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]


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.


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.


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.


Troublesome bunnies and reluctant pussies

April 8th, 2012

Hectic few weeks, but, amidst much feverish activity, a few things have especially caught my eye, the temptation to share them with others becoming irresistible. Besides, if David Cameron could proffer an Easter Message, surely I could, no longer the sole preserve of the Pope. It’d not be without risk, as I’d discovered a few days ago when I’d shared my thoughts on that most controversial of subjects, the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast.

Simply asking who actually listens to the Shipping Forecast these days? I mean, at 5.20am. Five twenty. AM. Washed up on the shore by the steady flow of technology perhaps. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’d still be a following amongst the smaller fishing communities but they’ve mostly disappeared now. Left with the odd yachtie I’d suggested? Quite a few in seemed, judging from the robust rebuttal I’d quickly received. Obliged to promise I’d be off shortly to the cake shop. Special order. Humble pie with lashings of cream.

Various four legged friends have also been in the news. Apparently cats can survive falling up to forty storeys – I say apparently because most cats are reluctant to participate in proper scientific study, say researchers. Boring. But now the story’s out, so to speak, look out for budding “copycat” scientists. Or rather their pets, especially if you live in a high rise. Could be worse. Same report mentions horses… Whilst, on another continent, some say the law is an…. Well, you know, bit like a donkey. Or your posterior. But not in Libya. Camels. As the son of the former Dictator has discovered, charged, so far at least, not with heinous crimes against his fellow citizens, but for possession of a few of our dromedary friends without a license. What next? Bringing the Police to book for shooting an innocent man using ‘ealth and Safety laws? Surely not…

And such a fine example of the law of unintended consequences is ‘ealth and Safety. Who, after all, could have foreseen it becoming so much a part of the fabric of British society? Intertwined into our daily lives, its tentacles spreading ever wider. It’d been a line of cars and vans snaking around a roundabout, a lengthy queue for petrol, that’d been such a sharp reminder. Self-perpetuating drama, for there was no fuel strike, nor one planned. And the underlying tanker drivers’ dispute? Not exactly clear, but ‘ealth & Safety concerns are in there somewhere. Which probably translates into more cash. But before anyone cites the supposed dangerous nature of their work, first take heed of what I consider a truly hazardous occupation. That’d be tackling improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, below which everything else really pales into insignificance.

Reassuring news next, a warming glimmer of hope. Denmark isn’t full of serial killers. Political intrigue maybe but not mass murderers. I’d Sandi Tosvik to thank for this insight. Responding to a question from a fellow member of in the audience at the Royal Geographical Society recently, enquiring as to how well did the recent spate of Danish TV dramas, The Killing amongst others, airing on the BBC reflect life in Legoland? Sorry, I made that very last bit up. Denmark. No such thing as a stupid question…

But for real twists and turns, I’d my own village, galvanised of late by prospects for resurrecting our pub that’s been closed now for a couple of years. Public meetings with pretty much every house represented. I’d sent my apologies. Talk of communal buy-outs, internet cafes, of tax efficient investment vehicles. Laudable stuff, even if secretly the only thing I thought might stack up were the pizzas. Our very own soap opera, but a bit too racy for Ambridge, especially with the arrival of the Easter Bunny. A dubious e-card purportedly from the vacant establishment’s present owner. Hugh Heffner would be proud.


Westerly brewing

March 10th, 2012

My choice of words conveyed my distain. Rather well I thought. Brief and to the point. I’d almost laughed but instead had chosen to be abrupt. Purchased not a cup of tea, but rather a cup of tepid water and a separate tea bag I’d have to unwrap and dunk myself. A good brew this could never be. Self-assembly I’d said to the woman behind the buffet car’s overly tall counter.

A man had appeared from the galley. They were not, he explained, allowed to touch the tea bags lest they spread disease amongst the passengers. Now I laughed. Conveying a sense of ridicule I hoped. This, I said loudly, was ’ealth and Safety gone quite mad. He seemed surprised by my assertion.

Back at my seat a young woman stared and tutted as I clambered back in. Her boyfriend was sprawled out in the seat opposite, fast asleep. She woke him and muttered something about it being a Quiet carriage. He soon dozed off once more. I supped my tea loudly. Must definitely stick with the buses.



Inspector Knacker

March 10th, 2012

In the corner Inspector Knacker of the Yard was being chummy. Probably not a hack as they’d be off covering the Levenson Inquiry. Or on the run. And it was plain old coffee rather than a bit of bubbly and a brown envelope. Tough times for all. I’d stopped off in a small cafe opposite New Scotland Yard. Made better time with my errands than I’d thought, and disliked the idea of getting to Paddington too early for my train back to the Westcountry. Instead, passing the time listening to PC Plod making the inexcusable schoolboy error of not picking an establishment with alcoves. Sharing their indiscretions with anyone inclined to listen.

I was pleased to be heading over to Somerset. It was my home of course. And it wasn’t Corby-by-the-Sea. I’d not quite been declared persona non grata. Not yet anyway. But had been gentled teased that a few friends and acquaintances had seen through my especially feeble efforts at concealing its real identity. Busy sharpening their pitchforks I’d been told. Some people. No sense of humour. Which had surprised me. Living there.

The guard on the train was from Exeter. He said so over the tannoy. Very proud of it. We’d probably have guessed anyway. Affable chap. Softly spoken. Something of a favourite uncle. I’d met him as I’d boarded. Quiet train he’d said to me, smiling. I’d nodded appreciatively, struggling to stow my bulging rucksack before the other passengers caught up with me. His modest enthusiasm was infectious. Cheery. Masking the tatty upholstery unchanged since I’d commuted on the same line over a decade ago.



Old ‘arry’s game

March 5th, 2012

I was waiting for a bus. Stop beside a stretch of dual carriage way, as much a rapid conduit for the icy wind as the traffic. A man wandered past in a cheap, thin fleece jacket, collar turned up to repel the sharp cold. Shiny black shell suit bottoms, stopping short six inches above his ankles. He probably lived here. Mine was a fleeting visit. Less if I had my way. But, at least when it did eventually arrive, the bus’s driver was cheery. Dunkirk spirit.

I’d imagined the place to be what I’d term Corby-by-the-Sea. Which isn’t a complement. Unless, that is, I’m told, you’ve been to Great Yarmouth. I haven’t and don’t plan to. And although I must admit to fairly scant knowledge of Norfolk fishing towns, I was certain my current location had always been popular with overseas visitors. In the 1940’s that’d be the Luftwaffe. There’s been few improvements since.

Inevitably, there’d been the odd claim to fame, dug up by the local council. Almost – well – literally. Another birthplace town. Famous writer of the Victorian era. Inspired, I quickly surmised, to leave. Never to return. Bit of a shame, shortsighted on his part, for he was something of a social commentator. And I thought there to be enough material here for an entire conference. Less generous writers have suggested the place has some of the densest population in the whole of the UK.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of things to do here, a lack of amenities. Plenty of Bingo Halls. A dog track. A hideous pyramid shaped leisure centre drawing in similarly unattractive individuals. Lots of public toilets, always somewhere to discard your sharps. Thoughtful. A wide esplanade popular with joggers, dancing nimbly around the innumerable dog faeces and discarded nappies. And a boating lake. Resplendent with some large plastic swans languishing at their moorings. The sort you could paddle about in if you were that way inclined. I wasn’t.

There’s also a football club. Quite popular by all accounts. Traffic chaos on match days. And frequently in the news, albeit more for the tax affairs of a former manager than their playing ability. Taking its nickname from an ancient Roman city buried under mountains of hot ash. But still no appeal. Or, much to my dismay, no rumbling volcanoes nearby. I’d grown up in Wales. Rugby. As a schoolboy it’d been a miserable affair, but at least it was a game where aggression was confined to the pitch.

A brief burst of Sixties civic pride, and a job lot of concrete, had led to the creation of an especially ugly shopping centre. At the time a much lauded example of Brutalist architecture (no really), it had aesthetic appeal even hardened Soviet era architects might have balked at. I’d tried to imagine it being opened to great fanfare by Miss Corby-by-the-Sea circa 1965. But then gave up. Eventually demolished by mutual consent, its demise had been a squalid, protracted eye sore. The lingering smell of chip grease and stale urine equally unpleasant on the other senses.

I’d tried an early morning dip in the local swimming pool. Squat building, bricks and concrete, that resembled the sort of thing that masked the entrance to a Cold War bunker. Harrowing experience. Reminiscent of scenes from Cocoon. My protestations that closing twenty minutes before the end of each advertised session fell on deaf ears. Probably needed fresh batteries.

The bus trundled on, frequently coming to an abrupt halt as it sought to negotiate parked cars and drifting pedestrians quite oblivious to the traffic. Of which there was always a lot. Along the High Street a fistful of loan shops offering tempting cash and exorbitant interest rates. A luxury bookmakers. Above a doorway a small sign said Samaritans. Together with the off-licences, the not infrequent criminal defence specialists, one of the few growth businesses. Smartest by far was a fast food outlet. Green plastic petal chairs in the window. Lava lamps on the tables would have nicely finished off the homage to the Sixties.

There wasn’t quite the same social and economic contrast between Corby-by-the-Sea and the neighbouring town where I was staying as I’d seen between Corby and public school Oundle. Or the separation. One bordered directly on the other. Discrimination was necessarily a bit more subtle, but there were clues. Dogs. One favoured the pit bull type, the other poodles. Mostly reliant on tattoos to tell mutts from masters. But the clincher was, as ever, supermarkets. Very clear cut. Tesco Extra and Waitrose. Chalk and Cheese. That’d be a farm matured cheddar made from a refined blend of organic milk.

I’d jumped off near a small cafe. Unpretentious, no-nonsense. Chance of a decent brew. Behind the counter a woman of Chinese descent. Rasping voice. Felt I was causing her discomfort as I asked for a small mug. A couple – late fifties I thought – rotund, bald chap and a lady with a sympathetically shaven head were, for a while, the only other customers. Another woman entered as I was packing up my belongings to leave. She was seeking shelter from the insidious damp cold outside. Smart pink jacket. I noticed it because it wasn’t cheap.

Back on a bus once more. Fellow passengers more numerous than before. And mostly wooden. Motionless save for the odd jolt. As if oblivious to life around them. Except for a Polish woman with her two young children. I’d offered her my seat, not because the bus was particularly full, but because I thought it might make it easier for her to supervise her playful charges on the seat in front. She politely declined, but seemed pleased someone had cared to talk to her.

Destination reached, another small cafe to meet up with an old colleague. Transfixed watching wisps of coffee, vapours swirling slowly upwards from my cup, as I waited his arrival. Soon the only customer. Quickly attuned to the conversation behind the counter. Another neat pile of empty music cassettes. Left on the pavement beneath the cafe window.

They must have sensed my interest. It happened, explained one of the women, a few times a week. Nobody ever seem to notice who deposited them. Or could explain why. Perhaps, I suggested, the choice of music might proffer a few clues. What, I asked, had been left this time? She shuffled the cases as you might a pack of cards. A short pause. Then she spoke. Kinks. Country and Western. Country and Western, I quickly responded? Emphatically. Was she sure?

[The author would like to point out that he’s not received any payment from the local Tourist Board to promote Corby-by-the-Sea. Just in case you were wondering… But he is hoping to train a dog to do his tax return for him]



Teeing off

January 28th, 2012


No sign of the golf club. Or who might be wielding it… In Greenville, Florida


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