Sunday, 19 November 2017

It's good to be back on the road...

I simply had to get back on the bike. It's almost been one month since Andy and I last enjoyed a ride and I was beginning to feel that the exercise might do me some good.

I went to bed last night around 2130hrs, far too early, perhaps, but I was feeling a little weary. Early nights, however, tend to mean early risings and I found myself awake around 0430hrs. I dragged it out for 30 minutes or so, but by 0500hrs (or thereabouts) I was out of bed and watching the news channel. David Cassidy is in hospital with multiple organ failure and Malcolm Young of AC/DC has died (he was suffering from dementia).

The plan was to head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop and at 0700hrs I opened the front door and hit the cold air. The skies were clear, the outlook was bright, but it was a bit chilly. With an element of trepidation I cycled along Ellenbridge, feeling a little uneasy. When I reached Elmfield I considered turning back, but decided to persevere. Church Way was the main obstacle, but I sailed along and soon found myself on the Limpsfield Road and en route to Warlingham Green.

When I arrived there was no grass, just a sea of mud. Last night there had been celebrations surrounding the switching on of the Christmas lights. There were tyre tracks everywhere and a makeshift stage was still in situ. Andy arrived five minutes later and I was feeling a little uneasy on my feet. There was a moment when I considered calling it a day there and then. I almost did, but figured I should see how things go and head, at least, for Warlingham Sainsbury's.

At the roundabout I was feeling reasonably good so we headed into the wilderness – alright, the 269 beyond Chelsham. It was a wonderful day, albeit a little cold, and soon I was saying to Andy, "let's head for the bus stop". The original plan had been Botley Hill, but I figured having somewhere to sit down would be far preferable to standing up by the roadside.

I was tempted to use the off-road path that runs the length of the 269, but then I remembered something important: it's been a whole year and I've had no punctures. None whatsoever. So why tempt fate on the off-road path, which, in days past, was the cause of many a puncture for Andy and yours truly.

It was good to reach the bus stop where Andy produced the biscuits and I brought out the tea. We sat and chatted about photography, wedding photographers in particular, and how some of them give their clients thousands of unedited images from which to choose from; I called it a 'scorched earth' policy and suggested that it was only the crap photographers that would give people so much to choose from. They probably took thousands of images on the premise that some of them were bound to be good.

A few Lycra monkeys passed by as we sat there drinking tea and munching biscuits, and soon it was time to head home. I was feeling fairly good as we set off in the direction of Botley Hill. When we reached the green, I said goodbye to Andy and then chilled for a bit before setting off. I walked 50 yards before jumping back on the bike and heading for home.

Now I'm back in the house, the sun is out and all is well. I'm so glad I made the effort because the exertion has made me feel good.

Here's to next weekend's ride.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Dizziness means no cycling – but I'm on the mend!

This sums up how I've been feeling...
Just been to the doc's. Basically I'm fine, the old blood pressure is normal (or certainly within the realms of not needing medication) and all I'm saddled with (for a few more weeks) is mild dizziness, caused, I'm told, by an inner ear infection, probably picked up on that BA flight from Dallas to London (see previous post). I can't say the past two to three weeks have been particularly pleasant. First I was off work for a week, sitting around at home, which would have been nice had it not been for the stress of feeling dizzy every time I got up; although, that said, it was nice as once I was up and about I was fine. I remember one excellent day when I visited the Waitrose Café and enjoyed a cup of tea and an almond croissant while reading a chapter from 1984, which I'm on the way to finishing, I hasten to add.

Feeling dizzy, of course, made cycling a no-go sport. In fact, I haven't been on the bike (bar a test run around the block on Saturday) since 22 October, a Sunday, when Andy and I rode, the slow way, to the Tatsfield Bus Stop. I was thinking about going yesterday, but I wasn't the full ticket so I made do with a walk to the Waitrose café and, you've guessed it, an almond croissant and a read of the newspaper. That involved a good 40-minute walk, the first 20 minutes of which were uphill.

Buffoon – sack him now!
I drove round to see mum yesterday too (and on Saturday) and that meant a slice of her excellent Christmas cake, yes, she's made them and they're ready to eat. The one I was eating was a spare, possibly even a 'test cake', but I can vouch for it's tastiness. It's been a bit of a 'cakey' weekend. Saturday I was round at mum's and eating a chunk of the festive cake, yesterday I was there too (eating another slice of cake) and let's not forget that almond croissant in the Waitrose Café. But I'm not going to get uptight about it, it's rare that I indulge in a 'cake fest' and I've got the excuse that I was in recovery mode.

Had a chat with Andy yesterday on the phone and he went out Sunday locally, but we're both getting back on track next weekend and meeting at the usual place at the usual time, so here's to next weekend.

Gove – just sack the - - - t
What's been in the news? Well, the thing that really annoys me is Boris 'Buffoon' Johnson, our laughable foreign secretary, and Orville lookalike Michael Gove, both of whom should be sacked for their handling of the Nazanin Zachary-Ratcliffe case. In a nutshell she's been languishing in an Iranian jail for over a year and the plan is to get her out and reunited with her child and husband. The poor woman is suffering, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and now it looks as if her sentence might be extended thanks to the foolish words of that idiot Boris Johnson and then follow-up lunacy from Gove. Both men should be booted out of the Government, that's my view. And they should appoint Rory Stewart as Foreign Secretary.

Anyway, look, I've got to go, but talk again soon and here's to getting back on the bikes.

Monday, 30 October 2017

BA192 –Dallas to Heathrow, Friday 27 October 2017

You could say I'm a fairly frequent flyer, meaning that, on average, I fly off somewhere roughly once or twice a month.

Whenever I fly I try to book British Airways because I've always believed them to be the best. But are they really the best? Do they honestly set out to make their customers' lives on board more bearable, more comfortable, or are they simply a bunch of capitalist scumbags like the rest of them, concerned only with their own profit?

First – and I guess this applies to all major 'carriers' – there is nothing worse than the class system, reinforced as it is by the airlines' own version of social stratification: that of herding those with money to spacious and comfortable seats, while those who are simply not prepared to pay extortionate prices have to sit in cramped conditions for hours on end while others bask in the often undeserved comfort of 'business class' where they get to lie down in relative privacy and can enjoy their flight.

The only plus point was the plane, a Jumbo 747
It's the same with the inflight entertainment; it too is graded, based on how much money you're prepared to pay, and the choice in economy class on BA (certainly on my flight) was depressingly poor. But there's no reason why there should be more choice just because you can afford to pay extra; it wouldn't cost BA anything to give everybody the same variety of music and movies, but no, if they can squeeze more money out of their customers they will. I would go as far as to say that their actions breed division and stoke resentment. I was definitely feeling resentful as we left Dallas Fort Worth and headed for the UK on what was going to be a long and uncomfortable flight.

Since writing and posting this article, I have been informed by a former member of BA cabin crew that the entertainment choice is the same throughout the plane. Well, fine, if that's the case, but the choice is still piss poor in my opinion. BA's idea of classic albums is rubbish and the quality of the entertainment equipment, especially the size and quality of the screens in economy class, is also piss poor. I remember flying to Chicago once and I swear the choice – and the equipment – was better (I was in premium economy at the time).

For me, however, the biggest crime committed by BA on my flight (BA192 Dallas Fort Worth to London Heathrow) was when I noticed a spare and spacious business class seat after the doors had been shut and we were ready to go. I asked a female flight attendant (one of a couple looking after my cabin) if I could sit in the vacant seat (it offered much-needed leg room). Her answer? No.

I wrote this article on my iPhone, using the Notes app, while sitting in seat 32c (an aisle seat) and as I wrote it, the aforementioned vacant business class just sat there with nobody in it. I have since re-edited the original article, sub-editing it into the past tense but retaining a couple of quotes from the original work.

Had the female member of the cabin crew allowed me to sit in the vacant seat, no harm would have been done, no money lost, there would, however, have been one very happy customer – yours truly! And my loyalty to BA would have remained intact.

But no, my request, my plea, was refused. She would clearly rather see the seat go unused than upgrade me, an economy class prole. Me sitting in that seat would have been fine. I certainly wouldn't have written a vitriolic article like this one. Once the doors of the plane had been closed, it was obvious that nobody was going to claim the seat so the only reason I couldn't sit there – me or anybody else for that matter – was out of pure spite.

To say I was unhappy was an understatement. "I am sitting here as I write this feeling very uncomfortable when I could be lying down and enjoying the flight and getting some much needed sleep," I wrote on my iPhone.

"Why should anybody endure discomfort when there's a perfectly good seat just sitting there unoccupied," I continued. Look, the point is this: I know there is an argument that if they gave me the seat, what about everybody else? I understand that, but to the best of my knowledge only eagle-eyed me noticed the vacant seat and I made my request one-on-one, nobody was listening and it wouldn't have been a problem for me to move. So why was I refused?

The bigger question, of course, is why show loyalty to British Airways? There's nothing worse than being loyal to a company because we all know that they're never going to reciprocate. I'm not going to be loyal to British Airways ever again, they certainly won't be my first choice of airline in future. Why should I contribute to their profits?

If everybody voted with their feet in response to situations like this one, the air traveller wouldn't have to endure such misery. If, instead of accepting BA's 'jobs worth' greed we simply vowed never to fly BA again (as I'm going to do) then perhaps a great victory will be scored against 'the man' – in this case BA.

"Sitting here now, in the dark, my legs sprawled across the aisle, hoping, perhaps, for a bit of instant karma (she walks by, trips and sprains her ankle) I realise that I'm really angry about the situation – billiard balls in a sock angry. I'm fantasising, imagining a hideously violent confrontation with a randomly chosen, shaven-headed air steward involving a splintered piece of wood and a few rusty nails. And I imagine myself saying something melodramatic to the woman (with a Clint Eastwood accent) something like: 'One day our paths might cross again, one day you might be in dire need, but if you are, pray it's not me you meet in that dark alley'."

I concluded my piece with: "Dawn has broken and we're an hour away from Heathrow. Somehow the daylight relieves my anger a little bit, but I won't feel truly better until I put this article online in a desperate bid to get some closure, to get the whole thing off my chest once and for all."

Heading home via Dallas Fort Worth...

It was time to head home. After another hearty Sheraton breakfast – fresh fruit, porridge, yoghurt, croissant, scrambled egg and sausage plus a cup of tea – I had just a few hours left in Memphis to do some shopping. I decided to throw caution to the wind and head for Beale Street on foot. I simply couldn't believe the two people who, earlier in the week, had told me that I needed to watch my back during the day and night. One of these people was a taxi driver – drumming up business for himself, perhaps, and the other one was a guest in the hotel, who was slightly more believable as he didn't have a monetary reason for me not walking around town.

Just part of my final hearty and healthy Sheraton breakfast
All that said, I checked out the relative safety or otherwise of Memphis and, in short, it's not that safe, you do have to keep your wits about you and you certainly shouldn't go out displaying anything expensive or flashing cash around. So I put on my jeans and a tee shirt and a leather jacket and off I went, not that I was leaving back any expensive, trendy clothes, I don't have anything of that ilk.

I followed the route of the trolley buses and then turned left, heading for Second Street and finding myself – finally – on the famous Beale Street. I bought a couple of 'Memphis' teeshirts and a baseball cap from Strange Cargo and then found Schwab's where I enjoyed a peanut butter and sliced banana sandwich, toasted, plus a coffee. The sandwich is said to be Elvis Presley's favourite. It was nice, although toasting it seemed to make the peanut butter thicker and more gloopy, but either way it filled a hole and soon I marched back to the hotel, checked out and took a cab to the airport.

Sheraton Memphis Downtown from Second Street
It costs around $40.00 to take a cab to Memphis airport from downtown and it's probably the only way of getting there. My driver and I talked about Trump. Nothing positive was said. He told me he was thinking of going abroad for a holiday but was worried that Trump wouldn't let him back in. We laughed, but he was being serious – albeit in a jokey fashion.

The airport was much busier than when I arrived on Tuesday night (when it was all but deserted). I had to queue for security, but once through there wasn't much time before boarding the plane.

I sat at the very back, seat 27F, and when we took off, in the driving rain, it was fairly bumpy. There was even a visible strike of lightning, but after a while everything settled down and there were clearer skies as we approached Dallas.

"Dinner" close to gate D10 at Dallas Fort Worth
The flight to London was from Gate D10 and there was no more security to go through, but I did remember from the last time I was here that I must report to the gate for a document check, which I did. Next to the gate was a snack bar offering a range of baguettes so I chose one, ordered a couple of glasses of Cabernet and then read more of 1984, my current book. Soon it was time to board the British Airways jumbo jet (perfect, I thought). I had an aisle seat in the cabin next to what looked like 'business' class. Once the doors of the plane had closed I noticed that there was a spare business class seat and decided it was worth asking whether I could sit there. The answer was no and this, I must admit, angered me somewhat. I mean 'billiard ball in a sock' angry. I sat there quietly fuming. Why couldn't somebody sit there? It wasn't as if they were going to make any money out of the seat. I was so angry I started to pen something on the 'notes' app on my iPhone. You will be able to read the entire text in the next post on this blog just as soon as I copy type it.

Anyway, I reached Heathrow at around 0900hrs on Saturday 28th October, took a taxi home and then chilled for most of the day.

Today, Sunday morning, I awoke feeling dizzy and by that I mean really dizzy, frighteningly dizzy. So dizzy I couldn't get up. To say I was worried was an understatement. At the time of writing I still don't know what is wrong but I reckon it's jet lag-related, probably involves a bit of dehydration and just a spot, perhaps, of overdoing things. I flew out of London on Tuesday for Memphis (two flights) then I drove to Osceola, Arkansas, and back, and then I flew Memphis-Dallas/Dallas London. I should have made it a more leisurely trip, but I didn't. Anyway, I'm going to the doctor in a few moments to see what they have to say. I managed to get out of bed and I can stand upright and write this blog, as I'm doing right this minute, so hopefully it's nothing major.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Back in Memphis...

I am being chased out of a house. In hot pursuit is a man with a gun. Make that a rifle with a telescopic sight. It's not an ordinary gun, it's a tranquiliser gun, the sort of thing that is used to take out elephants in need of urgent surgery, and it's loaded with a dart. The only problem is, I'm not an elephant. If that thing hits home, I'll probably be asleep for a week and who knows what might happen during that time. I'm running towards a crescent-shaped piece of road that looks familiar. In fact, everything looks familiar: the house out of which I ran and the road I find myself in. The man following me looks familiar too, a former work colleague who I've kept in contact with and see from time-to-time. He fires the gun, he misses and then I wake up. It's 0300hrs and I can hear the roar of the Interstate outside of my hotel window.

Yesterday I was on the Interstate, heading south from Osceola first on Route 61, cotton fields to the left and right of me and bales of the stuff sitting in the fields too, ready for collection. Route 61 is deserted, there's an occasional truck but nothing much and the speed limit varies from 55mph down to 20mph when the road meets with a town like Wilson. I was tempted to stop, but I had to get the hire car back to Madison, Memphis, for 1700hrs so I kept going.
I left the Hampton Inn at first light Thursday morning

Earlier in the day I had driven down Interstate 55 to exit 63 for Osceola and then followed Route 61 and Highway 198 to where I was conducting some business and then I set out for Memphis as described above. Early yesterday morning it didn't start to get light until around 0700hrs so I lingered over breakfast in the Hampton Inn, had two cups of tea instead of my usual one and sat there reading USA Today, a strangely shaped newspaper if ever there was one.

The Hampton Inn didn't have a restaurant, as you know if you've read my last post, so breakfast was my only opportunity to check the place out. It was fine, but it was one of those places that uses paper plates and bowls and plastic cutlery. Everybody dutifully disposed of whatever they'd eaten, plates and all, in a trash can, but that aside it was a friendly establishment with happy staff and I liked it.

Route 61 runs from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Wyoming, Minnesota, and in the days before the Interstate it was an important South to North route. It's a famous highway in a musical sense too as Bob Dylan, a native of Minnesota, released Highway 61 Revisited, which reached number 3 and 4 respectively in the US and UK album charts. It was recorded between June and August 1965 and opens with Like a Rolling Stone. "How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home," warbled Dylan and I kind of know how he felt.

And there I was, sitting alone at the wheel of a Nissan something or other, a big car, but not a Nissan Patrol. It did the job, but the journey back into Memphis wasn't as smooth as my outward ride yesterday. I missed a turning at one point and had to back track and then, once on Interstate 55 I missed the junction with Interstate 40, which meant coming into Memphis a little further down the Mississippi than I had intended. This had the knock-on effect of me being lost, but I eventually found Jackson and with the help of my iphone SatNav I made it back to the Sheraton and then back to Madison where I handed over the car and ordered a cab back to the hotel. The cab never arrived so the woman at the desk, who used to live in Illinois and came to Memphis as a child with her folks, kindly gave me a lift back to the hotel where later I enjoyed dinner in the restaurant before hitting the sack early. For dinner I had grilled salmon with cauliflower mash and mashed potato, not forgetting a glass of Merlot. It was the same dish I had on Tuesday night because I didn't really fancy anything else on the menu. Alright, I added the mashed potato and I forgot to mention the soup and two small bread rolls I ordered as a starter. An an old guy from Nashville was sitting on the next table and having trouble with the ribs he'd ordered. The meal proved too much for him so he ordered a plastic carton to take it away – a 'doggy bag' as we call them in the UK. His name was Jerome (Jerry) and he worked for the State of Tennessee. We chatted about Nashville and The Gulch and Demonbreun Street and how the city was really improving.

The American flag in Blytheville, Arkansas
It was good to be back in the Sheraton, this time in room 503, which is roughly the same as room 344 except it has a sofa and the view out of the hotel window is slightly different. If I look out I can see the Interstate straight ahead of me whereas from room 344 it was to my left. I'm also two floors higher up and in a different block (the Sheraton is two buildings next to each other). Last time I was in the North Block, but I don't know whether this block is West or East, it certainly can't be South so I'll guess it's West.

Today I fly first to Dallas and then from Dallas to London. I can't say I'm looking forward to it: 10 hours and then I'll be home – or rather I'll be at Heathrow Airport and will need a cab to take me the rest of the way.

Somewhere outside a bell is chiming 0800hrs and I'd better be thinking of breakfast. The weather's not as pleasant as yesterday, there are grey and overcast skies and the trees are virtually still, meaning no wind, but forget that for now, what about breakfast? Well, it's good at the Sheraton, there's fresh fruit (melon, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana) there's hot food (scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon) there's yoghurts (various flavours) and there's cereal. On Wednesday morning, when I was last here, I had two cereals, one being kind of like Bran Flakes but with raisins added, and the other a bowl of porridge. They serve good porridge here at the Sheraton and that's no lie. Today I had just one cereal and that was the porridge, plus fruit and a yoghurt and then some scrambled egg with a sausage and 'breakfast potatoes' – wonderful.

One thing that bugs me about the Sheraton is the cutlery. Oh, it's not made of plastic, it's proper steel, but they expect me to eat porridge with a teaspoon? No sir, I want a decent-sized spoon, but I have to ask for it, which is annoying, especially as my porridge is getting colder by the second. But it's a minor irritation really and I can't say I have any real big complaints about the hotel.

I got to check out by noon and head for the airport, but I'd better check my schedule. Better go.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

In Blytheville, Arkansas

I never thought I'd ever get the chance to visit Arkansas, but here I am. I have now visited 19 US States. I'm staying at the Hampton Inn, Blytheville, which is just off Interstate 55 north of Memphis and, apart from the fact that the hotel doesn't have a restaurant, it's okay. The room is good. There's a walk-in shower, a double bed, a decent television, free cookies and free WiFi, an empty fridge, a safe and other essential stuff, like an ironing board, an iron and a safe.

Room 113, Hampton Inn, Blytheville, Arkansas, USA
The woman on the front desk was very friendly, there's an outdoor pool I'll probably not use, mainly because it's outdoor and it's not that warm. I say 'not that warm' it's a darn sight warmer than the UK, at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit so it's not a complete no-no, but I just know I won't be swimming. I might swim in the hotel pool back in Memphis, but let's see how things pan out as between now and then there's a lot that needs to be sorted out.

My knowledge of Arkansas begins with the Whacky Races and the Arkansas Chug-a-Bug, ably driven by Saw Tooth and Blubber Bear, and ends with Jim Dandy, leader singer of a band called Black Oak Arkansas. When I was younger I used to pronounce 'Arkansas' as 'Arr-Kansas' not understanding how 'Arkansas' can be pronounced 'Arkinsore'. But there you have it; I mean, who would have thought that Towcester (a town in the UK) was pronounced 'Toaster'?

The view from room 113, Hampton Inn, Blytheville, Arkansas, USA
Something else I never thought I'd end up doing was driving in the USA. Normally I take planes, trains and taxi cabs everywhere – and on this trip I almost opted for the Greyhound bus from Memphis to Blytheville (anything to avoid driving) – but the bus left town at some ungodly hour and would have arrived in Blytheville miles too early, so the car looked like the only option. I'll admit that I fretted a little bit about driving in the USA, but the end result was this: it was alright.

I'd spent a lot of time online checking out Google maps and driving here 'virtually' using my laptop. Believe me it really helped. When I actually got on the road, having also scrutinised many roadmaps, it all seemed so familiar to me and was, in fact, a doddle. I crossed over from Tennessee into Arkansas half way across the Hernando De Soto bridge and then followed Interstate 40 until the road forked and I took Interstate 55, the right fork, heading north. On either side of the motorway there was, initially, nothing but cotton fields, something else I've never seen before, and then the cottonfields gave way to simply fields stretching away for miles on either side of the road.

I kept in the slow lane and I adhered to the speed limit (which ranged from 65mph to 70mph) and I tried to keep a sensible distance between my car (a Nissan) and the many juggernauts that passed on my left hand side. It was a leisurely drive and when I saw a sign reading 'St. Louis, 232 miles' I seriously considered driving a little further along the road, it was that relaxing. No wonder Americans think nothing of driving long distances; for a start most of the road users stick to the speed limits, and let's not forget that there are hardly any cars on the road, which always helps.

It took about an hour to reach the Hampton Inn and there's not much else to say at the moment other than the hotel doesn't have a restaurant, meaning I'll have to go into town later to find a decent place to eat, although there doesn't seem to be one. There is a Chinese restaurant next door, but the receptionist screwed up her face as if to say 'I wouldn't bother if I were you' and to be fair it didn't look brilliant from the outside. Furthermore, the last thing I want having travelled all this way to conduct just one interview, was to wake up with gut rot and be forced to cancel the whole thing. I'm also not planning on driving the car again until tomorrow so if I do go downtown, I'll take a cab there. The last thing I want is to be done for driving under the influence and ending up in jail for the night.

So I'm sitting here in room 113 listening to the humming of an empty fridge and looking out on blue skies and small trees swaying in the breeze. I'll probably kill time until around 1800hrs and then I'll mosey on down to the front desk and order a cab into town. I think the Holiday Inn has a restaurant, which is probably the best bet, but I'll check out Google. I need a decent dinner because for lunch I stopped off at a Holiday Inn in Memphis and had a disappointing chicken dish with loads of Kettle crisps – my mistake for forgetting the subtle differences between England and America. Here in the USA potato chips = crisps, so when I saw something on the menu described as 'pub chips' I, for some reason, expected those chunky chips the size of Jenga pieces, but oh no, it meant 'crisps' and more fool me too. Having spent around 18 months or so editing Potato Processing International magazine back in 2007 you would have thought that I'd remember that potato chips are crisps here in the USA.

Ever wondered about the difference between soap and bath soap? Wonder no more!
At lunch time, back in Memphis, I was told that in the USA 'felons' are not allowed to vote. I found it really strange that once convicted you're never allowed to vote again – in your entire life. Fine if it's just a 'misdemeanour'  – driving under the influence is a 'misdemeanour but becomes a felony here in Arkansas if you get caught again within, I think, five years of the original offence – but if you're a convicted felon, you can't vote even when they let you our of jail. In other words, 'they' never forget. They bear a grudge.

Lunch, Holiday Inn, Memphis – not great...
I decided upon an early dinner and wasn't sure whether to take the car or not. My gut feeling was don't take the car, just walk across a couple of deserted parking lots and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine without having to fret about drinking and driving. But two people told me this morning in Memphis not to walk around too much, even during the day, and if I do, keep a weather eye on what's going on around me. First somebody in the hotel mentioned it, then a taxi driver who said he knew of people mugged during the daylight hours – don't risk it, he said. But then the guy in the car rental shop told me it was fine 'around here' during the daylight hours so I wandered around and found the aforementioned Holiday Inn restaurant, the one that overloaded on the 'crisps'. I managed, as you know to get back to the car rental shop in one piece and now, as you also know, I'm in Blytheville, which really is a sleepy little town.

After fretting about what to do for dinner I decided to risk my neck and walk the 0.9 miles or so to Bistro Eleven 21, part of the Holiday Inn, Blytheville. When I got there (in one piece) I ordered tuna steak with beans and rice, a chicken noodle soup to start and an Octoberfest beer, brewed in Memphis, not forgetting a decaffeinated coffee and the obligatory glass of iced water (a staple in all American eateries).

The food was alright, but it didn't set the world alight and this was because Bistro Eleven 21 had an identity crisis going on. For a start it rather pretentiously called itself Bistro Eleven 21, but then it occupied a huge square space with carpeted floors and a mix of booth seating and straightforward tables. There was a long sports bar at the front of the restaurant and seated at the bar was a bunch of men in checked shirts and baseball caps, lending the place a kind of agricultural theme. Having the sports bar and the supposedly swish 'Bistro Eleven 21' name together didn't gel and while the food was alright, it had a tired look to it. Also, the food turned up suspiciously quickly after being ordered, which always bothers me slightly.

Beer in Bistro Eleven part of the meal
I ordered chicken noodle soup to start, but they hadn't provided me with a soup spoon. I started eating with what amounted to a teaspoon, but eventually had to ask if they had something bigger. They did. No sooner had my soup been taken away (it was good, but a little too salty) than my main course arrived – tuna steak with rice and green beans. While the food served my purposes (it was wholesome and relatively well-presented on the plate) there was something tired about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was either trying too hard or not trying enough, I wasn't sure. Dining alone doesn't help, of course, but I certainly couldn't relax as I had to walk back to my hotel in the dark.

Dessert was offered, but, as always, it was a predictable roll call of unhealthy cakes so I declined and ordered a decaffeinated black coffee as a compromise and then asked for the bill, paid up and left. I'm now back in my hotel and it's only 1930hrs. Still, an early night will do me good.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

In Memphis...

It's 0539hrs here in Memphis, Tennessee, meaning it's 1139hrs in the UK as I pen this blogpost.

The journey over from London yesterday was absolutely fine, even the taxi driver to the airport was okay, which is saying something as the last time I found myself with this particular person he wouldn't stop raving about Bobby Darin and playing me selected tracks from a CD, miles too loudly. I remember I'd just jumped off a flight from Chicago (it might have been Los Angeles) and all I wanted to do was get home and rest, but no, he wouldn't stop going on and on about Bobby Darin and Kevin Spacey who, at the time, had just done something connected with the singer who, I discovered yesterday, died aged 37.

Room 344, Sheraton Memphis Downtown...
The driver seemed a little more wizened and hunched over than I remembered him. His hair was cut shorter too, but we got on and guess what, I mentioned to him that the last time we met he played me some Bobby Darin so he did so again, although this time I was full of the joys of spring, meaning I'd had a good night's sleep. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the ordeal of a flight to Chicago. Fortunately I'd booked my seat in advance, seat 19B, which was an exit seat. It's always slightly daunting booking an exit seat as they always ask if you're capable of opening the emergency door in the event of an evacuation. As I pressed the 'yes' button (anything for extra leg room) I imagined myself being disaster movie heroic and putting other passengers' lives ahead of my own, and then I started praying that nothing would go wrong.

Flying is the only time when I pick up the phone to God. Well, not the only time (I occasionally ask for a long and happy and healthy life for me and my family) but you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be on the blower as we race along the tarmac towards invariably cloudy skies. It's not until the wine kicks in that I settle down a little bit, but he's always on speed dial.

While I booked British Airways, I got American Airlines (they're partners) and I was going to have a go about the flight, except that it was perfect, the pilot looked like John Wayne and they dished out generous portions of red wine. I ordered the meatballs and thanks to the company of Aref, a Jordanian on his way to Kentucky, the time flashed by and I eventually arrived at O'Hare airport feeling fairly good.

The connecting time into Memphis was a little tight, but the system had it sorted; they'd even printed my name on a bright orange piece of paper, which gave me priority through the security system once we'd cleared immigration – a simple and largely automated process – and soon I found myself going through security one last time (this time having to take off my shoes) and then heading for gate 19 and my short flight to the birthplace of Elvis Presley. It took one hour and 10 minutes and was fairly smooth. I ate a small bag of pretzels and drank a glass of iced water.

For dinner last night I enjoyed, if that's the word, grilled salmon with cauliflower mash and a Friscée salad, which means a bunch of tired leaves and some sliced cherry tomatoes. I sat and read the paper.

The Sheraton is a bit corporate, but I like it well enough. I'm in room 344, which is fairly roomy, there's a huge bed as always, a decent bathroom, a good flatscreen television,  a large desk and everything I might need (including an iron and ironing board – yeah, right).

I stayed up last night until around 10pm watching television and then hit the sack only to wake up around 2am, but I stuck with it and eventually woke up again around 5am. I could have lolled around in bed, but I was awake and figured it better to sit here writing the blog instead.

There are a couple of negative points about the hotel: one the keycard, which is also supposed to work in the elevator, but doesn't. I had to head back to the front desk twice to sort out this problem, which was quickly rectified. The other hassle was the aircon – it's really noisy and I couldn't figure out how to turn it off. American hotels always have loud aircon systems.

Today I drive to Blytheville in Arkansas and I'll admit I'm a little apprehensive as I've never driven in the USA before. People tell me it's far easier than in Europe and they're probably right (I don't like driving in Europe either or, indeed, any country that demands its citizens drive on the right hand side of the road, not the left like in England. Still, it has to be done; that's one reason why I stayed in bed when I woke up at 2am, I want to be fairly conscious when I head over the bridge into Arkansas, across the Mississippi and on to Interstate 40 followed by Interstate 55.

This is a real whistle stop trip. Normally when I travel to the USA I fly on the Saturday and then fly back a week later – and that's bad enough in terms of jet lag – but this time I flew on the Tuesday and fly back Friday, from Dallas Fort Worth, which is a 10-hour ordeal. I better book my seat and hope I can get the same leg room I had on the way out.

It's 0600hrs and that means I'm in the ballpark for breakfast, which I'm assuming will be in the restaurant. I'm hoping for my usual hotel breakfast special (Coco Pops) and who knows what else will await me. All I know is that food is never far away – "a new dream every day, Huxley Pig!" Oink oink!
There's a first time for everything...

Postscript: I've never done this before, because I'm a tea drinker, but I'm using the coffee maker provided in my room to make myself a cup of Starbucks roast and ground coffee – decaffeinated. In a short while I'll be able to tell you what it's like. Right, here goes...hmmm, it's good, very good. I say it's good, but in all honesty I'm not a coffee drinker so I don't really know, and the fact that I'm drinking decaff is probably something ultra taboo in the world of real coffee drinkers.

Oddly, though, I have been drinking more coffee of late, normally an Americano after a meal, so nothing major, but once in a while it's fine. What really annoys me is when I ask for an Americano (which is a long black coffee) somebody always asks, "Do you want milk with your Americano?" No I don't, that's like saying "would you like meat with your vegetarian lasagne?" Americano = long BLACK coffee, no need to ask if I want milk with it. Alright?

Monday, 23 October 2017

To the Tatsfield Bus Stop...for a spot of 'bike rage'

Sunday 22nd October: We rode the slow way to the Tatsfield Bus Stop and this time, instead of talking our way along Beddlestead Lane, we buttoned our lips, got our heads down and soon we were approaching the junction with Clarks Lane.
One day we'll meet this guy and his mates...

All was peaceful. The sun filtered through the hedgerows, the birds twittered, but then the silence was broken by loud and angry shouting.


A grey blur on a bike, a Kona Blast, passed from behind me, angrily shaking his right fist in the air. He was pursuing a blue Astra in an attempt to reach the car before it turned left at the junction with Clarks Lane, heading for Westerham, but he was too late.

Myself and another cyclist exchanged glances and then things calmed down.

I found myself wondering what might have happened if the cyclist had managed to catch up with the driver, but just like the other week, when fists were raised and expletives exchanged close to Chelsham Sainsbury's, eventually the driver jumped back in his car and drove off. Back then, my chief worry was if all four doors of the Mercedes estate had opened and a bunch of tattooed Brexiteers had emerged.

Sooner or later, of course, something of that ilk will occur.

"Have you calmed down?" I enquired when we reached the bus stop, assuming (rightly) that the rage was a result of the car driver passing too close.

Andy smiled, but said nothing. I opened up the flask and prepared the tea and we sat there munching biscuits while discussing the sort of car we might buy if we won the lottery. All the usual suspects were considered, but, oddly perhaps, we decided upon a 1985 Nissan Patrol. Stranger things and all that...

It was time to ride home.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

To the Churchyard last week and the famous Bus Stop today...

The nights are closing in and suddenly I find myself not wanting to get out of bed at 0600hrs. It's dark outside, the bed is warm and soon the clocks will go back. Soon I'll have to start thinking about lights and wearing a scarf and many layers of clothing and even the balaclava, if I can find it. But fortunately not today. Why? Because it's warm out there, in the twenties, possibly 23 degrees. October is a funny month. It's a transitory month when I find I'm either wearing too many or too little clothes, but today I won't need to worry too much about layers.

As I write this no abort texts have been received and I haven't sent any so the ride is on, there's no rain, the roads are dry, it's all looking good. In fact, all I've got to do now, at 0652hrs, is put some socks and trainers on, make the tea and head on out, so I'd better later.

The above two paragraphs were written last week and that was as far as I went in terms of writing about last week's ride. So much for 'talk later'. In between those two paragraphs and this one, I've been to Brussels (see previous posts) and I've just returned from a ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop with Andy.

Well, we've exhausted all the other shots!
It's only fair that I at least mention last week's ride. We had intended to visit the bus stop, the Tatsfield Bus Stop, but instead we rode a little further to the Tatsfield Churchyard. In fact, the original intention was to ride to Westerham and to be fair Andy was up for it, but I had things to do so we settled for the bus stop and then, as we approached it, I suggested the churchyard, which turned out to be a good move.

For a start the benches were dry, always a bonus now that the days are closing in and winter approaches. The bus stop becomes a regular haunt because it provides cover and dry seats, unless there's heavy wind and horizontal rain, but that's rare.

As we unpacked our 'stuff' (flask, biscuits, tea) we met the caretaker of the church, a man in his late sixties, possibly even early seventies, with an earring in his right ear and a rough, unshaven complexion. He said we could use the toilets if we wanted to, but we didn't need them. In fact, whenever we do need to answer the call of nature it's normally half way up Clarks Lane behind some bushes or behind bushes anywhere that takes our fancy. Mr Caretaker was offering the facilities of the church, not in the church, but in a flint building used to host functions and kitted out with everything you might expect for people to enjoy afternoon teas and snacks.

He told us about break-ins and how an old lawnmower was stolen. There's a store room attached to the flint outbuildings and opportunist thieves often break in and find nothing bar a few old shovels and a bag of grass seed. For Mr Caretaker, however, it's more about the hassle of having to fix the door than worrying about stolen goods – in essence, 'there's nothing worth nicking'.

It's been a week since our ride to the churchyard so the details are sketchy other than the obvious: we eventually drank our tea, ate our biscuits and headed home.

This week (today in other words) I awoke around 5am and listened to the wind and the rain of what I later discovered was Storm Brian. It sounded bad and I fully expected to abort, but when I looked out at around 0600hrs the rain had stopped the roads had dried and everything seemed relatively still. It was a little blustery now and then, but I headed towards the green where I met Andy.

Prior to setting off I bought some milk from the Kwik Save and then we headed to the Tatsfield Bus Stop the slow way, knowing full well that the churchyard benches would be wet through.

We chatted about electric bikes – and both decided that electric bikes = cheating. Andy discussed how last week he rode along Pilgrims Lane, took a left turn and found himself in Cudham after managing to ride up some pretty steep hills. We moaned about social media (we always moan about social media, despite the fact that we both use it extensively, but both admit it has done us no favours). And we talked about 'the left' and the vocal minority and Donald Trump and God knows what else.

At one point along Beddlestead Lane it rained, but not heavily, and we both said that had we been at home we would have aborted. The weather was fine: there were dramatic skies, there was wind, there were leaves on the ground, like soggy cornflakes, and there was sunshine. Perfect weather really.

Just past 0905hrs and we headed home along Clarks Lane and then the 269. There were a few cyclists around, but not many. The Lycra Monkeys were staying home with their turbo trainers. When we reached the green we vowed to meet again tomorrow at the usual time for another ride, probably to the same place – the dry and covered Tatsfield Bus Stop.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mooching around Brussels or "?ooching qround Brussels"

I have just returned from dinner. It took me a long while to work out where to dine as there was plenty of choice between Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish and just plain pub grub, but with the added benefit of Belgian beer. After circling round a few times I settled on Spago on the Rue Du Pont de la Carpe, Karperbrugstraat 13. There were candles on the table and a generally relaxed vibe and I wanted something simple that was not going to keep me up all night.

Fortunately, I had the latest issue of Private Eye to keep me company as there is nothing worse than dining alone unless I have something to read or a smart phone to play with. I was asked if I wanted to sit at the bar and of course I did not so they directed me to a table in the corner by the window. I opted for the seat facing into the restaurant, rather than stare at my reflection all night, and when the menu arrived I perused it and then chose Parma ham with melon followed by fillet of salmon.

Whenever I order Parma ham and melon I am always taken aback by the amount of ham they pile on the plate, but I always manage to eat it. Odd that I can eat Parma ham with melon but gag at the thought of pineapple on pizza.  The main course was wonderful, served on a rectangular white plate and accompanied by boiled potatoes, artichoke and baby vine tomatoes. I asked for a Merlot but the waiter just about understood "red wine" and I was too tired to take the conversation any further.

All was good but the service was a little slow when it came to ordering dessert, so I simply did not bother and asked for the bill instead.

I wandered around for a bit afterwards and considered two things: a Belgian beer in one of the many bars close to the hotel; and secondly, a haircut in one of the many barbers that are open late here in Brussels. In the end I did neither and instead returned to the hotel to try and work out how to the type the "at" symbol in order to access this blog. After about half an hour of getting steadily more frustrated, just like last night, I managed to copy an "at" sign, so here I am having great difficulty writing on what I have just learned is known as an "azerty" keyboard. Trust me, it is really infuriating.

And now, having reached the end of this post I've found the apostrophe key, but I'm not going to go through the post changing the text, I'm going to leave everything in place to remind myself of the irritation. To type a full point, for example, I have to use the shift key.

Allow me to give you another example of this ridiculous keyboard. Here goes:

?y nq,e is ?qtthez ?oggridge qnd Iù, the quthor of NoVisibleLycrq; itùs q blog qll qbout cycling ,qinly; but zith q bit of trqvel stuff throzn in for good ,eqsure: Iù, auite obsessed zith ,y blog so i,qgine hoz qnnoyed I zqs zhen I discovered thqt I hqd left ,y lqp top chqrger behind qnd hqd to rely; like noz; on zhqt is knozn qs q "azerty" keyboqrd: Still; I ,qnqged to zork out hoz to type qn "qt" sy,bol; qlthough the reqlity is thqt I copied qn "qt" sy,bol: I still hqvenùt zorked out hoz to type one: Zell; I better sign off qnd hit the sqck; not thqt I need to qs I donùt hqve qn eqrly stqrt: Iùve got to check out qnd heqd for ho,e:

See if you can work it out: Goodnight:

Postscript: On the morning of my last day I was told that to type the @ sign (as I just did) I need to depress control plus alt plus zero. You live and learn. But all the other keyboard hassles remain (see above).