I frequently do. Something about the early morning light cast over the spire of Salisbury cathedral.

Of course, it can be a little tedious, especially on the more narrow, slower roads, trapped behind the Daily Mail drivers. You know the sort. Consistent types. Forty miles an hour, irrespective of the speed limit, past schools and so forth. Frequently picking up speed at spots where one might otherwise be able to overtake. They’ll tell you they’ve thirty or forty years driving experience, absolute in their belief that they’re the safest on the road. After all, they’ve seen enough accidents.

Set off earlier enough and you’ll frequently spot the red light jumpers. Deliberately ignoring the traffic signals in the belief that they’re the only ones out and about. Hoping of course you don’t get to bump into them. Or them into you. Up there with those private hire drivers who also seem to think the law doesn’t apply to them, especially on a Sunday morning. I’ve a strong sense of smell, not that it’s an especial requirement to wheedle them out.


Tie a ribbon

September 30th, 2012

The Carnival Queen was late. I was pleased. Secretly you understand. Quietly hoping the residents would soon have her engrossed in conversation, dwelling longer than she might otherwise have intended. I’d arrived at the care home, a rather plush affair in the Somerset countryside, a little earlier, intending to chat for a bit shy of an hour to the guests about travels with my trusty two-wheeled steed. Instead thwarted by the technical trolls, obliged to quickly devise a new means of keeping my expectant audience entertained. Taking a modicum of comfort from the pageant princess’ delayed arrival, for it bought me breathing space and a chance for a little creativity.

I’d miss the opportunity now to head into nearby Wellington and search for a copy of Geographical magazine, the latest edition out that day. Eager to see a small piece I’d written actually in print. Just a few hundred words. And one of my own photographs. But pleasing nevertheless, a honour simply to have been asked to compose a contribution for such a prestigious publication.

Writing had become a pleasure, a cathartic release, another means to share experiences with others. Admittedly, on the back burner for the last few months, for I’d embarked on a second career and, as ever, keen to establish myself, especially so as I’d found something that absolutely hit the mark in terms of playing to what I perceived to be my strengths, whilst keeping me suitably challenged. No half measures. After all, in my book, mediocrity is a political system in Australia, not a philosophy for work.

Still, I’d managed to see more wildlife the previous weekend than in the last couple of years. But I suppose that’s Longleat for you. You can never have enough meerkats. Actually you can. About fourteen. Sociable chaps rather than solitary individuals. Only disappointment was the recreation of an African village. Full marks for the wet season, but the rains appeared to have flushed out the child soldiers, refugees, and not single UN funded five star in sight. Never mind.


Paper plane or crumpled ball

August 4th, 2012

Paper plane or crumpled ball. I just couldn’t quite decide which would best propel the replies I’d received towards the waste bin. Both from the grandly titled Chief Executive Office of the well known chain that’d run the down-trodden motel I recently stopped in. One would have sufficed. Indeed, in what I’d thought was a rather witty note to the Chief Executive Officer inviting him to spend a night in the establishment, I’d suggested a postcard would have been quite acceptable. Adding I was simply looking forward to hearing all about his experience, a chance to compare notes.

I’d painted what I thought had been a fair picture – tired interior; ample scuffed paintwork, and an ambience somewhere between a student hall of residence and a bail hostel. Adding that he might find the TV a little perturbing, but not to worry, that’d be interference, not double vision. Assuming, of course, he’d first mustered sufficient coinage to feed the parking meter. Before you think me a little harsh, I’d mentioned the one – the only – redeeming feature; the staff, friendly and helpful, their staying power quite remarkable given frequent criticism from disgruntled customers.

Final glance over the letters I’d received. One with a signature resembling a slinky spring, the other a pentagram. Otherwise, little else of merit, meaningless platitudes written in haste by a minion. Apologetic they weren’t; if I had ever been inclined to give them a second chance, not any more. Ball it is.

[Ken now makes use of the Premier Inn chain – much nicer, and about the same cost]


Panel beating

July 8th, 2012

The room had all the aesthetic appeal of a crime scene. It might even have been one. Functional. Clean. Rarely endearing adjectives when scribbled in my note book. Soft focus channel on TV; an episode of The Hotel Inspector, but shades of Carry On. Don’t think they missed a single double entrendre or carefully positioned pot plant, but if you must visit a naturist spa. In Birmingham. I thought the presenter brave and the owner genuine, quiet admiration for his naked conviction.

A train trundled past, just a couple of coaches but, obliged by the discomforting humidity to keep the windows open as far as I could prise them, easily mistaken for an express plunging south. Rummaging around had turned up a toothpick, but it seemed the Gideon Society had cast this place to lost causes. I’d have taking comfort in the room being cheap, but it wasn’t. Small matter of the parking surcharge. At a motel. I’d already begun to sketch out the short note to the MD of the well known chain.

There’d been a modicum of redemption. The staff, remarkable as much for their staying power as their helpfulness, the only redeeming feature of the establishment. I’d mention this in my letter. There might have to be a little humour, something to spark it actually getting past the minions. Feint praise usually does the trick.

I’d abandoned the remote control for the buttons on the TV, frustrated by the worn keys, their symbols long perished. Shuffling between Mock the Week and Question Time. One a satirical look back at events of the last seven days, the other casting scorn on topical issues. There did seem to be a bit of a mix-up with the bookings. But, like my room, all a bit disappointing. Might open my letter with that. Disappointing.

Lost potential amongst the panellists. Take the miscreants in the latest financial scandal, their conduct described as misbehaviour. Small children misbehave, perhaps a stint on the naughty step. But fines in the hundreds of millions; that’s a lot of pocket money, even for bankers. Then there’s been confirmation of the Higgs Bosun. Wouldn’t know one if I saw one, but it somehow sounds worthy of applause, possibly something you might serve with the cucumber sandwiches, and only slightly less abstract than Libor. Political party in the Midlands I think. And no mention of Staffordshire Police’s Quit Smoking helpline… such a shame.


Language difficulties

June 23rd, 2012

I’d be the first to admit that foreign languages may not be my greatest strength, but that doesn’t diminish my fascination with words or expressions, intrigued as much by everyday oddities as the more complex vernacular. Take impossible heels, a regular tabloid term, and whilst I understand what it is meant to imply, the literal is wholly nonsensical. Unless taken to describe a woman quite unable to stand. And then my other favourite, enjoying a little popular resurgence; industrial action. One of those oxy things I think if I’m not mistaken.

Then there’s alliteration. I’d joked with a friend that this was one of the hallmarks of a poor education. It’d fallen just as flatly at the time. But it is a frequent feature used by writers, journalists and authors. A common contrivance. I’m also quite fond of a structure I lavishly call reverse chronology, others simply flashbacks. Been scribbling the odd note into my pocket book, at first just a random collection of thoughts, little details that might be brigaded together later to give the story colour and depth. Eventually a structure emerging, journeying into the suburbs of Belgrade on a packed evening commuter bus, the account interspaced with reflections on preceding events. Even gave it a title. Chapter One.

But then back to a bit of pro bono work, writing a fresh chapter on cycle expeditions for a pretty prestigious handbook for those contemplating venturing to some of the more challenging places the world has to offer. It’d been a bit more tricky than I’d expected, not least because I was seeking to strike a fine balance between inspiring the novice, contemplating their first trip, and keeping the nodding respect of my peers, other seasoned riders, quite a few of whom I know beyond mere name. And getting the substance right, making sure the technical content is accessible rather than acerbic, incisive gems from the road suitably expressed, the imparting of insight as much as knowledge.


Out of character

June 20th, 2012

Tuesday evening. The sign outside said Wine Vaults but inside it much more resembled a pub. And a very quiet one at that, small groups, three or four at the most, sitting quietly in the darkened alcoves. The dearth of custom had surprised me, not least because it was a rather pleasant evening, of the sort we’d not had for a while. True, England was shortly to kick off against I wasn’t quite sure who, but I’d imagined this would have bolstered the numbers a bit in the bar. But it hadn’t. At least it meant I was able to get a table by the window, watching people, couples mostly, drifting past in the brief offering that was this year’s summer, and for that I was grateful.

Joined a little later by an old Harrovian chum, I’d enquired as to whether football was his sort of thing. I’d imagined it wasn’t, nor, as a rule, was it mine for that matter, but it seemed polite to ask, even if I wasn’t sure quite why. It just was. His reply surprised me a little, for whilst he’d no especial interest in tonight’s match, at school he’d played football. Of sorts. A sport unique to Harrow school, a cube shaped ball on a clay pitch, shoving one’s opponent replacing tackling. I’d immediately thought rugby, my expression of surprise saying as much. He must have spotted this immediately, for he was quick to add that it was quite unique, even if it had its genesis around the same time as the far more familiar sport of the rival public school.

I explained I’d been schooled in Wales, and whilst male voice choirs weren’t as common place as some seemed to imagine, football definitely didn’t feature. Rugby in the winter, cricket in the summer. There must have been talk of it at home, for my Dad had always been a loyal Man City supporter, and I’d vague memories of school friends collecting stickers, and of Kenny Dalglish who I thought had probably been a goalkeeper. And I was sure there was something called the pools panel, some chap on TV pulling balls out of a bag. White gloves. But that might have been snooker, like golf, a pastime masquerading as a sport. All pretty hazy.

On the road I’d found myself taking a quite unexpected interest in the game. Actually, interest might have been a bit strong, but I’d gleaned a few facts from my Dad and I was content I could cuff the rest. Born in Manchester, a detail shown in my passport, there’d been a presumption at Eastern European and Central Asian border crossings that I must surely be an avid supporter. Manchester United. Manchester City. Expressions frequently used. I’d smile a lot, throw out a few players names as you might discard old, crumpled receipts, sometimes shaking my head in disapproval. Harmless theatre, but it did mean no rummaging in the panniers, fishing for bribes, that sort of thing. Needs must.


Cycling Full Circle

June 17th, 2012

“The world is a beautiful place and the people therein. That’s not to say there is no dissatisfaction, frustration, helplessness, ugliness, sadness, sorrow. It is that, despite these, the instinctive desire of most people to demonstrate kindness to one another flows as living water and their underlying goodness shines as a light in the world” Astrid Domingo Molyneux

Sensual brutality of Bombay. I’d not been there, but it was how I imagined it might be. Vaguely aware of the occasional jolt of the bus as I grasped the imagery of a country I’d not known. Demeaning, desperate squalor. Vibrant colours of women’s saris. Honest writing, the odd rough edge lending Astrid’s story of her two year ride around the world conviction often lacking in more anodyne accounts. It felt personal. I looked up. Few more pages I hoped before I’d need to alight.

I’d read in haste because I wanted as much to get a measure of the author as of the places she’d passed through, the people she’d encountered. Drawing in part on the sections of her journey we’d shared, albeit a few years apart, and an all too brief conversation a few days earlier. Intrigued by a narrative in the present tense, as if riding with her, an unusual, but effective, literary device. As individualistic, and engaging, as her insistence at sailing between continents rather than succumbing to the swift brutality of air travel. A rather graceful solution and one I was quite envious of. Shades of the old Empire.

Descriptions of her departure towards France, coming to terms with the sheer enormity of the journey, held a strong resonance. Romantic. Meandering along the Kennet & Avon canal towpath, pedalling towards Poole. Partaking of perfect scrambled eggs, porridge oozing with darkly-melting muscovado sugar, richly-brewed coffee. The rationale for her choice of route, its elegant simplicity, discarding entire continents for what might, to some, seem superficial reasons, nevertheless making absolute sense to me. Greater rigour would do little to contain the journey within the bounds of the possible. I’d have done the same. And did.

Shared uncertainties on her first foreign shore. A reflective first night, contemplating the scale of the task before her. Both of us choosing to stroll along a quiet beach. Coming to terms with uncertainty, of where one might sleep each night, soon discovering the reassuring network of French municipal campsites, of patisseries and bakeries. Smiling in affirmation at the difficulties she’d faced getting her mobile to work in France. Inevitable teething troubles.

Brief glimpse out of the window. Raining now. Few minutes remaining, hurriedly leaping ahead to North America. Passing through familiar settlements in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon; Glenallen, Tok, Northway Junction, Buckshot Betty’s, the only place to eat in Beaver Creek. She’d even camped at Deadman’s Lake. Early morning arrival into Prince Rupert. And now my stop. Time to disembark.

Astrid’s account of her travels – Cycling Full Circle – is published by Quicksilver Publications and can be purchased securely online through her own website

Terms & Conditions of Use | Copyright © 2009-2024 Ken Roberts