Saturday, 31 May 2014

We must get back on the bikes...

It's wrong, perhaps, to say that we've simply not been on the bikes, but there haven't been that many rides over the past few weeks. The reasons are fairly simple: travel commitments and poor weather.

Berlin – but will there be a bike share scheme?
My recent trip to Indianapolis took up two weekends (remember, it took me two days to get home, via Dublin) and there has been a bit of rain, which always succeeds in aborting a ride. Andy's out of circulation for a few Saturdays, which means that the motivation isn't always as strong as it could be and then yours truly decided to abort today's ride because of travel commitments – although now I've sorted out most things and I'm considering riding to Warlingham Green alone as it takes about 50 minutes all told and, as I've said, the weather's amazing.

In other words, things aren't looking good and we can't afford to lose the momentum. What's really bad is that this weekend has been amazing in terms of the weather. Yesterday morning was perfect cycling weather, but I was feeling a little weary and because Andy wasn't going, I aborted, much to my own dismay as, when I peered out of the window I was greeted with bright sunshine and blue skies – ideal for a ride anywhere, even a short hop to Warlingham Green.

It's all a far cry from my Easter bout of daily cycling for the best part of 10 days (scroll back a few pages for details).

I'm sure that Andy will go out today, it's too good an opportunity to miss. I can see the sun through the blinds in my conservatory and I'm guessing the temptation will be too much. As I write this at 0652hrs, I realise that, I would be 10 minutes or so away from the green and a ride with Andy, possibly to Westerham, had this been a normal weekend.

Still, mustn't grumble, as they say, as there might be a ride or two on the cards in foreign lands, if time permits, and you can rest assured that details will appear on these pages soon if the opportunity presents itself.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Doctor Who is rubbish! There! I've said it!

I've never been able to remember the exact detail of The Emperor's New Clothes, but the gist of it is that an emperor, long ago, is brainwashed into thinking that he is wearing clothes when, in fact, he's naked. The tale is often used to illustrate how something that is essentially a load of old tosh is viewed by few (or many) as the best thing since sliced bread. The BBC's Doctor Who is a case in point. In short, it's not very good, in my opinion, and never has been.

Doctor Who: it's not scary and it does not possess any cult significance.
In fact, the only episode that I would give any credit to is the one featuring the original Weeping Angels – that, it has to be said, is brilliant and I would watch it time and time again, it's that good. As for the rest of it? I'd even suffer listening to the Archers if I had to choose.

There are myriad problems with Doctor Who, the first being that whenever you see 'an alien' it never fails to look like somebody dressed as an alien. It's never possible to suspend disbelief, in other words. And regardless of the scenario in which the Doctor finds himself, it always looks as if the whole thing is being filmed in a television studio, even when it isn't. In the same way that 'made for television' movies in the seventies had a certain naffness about them – they never looked like a proper movie of the sort you'd see in the cinema – the same is true of Doctor Who. And even when you see a movie on the television, it looks 'better', more authentic and once again, with Doctor Who, the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief is impossible.

Whenever I sit and watch Doctor Who, in the back of my mind I'm always aware that beneath that monstrous-looking costume of an alien – for that is what it is – there is a man or woman who, at some later date will be featured on a television programme about the making of Doctor Who explaining how difficult it was to get the bloody thing on or how hot it was in there. Again, the ability to suspend disbelief is just not there and why would the BBC spend time and money making a programme about the making of Doctor Who? It's simply not that good.

Indeed, the BBC goes out of its way to make Doctor Who naff by trying to big it up by creating a myth that, even as adults, people cower behind the sofa in fright. Listen, they don't! Doctor Who simply isn't scary! And yet you'll always hear television presenters – especially the BBC prefects and 'head girls' like Zoey Ball, going on and on about how they'll have difficulty sleeping after watching an episode. Rubbish! If Hannibal Lecter isn't scary (it's good old Anthony Hopkins after all) then where does that leave Doctor Who?

That ability to suspend disbelief is stunted further by Doctor Who Confidential, a programme which, in itself, is naff, because it sets out to analyse an episode of 'Who' and thereby ruin it for anybody who is foolish enough to be capable of suspending disbelief. In Confidential we hear how the programme was made, we hear from the writer, the actors, we see shots of camera booms and directors – all of which reinforces the reality that Doctor Who is little more than a television production. There's nothing worse than being told how a magic trick works so that you're aware that it isn't magic after all – of course it isn't – just sleight of hand, and that's what Doctor Who Confidential attempts to do – it ruins any imagination the viewer might possess. And, once again, Doctor Who simply isn't good enough to have a separate programme devoted to how it was made.

I feel the same way about actors on chat shows. Those who are frequently seen chatting to Jonathan Ross or Parkinson or Graham Norton soon become 'themselves' in the eyes of the public and once again that ability to suspend disbelief is damaged forever as when you then see the actor in question trying to fool you that he or she is some major historical figure (or whatever) it's impossible not to see the actor staring back at you. In some cases, of course, that ability to suspend disbelief was never there in the first place – yes, in Doctor Who, but who could possibly suspend disbelief enough to watch Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter for God's sake! – as beat poet Allen Ginsberg?

But let's get back to Doctor Who. In short, it's rubbish: the sets are rubbish, the alien outfits are far from convincing, the whole thing is bigged up beyond belief and its hard to watch the BBC's various presenters patronising the British public, pretending that Doctor Who is scary and 'deep' when it isn't and generally making out that Doctor Who holds some kind of cult significance. It doesn't. He doesn't.  It's not the X Files (which never looked as if it was filmed in a studio, and if there were aliens, they always looked a darn sight more convincing than those in Doctor Who).

And yet, if you dare to question the greatness of Doctor Who it's almost blasphemy. The crowded room goes silent, a bell tolls, and the hangman arrives to take you to the gallows. Well, come and get me "aunty", Doctor Who is bollocks! There, I've said it! It's bollocks! Rubbish! A load of old tosh! Put that in your Tardis and smoke it!


Sunday, 25 May 2014

Tesco ASBO specials, a girl's bike – what a disastrous morning!

Monday 26 May 2014: This weekend was definitely not to be as far as cycling was concerned. First, heavy rain on Saturday aborted the ride and then, on Sunday, while the weather was fine, there were other problems. A late start (leaving the house at 0730hrs) was perfect, but as soon as I reached the garage I found a flat front tyre. Not a problem, you might think, but you'd be wrong! There's something afoot with my front wheel, something to do with the thread. It means that when I loosen the bolts to remove the wheel, both nuts revolve and nothing unscrews. Very irritating. Normally it requires two spanners: one to hold one side while I unscrew the opposite nut. But it's not working and soon I realise that it's all getting a bit late and...I'm going to have to ride my daughter's bike or abort.

Look at the state of me: the Tesco ASBO specials, a girl's bike and my head
crammed into a crash helmet, exposing some wire wool hair that needs a cut.
Off I go in my disgusting, grey and chavvy Tesco ASBO trousers, one leg tucked into a grey sock, on a bright pink girl's bike and I look terrible. Not only that, I soon realise how fantastic my Spongy Wonder saddle has been over the years in terms of protecting the family jewels. The seat on my new ride is hard, unforgiving and, unfortunately, angled slighty upwards at the front end. In other words, the ride is very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I'll just about make Warlingham Green. 

We stop on the green, which I thought was a first for NoVisibleLycra – it wasn't as I did the same on 3rd February 2013 – and sip our tea. Phil brought the cereal bars and we sat there chatting for a good 30 minutes. Then there was almost a catastrophe. An embarrassing catastrophe. I wasn't really paying that much attention to what was going on around me as I poured very hot water from the flask into the cups to clean them and then throwing the water on to the grass. A woman crossing the green passes where we were standing as I turned around in preparation to sling the water from the cup...and it was just a matter of luck that she wasn't hit. It would have been the perfect end to a calamitous morning, I thought, as I embarked upon an uncomfortable ride home.

On Bank Holiday Monday I awoke to the sound of rain, once again, hammering down on the conservatory roof. As I sit here now at 0654hrs it's still pouring down so I've aborted a planned ride with Phil. I managed to fix the front wheel and what was even worst was the fact that I didn't seem to have a puncture. Yesterday, I inflated the inner tube before going for a drive into the countryside (a place we call 'the elephant shop' but which, in fact, is called Trading Boundaries, a kind of shop and gig venue for old rockers and tribute acts near a place called Danehill, not a million miles from Forest Row and 10 miles northish of Lewes.

Girl's bike on Warlingham Green.
By the time I returned, around 1800hrs, the inner tube was still inflated so I submerged it in water and found no bubbles. Having fixed the wheel as best I could I put everything back together but decided not to pump up the tyre. Right now, the bike is out there, upturned and with a deflated front tyre, but it's all academic as the rain continues to hammer down and shows no sign of abating. Here's hoping the rain will have stopped by next weekend.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Bank holiday weekend – a few early morning thoughts

Caribou crossing – an interesting sculpture in Indianapolis, IN. USA
I'm pleased with the interest shown in my blog by the folks of Indianapolis (see previous post for more details). I'm reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries at the moment – it's not my main book, but I occasionally pick it up when I want to chill out a little as it is a very chilled and laid back creation, ideal for a sunny day accompanied by a glass of Cabernet. I'm about half way through it (on the chapter about Buenos Aires) but this morning I flicked back to the beginning to find a quote that the guys in Indianapolis might not necessarily agree with (although the fact that the Pacers' Bike Share scheme there is only a few weeks old might mean that Byrne is right).

Byrne says that 'most US cities are not very bike friendly' and adds that they are not very pedestrian friendly either. 'They're car friendly – or at least they try very hard to be', he says and being as he's an American who lives in an American city, he's probably right, but that makes the two bike share schemes I've tried in North America (in Montreal and San Antonio) worthy enterprises – and here's hoping there will be more in the not-too-distant future. I think they work in some cities and not in others.
A dedicated cycle lane on the Indianapolis bike share scheme
Do they work in London? Well, I would avoid riding in London at all costs regardless of the type of bike available. It's simply not safe and there have been many media reports of fatal clashes with lorries. City cycling only works if specific travelways can be established, like in Indianapolis, or, failing that, if the traffic, by and large, isn't that heavy (like in San Antonio and Montreal). In Montreal, for  instance, I remember standing in the middle of the road to take a photograph of the distinct lack of traffic on a Saturday morning around 0900hrs – it wouldn't be possible in London. Likewise in San Antonio. But in Essen, Germany, there's an element of taking my life into my own hands as the situation there is 'here's a bike, provided by the council' but that's it, you're on your own, sharing space with the traffic and it's a similar story in London. Travel to Milton Keynes and you'll find dedicated cycle lanes, similar to those in Amsterdam and other parts of Holland where city planners took the bicycle into consideration.

Bridge over the canal in Indianapolis – all very pleasant
Here in the UK, bad weather was promised this bank holiday weekend and bad weather was received in the form of rain. I awoke early on Saturday morning expecting a ride to Westerham in Kent, with Andy and Phil, but the rain was hammering down outside and was still doing so around 0600hrs so I sent out the abort text. On and off it rained all day, with little patches of sunshine here and there, and by early evening it was quite pleasant. It was one of those deceptive days. Had I woken up to a spot of sunny weather I might have gone out and then taken a soaking en route, but the morning was constant rain and the patchiness didn't start occuring until later in the day.

Now, sitting here in the conservatory at 0641hrs on Sunday, the plan is to ride out with Phil, possibly the slow way to the Tatsfield bus stop. Andy's out of circulation now until next week. His only opportunity for a ride would have been yesterday (Saturday).

A map showing the various bike stations dotted around Indianapolis
Things have conspired against us and we haven't been cycling a lot recently. Mainly it's been me travelling (I was in Indianapolis for the best part of 10 days if you include the getting back) and then it was the poor weather. Oddly, it's a been a time of extremes as over the Easter holidays I managed roughly 10 consecutive days of riding, all of which are detailed on this blog (just scroll back and you'll find the relevant posts).
Indianapolis' fantastic yellow bicycles
The blinds are down so I can't see the garden from where I'm sitting, although I can detect that there's a breeze as I can see the tops of some shrubs swinging from side-to-side. Still, as long as it doesn't rain it'll be alright.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Fame for NoVisibleLycra in Indianapolis...

The website UrbanIndy.com has published one of my two articles on the new Indianapolis Bike Share Scheme and linked to the second one. Click here for more details. Also, scroll down or see side panel for Indianapolis bike share articles as well as other places around the world.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

To the Tatsfield churchyard...

I realised the other day that, apart from two rides in Indianapolis the week before last (scroll down to see both posts) I haven't riden out, in the traditional sense, for about a month. In fact, the last time Andy and I hit the road we rode to Tatsfield village and then a mixture of rain and travelling prevented further rides.

This weekend, however, with the weather fantastic – hot sun, clear skies – it was even a case of heading out in a tee-shirt and not the usual layers of clothing. It's amazing how fast the scenery can change when the sun raises its head. Warlingham Green is now in full bloom and the banks alongside the 269 are full of greenery overhanging into the road.
Sanderstead pond, Sunday 18th May 2014. Note the reeds in full bloom.

As I rode past the pond at Sanderstead the reeds were in full bloom, there was a comfortable, warm breeze and all was good with the world. I was running a little late, but nothing to be concerned about and when I reached the green Andy was there and ready to go. We headed for Knight's Garden Centre and beyond and decided to go to the Tatsfield churchyard rather than Westerham and the café, our original plan.

Once seated we discussed my recent trip to Indianapolis and then moved on the current round of celebrity sex trials, the hottest right now being Rolf Harris. What we were both amazed about is how the law in this country is so fickle. The normal state of affairs is that you're innocent until proven guilty, but in cases like those surrounding Rolf Harris, the recently imprisoned Max Clifford and the soon-to-be re-tried Dave Lee Travis, it's the other way around. In fact, the onus is on the defendants, once accused, to prove that they are innocent despite the fact that the whole thing is based, in the eyes of the jury, on the word of one person against the other, there's little in the way of hard evidence and basically, any woman can accuse any man of sexual impropriety and the man in question would have to undergo a trial in court.

What amazes me is how anybody can have a clear memory of anything that happened over 30 years ago. I know that I have trouble remembering the names of former colleagues from as little as 10 years ago.

With the current trials there is certainly something afoot; there's more to it than meets the eye and we, the public, as usual, are being kept in the dark. I suspect part of it is to do with the fact that 'they' can't get Saville (because he's dead) so they have to convict somebody (anybody) in order to redress the balance. Scapegoats are always required and the whole things fuels another caper, possibly dreamed up by the secret services: that there are paedophiles lurking on every street corner and that even friendly, neighbourhood celebrities are kiddie fiddlers.

We began to wonder whether the secret services were in some way involved and that the agenda was wider than just getting somebody to pay for Saville's crimes. Ultimately, it's all about social control, keeping people off the streets and instilling a sense of fear in the populous – when the reality is there's nothing to fear. There are so many examples of this: think Tony Blair and his 45-minute warning on WMD. It was all lies. Suddenly we found ourselves agreeing with those who are generally rubbished by the establishment – the conspiracy theorists.

But, as always, it's one of those arguments that will never be won or understood so we sipped our tea, munched our Kellogg's Nutragrain bars and watched two gravediggers who simply stood around chatting for the entire time we were there. Talk about easy money.

Monday, 12 May 2014

In Chicago...

Now I don't know what to think about Chicago and you must forgive me for even passing judgement having been in town for no more than a few hours and having just an hour or two downtown. In fact, in that sense, my judgement doesn't count at all. But personally, I found Chicago not so much 'my kinda town' but a bit boring.
On the streets of Chicago – not my kind of town
I took the CTA downtown (roughly 40 minutes) but the journey was punctuated by a replacement bus service between Logan Square and Western, giving me a chance to see the streets of Chicago. Oddly, there was something familiar about them; something almost English. I could have been in South London and everything looked a lot older than, say, Indianapolis downtown. I can't put my finger on it, but yes, I could have been in Peckham, south east London, on a hot Saturday afternoon.

Downtown Chicago
The downtown seemed much more established than other downtowns I've visited and more in keeping with London and New York. I jumped off the train at Clark and Lake and found myself in a similar environment to a scene from Grand Theft Auto as the CTA track was elevated over the roads and I was reminded not only of GTA but also some movie scenes, normally those involving car chases. I'm thinking particularly of The French Connection which, for all I know, was filmed in Chicago (I'll check that out later).

They have a bike share scheme in Chicago too, but there was little time to take advantage of it so I took a photograph of the bikes in a docking station and that was it.

The odd thing was that Clark and Lake put me in the business district (or so I was told) and everything, restaurants included – although there weren't any proper restaurants, just sandwich shops – was closed. I soon discovered I was walking in the wrong direction, but even when a helpful guy in a covered market directed me to the proper downtown, I still hadn't gone far enough and in the end settled for a snack lunch in the Corner Bakery, a shop with more than one outlet in Chicago, where I had a fairly pleasant chicken carbonara and a paper cup full of tea. After that there was little to do other than go back to the Marriott O'Hare and head for the airport. I decided against the CTA for the journey back as I didn't fancy that replacement bus service between Western and Logan Square and instead jumped a taxi. There was heavy traffic on the road for some inexplicable reason, but I got back in good time, retrieved my case and had a glass of Cabernet before boarding the hotel shuttle to the airport – and more hassles.
Chicago has a bike share scheme too
I just knew things wouldn't be straightforward and once again it was American Airlines at fault. Oddly, however, whenever there were problems it invariably involved the number 13. The gate back at Indianapolis was H13 (although, to be honest, it might have been H11, I'm not sure, but when the plane pulled away from the gate I couldn't see H11, all I saw was H13) and now the London flight was going out of K13. Having had lunch in Chicago I decided to resist the temptation to visit my favourite Romano's Macaroni Grill and instead walked around aimlessly until my legs were tired enough to make me sit down and read (I've nearly finished Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin).

But of course there were problems. The American Airlines 767 at gate K13 was going nowhere. There was something wrong with it; so now we've had a faulty door on the AA flight from Indianapolis and an unexplained problem with the 767 that would have flown us to London. We're moved to gate K15 and a new plane, from the hangar, is brought over – eventually. However, the delay has meant that my connecting flight from Dublin to London – not sure if I mentioned the fact that I couldn't fly direct to London Heathrow due to fully booked flights – would be missed, so I had to re-book on the 1145 Dublin to London flight instead and this meant another call to my taxi company in London to reschedule my pick-up. I was getting tired and emotional.
Three hours out of Dublin, Sunday morning

We flew out of Chicago around 8pm instead of the planned 6.30pm and I then had a seven-hour, 30-minute flight ahead of me. All pretty smooth and I had plenty of legroom in seat 11b, but only managed to get about an hour's sleep. At Dublin I transferred to Terminal One (a short walk) and after a bowl of Alpen, a cup of tea and an apple I was ready for the short flight to London during which time I had a shortbread biscuit and one of those small bottles of red wine that I love so much when I fly.

At London, fortunately, I was reunited with my suitcase and everything was intact, but I then had the cab ride from hell. The taxi driver – a shifty-eyed individual with swallows tattooed on both hands (which means he's done time) insisted on playing Bobby Darin at high volume and then engaged me in conversation over the noise of the music. It would have been irritating enough had I not been jet-lagged, but as I was jet-lagged it was even worse. At one stage, however, I actually nodded off, but imagine the horror: a drive home through South West London (my cab driver pointing out local landmarks – like Feltham Young Offenders Institute) while the music played and I occasionally acknowledged something he said with an 'uh' or a 'yeah'. I was so glad when he pulled up outside my house. I jumped out, bade him farewell and rang the front doorbell. I was home.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Stranded in the Windy City

Travelling can be a right palavar! And it always seems odd that I start to make decisions that will somehow backfire on me later in the day. One, for example, was deciding to check in my suitcase. I put my laptop in there and my wallet full of receipts and all because I figured that with such a full suitcase I'd have one helluva time getting the laptop back in after going through security. So I checked it in: mistake number one. Well, perhaps that was the only mistake, I don't know. I also distinctly remember a conversation I had with Mike, the manager of my hotel, the gist of which was that to fly long haul with an American airline was not good and certainly not as good as flying with British Airways. And guess what? I will eventually fly home on an American airline. It's amazing how conversations tempt fate in a certain way and how decisions come back to haunt me.

Anyway, I reach Indianapolis airport, Sam drops me off and I go through security and, for the first time ever, I hear my name boomed over the tannoy system. It turns out they want to search my bag and they need the combination on the lock. I give it to them and that's the end of it, although I start thinking, what if they simply steal my laptop or my wallet? So that bugged me, but I went through the security process and soon it was obvious that there was something wrong with the plane. It turns out that there's a faulty door and we, that is me and my fellow passengers, wonder if it'll be fixed in time. Eventually it is fixed and we're sitting in the plane. Outside there's some pretty severe storms going on and this means, as we're making our way to the runway, the pilot decides to turn us around and go back to the gate to get more fuel. Why he didn't have enough fuel in the first place is not explained, but I'm thinking it's got something to do with re-routing the journey and so on.

But of course it doesn't end there. We're told 10 minutes, but it turns into a couple hours and soon it is obvious that all of us on board are going to miss our connections. We eventually fly out of Indianapolis, the flight's pleasant, we land and then the process of sorting things out begins. I wanted to know what would happen to my suitcase as it won't be transferred to the London flight because that was long gone. Eventually I'm rebooked on an American Airlines flight to Dublin for Saturday night and this means a stay in the Marriott O'Hare, which is fine if you forgive them for labyrinthine corridors.

Dinner was pleasant enough and that old Dunkirk spirit crept in too, which is always nice. There was a small group of us: an American judge from Indianapolis and his South Korean wife, a former cop from Colorado and a girl who's heavily involved in to some kind of historical re-enactment society based in Indianapolis (she was flying to Lake Tahoe, the rest of us to London). In fact, the cop was staying near to me in Kingston upon Thames.

We all had breakfast and then I checked out and right now it's Saturday morning and I'm considering going downtown, although I don't want to be stranded down there and miss my flight, but I'll probably jump on the train (the CTA) at a place called Cumberland and ride the 40 minutes into town just to say I've been there. I need to be back around 3.30pm to catch the shuttle back to the airport (Terminal 3) and my flight to Dublin and from there my flight to London.

I discovered by chatting to people and listening to media reports that Indianapolis and Chicago are virtually equal in the battle to be the USA's most murderous capital. Whoever loses, of course,will be number two and it's looking as if Indianapolis might win. And guess who was staying in a dodgy neighbourhood out on East Washington? Yes, you guessed it. Me. And my taxi driver told me there were crack heads in a motel a few blocks away from my hotel and all manner of unsavoury people hanging around elsewhere. And now I'm in Chicago, a city with similar crime credentials.

I can't upload any images for this post because my camera is in my case along with everything else I need. American Airlines kindly provided me with a small overnight bag containing all the essentials, so at least I could shave and brush my teeth, but they didn't provide a change of clothes so I'm dressed exactly as I was yesterday. Still, I'm rested and ready to get back on the plane later today.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Making the most of my 24-hour $8.00 bike pass

Picking up a bike on Maryland Avenue, Indianapolis
I docked the bike at Massachussets Avenue and Alabama...
Once the conference had ended I found myself out on the street in the baking heat wondering what to do. There was no point going all the way back to the hotel so I moseyed around town thinking about where to get some lunch. I remembered I still had a few hours to run on my bike share 24-hour pass so I found the bike port on Maryland and went through the fairly simple procedure of getting a bike off the rack. It beep-beeped until I pulled it from its housing and after stuffing my laptop case in the rear pannier I headed off in the general direction of Massachussets Avenue using a mixture of the sidewalks, roads and the Cultural Trail.
Down by the White River
My bike on the banks of the White River
I was under the impression that Massachussets Avenue would be some kind of vibrant road full of lively cafés and restaurants, but it wasn't; there were pizza restaurant/pubs and Mexican restaurant/bars plus a Starbucks and no vibe at all. But I'd cycled all this way and you're only allowed to use the bikes for 30-minute stints so I parked up and headed for Bazbeaux Pizza (www.bazbeaux.com) where I ordered a 10in Garden pizza thinking there was going to be some kind of healthy slant to it. How wrong! Although what did I expect? I was in a pizzeria. It was fairly pleasant, especially as it was accompanied by Triton Dead Eye Stout (5.5%) and some garlic bread with cheese.
I picked up another bike here at the White River State Park docking station
Back at Massachussets Avenue and Alabama – I walked back from here
The whole experience was relaxing. The music was laid back and included The Pretenders and the Boo Radleys plus others. The restaurant had a laid back vibe too and the staff were friendly. I could have sat there all afternoon, but that would have been wrong. But I needed to chill a little, even if I was a little concerned that, with the Garden pizza, I'd broken the pattern of healthy eating that had so far characterised this trip. In fact, it was my food choice that prompted me to make maximum use of my 24-hour pass on the bike share scheme so, after a quick cup of tea in the Starbucks across the road and with a couple hours still to go on my 24-hour bike pass, I took out another bike and headed back into the city centre on the the Cultural Trail, passing some of the haunts I'd visited yesterday and heading down to the banks of the White River, a two-forked river that runs through central and southern Indiana and is a staggering 362 miles long.

Indiana old and new
It was another hot day, easily in the mid-seventies, if not hotter, and there was only so far I could go without crossing the river and I knew that pretty soon my time would be up and I'd incur costs by continuing to ride the bike. So I turned around and picked up the Cultural Trail again, heading this time back into the centre of the city. I changed the bike at White River State Park and then rode on and around the trail and eventually ended up back at Massachussets Avenue and the same stop I'd visited prior to finding Bazbeaux Pizza. This time, with my time well and truly up, I docked the bike and then headed back into town on foot, in search of Washington Street and a taxi back to my hotel.

A great way to get around the city and burn off some calories
I jumped into a cab near the Hyatt and here I am writing this post at 1853hrs and wondering whether it's worth heading back into town just to eat. That pizza was quite enough in many respects and I could always cross the parking lot and check out the Bob Evan's restaurant. We'll see.

It was good to get back on the bike again; this time I rode for a good couple of hours, probably just under, but at least for 90 minutes (or thereabouts).

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Taking a ride around Indianapolis on the Cultural Trail...

My Indianapolis bike – perfect in every way.

Yours truly on a bridge over a canal in Indianapolis.
As the day drew to close as far as the convention was concerned and all the work was done, I decided to check out Indianapolis' new bike share scheme. It costs $8 for a 24-hour pass but you have to put the bikes back into a docking station after 30 minutes. There are plenty of docking stations dotted around the city and every docking station offers maps showing exactly where they (and you) are.
Informative signs like this one are dotted around the route.
The bikes are bright yellow and have panniers at the rear and a basket at the front. As I had my laptop and a few other things, I used both the panniers and the basket, unhooked a bike and then headed off on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a kind of cycle path around the city that takes riders through what can only be described as some of the nicest parts of this city I've seen. The weather was good too: sunny, blue skies, very summery, and as soon as I'd mounted the bike I felt good about life.
Plenty of helpful signage lines the route of the Cultural Trail
It was around 1715 when I set off and, theoretically, I should have returned the bike to a docking station after 30 minutes had elapsed, but I was uncertain what happened after that; would I be able to take out another bike in order to reach home again? Eventually, I had to ask and was told that you simply re-dock the bike and then re-insert your credit card and you can take it out again. I was also told that if you go over they charge you something like $2.00, which is a fair cop. I'd been riding for about 50 minutes, but I wanted to dock my bike back in the docking station from where I'd taken it, so I've taken the excess fee on the chin as I didn't really want to mess about too much.
And some intriguing works of art too...
The trail was fantastic. First of all, it was safe. Second, being a lovely day, and given that there was plenty of green space around, I loved every minute of it. The bikes, incidentally, were easy to ride. They had three gears, controlled on the handlebars, and they were very stable too. If there was a problem it was the constant stopping and starting as the trail crossed busy roads like Washington, New York and Michigan. The problem here was that the lights never seemed to change or they would take an age and I found myself edging out on to the tarmac when I saw a break in the traffic rather than wait, which was a little frustrating.
Bike number 5 – back in its dock, albeit a bit later than expected...
The trail took me past museums and an interesting sculpture – or possibly it was an art 'installation', although I'd rather call it sculpture – of some caribou crossing a stream and then onwards, past university buildings hemmed in by green space and then some pleasant-looking houses and a canal on which pedalos could be hired. I eventually turned back on myself and followed the road back to my original docking station where, 50 minutes or so later, I re-docked the bike. It was almost 6pm.

Indianapolis' bike share scheme offers a different perspective of the city.
Having riden bike share schemes in Montreal (twice) and in Essen in Germany, not forgetting San Antonio in Texas, I think it would be fair to say that the best ride (and possibly the best bikes) award goes to Indianapolis. It was a real pleasure cycling around the city on a pleasant and safe cycle path and hopefully I'll get the chance to have another go tomorrow prior to my 24-hour pass running out around 5pm.

Not so many fat Americans...

Perhaps the Americans are getting the message and possibly they're feeling a little dumbfounded at people poking fun at them all the time because they're overweight. I'm not sure what it is, but while I saw a fair few fat Americans at Chicago O'Hare airport – where they are strapped into extra-wide wheelchairs and pushed around from one gate to another – I've not seen that many morbidly obese Americans here in Indianapolis and this might (just might) be because there are more healthier options on restaurant menus and the city now has a bike share scheme – albeit just a week old – but which I tried out today, and, well, that's it.
Lunch at McCormick & Schmick's, the Hilton, Indianapolis, USA
I have always remarked in conversation about food that the Americans are the only people I know who can take something essentially healthy and then smother it in crap to make it unhealthy, either by deep-frying their vegetables or throwing a load of cheese sauce over a perfectly decent chicken breast. It used to be very difficult to escape this culinary trick of theirs, but then, about a year ago, I was in Los Angeles, or rather I was in Irvine, Ca. in the Hyatt Regency (check out the side panel on the right of this blog and you'll find a post about it) and the food was fantastic. And by 'fantastic' I mean it was light, even the dessert!

Now, in Indianapolis, I've managed to enjoy decent food, mainly seafood, without getting a load of unhealthy rubbish as accompaniments. So, just now, I enjoyed some halibut with a couple of new potatoes and some green beans; yesterday I had trout fillets with kale; last night I had Alaska salmon with brocolli and jasmine rice, at lunch time I had Atlantic salmon with vegetables and asparagus and I've managed to avoid eating red meat. In fact, today, somebody I met at the Indiana Convention Centre told me that the Americans inject growth hormones into their beef and it should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, the very idea of a burger is completely off my radar at the moment and I've found myself relying entirely on seafood and fish (today I had a rather retro prawn cocktail, although it was called something else, probably a shrimp cocktail, and it was served on a bed of ice).

Since Sunday, my colleague and I have been eating together, apart from on Sunday evening when I crashed early as a result of jet lag and today he wasn't feeling too good so I ate alone in the Capital Grille attached to the Conrad Hotel. I had the prawn, sorry, 'shrimp', cocktail followed by the halibut and a glass of red wine and then I headed back to my hotel on the outskirts of the city and was advised, once again, by a taxi driver. not to venture out on foot. He told me that where there are poor people there are drugs and where there are drugs there are gangs. He said he'd never pick anybody up from this part of town so I've been warned. Once again, he said it was fine downtown, but that on the outskirts of town it was dodgy. Very dodgy.

Getting back to food and drink, while I haven't over done things, I have been enjoying a couple glasses of Cabernet with every meal, which has been very pleasant, but when I return home I'll be giving it a long rest.

For more details on McCormick & Schmick's, click here.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Recovered from the jet lag and feeling myself again...

It's amazing how jet lag can make me feel down and depressed, but equally amazing how, once cured, I'm back to my normal self again. After retiring at 7pm last night and hitting the sack, missing dinner in the process, I awoke this morning a different person. Washed and dressed by 7am I'd finished breakfast by 7.30am and was sitting with Sam, the taxi driver, riding along East Washington towards downtown. All was good with the world, I was happy with the hotel – based on the fact that to stay in town would have cost me considerably more than the additional money I have to fork out on cabs (my hotel is just $70 per night (or thereabouts) and it's fine. Today for breakfast I had my usual Rice Krispies and this time I found some teabags (they did have tea, despite me thinking they didn't yesterday). Having missed dinner, I had two slices of toast, a yoghurt and an apple.
Lunch time, downtown Indianapolis – but hardly any cars on the road.
It was a good day's work too and I was pleased to see that Crystal Palace held Liverpool to a 3-3 draw, despite the fact that the scousers had been 3-0 up earlier in the match. Palace has been brilliant of late, even beating Chelsea a few weeks ago, much to a colleague of mine's dismay. I still find it odd that they're in the Premiership, but they are, which is good for a Croydon club – or rather Croydon's only club. Croydon, technically, is not my home town. I'm from Sutton, which is about six miles west of Croydon, so I should be supporting Sutton United, but now that I live in the Croydon area, perhaps I ought to start supporting Palace.

Indianapolis is buzzing more than it has been over the weekend, thanks to the convention – or make that conventions; there's some kind of knitting event going on as well as a wire show, plus the convention I'm attending, but the traffic hasn't really picked up even if there are more people around town, including the 'hungry and homeless' – who look surprisingly young and sprightly – and a few of those 'statue' people you often find in places like Covent Garden in London.

What's happening in the news?
 My hotel, while low cost (which can only be a good thing) is seemingly getting better by the day. This morning I discovered complimentary copies of USA Today in which I found the following:-

• Health care spending in the USA has risen at the fastest pace since 1980, thanks to new health insurance laws, which have prompted many more Americans to visit doctors and hospitals.

• A poll shows that Republicans have gained a great deal of popularity of late. A nationwide USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll shows the strongest tilt towards Republican candidates at this point in a mid-term year.

• Nine people have been seriously injured in a high wire circus act. During some kind of aerial stunt, at least nine performers were injured when a metal frame they were hanging from 'tore loose from a metal truss'. Eight women fell between 25 and 40 feet, landing on a dancer on the ground.

American television...

Before hitting the sack I switched on the box, something I don't often do while away, and flicked through the channels. There are so many channels and so many chat shows too. I watched a bit of Letterman – an actress promoting her movie told of how she likes eating clay – and then found two or three other chat shows, all with guests I didn't know. The movie Carousel was on another channel and I watched a few moments of it before getting bored, switching off and falling asleep.


Hanging around Indianapolis...

The jet lag – or the flight – had given me a streaming nose that seems to have cleared up and a general fatigue, which I didn't realise I had. I'd woken up yesterday in the early hours and then sailed through the day, which involved going to the convention center to check if magazines had turned up (they hadn't, making a mockery of the whole thing). The event starts today so we're hoping something will be there when we head on down again later this morning. In fact, I have an early start, although that's no reason for being up so early. It's 0440hrs and I've woken up and decided to start writing. To be fair, I went to bed real early, around 7pm or something like that, and generally I slept like a log. I had some odd dreams. In one I told an old friend some home truths and in another I was some kind of disgruntled shareholder of a business (I know not why) and the person in charge of the business was TV's hotel inspector. I turned up for a meeting and was not welcomed. Security was called and I was 'escorted' off the premises while calling into question the footballing abilities of a man charged with the task of seeing me off – he had a dangerous dog on a lead. Now this last bit I can relate to as earlier in the day I was with Sam, a taxi driver, and we were heading into downtown Indianapolis talking about how, in America, or certainly in the state of Indiana, there are lots of benefit cheats – or rather people on benefits, not necessarily benefit cheats. Sam said it's widespread and a lot of those who are homeless or on benefits are better off than he is; it sounded like a familiar gripe, I told him, and explained that we have similar issues in the UK.
My Name is Earl. My hotel's outdoor swimming pool

Having discovered yesterday that my hotel wasn't far from a poor neighbourhood, blighted by crime and muggings, I'd seriously considered changing hotels, but after passing the time of day with Mike, the hotel's general manager, I decided to stay put and called the travel company to tell them. The manager was from Hyderabad originally and he was, for want of a better description, a kind of 'mobile' manager, a troubleshooter, brought in when needed. He'd lived in the UK for a while, in Hounslow, and has lived all over the place managing different hotels. He was last in the San Francisco area (Oakland) where his family still live and now he lives here in the hotel (a temporary measure) and I'd imagine he'll eventually bring his family with him, although his daughter's going to start university in Indianapolis as it has a good reputation, apparently. So he and I got chatting, we've even talked of going into town to try an Indian restaurant that he recommends. And it was based on chatting to him that I decided to stay put rather than uproot myself and cause untold problems for the travel company by moving to another hotel.

Being here on the outskirts of town, however, has taught me a lesson: book early to avoid disappointment.

The corridor of my hotel...
And talking of disappointment, prior to my chat with the manager and while I was deeply considering get out of here, I had a spark of hope when it came to breakfast. Why? Because people on Trip Advisor had said the breakfast here, which is complimentary, is to die for. Well, I beg to differ: wrapped bakery items, miniature boxes of well known cereal, no sign of any tea, a wafflemaker and, worse of all, plastic cutlery and plastic plates and dishes. This takes not trusting the customers to new levels: first an empty fridge in the room (a noisy, empty fridge that hums all night) and then disposable cutlery and plates. I opted for something familiar, a couple of small boxes of Rice Krispies (well, they're tiny), a glass of orange juice and that was breakfast. Then Sam drove me downtown, through the rough neighbourhood, which, I said, looked fine, until we saw a guy with a dangerous dog. Sam tut-tutted about him saying stuff like that was unnecessary and so on and 15 minutes or so later we were in the downtown area where, I've been told, it's safe to wander around, unlike the area surrounding my hotel. I had lunch in Champps (salmon with mashed potato, a glass of Cabernet and a Triton Dead Eye Stout and then headed over to the convention centre to discover there were no magazines delivered – this is more of a problem for my colleague who will be manning the stand. I've got to attend the plenary events. After that I headed back to the hotel and slept like a log and now, here I am, up early (it's now almost 0500hrs) and I think I'll call home in a minute. Oh, yeah, you can't make international calls so I'll have to use the cellphone.
Locally brewed Triton Dead Eye Stout.

Indianapolis on a Sunday has to be discussed as it's a similar picture in many American cities I've visited – there's nobody about, no traffic on the roads, nothing and, as always, I get this strange sensation that nothing is real, that behind the facades, the buildings are little more than film sets, propped up by splintered pieces of wood. Quite incredible really. It was as if I had built a city and invited a few friends to drop by and enjoy the facilities before I populated it – "come and drive around an empty city!" – and a handful of them had taken me up on my offer. Very strange. Having said all that, Indianapolis will come alive today as there's a convention for the rest of the week, meaning many delegates will crowd yesterday's empty malls and pack into the virtually deserted sports bars and restaurants. The streets will enjoy more cars and perhaps the place will look a little more like a city. But once the convention packs up, the city will go back to its sleepy state again and others will wonder whether it's all a facade and that really there's nothing there at all, just scrubland and tumbleweed. Perhaps that's it, perhaps I'm in some kind of weird sci fi movie in a city that doesn't really exist?

As I've mentioned before, Indianapolis has a bike share scheme and I stumbled across the bright yellow bikes and considered a ride, but didn't bother. I will do later in the week, though, after the convention as a 24-hour pass only costs $8.

I took a cab back to the hotel and hit the sack, missing dinner in the process. Dinner, of course, would have meant another trip downtown, another $20 cab fare and then another coming back again, so that prospect didn't appeal and besides, I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed. It's called jet lag.

Today will be busy as there's stuff to do, I'll probably have dinner in town and then head back here and the process will repeat itself for the rest of this week until I fly back to Chicago and then to London, returning home early on Saturday morning.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Thoughts from 38,000 feet ...

Travelling over the North Atlantic on a BA flight to Chicago. Just cleared the West Coast of Northern Ireland and have under seven hours to go, so I'm enjoying a glass of Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon while awaiting the in-flight meal.
Blindingly white cloud over Northern Ireland

I'm beginning to wish I hadn't booked a window seat as I'd much rather have the legroom and the freedom to get up when I please without annoying anybody.

All is not what it seems...
What a world we live in when suddenly all is not what it seems: children's entertainers and DJs being accused of child abuse and sexual assault, judges jailed for abusing the law and Max Clifford jailed last week for a variety of dubious crimes involving women. And what the hell is going on in Ukraine? The root of all evil at the moment (and probably forever) is nationalism and there's a lot of it about in Scotland, Russia and, of course, the UK generally in terms of UKIP's preachings. Why can't people be content with what they've got? Alright, there are situations that might justify conflict (Syria, Afghanistan and the like) but why bother in Scotland? It's not as if they don't already have different banknotes is it? And some of the men wear skirts!

I'm getting hungry and there's no sign of lunch. I can smell cooked food, but that's about it. In the UK as I write this it's 1340hrs on Saturday afternoon and I had my breakfast back in Terminal Five (granola, fresh fruit, tea and orange juice) around 1000hrs. Call me a pleb, but I love airline food, always have, and while I know it's likely to be chicken or beef (and I'll opt for the former) that's great so bring it on.

I need to stretch my legs so I'm now standing up at the rear of the plane having answered the call of nature. I won't go back to my seat just yet as I'd rather give my fellow passengers (an Eastern European or Russian who can't speak English and a British girl who, for some reason, likes to cover herself in a blanket) a break from me disturbing their peace by asking them to let me through – back to that reason why, on a long-haul flight, I'm not going to opt for a window seat in future.

"Are you waiting for the toilet?"
Looking around it appears to be a full flight and what never fails to piss me off is the way everybody else, except for me, that is, seems to be content to sit in their seats and entertain themselves. I need more than a movie or some boring 'establishment' rock to keep me quiet – where are the Inspiral Carpets when you need them? – but I'm not the only one: as I speak, the Russian (as I'll now call him) is also standing up. The problem with standing up just to get away from sitting down is that you will find yourself constantly being asked if you're waiting for toilet. "No, be my guest..." I always reply, chirpily.

A full flight. Shot taken from rear of plane.
 I wish my family were here with me and that we were going on holiday, but they're not, more's the pity.

I'm back at my seat now and I've just heard the air hostess ask somebody if they want chicken or beef. Lunch is upon us! Outside now there is a blinding sheet of white cloud just below the plane but, as the food arrives, the cloud thins. The meal consists of roasted breast of chicken, potatoes, peas, green beans, carrots and gravy – perfect! And followed by Lily O'Brien's milk chocolate mousse with caramel sauce (it's tiny so I'm not too worried about my diet and besides, I've managed to lose 28lbs).

And now I can hear the hostess asking, "Tea? Tea? Tea?" a bit prematurely if you ask me as we've only just been given our lunch. I lift up my shallow, white, plastic cup and she fills it with tea.

The choice of music is terrible, I discover as I check out what's on offer in terms of in-flight entertainment, although I did watch Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, a very good movie that kept me occupied for a couple of hours before I needed to disturb my fellow passengers again and go for a walk to the back of the plane, a Jumbo, incidentally, and I'm in seat 41K. I think I have the same seat on the way back, but I might change it for an aisle seat.

John Simpson to the rescue – again!
We pass over the southern tip of Greenland with around five hours to go of this seven and a half hour flight and once again I find myself thankful for John Simpson and his column in High Life, the BA in-flight magazine. They should let John either write the lot of it or make him the editor as the rest of the content is pretty darn boring if you ask me.

Somewhere over North Eastern Canada...
John Simpson is definitely somebody I would invite to my 'dream dinner party' – not that I do dinner parties these days. Him and Will Self, although it's getting to sound like it might be quite heavy going if Mr Self is thrown into the mix. Perhaps not. It's all academic anyway. John Simpson is like a character from a Graham Green novel and I would love to spend some time with him chatting about world affairs and travelling. In fact I'd like to read his books, assuming he's written some.

"I'd leave it for five minutes if I were you..."
I'm back at the rear of the plane again, telling other passengers that I'm not waiting for the toilet. Mention must be made of going to the toilet on a plane. It's horrible. First, there's no space to swing a cat, let alone the old chap, and I can't stand the folding door or the oddly perfumed smell or the sound that the flush makes – it's really noisy. It's also pretty horrible when you emerge back into the plane again, especially if there's somebody there waiting to go in immediately after you: do you say, "I would leave it five minutes if I were you" or let them find out for themselves? Most people, I've noticed, opt for the latter and, on one occasion, a woman emerged sheepishly to discover one of her friends waiting. She wore an embarassed smile as if to say, "I've made a right pong in there and now you're going to remember that about me for the rest of my life."
Lake Michigan on descent to Chicago...

There's a single seat at the back near the toilets, which I'm guessing is reserved for the crew and it is here that I am sitting now, saying, "No, be my guest..." and pointing invitingly towards the toilet door. One person in the queue remarked to me that the plane must be pretty old because there was an ashtray fitted to the outside of the toilet door. Thanks, mate, I don't like to be reminded about the age of the plane when I'm 38,000 feet off the ground and in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Icy terrain and I'd rather be mowing the lawn!
We're flying over Canada now and it's icy terrain. Back in the UK it's about 1700hrs and I'm wishing I was there now enjoying a normal Saturday with the family. But I'm not. I'm here, on a plane, high in the sky with a load of strangers telling them to 'be my guest' as they are about to use the facilities as if I'm some kind of toilet host. Life doesn't get much better than this! That's sarcasm, by the way. Life clearly does get better than this and for me, my quality of life would be much improved right now if I could simply be at home, mowing the lawn, going shopping, eating, perhaps, a petit filous or making a cottage pie for dinner. But I'm not, I'm alone on a crowded plane to Chicago.

There's one hour and 57 minutes before we land, according to the journey map, and you can bet it's going to drag and drag. We're over Quebec and it's nearly a quarter past six UK time, according to my watch, which I always keep on UK time as a reminder of what's happening back at home.

My in-flight meal. I never ate the starter but that dessert was nice.
Romano's Macaroni Grill
Time flies when you're flying (actually, it doesn't, but that sounded good). Having said that the plane has now landed in Chicago. We flew in over Lake Michigan and now I'm sitting in Romano's Macaroni Grill, an excellent Italian restaurant in O'Hare's Terminal Three. This is the second time I've been here, the last time was when I flew to Cleveland in 2013. Now I'm waiting for the 1750 flight to Indianapolis. I've ordered Pollo Caprese, a glass of Cabernet, a bottle of Pellegrino, and I'm not planning on eating any more until breakfast tomorrow morning.

The flight to Indianapolis with American Airlines was a bit shaky to start as the wind has picked up. The take-off was a bit rough as the plane seemingly caught some cross wind as it accelerated along the strip and appeared to be knocked off course, albeit momentarily, but it was enough to give me a jolt. Eventually, when we'd broken through the cloud and were cruising at 29,000 feet, all was well and remained so for the rest of what was a very short flight: no more than 50 minutes by my reckoning.

Romano's Macaroni Grill, Chicago O'Hare Terminal 3
In Indianapolis...
Indianapolis airport was a lovely place. It was very peaceful and when I saw a family meeting up with another family member – a homecoming of some kind or other – I felt homesick again (and tired). But I had to get a move-on and get a cab to my hotel, which I did. It took around 25 minutes or so and cost me $60, including a tip and I can't say I'm that impressed with the hotel – yet. It's, basically, a trucker's hotel and there are a few rigs parked up in the lot. I'm staying here because I booked late and there's not much left in downtown. Also I'm saving the points in the hope that one day soon I'll be able to take the family away somewhere for a much-needed break. My problem with the place is whether or not it's close to downtown (like they say it is). I've got to be downtown at the Indiana Convention Centre for the rest of the week, although there are other problems with the hotel: no restaurant and no international calls, plus an empty fridge in the room that hums noisily throughout the night (and day) and an unispiring view of a parking lot outside my hotel window, not forgetting the trailer park on the other side of it. I'm beginning to wonder how safe it is out there and I keep thinking that I might be in that movie, No Country for Old Men. I just hope the lock don't come flying off my door.

Catching a cold, but feeling fine...
Add to my misery a streaming cold that I probably picked up on the plane. It's constant, like a tap, and it's made for a broken night, although I don't feel unwell. Now, at 0620hrs I'm sitting here because I can't sleep. I've had something like two stints of a couple hours sleep since I hit the sack around 2200hrs US time, although it might have been 2100hrs as the clock on my iphone is wrong for some reason. I think it's got a lot to do with me installing new OS software while having breakfast at Heathrow yesterday. Note to self: don't upgrade the phone's software again.

So I need to get my bearings, work out where I am in relation to downtown and, most importantly take a shower and get some breakfast as I'm starving. Then, at noon, I'm heading downtown to the convention centre to check things out for tomorrow. I also need to check out the program for the conference and then get to work. Yes, while those in the UK enjoy their Bank Holiday Monday, I've got to work because in the USA, they don't have Bank Holiday Mondays.

Caution has been advised...
I've been advised not to walk around as there's a real risk of being mugged (or worse). I was thinking about a walk into downtown, but apparently it's about five miles and there's a dodgy neighbourhood. The guy on reception has told me to take the bus (which goes through the dodgy area) or take a taxi (approximately $20 to $22. So it's going to cost me a minimum of $40 per day to get to and from the convention centre and I've got to wear a suit, making me stand out from the crowd. It looks as if taking a cab is the best way to get about, although I fancy a bus ride.

Apparently the area surrounding the hotel is fine, but I'm about a mile and a half from Dodgeville by foot and the dodgy part of town starts near a Gold's Gym where the hotel has some kind of deal in place.

Yesterday while transferring to Terminal 3 at O'Hare I overheard two people discussing gun crime and how, invariably, if somebody's driving a pick-up truck there's a likelihood they're packing a piece. Well, there's a few pick-up trucks outside. I might go and take a look around, suss out the bus and stuff, but I won't be wandering anywhere dangerous.




Friday, 2 May 2014

Righting a wrong...or setting the record straight

I was driving from Croydon to Sutton this afternoon when I switched on the radio just in time to hear an interview between LBC's Julia Hartley-Brewer and movie star turned politician Arne Schwarzenegger. In addition to discussing his latest movie role, he talked about politics and how while he would love to stand for President of the United States, the US constitution prevents this: Arne was not born in the USA. Not that he's bothered as he believes, quite rightly, that the US was (is) the land of opportunity and it had been responsible for his tremendous success over the years.

The Paris bike share scheme was on the road long before 'Boris Bikes'
The interview moved on to politics and Arne said he knew David Cameron and was a big fan of Boris Johnson. Fine, neither are my cup of tea, but each to their own. However, he made a mistake when he said that Boris Johnson was the catalyst, the man with the big idea when it came to bike share schemes like the famous "Boris Bikes". According to Arne, Boris came up with the idea and now there are bike share schemes popping up all over the world. Well, yes, they are popping up all over the world, that is true, but the bike share scheme was certainly not Boris' idea. In fact, if I remember correctly, they originated in Paris and Boris drew his inspiration for Boris Bikes from a bike share scheme that had already been running successfully in the French capital.

Just thought I'd point that out.

In Edinburgh...

I haven't been to Edinburgh for a long while; in fact, I can't remember when I was last in this great city, it was certainly a long time ago. One thing, however, was noticeable by its absence: a bike share scheme. Now, there's the phrase, 'bike share scheme'. I no longer have to put 'Boris bikes' in quotes because the whole Boris bike thing is just that: a bike share scheme.
King's Cross Station – a vast improvement on the old concourse.
Anyway, never saw any bike share scheme in operation in Edinburgh and I walked from Mansfield Traquair to my hotel on the other side of the city beyond Tollcross. Oddly, while on the train from King's Cross, I did see what looked like a bike share scheme on Alnmouth railway station as the train pulled out. I know Alnmouth fairly well, having travelled there back in the mid-90s to interview a fire eater, and it's a pretty remote place, albeit a fantastic place (if you like that kind of desolation, like I do) and it's not the sort of place you'd expect to find a bike share scheme as once you're outside of the town there's nothing but rural country lanes.

So, no bikes to ride, but then again this was one of those packed trips consisting mainly of spending two days sitting down in a conference – a conference held in a church, which was a pleasant change from the usual conference hotel. As I mentioned, I managed a long walk from the church (Mansfield Traquair) back to my hotel (see review below, which is also published on TripAdvisor) but that was about it.
Room 37, the Bruntsfield Hotel, Edinburgh...
I messed up a bit on the train front, proving that it pays to actually read itineraries properly when you get sent them; I should have been on the 1300hrs train going out (and left my house at the right time to catch it) but when I pulled my tickets from the envelope in which they'd been sent, I clocked the time as 1530hrs (the time of my return journey from Edinburgh the following day). So, thinking I had time to kill, I had lunch at Prezzo and only realised my mistake when I found somebody else supposedly occupying my reserved seat. Then I clicked and later had to pay a hefty excess fare of £73. Why? Because I had a Super Off Peak Return and the train I was on didn't accept them – I had two options: pay the money or wait on Peterborough station for four hours, which would have gotten me in to Edinburgh some time after midnight. I paid up and made sure that I didn't make any more silly mistakes.

Incidentally, King's Cross has changed dramatically since I was last there – and I mean dramatically. The dowdy old concourse of old has been replaced by something truly amazing with plenty of decent coffee shops and restaurants and a futuristic ceiling (see photograph above).

The view from room 37 of the Bruntsfield Hotel, Edinburgh
I love the train journey from King's Cross to Edinburgh as once you pass Newcastle the scenery gets pretty dramatic. First you spy Alnmouth, a kind of poor man's Berwick-upon-Tweed and then, of course, Berwick itself before the train runs along the cliff tops and you get some fantastic moody views of the North Sea and the crashing waves as they roll in. I love it and I will always find it truly inspiring.

Edinburgh hasn't changed a great deal, which is good. I took a taxi to the Bruntsfield Hotel, had dinner and went to bed and then, after the conference two days later, I headed back to London, managing, somehow, to miss the tube drivers' strike and sailing along the Victoria Line to Victoria where I picked up a train to Sanderstead and home.

Here's my review of the Bruntsfield Hotel, Edinburgh, which you can also find on Trip Advisor.


The Bruntsfield Hotel, Edinburgh
One of the worst things about reviewing anything, be it a book, a film, a restaurant or a hotel (perhaps that should be ‘an hotel’) is that there is a tendency to feel that you can’t simply say something was good. Unfortunately, there is always that urge to add something negative, possibly for the sake of authenticity or, perhaps, simply to show that you’re hard and won’t take any nonsense, you’re not easily bought.



Well, that’s how I felt about the Bruntsfield Hotel before I’d even visited the place – although, if the truth be known, I knew it would be good before I checked in for the simple reason that I have stayed here before, back in the angst-ridden early 90s. And that’s why I’m here again because whenever I think of Edinburgh, I think of the Bruntsfield Hotel and walking along Princes Street towards Glenogle Street and Henderson’s and Bert’s Bar. I don’t even know if those establishments are still there, but I don’t think I could stay anywhere else in this great city than the Bruntsfield.



The reason I was going to add something negative was down to an email I received from the hotel once I’d booked a room on-line. They sent me an email saying that, for an extra £20, I could get a larger room with some fruit in it or, for £25, a bottle of wine and some hand-made canapés. Well, nice try, but when I think about how many oranges I could buy with £20 or how, for £25, I could get two decent bottles of red wine and have change for a copy of the Economist, I simply ignored what amounted to an opportunist marketing ploy. How was I to know that the larger room I was being offered was any bigger than the room I would have got without paying extra? Not that I should have adopted that attitude; they were, after all, just doing their job.



So, I travelled by train from King’s Cross, took a cab to the Bruntsfield and, as expected, it is still the most wonderful hotel in Edinburgh: the staff are friendly – so much so that I looked forward to passing the time of day with whoever was on the reception desk. Room 37 was excellent and the food in the Bisque restaurant was absolutely fantastic. After a day in a conference on the other side of town I was looking forward to dinner, a glass or two of wine, some dessert and, of course, a good book (go and buy Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin, it’s fantastic).

I’ve been here for two nights. For dinner the first night I enjoyed chicken breast stuffed with haggis, mashed potato and carrots; the following evening it was venison,pheasant and duck stew with mashed potato and brocolli and I really wished I had another night here – with my family – or maybe a week. The problem, however, as always, was loneliness (it gets to me after a day or two).

The Bruntsfield, however, is such a homely, comfortable hotel and, fortunately, it lacks the anonymity of some of the bigger chain hotels I've stayed in. What's more, everything works, nothing niggles and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. When a hotel has that ‘home from home’ feeling about it, you know you’re on to a winner.

Breakfast was good too: plenty of choice and just nice and pleasant and perfect to wake up to.



One bugbear: the WiFi. It’s very slow. That needs to be addressed. Everything else is absolutely first class. Well done, Bruntsfield people. Keep up the good work. As Arne once said, “I’ll be back.”