Across Continents

Ken's Blog

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 p√Ętisserie. 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.



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]



Surly Shelia

July 12th, 2011

Today’s Kiwese word or phrase: "Cuttin". Young cat

It was an embarrassingly stupid question. Her favourite book? Started to cringe almost as the words stumbled out. Caroline had read literature. Durham. Originally from Barrow-in-Furness. I’d spent a night there once. Nondescript B&B. Arrived in the dark. Left before dawn.


I’d come across her bike a little earlier. A Surly. Well-equipped serious touring machine. Parked up in Punakaiki. No sign of its owner. Judging by the saddle, a woman. Left my card. Tucked carefully into one of the front panniers.

If Caroline thought my question awkward she didn’t let on. Difficult choices. Probably Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Not, I’d admitted, a text I was familiar with. But the author? He’d given his name to the Royal Geographical Society’s theatre in Kensington Gore she explained.

Caroline had passed me on the road as I’d strolled back from Punakaiki to the Te Nikau retreat. Slowed a little by an incline, we’d exchanged pleasantries. I’d asked if she found my card. She had. Did her steed have a name? Yes, she said. Sheila.

We were the only guests that night at the retreat. Sharing one of the houses. And dinner. Concocted from our respective rations. Between efforts to keep the small stove alight. Little heat from the now faintly glowing coals.

She’d been touring around New Zealand’s South Island. Heading up the coast to the North Island. Well-prepared. Very. Knew some of the familiar faces of the long-haul touring world. Had been along to the Royal Geographical Society. Serious stuff. Reflected in the kit she carried.


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