Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Social media and football punditry

March 17th, 2012

I’d been wrestling with a suitable title for a forthcoming talk about my exploits on the road. Played with pathos. “Lonely Roads… one man’s two-wheeled odyssey around the world”. Started well but too long. “An evening with…”. Far too pretentious. Endless lengths of the local swimming pool had failed to stimulate creativity. So I’d turned to Facebook for inspiration. Posted a few ideas. Invited suggestions.

It’d struggled at first with social media. What was the point exactly? Surely if you wanted to be sociable, you’d meet for coffee and a slice of moist cake. Maybe a spot of lunch. Dinner if you really liked them. Not poring over a small screen, fingers skimming over a tablet or eyes staring intently at a smart phone. But I’d eventually got it. Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Tools for sharing, for connecting. Complementing, rather than replacing, more traditional social interaction.

My return from Somerset was earlier than I’d have liked. But there was a dinner in London to attend and didn’t want to risk disruption on the rails. Must though have been a rough part of town, for those on the door had side arms. No, really. And I’d needed my passport for admittance. Took the one with the least dubious visas. Formal but, as these things should be, very relaxed. It was a Black Tie affair. Acceptable attire a pretty broad church which some had taken it quite literally. I’d so wanted to ask them if they thought this was a Wake, or if they’d been obliged to come in haste directly from the funeral.

I was certain Debretts would advise against such outbursts of wit. Settling instead on teasing my Dad a few days later that I’d been obliged to listen to some sort of football pundit. Definitely not my game, but obliged to admit even I’d heard of the chap. Eclipsed though as an after-dinner speaker by a popular Irish comedian and chat show host. Almost wept. Scribbled a few of his lines on the back of the menu. Well, you never know. But don’t think I’ll ever have his delivery.

Back on the south coast a few days later, tucked away house-sitting for a good friend, endless iterations of my CV were drawing to a close. Honing. Refining. Choice of words had intrigued me. For, I’d learnt, the world was, apparently, full of excellent communicators and outstanding leaders. Just ask anyone in HR. They’ll tell you everyone is. There are endless books to help. But that’s part of the problem. Striking the balance between a welcome familiar format and a grey formulaic offering. Tricky.

If I’d made a mistake with Facebook, it was to suggest “Travels with Emma” as a possible title for my talk. Drawing in a few dubious double-entendres. But there was one offering I really liked. A real gem. “One World, Two Wheels”. Nice ring to it. Short enough. What it lacked in pathos it had in inspiration. But it was now time to put the coffee on. Wondering what intrigue the next week would bring. A job perhaps.


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.



Living out of a bag

February 23rd, 2012

I’d returned to the hostel dorm after my early morning swim. As curious about the regular crowd that did this sort of thing as I was for the clarity of thought I invariably found in the solace of my lengths. Medicine man was sat cross legged by his bunk, a large array of foil tablet strips spread out neatly in a large arc before him. He nodded. I smiled.

I’d risen early. Little after five thirty. Quietly made my way down to the bathrooms below. At the bottom of the stairs a patch of vomit. Covered with a small strip of toilet paper. Ineffective but at least a little modicum of consideration. Decided I needed a cup of tea. Kick myself into life. I was trying to shun the usual coffee, my staple for the last few years in a world where a decent brew had invariably been as elusive as much of the fauna.

A Japanese student in an oversized black down jacket sat in the otherwise empty cafeteria, illuminated only by the unwelcoming green glow of the escape signs and the harsh light of the television on the wall above his head. Cartoons. I didn’t think he was watching. And thought he’d been there a while. Quite possibly all night. I headed off into the crisp morning air. Collar of my heavy cotton top turned up. Thick gloves on. But no jacket. Wanted to enjoy the refreshing sharpness without being too chilled.

Ten minutes brisk walking. The odd cyclist, dog walker. A few business opening up. Traditional butcher pulling down his old-fashioned awning. Fine cuts in the window. Cafes yet to unstack their chairs. The local swimming pool was council owned but run by some sort of local co-operative. I approved. The mixed changing area felt clinical and smelt strongly of old ladies perfume even though none were to be seen. The sort of odour that lingered.

Lengths done in a lane marked ’Keep it slow’ and then quick scribblings in my pocket book. An abundance of ideas, random thoughts – mostly single words I hoped would be equally meaningful later. I’d had lots to think about and lots to do. Hot shower. Then ready to venture back outside and see what unfurled in the day ahead. I liked plans. Structure. A very logical mind. But now I also found myself intrigued – compelled even – to indulge in uncertainty. Made things a bit more interesting.

Soon strolling purposefully back towards Portland Road and the hostel. Children heading off for school. Closer to the main thoroughfare smarter houses and sharper uniforms. Satchels and wind instruments. I turned by an Estate Agent. The window display alluringly suggested buoyant sales. One family home just sold for a snip over five million. It was detached.

French pâtisserie. I’d had to insist on English Breakfast tea. Not Earl Grey. Too much of a soapy after taste. Smart place. Authentic oak beams in a new setting. Reasonably priced breads. Expensive looking cakes. A young woman sat at the next table. She’d especially frizzy hair and stared intently at an e-book. Most the clientele sought coffee to go. Overly enveloped in scarfs and heavy coats.

Stopped briefly to buy lunch at a local supermarket. The cashier smiled and then croaked a few words. Bit of a sore throat I’d asked? That time of year I’d added. No, she’d replied. Surgery to remove lumps on her throat. And it’d not get better than this. I gulped, nodded and then left. Kensington High Street.

I was heading for the Royal Geographical Society. Next to the equally prestigious Royal Albert Hall. The sort of place where you might easily drag a dead tiger across its well-worn dark wooden floors, Blunderbuss under one arm, Pith helmet under the other. And nobody’d care to mention it.

In one stairwell a collection of photos of Past Presidents. Household names. The odd Admiral. And one chap who closely resembled Lord Lucan. I was hopeful of election to Fellow shortly. But admiration wasn’t my purpose. Sound advice had been that an expedition without a report was called a holiday. And mine had been no beach towels and bathrobes. A few suitable examples from the archives to be studied before I compiled mine in earnest.

Amidst the Society’s large collection of expedition reports I’d stumbled on a couple that intrigued rather than informed. A 1978 project cycling along the banks of the Nile by students from a public school close to where my parents lived. I especially liked the quotation on its cover.

"I would think twice of an Englishman’s view of his neighbour, but would trust implicitly his account of the Upper reaches of the Nile"

I also liked one of their entries in a list of publications they’d featured in. Playboy. No explanation given. Or extract enclosed. Teenage boys. Another report – chance find once more – shed light on how a friend had mostly likely met his wife.

Brief detour on my way back to the hostel. Gentlemen’s Outfitters. Abdul had me quickly measured up. Explained I needed black tie. Prestigious function I’d emphasised, the sort where you’d be wise to consult Debretts before attending. My copy had gone astray so I’d plans to sneak a peak in nearby Waterstones. Winged or classic he’d asked. I’d done formal before but not in this fashion.

Back that night at the hostel I’d sunk into one of the deep sofas in the lounge. The lights were dimmed and the television on. On the next sofa someone with passable facial features for a woman in her late sixties. But the sizeable Adam’s Apple was unmistakable. I christened her Bob. Unspoken of course. Engrossed in University Challenge.

Struggling to read in the gloom I wandered back to the reception area. It was busy, the previous night’s group of French students and their teachers being replaced by another equally large one from across the Channel. But I was able to find somewhere to sit, quickly returning to the relative comfort of Huxley’s Brave New World and oblivion to the orderly chaos around me. I’d still to finish the various prefaces that’d been added over the years before the book proper.

Next day another early start. Just after five. Synapses all fired up. I emerged from the bathroom as Bob entered. Padding around in boxers. Pre-op I presumed. At reception staff were trying to eject a middle-aged man and not for the first time. Ignoring the altercation, I headed off for another swim.

On my way back I’d found Bob nodding to a passing dog walker. The man continued on a few paces then stopped. Turned around slowly and then stared for a few moments. I’d hurried back to the hostel. Packing to be done and the check-out time was getting close.

A short while later, as I strolled across the hostel courtyard, I observed Bob now sat in the cafeteria, engrossed this time in quiet discussion with medical man. Lots of appreciative nods. Time for another railway encounter and some sea air. Soon finding myself grabbing a tea on the train from the trolley. Refreshment whilst I wrote. The attendant – his badge said host – spoke only to tell me the price. Another gravelly voice. Probably used to be a sixty a day man. This time I was silent.




February 19th, 2012

The train from Corby was cancelled. Next one in an hour. Engineering works. I’d miss my connection from Kettering south into London. But had been assured my ticket would be valid on the next available service. I made little effort to hide my scepticism. Large sliding doors meant the waiting area was little warmer than the platform. I breathed deeply, hoped the angst would pass and sat down on the icy metal bench.

Short journey to Kettering. One stop. But enough time to scribble in my diary, to remind myself of the issues I’d need to tackle the next day. Window locks. Letters to post. Tickets to collect. A melancholy collection of tasks. But they had to be done.

The London bound service from Kettering was tired. Dated carriages. Most of the passengers looked forlorn. I’d no idea where they might have started from but imagined it must have been a good distance away. The guard made her way along the aisle, dragging a large plastic bag that she slowly filled with abandoned newspapers and discarded snack wrappers. She returned later to put out reservation tickets for the northbound return.

On the Underground a young man sat flicking back and forth through an exam paper. Quantum Physics. Strange mathematical squiggles. An older man – early thirties – was reading Macbeth. No one spoke. No eye contact. I knew I was home. Making the steady transition back to a less transient existence.

I’d chosen to stop overnight in a central London Youth Hostel, tucked away in a small park but well placed for the next day. In the hostel dormitory a middle-aged man lamented the lack of privacy. Muttered away about the lack of space to stow his luggage. Very tattered. Wondered if he might be homeless rather than a bona fide traveller.

A few days earlier I’d sat in a smart cafe in a small market town a little way from Peterborough. Ordinarily I’d never have ventured in, but half-term meant it was quiet, and suddenly quite appealing. There was a decent sized map of the World on the wall. I’d stared at quite intently. Sketching out my own route in my head. You’d have thought me day dreaming. Rather, I was just beginning to grasp what I’d done. And the gentle realisation I’d never quite view people – and places – in quite the same way ever again. Ever.



London callings

February 5th, 2012

Layer Cake. Quite sure. Sat enjoying a mug of tea in Westminster’s Regency Cafe, I’d soon realised it’d been the film setting for a rather violent altercation. The plain, functional interior felt too perfect, too neat, to be real. But it was. Told it’d made the Telegraph’s Top Ten for places to breakfast. But with a very down-to-earth clientele.

My request for Eggs Benedict twice had been greeted with a friendly acknowledgement that it was simple order. I took this to mean quick. Which would be good. Much needed sustenance to alleviate baggy heads after an evening with friends. One of whom, and on who’s sofa I’d spent the night, had taken me the short distance to the cafe.

I’d headed into London for a couple of days. Few calls to make. Royal Geographical Society. The Outward Bound Trust. Discussing what happens next. Reports to be written. Funds to be raised. Finding myself ever more comfortable living out of a small rucksack. Settled into a transitory existence. For now at least.

When it came, our breakfast order was announced with a clarity, a diction any Shakespearean actor would have been justly proud of. And not too soon. Earlier recollections of empty wine bottles and the few remaining dregs of a decent port needing to be expunged.

[With especial thanks to friends Mark, John and Dan, plus Shane and Amy at the Royal Geographical Society, and Kristina and the team at The Outward Bound Trust]



Big Silver Bird

February 4th, 2012

Dull and grey. Thirties semis below. Partly obscured by wisps of cloud. West London. Soon to be on the ground. Flight over had been tolerable. Aroused from my dozing by a mediocre breakfast. As dull as dinner the previous evening. The cabin crew were pleasant enough. Mature. One, I thought, resembled Rolf Harris. But the whole thing lacked sparkle. But I didn’t doubt the coffee was freshly brewed. From old socks.

The final few days across Florida had been hectic. Unrelenting rain on the final hundred mile push to the coast. But a little kindly respite once I’d reached the finish. Intersection of the 206 and the A1A. Not a photogenic spot I’d admit, but I’d not really cared for that. Just glad to be able to head off a short way to find Ron and Nancy, with whom I’d be spending a couple of nights. Hot shower beckoned.

I’d deliberately pushed hard towards the end. Eager to have a whole day off the road to sort out my trusty steed and all the kit, preparing it for the rigours of the baggage handlers. And a chance to have a sociable evening with Ron and Nancy. Mark the end of my fourth continent.

Next morning I’d started in earnest. Rental car. Free upgrade to something more practical. Thrift shop for a couple of cheap suitcases. Nancy had already found me a cardboard bike box from a local shop. It’d be tight, but I was sure I’d be able to fit my loyal companion in. She’d be in pieces of course. Lots of them.

Five hours sleep. Then the three hundred mile sprint south to Miami International. They’d said six hours. Made it in five. Including lunch. Two and a half litres and an Interstate had been fun. I’d half expected dramas dragging everything to Check-in, but in the end a few helpful souls from the rental car company had lent a hand. Soon where I’d wanted to be. Drinking coffee close to the departure gate. Three hours to kill.


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