Friday, 27 November 2015

Insularity – the way of the world

You know what? Everybody keeps banging on about 'digitalisation' as if it's a great thing. But when you really sit down and think about it, it's not that great at all. In many ways it's disastrous because it leads to a state of insularity, if that's a real word. The internet might be convenient in terms of booking flights on line, buying stuff on line, sending an email and so forth, but it's also there to enable those using it to simply 'stay in' – a phrase I used to dread when I was a kid. "Well, if you haven't got any money, you'll just have to stay in," my mum and dad might have said and I'd end up walking the dark suburban streets in the cold, possibly ending up at a mate's house, but at least I'd be out and not just sitting in my bedroom staring at the walls or thinking about what could have been.

Today, however, the internet is all about 'staying in'. It's all about avoiding the need to go out and meet people. People 'stay in' a lot these days, watching crap like Homeland and other ridiculously long American television series, like Breaking Bad, which are produced with 'staying in' in mind.  They prompt people to engage in marathon 'watchathons' – that require staying in – during which time they sit there in front of a television set with a large bag of Doritos (or worse) and a can of lager doing nothing but watching the box. No conversation, nothing real, and at the end of it they just have the satisfaction, when they're next in the office, to say they've watched the whole of series one or two or whatever. How fucking boring has their life become? These are the people who have gym membership or keep a stationary bike at home in the spare room – anything but getting out in the real world on a real bike and ride some real miles.

That whole sense of community is just being taken away from us and we're all left languishing in our rooms, some of us thinking dark thoughts that might one day translate into some atrocious internet-inspired crime. "Well, we never saw him. He kept himself to himself," they might tell a television news reporter at the scene of the crime.

Online shopping. Why? People moan about their high streets becoming ghost-like with boarded up shop fronts and a general sense of decay. It's because people don't go out anymore, they're fooled into thinking that it's dangerous out there, when it's not, and they prefer to remain in their hovels awaiting the delivery truck and only venturing out to the convenience store at the end of the street if they run out of junk food.

Our insularity started long before the Internet. It started with personal stereos – a piece of technology that enabled us to listen to music without anybody else butting in. So we sat on trains and buses, headphones on, ignoring our fellow human beings – the very act of wearing headphones is a way of saying 'fuck off, I don't want to talk to you" – and locked ourselves away in our own worlds, oblivious to everything else going on around us.

Now you could say that we're being insular when we read a book and block out everybody else around us, but that's not it, we're still in the real world, sitting next to somebody, perhaps, on the bus or train, we're still part of what's going on in the world. The worst thing about social media – Facebook, Twitter etc – is that it gives us an opportunity to withdraw from the world and communicate remotely.

"We keep on contact on Facebook," I heard somebody say earlier today. What does that mean? It means we rarely meet up in person these days, neither of us could bear that, so we simply send each other the occasional message via social media to let each other know we're still alive – even if they live just a few yards apart.

We all stay in. Our food is delivered to us in our 'cells', we avoid face-to-face contact and much prefer to keep in touch electronically, we buy books on Amazon rather than visit the library or bookstore, we book flights online in preference to visiting a travel agent, we download music instead of visiting a music shop and because supermarkets sell alcohol, we buy lager on the cheap and then moan about pubs going out of business.

Pubs used to be a focal point, a place where people met to engage in conversation and laugh and joke. Now, they're closing down or, worst still, undergoing a process of 'gentrification' – meaning they're no longer for the working classes. "Pubs are more like restaurants these days," I've heard people say morosely.

Why is it that we prefer to stay in to watch satellite television and drink canned beer? Or go round somebody's house for dinner? Money is the answer. Or rather a lack of it. People simply can't afford to go to the pub every night like they used to.

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that we all simply hate one another. We've had enough of the back-biting, the unnecessary one-upmanship, the rich and the poor, the haves and have nots, the resentment, the jealousy, the pointless envy and all those negative thoughts that eventually creep in. "Did you hear what he said?" "I don't believe that for a start." "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he." Who needs it?

Perhaps that's one of the plus points of digitalisation: we don't have to put up with one another any more. Instead of visiting the pub where we might meet somebody we don't like, we can simply stay in, texting people instead. We can don our headphones so that we can listen to our music in peace without getting a running commentary from that bloke who's really into his music. "There's nothing he doesn't know." Oh really! Well guess what I'm listening to! Ha ha!

And perhaps going round to somebody's house for dinner is better than an extortionate restaurant where the pretentious food and service are never, ever up to scratch and definitely not worth the tip you feel obliged to give. I rarely tip in the UK these days because the experience is invariably shit and I hate those bastards who like to pretend that money grows on trees. "That's a tenner each, then." No it fucking isn't, you cunting cunter! Piss off!

Sometimes I think a move to the Outer Hebrides might be a good idea. Bracing walks on lonely beaches, a crofter's cottage and being cut off from civilisation for months on end. No television, just a radio and a few books – and a bicycle. Possibly a dog for company and a boat.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Man Who Cycled the World

In 2007, when Mark Beaumont was in the process of breaking the Guinness world record for riding a bicycle around the world, I was (ahem) working on a magazine that was all about the global potato processing industry – the Mighty Spud, as we called it.

I'd been riding my bike on and off since the early nineties, entering the London to Brighton, London to Oxford and London to Cambridge sponsored rides on my Marin Bear Valley SE. A few years later, riding the Kona Scrap, I headed out towards Botley Hill alone, prior to the time in 2006 when, after a curry – no, we didn't go out on our bikes IMMEDIATELY after the curry – Andy and I first set out together during the magical pre-blog days.

In fact, as Mark pedalled his way around the planet, Andy and I were making a variety of what we regarded as pioneering rides in and around Northern Kent to places like Westerham and Oxted and Tandridge, not forgetting the now legendary Tatsfield Bus Stop.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm reviewing a book that was written a few years ago and I've only just gotten round to reading it. In fact, as I write this, I've just finished Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World. The only bit I haven't read is the final chapter, Una's Story, because, in all honesty, I've read the main bit of the book and it's now back on my bookshelf alongside some other cycling books. I'm seriously considering Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the Americas, but I won't read it straightaway, that would be overkill, and besides, I'm knackered, just like Beaumont, and need a rest from reading cycling adventure books.

Another reason why it's taken me some considerable time to get round to reading Beaumont's excellent book is that it's taken me a while to start reading books about cycling. And if you want another reason, it might have something to do with judging a book by its cover. Yes, I'm guilty of spotting Beaumont in Lycra on the front cover and thinking 'no, he's a Lycra monkey'. I was wrong, but before I realised this, I read quite a few other cycling books (Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike, Leon McCarron's The Road Headed West, and Rob Lilwall's Cycling Home from Siberia) all of which were very good and, like Beaumont's book, the reader feels as if he or she is actually on the ride with him.

I had picked up Beaumont's masterpiece in Waterstone's on more than one occasion and put it back on the shelf. Eventually I decided to take the plunge and buy it – a purchase well worth making and one I should have made much earlier. From the word go, this proved to be an adventure of epic proportions. Beaumont rides a Koga touring bicycle (similar to one I saw in a bike shop in Littlehampton recently) and sets off from Paris to ride leg one of his journey to Istanbul. Within days of setting off his is beset by problems: punctures, broken spokes, all sorts of mechanical issues he wasn't expecting so early on.

Beaumont camps a lot in fields, behind bushes – out of harm's way – and he isn't phased by it either. He blends camping in his one-man tent with nights in hotels, including some strangely entertaining places, like an odd establishment in the Ukraine, and, in between putting in some serious miles – and fuelling himself on cous cous and other foodstuffs, totting up to around 6,000 calories per day, he rides the bike from dawn to dusk. It's quite incredible how he takes some serious distances in his stride, on a daily basis, and finds time, in between eating and riding, to have the occasional massage, courtesy of a guy called Piotr who brings along his own massage table during leg one of the ride.

After reaching Istanbul (the end of leg one) Beaumont embarks upon the most worrisome section of his adventure – riding through Iran, Pakistan and India. By and large, however, he has no major problems. There are frustrating moments with a police escort through Pakistan, but he makes it through, spending nights in police stations and some extremely rundown 'hotels', somewhere (I can't remember where) sharing a room with a rat.

Leg three is from Bangkok to Singapore, where heavy rains play havoc with Beaumont's 'on board' computer systems, and then, leg four, Perth to Brisbane: a hot, punishing section of the ride where dangerous animals – snakes and spiders – were cause for concern while camping, along with strong headwinds. Leg Five sees him ride from one end of New Zealand to the other, where the weather is in stark contrast to that he experienced in Australia, and then he flies across the Pacific to San Francisco to begin his ride from the west to the east coast of the USA.

In the USA he has a lucky escape after a road accident, which is quickly followed up by a mugging while staying in a dodgy motel, chosen for him by the son of the woman who ran him down. Not good at all, but he pulls through, gets the bike fixed, sorts out the emotional fall-out and gets back on the bike, heading for Florida.

What a relentless ride! Beaumont just keeps on going, bar a few days off, powered by cous cous and pizza and plenty of other carbohydrates. Nothing phases him. He rides, he eats, he sleeps, he rides and he's hurtling headlong towards a well-deserved place in the record books.

The final leg, from Lisbon to Paris, was much harder than Beaumont expected it to be, mainly because he didn't research it; he figured he knew the lie of the land in Western Europe, but admitted: 'Spain had been far tougher than I'd ever imagined. Then again, maybe the problem had been that I hadn't really imagined it. I'd just assumed it would be more average miles.'

As the end of the ride drew near, Beaumont was too keyed up to want to imagine the finish, although he was looking forward to the freedom of not having to get up and ride a bike the next morning. He wanted to see his family and friends, many of whom were in Paris awaiting his arrival at the finish line.

In total Beaumont cycled 18,296 miles in 194 days and 17 hours – the fastest true circumnavigation of the world by bicycle and I'm assuming he still holds the record.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Seriously cold weather as we battle snow and heavy winds to and from the Tatsfield Bus Stop

There was about 25 minutes in it. Twenty five minutes between getting soaked through and almost frozen to death or staying indoors and enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Had Andy and I agreed to meet at 0800hrs instead of the usual 0730hrs things would have been different, certainly drier, but only if we hadn't gone out. In the end – in fact, shortly after leaving the house – the snow started.

I pedalled up Church Way as the snow began to fall and it never really stopped until I returned home. When I reached the top of the hill the snow eased off, but only temporarily. By the time I reached Waitrose it was snowing again, it might have become rain or sleet, but then, once I reached the green, it was full-on snow again.

Bleak at the bus stop...
Andy was cycling towards the green at roughly the same time as yours truly, and when we spotted one another we kept on cycling, agreeing while in motion to head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop. It was the only sensible place, being as it offered shelter from the snow and a dry bench on which to sit. I didn't seem to have the usual wet arse, which goes with the territory when you don't have mudguards, but that's because there was more snow than rain. That said, on the approach to the bus stop the roads were wetter and soon my arse was wet too.

As we rode south along the Limpsfield Road towards Botley Hill, however, the snow didn't seem that bad. As usual with snow, it seems fine early on, almost enjoyable, but then it turns and things get nasty. For Andy and I the nastiness started when we made the left turn into Clarks Lane and found ourselves heading east towards Westerham. At this point the snow was blowing horizontally across the road and hitting us sideways on. Very, very unpleasant. We were both relieved to reach the bus stop.

It was truly awful weather and I think we were both wondering what the hell made us want to ride out in it. Yes, it would mean a 'respect is due' for both of us, but why? What was the point? There was no point.

We looked out from the shelter offered by the bus stop, our view slightly impeded by a sign advertising an arts and craft fair in Tatsfield Village, but the view was bleak: snow flurries travelling horizontally from north to south and showing no sign of abating. There was little else to do other than pack away our 'stuff' – flask, cups, milk – and then simply ride home, enduring the pain of the journey, which was going to be rough.

The ride to Botley Hill was unpleasant and I stopped after a few yards to cover my face with a scarf; not a brilliant idea as eventually the moisture generated by the heat of my breath dampened the cloth, which eventually cooled, becoming more unpleasant than comforting. When we made the right turn on to the 269 and headed north towards Botley Hill Andy suggested we rode along the off-road tracks for the sake of safety, but there was always punctures to worry about. It would have been the last thing we needed. Fortunately, all was well, although I can't guarantee that Andy's journey remained puncture-free as we parted company halfway along a windswept road.

I stayed on the roadside track until I reached the roundabout adjacent to Warlingham Sainsbury's and then, soaked through, I hit the road and continued the journey home. While there had been snow in the burbs, it had now turned to driving rain with rivers running along the gutters. Oh how I wished my bike had been fitted with mudguards, but if the truth be known I was already soaked through so in many ways it was academic, but it didn't feel good. My feet and hands were frozen and I knew that when I reached home I would have to stand under a warm shower for many minutes. All I wanted was for the journey to end and eventually it did. I rode through Sanderstead High Street on the path and then crossed to the Gruffy and Sanderstead Pond, into the churchyard and down Church Way. Church Way became Arkwright Road and I turned left into Morley, right on to Elmfield Way and then left into Southcote, hanging an immediate right into Ellenbridge and another right on to Barnfield.

Normally, we see plenty of cyclists, but today we were the only idiots mad enough to venture outside. There was something pleasing about that.

Having peeled off my clothing I stood under the shower and thawed out. My legs and feet were red raw with the cold and numb too, but after drying and putting on warm clothes, drinking a mug of hot tea and chilling, I felt the life begin to seep back into me. It was really good to be home.

The day remained cold and blustery and I'm wondering what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps an abort text, but not if things warm up, we'll have to wait and see.

Sunday morning
In all honesty I wasn't keen on an early start in the cold so I sent Andy a text and discovered that he felt the same way. For the first time in God knows how long, I remained in bed beyond 0600hrs and then I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, but when I looked out of the window, while a frost still lay on the ground and it was clearly a cold, crisp morning, the sun was out, the skies were blue and I started to wish I hadn't wimped out. But I had, and I'd have to live with it.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

14 & 15 November – alright, we went to the Tatsfield Bus Stop again!

A friend of mine recently told me that I wouldn't be cycling over the weekend of 14 & 15 November. There was a storm coming. In fact, the storm in question had a name – Abigail – and it was, apparently, scheduled to ruin mine and Andy's regular weekend ride into the wilds of Northern Kent.

When I woke up I peered out of the window, expecting to see the trees rocking violently from side-to-side in the blustery weather, but there was nothing. The trees were still, like statues. The only sign of potential bad weather was a general bleakness that normally means rain, but so far it looked fairly dry. There was certainly nothing to worry about and no need to send an 'abort' text.

Add straw and punch a few air holes
In fact, talking of 'abort' texts, I hadn't received any either, although I seriously doubted whether Phil would be waiting on the doorstep at 0700hrs. He'd gone down with a sore throat and hadn't been on the ride for a week or two. Having said that, the weather's getting colder and that means Phil is on the verge of hibernation, just like Freda, the Blue Peter tortoise. When I was a kid I used to watch Blue Peter every week during the period when John Noakes, Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton were the hosts.

Freda was the Blue Peter tortoise – one of many on-air pets – and every year, when it was time for her to hibernate, Noakes, Purves and Singleton made a right old song and dance about it. They produced a cardboard box with holes punched into it and the name 'Freda' written on the side in black marker pen. Freda would be placed in the box and covered in straw and that would be it until the weather warmed up.

Phil is, in effect, the Blue Peter tortoise. Once the weather gets a little chilly – 'a bit parky' – Phil hibernates. He climbs into a cardboard box with holes punched into its sides and we don't see him until the spring time.

We rode to the Tatsfield Bus Stop and did what we always do – eat biscuits, drink tea and chat about this and that while watching the world (and Lycra monkeys) pass us by.

While we'd managed to avoid a soaking on the outward journey, we weren't so lucky on the return ride. We almost made it home dry, but shortly after waving goodbye to Andy having promised to be on the green again the following morning, the heavens opened. The only good thing was the mild weather, which took the edge off of things.

The rumour for Sunday was pleasant weather and sure enough, no rain and continuing mild temperatures. This must be one of the mildest Novembers on record. But it's early days yet. I remember back in November 2010 when the cold weather really set in (click here for details).

We rode again to the Tatsfield Bus Stop having originally considered a ride to Westerham. All the way along I was thinking about Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World and the way that he sometimes camped the night in some of the most remote parts of the world. The normal procedure was to wait until the coast was clear and then dive off the road in search of somewhere private to pitch the tent. I must admit that I'd be a little wary of what is known as 'wild camping' (which I think is illegal in the UK). The thought of somebody stumbling across my tent in the dead of night would mean sleepless nights for yours truly, but Beaumont took it in his stride and made me realise that, as long as you're concealed from view and nobody knows you're there, then all should be fine. Beaumont proved as much and, as I cycled along the 269, I started to wonder who might be camping off the road, behind a tree or a bush, out of harm's way and, more importantly, out of sight.

For a lot of the earlier stages of the ride, Beaumont seemed to live off of cous cous, but as the adventure continued he resorted to motels where he could get a decent night's sleep and something reasonable to eat.

We gave up on the idea of riding to Westerham – too much in the way of chores to do back home – and settled for the bus stop. Out came the tea and biscuits and we both sat there enjoying the moment: the fresh early morning air, the peace and quiet and, of course, something decent to eat and drink.

Yours truly's bike at the bus stop...
Getting up and preparing ourselves for the ride home is never pleasant. The bus stop is such a relaxing place and I could have done with more tea and biscuits and, perhaps, the Sunday papers. But no, it was time to go home. We rode up towards Botley Hill roundabout where we turned right and headed north along the 269 towards Warlingham Green. Halfway along Andy branched off and rode down towards Woldingham and beyond the to Wapses Roundabout where he must have prepared to ride up the hill towards Caterham-on-the-Hill (the clue's in the name).

The weather remained mild for the rest of the day and I spent an hour or two in the garden chopping up wood.

Colder weather is on the way, or so they say, but it's not going to stop us riding. We'll be back in the saddle again next weekend, unless it's raining, of course.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Ramblings from Dusseldorf airport...

Thursday 12 November: As I write this I am sitting in a cafeteria – there's a counter and trays so it's not a café – enjoying a cup of black tea (as they say in Germany). I can't ask for a cup of 'builder's tea' as they wouldn't understand  me. There's no milk either, just creamer, which always reminds me of the days of my childhood when, for some reason, we sometimes had to endure our tea with Carnation evaporated milk. I can only assume that mum simply ran out of milk on some occasions. In Europe, largely, when you order a cup of tea you'll get it black and without milk and with a sachet containing a teabag, and then you'll be directed to the creamer. Awful.

It's around 1650hrs and it's getting dark outside. I'm through passport control and I'm killing time writing as I left Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World (which I've almost finished) in my suitcase, when I checked in.
The Rhine from the Schellenberg's breakfast room

As always when I stay in a hotel, I didn't get much in the way of sleep. I'd hit the sack around midnight last night and I woke up at 0700hrs so I reset the alarm for 0730hrs and tried to chill a little before getting up, taking a shower and heading down for breakfast. Although it wasn't 'down' it was up and over and, of course, it involved going outside into the fresh air. Not a big issue because the weather was mild, but it could have been much worse.

When I reached the breakfast room (the restaurant from last night) I was able to take full advantage of the Schellenberg's riverside location. It was, as I mentioned in the previous post, right on the banks of the Rhine. I sat there, having collected everything I thought I'd need – cereal, fresh fruit, a pastry, some scrambled egg and a pot of tea – and watched these huge barges pass by; they were passenger barges, designed for river cruises, and they were very long. Some had rooms so I'm guessing there are overnight river cruises along the Rhine; now that's something I'd like to do.

Viking River Cruises was one of the operators and there was another barge moored up on the bank below the hotel. At first I thought it was part of the hotel: extra rooms, perhaps; but soon the engines started the churn up the water and the barge disappeared up river.

Room 27, Schellenberg Hotel, Dusseldorf
On the opposite side of the river there were what looked like gently sloping 'sandy' banks that were almost beaches. It was probably mud, not sand, but it didn't look very muddy and I'm guessing that in the summer people might enjoy lying there, taking in some rays, but as it was mid-November and the 'beaches' were deserted.

Breakfast was pleasant enough and so was dinner last night (I had cod with polenta followed by raspberry mousse, a glass of wine and a bottle of still mineral water). The entire bill was just 189 Euros.

I checked out and left my suitcase with the concierge while I nipped over the road to the convention centre until around 2pm when I met a colleague and his customer for lunch at the hotel (potato and leek soup followed by salmon and a glass of Malbec). We talked shop and then I was driven to the airport (an incredibly short drive). Now I am sitting here having drank my tea. It's 1703hrs and soon I'll have to make my way to the gate for the return flight home. I've been reliably informed that the plane is another turbo prop, but unfortunately I've got an aisle seat. Not that it matters as it'll be dark when we take off and and and besides, it's only 55 minutes so I'll have to amuse myself in some other way. I have a notepad and a pen so perhaps I'll be inspired to write something, who knows?

Once again I forgot to buy myself some Ronnefeldt tea.  I know they've got some decent flavours because I've tried them and it's available throughout this fine land. It's always a shame to leave Dusseldorf, but I'm sure I'll be back. I seem to visit this great German city three or four times during the year.
View from room 27, Schellenberg Hotel...

I wandered to the gate (Gate 91) and then, as I waited to board, I added up the numbers of the flight, hoping that the total wouldn't be 13. It wasn't and I was relieved. I hate it when the numbers stack up against me, although they rarely do.

Next to the free bottles of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon that I always enjoy on any British Airways flight I take, the next best thing is John Simpson's regular column in High Life magazine. This month it was about the cities of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaire). They're chalk and cheese according to Mr Simpson and his preferred capital is Brazzaville, although it never used to be. "I remember landing at the airport here in the 1990s with mortars and artillery fire thumping down...", he wrote in his column. I've said it before, but they should devote more space to Simpson's writing.

Annoying passengers
What never fails to annoy me on planes is when instructions from the cabin crew are ignored, especially when those instructions are designed to make things safer. We were told to switch of all electrical devices during take-off and landing and, of course, I did what i was told. But there were others close to me who simply ignored the request and continued texting and watching fucking Cumberbatch on their tablet. I felt like intervening, but decided to keep my powder dry for fear of starting some kind of international incident.

The flight was good and, being a turbo prop, a little more exciting than a jet. Turbo props, a bit like helicopters, 'chug' through the air and while the flight is a little rockier than that experienced in a jet, I think I prefer it.

We landed at London City Airport and after retrieving my suitcase from the reclaim I headed for the Docklands Light Railway to catch a train to Bank and then onwards to London Bridge where I picked up an overground train to East Croydon and then to Sanderstead.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Dusseldorf, my favourite German city...

Butternut squash tortelloni at Rhubarb
I was sitting in Rhubarb, an air side restaurant at London City Airport, enjoying a light lunch, when I spotted the former leader of the Scottish Nationalists, Alex Salmond. What's he doing in England? Shouldn't he be sitting in some stone castle in the highlands of Scotland wearing war paint and a kilt while waxing the dolphin in front of a poster of Mel Gibson? Perhaps he was on his way home to do just that, I figured, tucking into a ridiculously small portion of plum crumble and ice cream.

And then, over the Tannoy, I heard "Would passenger Weller proceed to the main terminal?" Not the Modfather! I had visions of meeting the great man and berating him for closing down The Jam in favour of the Style Council with that Talbot bloke from the Merton Parkas. What a fucking liberty! But if it was the white-haired wizard of the 1980s mod revival, I never saw him. He certainly wasn't on my flight.

I love turbo props. Proper flying! And while it was a little bumpy heading out of London, once we'd cleared the low cloud, all was well with the world, especially when a couple of small bottles of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon had been offered, along with a fairly inoffensive bag of crisps. I could have sat there reading (I had Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World with me) but I chose to chill out instead, looking at the setting sun and the cotton wool clouds and generally taking in the view.

Plum crumble at Rhubarb...
The flight time to Dusseldorf is about an hour and by the time I'd enjoyed just one of the small bottles of wine given to me by the air hostess – yes, 'air hostess', you won't get any politically correct 'cabin crew' rubbish from yours truly – the plane was virtually on the ground. "The weather in Dusseldorf? Pretty much the same as it is here; a little low cloud..." as the pilot seems to say about virtually every place in the world that I ever land in. There are so many things that I now take for granted when I fly. One is that ''it's a pretty full flight, Mr Moggridge, so I'm afraid I can't offer you a window seat" and another is that the weather is always 'pretty much the same as it is here', meaning the UK. Not that such comments bother me. I'd be rather concerned if they started talking about hurricanes and severe storms, but so far I've been lucky on that score – apart from one flight from Dubai to Qatar at 0200hrs a couple of years ago. That was bad. I remember hearing the word 'turbulence' and then all hell broke loose. But I'm still here to tell the tale, so again, I'm not complaining.

Through the clouds over London...
Once off the plane and through customs I sat at a place called Gusto Ice Cream and enjoyed a relaxing cup of tea, although I forgot that, when in Europe, I don't really get a decent cuppa. For a start, they bring out a box of tea bags, like a humidor, offering a wide selection of flavours including the all-singing, all-dancing and terribly bog standard English Breakfast. Then they hand over a portion pack or two of coffee creamer – where's the milk? It's simply not cricket.

I took a taxi to the hotel, the Schnellenburg, which is right on the banks of the Rhine and in front of the convention centre where I will be tomorrow for most of the day. I've never stayed here before, but I have eaten here (and taken a dump!) The food is good, but I can't remember the state of the public conveniences, although they must have been perfect as I have no witty anecdote to impart.

And now here I am, sitting in my room watching CCTV. No, not closed circuit television but some kind of African television station. Let's see, what's happening? AB InBev is to buy SAB Miller for $107 billion. Who cares? Nissan plans to double South Africa output with a new model. Who gives a damn? UK unemployment falls to its lowest level since, well, I can't remember. But it's worth remembering that the whole thing is a con. They probably include people on apprenticeships who, as far as I can make out, are taken on at below minimum wage, are given a load of menial tasks to do, like cleaning out the bog after the CEO has taken a dump, and are then 'sacked' just before they should be taken on as full time members of staff. Travesty! Cameron simply has to go. I mean how come the Tories were only supported by 37% of the electorate but still managed to take 51% of the seats in Parliament? We don't want the Tories! Get rid of them! Wear a Guido Fawkes mask! Go on the rampage! Armed struggle! Burn a copy of the Daily Mail!

Sometimes I must say that I do sympathise with the views of that anarchist group Anonymous. Are they anarchists? Probably not, but I see their point of view where 'austerity' is concerned and I'd like to own a Guido Fawkes mask too. Over the weekend I was in Lindfield in East Sussex and there was a Remembrance service going on – nothing wrong with that. In fact, I observed a two minute silence at 11am this morning and rightfully so. But as I made my way down Lindfield's main street I noticed that even in a quiet Sussex village, there was a 'police presence' and it struck me that, had I produced (and donned) one of those Guido Fawkes masks, I would probably have been approached by the filth and asked a few awkward questions. It's quite amazing how simple little things – the Guido Fawkes mask, the hijab, the long beard – have become symbols of dissent. Put on a Guido Fawkes mask and you're immediately branded a troublemaker.

On the descent into Dusseldorf...
So I'm in Dusseldorf, but I'm near the airport and nowhere near the centre of town or my favourite restaurant near the central railway station. Da Bruno. What a fantastic place! And excellent value too. I could go there, but the cost of a taxi there and back would negate the economics of the whole thing so I'm going to stay here in the hotel as I know the restaurant is pretty good.

A few words about the hotel. For a start it's on the Rhine, but it's dark outside now, being that it's nearly twenty past seven on a mild November evening, so I'm not going to see much until the morning. That said, my room is not on the Rhine. In fact, there's something a bit 'motel' about the place. When I arrived in reception and filled in the form I was then directed 'outside'. Whenever that word is mentioned my heart drops. I've just come from 'outside' I don't want to go back out there! Show me to the elevator, tell me the number of the floor. "That's room 608 on the sixth floor, sir." But oh no! My room is 'outside', follow the white wall and turn right and then walk down the stairs. It's like something out of No Country for Old Men.

In all honesty, it's a good room, although I hate – with a vengeance – rooms on the ground floor that open out onto the 'street' so to speak. The room doesn't open out on to any street, but it opens out into the fresh air, the outside world, not a hotel corridor, and I don't particularly like that because it means that people can, if they so wish, linger outside my hotel room in the early hours and, if the curtains aren't drawn, even peer in – and I don't want that.

There are paper-thin blinds that are see-through, meaning that if you're outside loitering with intent – and the aforementioned curtains are not drawn  – it is possible to look in at the person in the room. .

But outside of that problem it's not too bad. I felt mildly inconvenienced when the hotel receptionist didn't give me the WiFi details before packing me off 'outside' to seek out my room (I had to go back 'outside' to ask for the code) but other than that it's very nice. Roomy – now there's a good word – a decent bathroom, a mini bar, wardrobe, decent TV and so on. Nothing to complain about.

So I'm sitting here typing – make that 'writing', I'm not Jack Kerouac. Truman Capote once said of Kerouac's On the Road that it was not writing, but typing. He had a point. Kerouac did feed a huge roll of paper into a typewriter, took a load of amphetamines and then started 'typing'. The end result was On the Road. It's a book that I'll have to re-read, just like Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, which was excellent. I remember reading On the Road  in the same way that I read Salinger's classic, and not really paying much attention. That's either because it was 'typing' and not writing or because I was just going through the motions. One day, I'll pick it up again, but for now, and bearing in mind that I need an excuse for not reading it, I'll go with Capote's assertion that it's typing, not writing.

There are 52 television channels being piped into my room and only CCTV News can be understood by somebody who, shamefully, only speaks the English language. "Well, it's international, innit?" It's not big and it's not clever. CCTV News is some kind of Africa-centric television station, but it's good, a kind of African CNN or BBC World. There's also CCTV 9, which I'll check out later.

This is going to be a whistle-stop trip. Tomorrow evening I fly back home. I'll let you know how dinner went. My colleague, unfortunately, is stuck in a traffic jam some 200km from here so it looks as if I'll be dining alone.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Remembrance Sunday and a ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop with Andy...

Sunday was a far better day than Saturday (see previous post). There was no rain, but as Andy and I approached Botley Hill en route to the Tatsfield bus stop, there was fog, and while it looked rather spooky at times, it wasn't, and when we parked up the bikes and brought out the chocolate BelVita biscuits it was virtually non-existent.

Earlier, as I pedalled up Church Way – feeling a little weary it has to be said – I noticed something for the first time that's probably been there for years. In the churchyard at the top of the hill there was a flag pole flying the Union Jack. It's no big deal, I know, but there you have it; I don't recall ever seeing it before. And then, of course, it all clicked into place – it was Remembrance Sunday. Perhaps it flies every year at this time and I've simply never noticed it.

Bare trees at the green mean winter is on its way...
I pushed on towards Warlingham and when I reached the green I spied bare trees, but no sign of Andy. While winter had arrived, it was still very mild and after yesterday's rain, my gloves were still soaked through when I went to put them on this morning. Fortunately, the air was warm enough for me to leave them behind.

Checking my iphone I found a text from Andy. He'd picked up a puncture at Whyteleafe – broken glass on the road – but he was on his way and arrived around 0745hrs.

The ride to the bus stop was uneventful and when we got there we chilled out with tea and the aforementioned chocolate BelVita biscuits. They're like CoCo Pops in biscuit form – wonderful. And if, like me, you manage to drop half a biscuit in your tea, then you'll know that, in a sense, you get the feeling you're drinking chocolate-flavoured tea. Well, not quite, but let's move on.

We chatted about 'old times' and our early pre-blog rides to Westerham when we seemed to arrive there when it was still dark. This had a lot to do with meeting at 0700hrs at the top of Slines Oak Road, which is a good 15 minutes or so further on from the green. We spoke about walking to Oxted with flat tyres in the days prior to fixing punctures by the roadside (what were we thinking?) and we wondered why we no longer have the time to enjoy longer rides.

Home from home – the Tatsfield bus stop
We reminisced about a ride in April 2011 when we rode out later in the day with Andy's pal Richard and enjoyed a few pints of Harvey's Nuptial Ale (brewed to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton). Although I hasten to add that WE weren't celebrating the Royal Wedding. We were celebrating the fact that we were in the Bricklayers Arms, opposite Longford Lake in Kent, enjoying the beer and the good weather. Click here for the full story!

There were plenty of Lycra monkeys on the road. I'd never seen so many and put it down to the mild weather. Long streams of them rode south on the 269 as we headed home and might have been part of an organised ride. There were bright purple signs nailed to poles along the road indicating two alternatives for riders: left for 'fun' and right for 'all other routes' – or words to that effect.

We parted company half way along the 269 as usual and vowed to ride again next week. Ahead of me another day of lolling around doing very little, followed by a drive to Lindfield where a Remembrance Day event was taking place.