Across Continents

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Service to cats

June 16th, 2012

I’d chuckled quietly to myself as I’d quickly scanned the Birthday Honours List, my eye caught by a familiar name and a less than exacting citation. Thought it should have read ‘For Service to cats’. Nothing biblical about this you understand, beyond what some might consider Divine Retribution, others just fate, a good comeuppance. For, a little while ago, frustrated at frequent damage the neighbour’s cat was inflicting on the individual’s garden, the offending feline had been bundled into the back of a car and dropped off several hundred miles away. Bit harsh perhaps, but the protagonist ended up spending the next couple of weekends helping friends and neighbours search, quite in vane, for the missing moggie.


The Great Dictator

June 6th, 2012

Interesting piece in today’s Independent. Suggestions that plans to revamp the Stalin museum in Gori, his Georgian birthplace, amount to revisionism. Some might say that’d be rather in keeping with the Soviet era and its fondness for brushing over the inconvenient, not that it’d be alone in doing so, far from it. I doubt if French text books major on Agincourt and we don’t exactly bang on about Amritsar. To be fair to the country’s President, to whom this initiative is attributed, the place could do with something of a revision. I’ve been there. Couple of years back, an afternoon stop en route through the Caucasus, heading for the capital Tbilisi and onwards to the Caspian.

My ticket purchased in the dark, cavernous Kafkaesque lobby, locked doors had greeted me at the top of the long marble staircase. Eventually finding an attendant to admit me, she’d followed me through the various dimly lit rooms, past the endless faded photographs, as might a shadow. I’d hoped she might open the curtains but she didn’t, perhaps a window for the air tasted stale. Stalin the favourite uncle, the family man, a likeable rogue maybe. No Gulags, no suggestions of his murderous paranoia.

Outside once more in the warm spring sunshine, I’d sat sipping coffee admiring the surprising neatness of the cottage where the dictator was supposedly born, conveniently reassembled in the museum’s grounds. Perhaps he was born there, I remember thinking, but in a dwelling that seemed no less authentic than Marie Antoinette’s model village at Versailles? I’m backing the President.


Chasing Phileas

June 6th, 2012

I’d felt a bit sorry for Mike Hall. Unfortunate timing, riding 18,000 miles around the world in a staggering 92 days, close on an average of two hundred miles per day, but, quite unavoidably, finishing at Greenwich Observatory in the middle of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Some column inches in the nationals, his record breaking feat getting a reasonable amount of recognition. Even an interview on Radio 4. But left wondering that, but for the Royal pageantry, he’d have had finishing photos across the front pages.

Most media coverage has been rightly very positive, any why not? It’s not an Olympic sport, but it is Olympic year, and he’s a Yorkshireman, and it’s a world record. Just the odd unhelpful utterance in a certain broadsheet, wrongly presuming a race across the globe to be somehow the same as travelling across continents, the bicycle simply a convenient form of transport. Entirely different disciplines, as is, say mountain biking and tandem touring.

Over the last few years the record pace has risen from a relatively sedentary sixty miles per day – think even I could manage that – to now a little shy of two hundred. Actually 195. Point seven to be precise. And mine? Probably a bit less. But what next? Chasing Phileas? Phileas Fogg that is, Jules Verne’s fictional traveller who, so the story goes, went full circle in 80 days. That’s an average of 225 each day, a tantalising thirty more than the current record. I’ve no plans…. but you can bet someone else will be sat there, over tea and toast, thinking hmmm maybe… just maybe


Sluggish scribbles

June 5th, 2012

By late morning I’d drunk as much strong coffee as I’d felt I’d consumed wine late the previous evening. In truth, I hadn’t, largely due to an ingrained inability to consume more than a relatively meagre amount of alcohol without quickly ending up in a harmless sleep. But, all the same, I’d found myself steadily sipping from a large mug, rough in appearance but, thanks to a thick glaze, soft on the lips. Frequent top ups, as if fearful someone else might empty the pot, inadvertently depriving me of an elixir I so desperately needed. The cycle of sluggish scribbling on a note page in my diary, repeatedly shuffling back into the kitchen for more coffee, eventually broken by my friend’s suggestion of a walk around nearby lanes. The short loop he called it.

An otherwise reflective mood had been brightened by the late May sun, tainted a little by the unexpected but gentle humidity. We’d discussed my talk at length late the previous evening, and, much to my surprise, felt sure I remembered all that mattered, and had managed to capture the essence of it in my diary. Sufficient at least to be able to recreate those parts I’d need to refine. And so the conversation was soon drawn to the merits of a suggestion I’d made a few days earlier, that of recording one of our walks for broadcast on the local community station. A pilot I’d suggested, and it’d be next year, perhaps spring would be best? And we’d some experience of radio, as interview and interviewee whilst I’d be out on the road. Shame to let such skills wither, but rather adapt the format. This time I’d ask the questions.


Graceful presence

June 5th, 2012

I knew immediately that it was her. I didn’t know why I thought this, for my glimpse of her had been just that, and we’d never actually met before. My instinct was not an unfounded or isolated one, for a few friends had also guessed who she might be and had quickly introduced themselves. She’d given talks herself, I was sure, and would understand I wasn’t deliberately ignoring her. Rather, I’d others I must welcome, engage with, whilst waiting for that brief moment when I might be able to slip imperceptibly across to her, with the grace and surety of a trapeze artist reaching out across the void to a distant partner.

I’d invited Astrid along to my inaugural talk about my exploits riding around the world. She too had ridden, as she described it, full circle, returning home a couple of years earlier. Similar distance, and time on the road. But, for the most part, a different easterly route to my own, our chosen paths crossing in France and then again in China, but sharing swathes of North America. I’d wondered later if I should have felt a little trepidation at her presence, as one might when amongst one’s peers. I hadn’t, but perhaps that was stoicism from my travels. She’d understand.

A momentary opportunity. I took it. Introduced myself, perhaps a little too profusely, but I was feeling buoyant, pleased I’d finally the chance to meet her, my emotions heightened by my all too sharp awareness that I’d be delivering my talk in a few moments. Conscious of the gradually assembling audience, of what I imagined would be their expectations. Hardly a daunting prospect, but enough to sharpen the synapses.

As might be expected, the conversation had been brief. With so much shared experience we might have discussed, and minutes before I’d be standing purposefully behind the lectern, this was inevitable. Unavoidable. I’d have to remedy this at a later date. But at least there’d been time for her to present me with a small package. Robust corrugated cardboard outer, embossed with my name and address on a neatly printed label. I’d ripped it open, hurriedly shoved the dispatch note in my pocket, quickly retrieving the contents. A book. Her book actually. A few moments left. Barely enough to thank her for bringing a copy along. An audience beckoned.


All for a good cause

May 31st, 2012

I’d found myself quietly pleased with Saturday’s inaugural talk – “Two Wheels, One World” – about my travels around the globe with my two-wheeled steed. People seemed to laugh in all the right places, for it was always going to be much more a collection of illustrated anecdotes than a simple travelogue. Lots of questions. Goodly sized audience, giving the venue a rather convivial atmosphere. There’d been wine, albeit not for me until much later, and a fantastic spread to help take the edge off the alcohol. Even joined by my local MP, same chap who’d cut the tape as I’d set off towards France almost three years earlier. But, best of all, we’d raised almost £390 for The Outward Bound Trust. And a few offers of further speaking engagements.

[With especial thanks to Pauline and Bob, Jon and Helen, Jenny, Anton and Linda, Sue and Roger, Tony and Sarah, Nikki, David, Sarah]



May 20th, 2012

On the doormat a roughly scribbled note on the torn remnants of the flap of a plain white envelope. I decided it said “My keys please. U have left me threadbare“. The ‘U’ resembled more of a ‘Y’. Written in black with a ballpoint, the ink’s inconsistency suggested an unsteady hand, or else the text had been scrawled in haste without a proper surface on which to rest. Quite probably both. I’d no idea who it was from, to what it might refer beyond what it explicitly stated, or even if it’d been dropped through what the sender at least thought was the right letter box. Nor did I especially care. Unless there was a reoccurrence of sorts, which I doubted would be the case.

I’d a rough recollection of what might have been the dull clunk of the letterbox, muffled by heavy drapes drawn across the front door as much to keep the warmth in as the noise of the odd passerby out. Habitual, as it was rarely cold at night now, or at least not enough to make the drawing of the generously oversized curtain a necessity. Quickly pondering when I’d heard the sound. Must have been fairly late the previous evening, for I’d already gone to bed. Perhaps when the two pubs nearby, each opposite the other at the end their respective row of small terraced houses, like Toby jug bookends, had been shutting up, their inebriated clientele spilling out on the street. A small printed sign in the window of one house asked patrons to loiter elsewhere. In so many words at least.

Maybe I did care. Or at least was curious, on two accounts. Who’d left the note? And the choice of words. Threadbare they’d said. Not exactly apocalyptic but it had nevertheless caught my imagination, presumably as the author had intended. In a society where you cannot starve, I should simply have discarded it as an over embellishment, refusing to succumb to the shock value it seemed likely the writer sought. Should have known better, been more rational about it. After all, the media was positively bulging with headlines invariably far more dramatic than the piece might, on cold analysis, merit.

Was all this exaggeration such a bad thing I wondered? Pondering later, the mind otherwise idling along as I ploughed my lengths steadily up and down a local swimming pool, perhaps not. After all, faced with an ever increasing onslaught of information in all diverse of manners, we need some mechanism to root out what really matters to us. And we are fundamentally emotional creatures, able to override rational thought and behaviour with remarkable ease, so perhaps the use of emotive language makes sense. Provided, of course, that the substance of the piece is more balanced, lest the credibility of the author, or those they may be quoting, be called into question. Single interest groups making skewed, distorted claims take note.


Pen and ink

May 13th, 2012

“Plausible impossibilities should be preferred to unconvincing possibilities” Aristotle

A link I’d been sent recently to a reputable website, the BBC in point of fact, had been a gentle reminder that literature is inextricably bound to the landscape. Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. Somerset. Wordsworth and the Lakes. Virginia Woolf. Cornwall. Whilst I didn’t exactly disagree with the writer’s assertion, the romanticisation of rural Britain would have been a better premise for the piece. Exploring the irony that in doing so, in bringing such idyllic locations to the attention of the masses, the middle classes at least, the very essence the authors had sought to capture would be lost. Forever.

I’d hated Cider with Rosie at school but as an adult loved its descriptive prose, the fine detail. You could taste the morning dew, the crunch of freshly plucked apples. But what I liked most were the manuscripts. Scrawled handwriting, as if written in haste, struggling to get ideas onto paper before they might be lost. Insights into composition that would endure. I’d imagined a writing desk, blotting pad and an ink bottle. Generous black strokes, scribed deeply into thick parchment paper. A contemplative silence ruffled only by the gentle tick of a clock. Beyond, a bay window, soft early morning sunlight.

And then I remembered. Freshly made coffee. A small cafetiere, filled to the brim, the plunger precariously balanced on a thick crust of grounds. My inspiration, frequent sips as a smoker might draw on a cigarette. Dylan Thomas perhaps, surrounded by discarded papers, crumpled in frustration, lying now on a tatty, stained carpet. Soft hazy spirals rising slowly from nicotine stained fingers. Ash on the page, a small tumbler of cheap whisky within reach.

I doubted if anyone wrote novels long hand these days, but hand written prose still had its place, the art of letter writing at least offering a gravitas electronic media could never match in an intrinsically sensual world. Fine vellum wasn’t necessary, indeed composition on the back of a paper napkin, jottings on cheap hotel headed notepaper, suggested the author had made that extra effort, had sought to share their thoughts, their feelings, with a freshness, a spontaneity that might otherwise have been lost.

The plunger slid down with ease. Quickly decanted into a mug marked Captain. I’d nautical aspirations, rather more Swallows and Amazons than the open ocean. Returning to the kitchen table, neatly stacked with work for the day ahead. Soft brown leather organiser, a trusted companion, now with light sheen from years of faithful service, a gloss disrupted only by a few deeply ingrained freckles. Couple of A level texts. Mathematics. Classic works but with bright, appealing covers and well presented text inside. A scientific calculator with a soft grey case. Creativity can be ordered, a beauty in precision quite possible.

[Despite a childhood aversion to Cider with Rosie – one of his set texts for English Literature – the author actually secured a respectable ‘O’ level, as much to the surprise of his teacher as to himself]


Coincidences and conspiracy

May 9th, 2012

We’d malt loaf and a small flask of black coffee, flavoured with a little ginger. The toast we’d hastily devoured before quietly slipping out a few hours earlier and heading onto the Quantocks would no doubt amply suffice for a few hours strolling up the gentle Combes and across the open moorland. But it’d been re-assuring to know we’d rations of sorts if we started to falter. And, in any case, a swig of hot coffee in the largely non-existent lee of a trig point was welcome refreshment as we gazed across the Bristol Channel. Wales appeared much closer than I remembered, the coastal cities of Cardiff and Swansea remarkably clear in the chill air. Fifty miles away perhaps. I wasn’t entirely sure, for they lay beyond the boundaries of our map.

I’d returned to Somerset, albeit briefly, to make sure all remained on track for my inaugural talk in a little less than three weeks. And a chance to catch up with friends, as well as to reinforce my desire to return to being properly resident once more. Not that I especially needed encouragement with the latter, which had left me in a somewhat pensive mood of late. A few hours with a close friend exploring the heath land had been instructive, helping consolidate the various strands of thought that’d been growing over the last couple of weeks. A plan was required, or at least one with more definition, more substance, than the one I’d presently got.

Settling quickly on the notion of a plan to yield a more tangible plan, a concept with shades of Yes Minister, the conversation had quickly returned to coincidences and conspiracies, of which there remained a lot to choose from. Partly my fault, for I’d a large red holdall identical to the one in which a chap had been found dead inside in what could only be described as suspicious circumstances and suggestions of foul play by an unknown third party. We’d also dwelt once more on the demise of a British businessman in China that had led to turmoil amongst the higher echelons of their Communist Party. All the makings, I’d suggested, with a wry smile, of a decent espionage novel. I’d proffered theories.

Simple coincidence quickly seemed a much lighter topic, and there’d been a fair few of late. A fellow cyclist I’d been introduced to a year or so earlier, courtesy of a friend from my village, had been unexpectedly mentioned over lunch the previous weekend, this time by close relatives who, it transpired, had been at Cambridge with her. Had I heard of her, they’d asked? Yes, I said, a little to their surprise I thought. I’d got back in touch with my fellow traveller, now in Pakistan, soon sharing what I hoped would be helpful insights into Chinese visas. And there’d been a few other examples, enough to make you feel just a bit conspiratorial if you were that way inclined. I wasn’t.

The broad spur began to steepen quite sharply, my companion choosing to pack away his camera in case he lost his footing. Below us the small village where we’d parked up a few hours earlier. Thatched cottages, sprinkled around the church. And a little line of bungalows. Close enough for us to observe, but far away not to be seen. We agreed it looked nice, but a bit too quiet. Wrong demographic we’d said, both reluctant to actually say old
people. Time to move on.


Very British affairs

April 17th, 2012

I was far from bored, busying myself with pursuing a new career, and there’d even been a parental visit. Forty three and I’d still made sure there were fresh towels and bleach down the loo. But, as if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, I’d found myself engrossed in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of Swedish part investigative journalism part crime novels. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo probably the most well known. I couldn’t remember how I’d stumbled across them in the first place, but it didn’t seem to matter. The characters had a depth that made an otherwise improbable individual suddenly plausible. Small, almost insignificant, details that added little, if anything, to the plot directly, but helped make the various players in the drama believable. Fascinating writing style. I made a few notes.

But it wasn’t just fiction that’d had me intrigued of late. Much in the news to draw in my interest, especially if you’re a conspiracy theorist. I’m not, but I do enjoy a good plot with plenty of twists and turns. Ever wondered what spies give each other for Christmas? I’ve a hunch that there are a few worried souls on the South Bank of the Thames who’d rather wished they’d eased back on the glowing correspondence with the Libyans and, instead, given them a shredder. Adds new meaning to the expression Pen is mightier than the Sword if you’re looking for a smoking

Amidst the terrible nautical puns, there’d been a refreshing piece in the Independent on one man’s effort to thwart the annual Oxford Cambridge boat race. There’d been talk of Class War, but I’d always thought that was really an indulgence of Socialist Worker staffers, and in any case it’d hardly been little more than a skirmish. But no, our lone swimmer had at least livened up what was undoubtedly one of the dullest possible spectator sports, the writer claimed. After snooker. I agreed.

Class, incidentally, we are told, is a very British thing. Eton. Harrow. Oxbridge. Although sometimes it sounds to me like the politics of envy, oft said by those who should have tried harder at school. Truth is often less palatable than some would like, for the rarely aired irony is that both Oxford and Cambridge would actually welcome far more students from less advantaged backgrounds. Perhaps less prepared than their public school chums for the entry process, instead reliant more on raw intellectual ability, they generally make better undergraduates. As I’d once learnt over breakfast with the Rector of one of the Oxford Colleges. She’d been most passionate on this point.

But most intriguing of all over the last couple of weeks has been the death of an old Harrovian in China. Actually it was last year, but the story, such as it is, has only recently emerged. Amidst tales of political intrigue amongst the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party there’d been quickly rebutted suggestions of espionage, and allegations of vast wealth being siphoned off. The only certainty so far is that a rather amiable chap is now dead. If I ever needed a plot for a novel, the whole affair wouldn’t be a bad start. I stuffed the various press cuttings in an envelope and made a few more notes.

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