Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween – and I'm back on the road (to mum's)

I'd have to go back three weeks or so to remember when I last mounted the old Kona Scrap and went for a ride; and I'm in desperate need of a bit of exercise as a result. I'm just hoping, as I sit here in the conservatory, the day coming to life outside, that the bike is fully functioning and there are no flat tyres as that would scupper everything. The last time I looked, which must have been the weekend after I returned from Chicago (but was too jet-lagged to ride the bike) all was well, so here's hoping.

While I haven't been following the weather reports, I get the feeling that all will be well today. I've heard people saying it's going to be a good weekend, which might mean Sunday too.

As the year draws to a close – Halloween tonight being the first signpost of the impending year-end – I'm kind of looking forward to what we call NoVisibleLycra weather (overcast skies, leaves on the ground, frosty starts). During the week we had some rain and it's definitely got colder. There's talk of a severe winter, but then there's always rumour of extreme conditions, normally in the Daily Express.

Autumn in England – Purley Playing Fields this morning
There was some confusion, but not until I'd reached mum's house. I checked my iphone and there was a text from Andy asking where I was. My brow furrowed. But he can't make it Saturday, he says so in a text. Hold on, let's check. Oh, wait a minute. His text related to last weekend. Not good. I hate letting people down so I texted an apology followed by an explanation. Earlier Phil had also aborted due to a sore throat. He'll be out of action all weekend. Alright, mistakes happen, I thought, and at least Andy and I got out on a ride, even if we were both riding alone. There was always tomorrow, I thought, securing a slice of my mum's fruit cake for Andy tomorrow (and a slice for me too).

I had breakfast at mum's consisting of a boiled egg, fingers, bread, tea and freshly sliced orange and banana. Oh, and a slice of fruit cake as 'dessert'.

My ride was pleasant if uneventful. I followed the usual route (see previous posts about riding to mum's – here's one of them) and the weather was a little chilly on the way out, but less so on the return ride, which also followed the same route I normally take back from mum's (through Carshalton Beeches, into Wallington, cutting through the industrial estate, along a short stretch of the A23 heading south and then branching off left past Rockingham's and the Purley Playing Fields. The shot above, incidentally, was taken this morning around 0730hrs.

I reached home at just past 1000hrs and now the sun is shining and all is good with the world. My brother Jon's daughter Elizabeth is in hospital as I write this giving birth to her first baby. Congratulations all round.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Thick fog at Milan's Linate airport...

The 1300hrs Firenze to Milan train
Milan has two main airports: Linate and Malpensa. The former is generally regarded as the best because it is closer to the city centre. I tend to judge an airport by its facilities beyond passport control – that strange, perfumed world characterised by big fashion and accessories brands that only Indians living in Hounslow seem to buy. Whenever I travel,  I like to get the security bit out of the way, which means that if I arrive at the airport early, I get the best of two hours to chill out prior to flying off.

On Monday afternoon I arrived at Linate early having travelled by train from Firenze (Florence). The train journey from Firenze to Milano takes just one hour and 40 minutes and costs 50 Euros. I tried to take a train to Linate, but was told there was only a bus. It cost me five Euros – better than 55 Euros for a cab when I travelled from Linate to the city centre last Thursday (22nd October). The bus journey was short and took me around the back streets of Milan, past overgrown brownfield sites and graffiti-infected walls, but soon I arrived and started to look around for the BA check-in desk. I was too early to check in my bag so I kept it with me, losing my deodorant and shaving foam in the process – it happens all the time. So much so that I've recently started packing a bar of Dove soap because it lathers up well and can be a good alternative to shaving foam. I discovered that my allocated seat (14A) had been changed to an aisle seat further back. I moaned, but not a great deal and I was switched to seat 28A at the back of the plane. Later, however, when I reached the final checkpoint at gate B28, my seat was 'upgraded' to 21A.

Panino Giusto at Linate airport, Milan
Once through security after queuing 15 minutes for passport control, I was a free agent with time to kill. I never, ever entertain any of the shops – for a start I can't afford them and then there's that whole thing about simply not being interested. But I did fancy chilling out with a glass of red wine and something to eat and I was annoyed to discover that Linate didn't offer much in the food department.

I found a place that sold panini breads – Panino Giusto – so I ordered a City (a turkey breast panini) and a glass of red wine, which soon became two, followed by a cappuccino. There's nothing better than a glass of wine and something to eat along with a decent book to read. I'm making good progress through Mark Beaumont's excellent The Man Who Cycled the World so I was in heaven. Beaumont's book, as I've said time and time again in recent posts, is amazing and at this point in time, I've reached the bit where he arrives in Australia. I'm looking forward to his other book, The Man Who Cycled the Americas, which I'm sure will be just as good.

I walked to the gate where I noticed thick fog outside."There's always fog at Linate," said a white-haired, middle-aged businessman with a resigned smile. I wandered around until the flight was called. Outside, the fog was thick, but the BA flight wasn't cancelled. I'm used to spending an additional night in an airport hotel (click here for more information) but not tonight. Yes, there was a minor delay, but once on the plane the cabin crew spoke of a 'zero visibility take-off'.

Milan's Central Station – very impressive
The plane made its way towards the runway and I began to wonder how the pilot was managing to navigate his way there, let alone take off, but he did both and within seconds we were airborne and above the fog and were greeted by 'excellent flying conditions'. There were clear skies all the way to London Heathrow's Terminal 5.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

In Milano...ranting and raving

A very pleasant and smooth British Airways flight from Heathrow Terminal Five took me into Milano's Linate airport this evening and after a hassle-free taxi ride to my hotel, the Best Western Hotel Galles in the centre of the city, I took a short stroll to the amazing central railway station, an incredible building if ever there was one. Go check it out! I bet Michael Portillo has been here.

View from room 571, Hotel Galles, Milan
Anyway, the station was a short walk from the hotel so I moseyed on down there and bought myself a ticket to Firenze - that's Florence if you were wondering. I'm on business tomorrow but then I'm on private time for the weekend. So, I bought my ticket and walked back towards the hotel with every intention of having dinner there, but on the way back I spotted a great little restaurant, so good I can't remember the name of it, but that might be something to do with the Chianti Classico and the weird lemon liqueur they served up (I think it's called Limoncello).

The meal was okay. Alright, it could have been better, but that wasn't the restaurant's fault, it was mine. Why? Because I should have opted for simplicity but didn't. I should have ordered a pizza and a glass of wine, but instead I opted for risotto to start followed by fillet of sole, except that it clearly wasn't a fillet. An embarassing moment occured. Or rather a panicky situation developed. Not as bad as it could have been. I could have choked on a fish bone. I might have needed the waiters to turn me upside down to dislodge a fishbone, but oh no, it wasn't that bad. I took a mouthful of fish only to discover that I had a mouthful of bones and needed to get rid of them pronto! The only option open to me was to spit them out into the napkin, which I did surrepticiously, and then guarded the napkin with my life. The last thing I wanted now was for a waiter to whisk the napkin away from me and empty its contents - spat out fish and bones - on himself or even another guest. Had something like that happened I would have died on the spot. But it didn't, fortunately. In the end, when nobody was looking, I put the offending napkin on a table recently vacated by four women. They looked like the sort of people who would spit a load of fish bones into a napkin.

I left a cash tip, but I should have walked out without giving them so much as a dime, but it wasn't their fault. The place was great, it certainly had a lot more atmosphere than the hotel restaurant. I'd travelled up to the sixth floor to check it out and found it seriously lacking in the atmosphere and general comfort department. It was drab, poorly-lit and, I'm afraid, considerably depressing. Fortunately none of the waiters saw me leave, so I was in the clear. I hadn't ordered anything.

Room 571, Hotel Galles, Milan
And now I sit on the ground floor, in the lobby area of the hotel, close to the bar, in what amounts to the Hotel Galles' business centre - a couple of workstations and a printer, but it's fine, honestly, so I'll crack on.

There are many things I should be writing about, but I might leave it as I need to get some sleep. A busy day tomorrow awaits me, but there is time to dish up a few awards. As you might imagine, travelling often means reading newspapers and newspapers always make me angry. Angry enough to put pen to paper, so I thought I'd introduce some awards.

1. Atrocity of the Week - this goes to India and four men arrested in Northern India over allegations that they burnt alive two low-caste children. One has to ask why, but sadly the answer is simply not good enough as it involved a group of men killing an eight-month old girl and her two-year-old brother by igniting gasoline poured through the windows of their home. What else can be said other than what bastards! "This is a fight among families, not about castes," said Hawahar Yadav, an official from the office of Harayana's chief minister. Oh, well that's alright, burn some more children, don't worry about us.

2. Nob Cheese of the Week - well it has to go to BMW driver Neil Waugh who blocked the way of two paramedics urgently trying to get to hospital. There is a word I would like to use to describe this man, but despite the fact that it is only four letters, it is offensive in the extreme as it rhymes with hunt and runt. Needless to say, Waugh has tried to weedle out of it saying he has been portrayed as the kind of person who would rather let someone die in an ambulance than move his car. Well, yes, that is because you DID just that, you, you, you... (fill in your own expletives).

3. Political Wanker of the Week - it has to be David Cameron for so many reasons, one being that he is David Cameron, but also because he is reportedly 'delighted' that his plan to cut tax credits has passed the House of Commons. He is also Political Wanker of the Week because he cannot stand up to the Chinese and tell them to fuck off. Rather than do that he's gone and involved them in our nuclear power supply. What a runt! Furthermore, he is clearly going to do nothing to save our ailing steel industry, which is also the fault of the Chinese. Sod the red carpet treatment, that Xi Jinping needs a slap! Innit!

I'm off to bed. Goodnight!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Flying home, but jet lag puts paid to any cycling

Despite the ease with which I entered the USA  – automated passport machines making the process very smooth and preventing any large build-up of queues – getting out proved a little tiresome. Having checked in I joined a long queue of people that slowly edged its way forward and took a good 30 minutes of shuffling before reaching a uniformed man checking everybody's documents.

Phil and Andy, Tatsfield Churchyard, Sunday 18 October 2015
Then there was the usual humiliation of being herded, like animals, through the scanner, with various uniformed bozos shouting orders as people kicked off shoes and unfastened belts and then, as if by magic, the perfumed environment of the magical world 'beyond passport control' appeared.

"Where's my sausage sandwich, chaps? Oh."
A pleasant flight followed and I reached home around 1000hrs on Friday morning, but jet lag put paid to any thoughts of cycling. It was abort texts all round on Saturday and Sunday, and today Phil and Andy rode to the Tatsfield Churchyard without me – where they ate all the sausage sandwiches.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Boats, baguettes, biscuits, bands

Somebody had spoken about an architectural boat trip along the Chicago River and being as I haven't enjoyed a boat trip for many a year, the thought of buying a ticket lodged in my brain, although that was just it, a thought. I knew that I'd probably never get around to it.

Skyscrapers and lots of them in Chicago
So I'm walking along North Michigan Avenue wondering exactly what to do - I had some free time having been working most of the morning - and my initial plan was nothing more than a stroll around the city and then, perhaps, a bite to eat somewhere. Until, that is, I spied a small kiosk and a man offering the aforementioned architectural cruise. At just $32 it seemed too good to miss so I booked myself on the next boat and off I went.

The boat chugged merrily along the Chicago River and a guide pointed out various buildings, or should I say skyscrapers of architectural significance, that might be of interest to us humble tourists. He was good. He certainly knew his stuff, but he spoke at such a speed I doubt if anybody's brain could take in the information fast enough. Mine certainly couldn't.

I made a note of all the bridges we cruised under: the Du Sable Bridge, a bridge under Dearborn Street, Clark Street, La Salle, Wells St, Franklin St, Grand Avenue, after which we entered the north section of the river, then Ohio St where the boat turned around and headed for the south section of the river. Kinzie St, Lake St, Randolph St, Washington Boulevard, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson Boulevard, Van Buren, Congress, Harrison.

Our guide mentioned the Sears Tower, which used to be Chicago's tallest building, but not any more and while he did mention the name of the tallest building today, it was all so fast I've forgotten it. We passed the Civic Opera building where once, apparently, they planned to screen movies on the building's blank, river-facing wall, but it never happened as some local dignatory probably disapproved. We heard about how lots of companies were moving to Chicago and some were moving back to the city from the outer suburbs. As a result there was plenty of construction work going on.

To be honest, I wasn't that interested. I've never been the sort of person who listens too carefully to what guides have to say. I don't enjoy museums either, come to think of it. I'm not sure why that is, I just don't have the patience and I'd rather learn from a book. For me the thrill of the trip was simply being in a boat on the Chicago River, enjoying the sunshine, although there was a cool breeze.

The Chicago skyline taken from the boat
What did interest me was Lake Michigan. It's huge. I mean, it has horizons, like an open sea. But what I found amazing was that in parts it is over 900 feet deep. Now that's pretty amazing for a lake, I'm sure you'll agree.

Once back on dry land it was time to seek out somewhere for lunch and Toni Café and Patisserie fitted the bill nicely and it was inexpensive. There was something quaint and French about the place; it had marble-topped tables and a long glass counter displaying cakes and pastries. On blackboards high on the back wall behind the servery there were details of the food offering: sandwiches, baguettes and salads along with a range of hot beverages. This was the sort of place I'd been searching for; it was absolutely perfect. And while it was effectively a 'caff' it was licensed and sold some interesting wines.

I ordered a Pinot Noir (which came in glass mug, not a wine glass) but I like that sort of quirkiness, followed by cream of mushroom soup, a ham baguette, a cup of tea and a chocolate and walnut cookie. The tea and cookie was an afterthought, but because I loved this place so much I decided, having already paid my bill ($26) to stay for tea... and a decent cup of tea too.
Toni's Patisserie and Café. This place was the best ever...

Feeling suitably relaxed I wandered the city for a while. I travelled further down North Michigan Avenue, which became South Michigan Avenue and checked out a couple of bookshops  en route. In fact I wore myself out walking and by the time I returned to my hotel I was so tired I simply switched on the television, turned to channel 56 (BBC Americas) and watched Bear Grylls tackling the swamps of Sumatra and the wilds of Alaska.

I needed to be in the hotel at around 2030hrs so I could check in for my flight back to London using the hotel's business centre. The plan was to get a decent seat. But before that I figured dinner would be a good idea. I set my sights on a place called Spiagga - I think that's the right spelling. It took a while to find it. I knew it was out of my hotel, turn right and walk along North Michigan Avenue, but I couldn't find it at first. I'd almost resolved to find somewhere else to eat, but then I saw it. Or rather I saw the restaurant's name. It wasn't accessible at street level. I had to enter some kind of apartment building and take an escalator one flight before being guided into the restaurant, which seemed a bit poncy. Lots of waiting staff fussing around and being ultra polite. And then I realized why. This place was going to sting me for about $200! It got worse. The menus were 'tasting' menus and being as I know a bit about all this (having edited a fine dining magazine in the UK for four straight years and interviewed many a top chef) I can tell you now that 'tasting menus' are a big rip-off. Basically, a lot of little dishes in succession for an extortionate amount of money.

Foolishly I ordered a glass of wine ($16). Not too bad in the scheme of things, but did I really want to pay $195 for a tasting menu and be fussed around by a gaggle of poncy waiters all night? No I didn't! And I didn't want to part with my money either. To be honest, all I wanted was a main course dish, some bread and a glass of wine, maybe two glasses. I decided to make my excuses and leave. The original plan was to head back to Rosebud.

Downtown Chicago
Fortunately, Spiagga has a more conventional Italian restaurant across the hall and I decided to check it out. Certainly less expensive than the other place and not a tasting menu in sight. But while not as pricey, it was still annoying. The menu offered meals that were suitable for two people, meaning that whatever I ordered I was going to get enough for two. Why? Why can't I just eat a normal meal for one? But no, they were not that flexible. I ordered the charcuterie to start and a huge consignment of salami arrived. I was expected to eat it all. To be fair, I did, but then came the pork shoulder. It was reminiscent of the opening credits to the Hanna Barbera Flintstones cartoon when they go to a diner and a huge chunk of ribs lands on their car, toppling it over. I ate about half of it, had a couple glasses of Zinfandel and then paid up and left.

The food was alright, but it was still a bit pricey, and the only good thing was the waiting staff who had things covered. But in all honesty, I wish I'd gone back to Rosebud for a chicken Milanese. There's nothing worse than being confused by a restaurant - tasting menus, dishes that serve only two people and not one, it's all too much when all I wanted to do was eat and get back to my hotel. So I'm going to score Spiagga low, I'm afraid, and they can expect a similarly low score when I eventually get round to Trip Advisor.

Right now it's Thursday and I'm due to fly back this evening. I've checked in online, I've packed my suitcase and all I have to do now is check out of the hotel and leave my bags with the concierge until later. Then it's time to hit the streets of Chicago for one last time. I've really enjoyed it and I'll definitely return, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Postscript: I really enjoyed my visit to Toni's Patisserie & Café yesterday. So much so that I returned today (Thursday) for roughly the same lunch as before, except that I had a second 'glass' of Pinot Noir and instead of a cookie I had a pastry. While I was there somebody walked in and stole somebody's wallet. It was all so quick and he was gone. The police were there in minutes, but whoever did it got away.

Then, out in the streets, as I walked along East Washington, I heard some tremendous music. Jazz Funk stuff. The band was fantastic. So fantastic it brought a much-needed smile to my face. I had to go and listen to the music and was transfixed when I found the band further down the street. The bassist was tremendous and the brass players were on top of their game, so was the drummer who only had a snare drum resting on a milk crate and and upturned plastic bucket. They drew quite a crowd and I have to say that I didn't particularly want to stop listening; I could have stood there all afternoon. This was much more than busking, these guys could really play, so I left some money in the bucket and took a card.

If you live in Chicago, check out David C Walker Jnr on dav3130@gmailcom or call him on 001 773 809 0769. He's also on Facebook:

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Saudi Arabia - why do we let them get away with it?

You know the deal.You need urgent heart surgery but have to wait six months, but if you flash some cash somebody will say 'step this way, sir...and would you like to see some dirty pictures?' Money talks is what I'm saying, but it also stinks! And what pisses me off no end is the way that we, the British, and probably the Americans too, and 'the West' in general, are quite happy to let the Saudis do what the hell they like, just because we have 'lucrative deals' tied up with them in terms of arms and oil contracts.

The Saudi Arabian flag (note sword)
Alright, just because we trade with a country doesn't mean they have to do what we tell them to do; they are, after all, a sovereign nation in their own right and if they want to engage in awful practices, like beheadings and cutting off people's hands, that's up to them. Perhaps we shouldn't interfere, but the problem is we DO interfere and my argument is that if we're going to condemn some nations for their atrocious behaviour while turning a blind eye to others, that's plainly wrong and hypocritical.

We bleat loud enough about human rights abuses in parts of the world where we can afford to be critical, while painting ourselves as whiter than white. We're happy, for instance, to lie about 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq and so-called 'extraordinary rendition' in places like Libya, and, to be frank, we're clearly not as clean cut and morally superior as we make out. We went to war in Iraq on the back of a lie just so we could rebuild the place afterwards, and we turn a blind eye to what goes on in Saudi Arabia for one reason – business. As soon as the Saudis aren't important to us commercially, we'll probably end up bombing them on some spurious pretext cooked up alongside the Americans, but at the moment they can't put a foot wrong. Beheadings, the chopping off of limbs, even alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade  Centre in New York hasn't turned the West against the Saudis. They're untouchable!

I bet there are lots of people living in Saudi Arabia who disagree with the poor human rights record of the regime, but can't say anything because of the way things are – they're liable to have their limbs chopped off or be given 1,000 lashes and a long prison sentence for exhibiting dissent, like that blogger chappy. Conversely, we're all prepared to complain about Syria's President Assad, but in human rights terms, is the Syrian regime really any worse than that of the Saudis?

We can't afford to be selective with those we condemn for human rights abuses, basing our decision purely on commercialism along the lines of he can chop off heads and hands because he buys our guns, but if so and so does anything that might conflict with our contradictory take on human rights – let's face it, when the chips are down we're no angels – well, we must condemn, condemn, condemn! That word 'hypocrisy' comes up again and again and I really wish we'd just stop supporting any country that shows such disdain for human rights.

Prince Andrew loves the Saudis regardless of what they get up to. He knows perfectly well what's going on, but he chooses to ignore it for the sake of those aforementioned contracts. Incidentally, whatever happened to that American businessman? What's the latest on the court case and the allegations levelled at the Duke of Pork? It's all gone suspiciously quiet. Perhaps somebody's 'had a word'.

You might be wondering why I'm so angry. Well, it's because I've just read that a maid from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has allegedly had her hand chopped off by her Saudi employer for complaining about her work conditions.

Kasthuri Munirathinam, a 55-year-old woman is now in hospital in Riyadh and the Indians, quite rightly, are 'much disturbed over the brutal manner in which (this) Indian lady has been treated'. Too right they're disturbed! Surely, if the allegations prove true, something ought to be done. At the very least the person concerned should be slammed in jail. Nothing is too harsh for people who feel they can cut off another person's hand.

But David Cameron has no intention of taking the Saudis to task (or the Chinese for that matter) – he wouldn't dare. Quite the contrary. Did anybody see an excellent interview by Channel 4 News? Jon Snow took Cameron to task on the UK's decision last November – you won't believe this – to back Saudi Arabia's membership of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations as long as they, Saudi Arabia, backed the UK's membership of the same organisation. Why? Surely it's a ridiculous notion that the Saudis could ever be considered part of such an organisation? It's a bit like Tony Blair being appointed Middle East Peace Envoy. Oh, hold on, he was appointed wasn't he? Equally, what nation would want Saudi Arabia's blessing on human rights issues. "Oh, they must have a clean record on human rights, Saudi Arabia said so!" Oh dear!

Cameron weedled and slime-balled his way out of the question – his greasy, spivvy, Private Walker, barnet reinforcing his slug-like intentions – by suggesting that the Saudis provided the UK with life-saving intelligence on terrorism. Oh, well, that's fine then! They can cut off as many hands as they like! Echoes of Blair's excuse for invading Iraq in a sense – faulty intelligence meant 'it wasn't the Government's fault if the intelligence was faulty' so don't blame them for invading Iraq, it was an 'accident'. Clever move, but an even bigger lie than 'weapons of mass destruction' in my view. In the Jon Snow interview, Cameron was coming at the same lie from a different angle. He was saying, 'let the Saudis be as evil as they like, we have no choice, they're saving lives!' He wants us to believe this so that, unhampered by protest, the Saudis can get on with their barbaric activities and we can continue selling them arms. It's all a case of creating a climate of fear among the general public: 45 minute warnings, weapons of mass destruction, our personal safety – our very lives no less – depend upon the Saudis... repeat and fade  .

But, as Snow quite rightly pointed out, the Saudis are also responsible for exporting terrorism. Remember that 9/11 allegation?

News reports claim that Munirathinam suffered a catalogue of abuse since taking up a post as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia three months ago, according to her family.

"Her right hand was chopped off by her employer when she tried to escape the daily harassment, torture and abysmal work conditions," her sister S Vijayakumari told AFP by phone from Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai.

Munirathinam had gone to Saudi Arabia to help pay off her family's debts and had been promised a monthly salary of around $180. But she wasn't paid, was barely given enough to eat and was not allowed to speak to her family, it is alleged.

Make no mistake, this is not an isolated incident. According to the same on-line report, hundreds of thousands of Indian migrants work in households in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Complaints about their treatment often make headlines back home. A video showing a male Indian worker being beaten by his Saudi employer went viral in September, sparking a widespread backlash on social media.

According to media reports, 'there was also widespread anger last month in India when the first secretary at the Saudi embassy left India under diplomatic immunity (what a sham!) having been accused of holding captive and raping two Nepalese maids in his home. Hunt him down! Throw him in jail! Throw away the key! Why is the Indian government so lenient with the Saudis?

We, the British and the Americans and the Western world in general, should make a stand on this sort of thing. There's no point moaning about Syria's President Assad or the bloke in charge of North Korea or Boko Haram or ISIS if we're cosying up to tyrants like the Saudis just to make a few bob. Notice also that the Saudis' little war in the Yemen is being largely ignored by the West (ultimately, of course, we're funding it through arms sales). Make a stand and don't let them get away with it!

The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, Chicago...

This chameleon-like operation changes throughout the day. One minute it's a coffee shop and the next it's a bar. Located in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, a big 'corporate' affair, it's a pretty good place.
Tasty, tasty, very, very tasty, it's very tasty

I'd arrived early and needed some breakfast so I checked out the menu and got stuck in. In fact I'd go as far as to say that I enjoyed a really decent mug of tea – which makes a change – and then I had a choice: a Breakfast Piglet (smoked honey ham, fried egg, Wisconsin cheddar, bacon, onion, jam and roasted garlic) OR a sun-dried tomato and basil panini with a side order of strawberries and blueberries. The Breakfast Piglet was also a panini, although, really they were both toasted sandwiches, which I suppose is what a panini is, but in my book they were both toasted, crusty bread sandwiches.

I opted for the healthier of the two options, the sun-dried tomato and basil sandwich – and besides, that name, the Breakfast Piglet, sounded a bit unsavoury – and it arrived in one of those takeaway containers (odd when you consider that they'd offered me the choice of a paper or china mug for my tea – and I chose the latter – but gave me the takeaway container for my food order). It didn't matter and now I'm wondering whether that C in the word 'china' should be capitalised, although I'm not talking about the country but the material the cup is made from. Hey ho! Bill Bryson would know the answer, I'm sure.

The sandwich was tremendous. Very tasty. I could have eaten another one. The tea was the best I'd experienced on this trip to Chicago, so top marks to the The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, although where I got that name from I don't know, probably the receipt. The bill, incidentally, was $11.60 and the sandwich set me back $8.00. The tea was $2.60.

Writing early in the morning...

I arrived here Friday, today's Wednesday and yesterday I saw my first police car. Well, not JUST seen it, I saw it around lunchtime, but nevertheless it was the first squad car of the trip. Unusual, as I might have said already, being that I'm in the murder capital of the USA – none other than the Windy City, otherwise known as Chicago.
At last! A rare sighting of a Chicago police car...

Last night I had dinner in an Italian restaurant called Rosebud. It was alright. A bit dark in terms of the lighting – perhaps they're trying to hide something, but I doubt it. Chicken Milanese with pasta and salad and a couple glasses of Cabernet. It did me fine and so I returned to my room after a brief mess-around on the computers in the Apple Store. I love Apple computers.

I saw a huge rat yesterday evening. I mean huge. The size of a fucking squirrel, but without the bushy tail. It was running through the flower beds that line some of the streets here in Chicago. I saw it twice and by that I mean twice in the space of about 15 minutes. When I started to retrace my steps back towards North Michigan Avenue, en route to Rosebud, there it was again, running for cover.

I hate dining alone (perhaps I should have invited the rat) especially in a restaurant where it's too dark to read a newspaper, although, to be honest, it wasn't that dark and I had a copy of USA Today and read bits of it while waiting for my order. But sometimes I'm too preoccupied to enjoy reading. I mean, during the day, sitting in a Starbucks in a foreign country with a book and a cup of tea, that's something else, that can be cool and relaxing. But at night when I'm tired and my sole purpose is to go out and eat, well, reading takes a back seat unless I'm feeling particularly chilled and happy.

On the Interstate yesterday, coming back into Chicago
I've just woken up and it's 0310hrs – ten past eight in the morning back in the UK. Last night, after dinner, I read Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World before hitting the sack early. That's probably why I'm awake now and writing this, although I started writing last night and now I'm going through deleting bits and changing all the tenses.

News just in...
In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the city council has approved a ban on clothing and tattoos with profane or vulgar language at local recreation facilities. Meanwhile, in Juneau, Alaska – I've been there – around 20 people took a short tour to the Mendenhall Glacier in an electric tour bus, the first ever electric bus to drive on Juneau roads. In Providence, Rhode Island, we hear that the state's criminal  justice system remains largely white, even as 'children of colour' – as the paper puts it – comprise nearly 40% of Rhode Island's youth, claims the Providence Journal. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a group of state lawmakers and historians is looking at how art portraying Native Americans should be used inside the renovated Minnesota Capital building when it re-opens in 2017, according to Minnesota Public Radio News. Residents in Lawrence, Kansas, are being encouraged to either get rid of their ash trees or treat them against the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has devastated tree populations elsewhere. And lastly, Cascade Steel Rolling Mills was fined more than $7,000 for violating its water pollution permit, according to a report in the Statesman Journal.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Computers, cookies and crime

For most people – and for me most of the time – Sunday is a day of rest. But not yesterday. I had work to do and I won't bore you with it other than to say that from 1300hrs yesterday, I was sitting in a conference hall listening to people talk about the digital age and how it's going to affect everybody, even the manufacturing industries. In fact, it's not so much 'going to' affect everybody, it already IS affecting everybody. We have more computing power in our mobile phones than the computer used to take Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (I nearly said Lightyear) to the moon. I could go on, but I'll spare you the lecture as you probably already know that mobile technology is moving fast and there will come a time when you'll trust the technology in your iphone more than the medical profession.

Central Chicago is said to be relatively safe
With all the above in mind – not so much the subject matter as I'd yet to learn some of the amazing facts I was assimilating yesterday afternoon – I thought I'd spend the morning wandering around, doing a bit of shopping and generally checking things out.

It was a wonderful day in Chicago. In fact the temperature this week will hit the 70s (fahrenheit) and residents of the so-called Windy City won't be experiencing too much in the way of breezy weather.

Whether those running in yesterday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon felt the same way, I'll never know. The race kicked off early yesterday morning and was being covered by the television networks in the early hours. Later, when I took to the streets, I saw plenty of people covered in silver foil capes having completed the 26-mile course. Some were elated, some were looking a little weary and a couple of people I spoke to were complaining about foot problems. Well, what do you expect if you run 26 miles.

My 'uncle' John – who I used to live virtually next door to when I was a kid and who, incidentally, wasn't really my uncle, he had something to say about running that annoyed the crap out of my dad.

God knows why we called him 'uncle' but we did, just like we used to call 'uncle' Brian our uncle too. They – John and Brian – were neighbours who were friendly with my parents. We used to enjoy happy holidays on the south coast with Brian and his family, back in the day when the summers were always sunny and warm. Sadly, they're both no longer with us. But it's 'uncle' John I'm referencing here because he used to say that 'animals only run if they have to', and if you knew my dad, which most of you don't, Jon excluded,  you'd understand why he wasn't happy with this remark. Dad competed in the 1984 London Marathon when, if I recall, he still indulged a smoking habit. I can't remember his time but it was pretty good for a man of 55 who, one way or another, wasn't THAT sporty in his day-to-day life. He started with half marathons and progressed to the big one.

Whenever I see marathon runners I think of dad. He loved it. In fact, every April from 1985 onwards, he always got his medal out on the day of the London Marathon and never ceased to encourage us – my brother and I (not so much my sister) – to enrol for the next event. I never did, but my brother Jon ran a handful of London Marathons and also put in some good times.

Running doesn't agree with me. Whenever I have run in the past I've injured myself. In 2005, after running around a disused Second World War airfield in deflated running shoes – the air in one of the soles had 'left the building', leaving me running unevenly – I did my back in. The net result? Severe lower back pain that persisted for around six months and led me to cancel a trip to the USA. Now that's not something I'd do lightly. I'm fine now (touch wood) and the problem has not returned, but I steer clear of running in any shape or form; I won't even run for the bus or the train.

My hotel (centre) on North Michigan Avenue
There were marathon runners everywhere yesterday: on the streets with family and friends – marathon running is a family affair for a lot of people – in the hotel lobby, anywhere you'd care to mention; and I saw them throughout the day, even last thing at night, in the hotel bar, when I sneaked in for a light snack and a glass of wine having walked the length of North Michigan Avenue from East Washington. Since lunch time I'd only eaten an oatmeal and raisin cookie in Peet's Coffee opposite Millennium Park and close to the Chicago Cultural Centre.

Earlier in the day I'd visited a few of the shops on North Michigan Avenue. I even tried on a pair of jeans and was amazed to discover that I've reverted back to my old size, that of a 32in waist. This surprised and elated me and that's why I feel mildly guilty about that oatmeal and raisin cookie and, indeed, that late night snack in the hotel bar. I could have just gone to bed and waited for breakfast.

Last night at the Cultural Centre I chatted with a fellow journalist who lives in Chicago near the Midway airport where crime is a bit of an issue. He lives in a townhouse in what he regards as a reasonably safe part of town, but he said that within a few blocks, the crime levels go up but the house prices go down. Always be concerned if you're looking to buy a house in the USA if the house you're looking at is much bigger, say, than what you're looking for, but is incredibly cheap. It probably means you might be moving to a dodgy neighbourhood. I keyed the Midway district into Google and found a forum site on which people discussed the inherent dangers of living in the area. Some people said it's fine if you're simply going to the airport, but others said keep an eye on your surroundings if you're walking about outside the airport.

The journalist I was talking to said he'd experienced very little in the way of trouble, but he did relate an incident during which he and his girlfriend were mugged by guys with guns and another incident some time ago when he was on a train late at night when two men boarded the train and one produced a razor from his mouth and told my journalist colleague to say nothing – or else. There was somebody else on the train asleep and he was the guy the thieves targetted, stealing, I think, his wallet without him waking up. Something like that.

It all made me think how relatively safe it is in the UK. According to my journalist colleague, the problems start when an area is going through a transition from run-down 'dodgy' neighbourhood to something a little more gentrified. When it's run-down, the residents are all in the same boat, ie they're all poor. But as the area starts to attract professional people with money, the crime starts and continues until the process of 'gentrification' is completed, everyone is respectable and the 'low-lifes' – if that's what they are – have moved on.

Human statue on North Michigan Avenue – she's safe
In the UK burglaries tend to occur when the occupants of the house are out; it's mostly opportunist thieves and small-time crooks from the locality. Crucially, however, they're not armed. Alright, perhaps they might have a knife, but they won't be packing a piece. In the USA, Americans have the right to bear arms – something like that, I'm not au fait with the legal technicalities – so intruders are likely to be armed and the chances are that if you produce a gun you're engaging them in a fire fight that you'll probably lose (assuming the bad guys have greater experience of using their hardware than you do).

Central Chicago, I'm told, is pretty safe, but one thing I have noticed is that so far I've yet to see a single police patrol car purring around the city. Normally, whether it's LA, Portland, Knoxville, Detroit, you name it, I've seen a police presence. Here in the Windy City I've seen (and heard) plenty of ambulances and vehicles owned by the Chicago Fire Department, but no police. Here's hoping they're out there somewhere.

Postscript: just looking at that shot of the human statue (above) can you imagine how awful it must be if your job is being a human statue? She must have woken up this morning in her house or apartment and thought 'where's the silver paint?' Then I'm guessing that she stood outside in her back yard – Americans don't have gardens, they have 'yards' – and sprayed herself. She might have a husband or boyfriend (or girlfriend) to do it for her, I don't know, but what a palaver! And then those clothes she's wearing must stand up on their own. Theoretically, she could probably jump into them, but I'm sure she doesn't. And then of course she's got to get to where she's working – North Michigan Avenue – from wherever she lives. I'm assuming she'll travel by car – imagine meeting her on the train or bus – and in that case I'm wondering what kind of looks she gets from other drivers. What if she gets out to fill up with petrol? "No, I'm perfectly alright, I'm a human statue," she might say to passers-by. "This is how I earn my money, by standing absolutely still and scaring the shit out of old-age pensioners and little children."

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Cycling around the Windy City...

I wandered down to the river and slightly beyond to locate the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park hotel, which, understandably, is close to Chicago's Millennium Park. As I expected, it was one of those loomy, dark and luxurious 'corporate' hotels loved so much by conference organisers. I asked a few questions and then discovered that North Michigan Avenue, the road on which my hotel is situated, is bang in the middle of the city's shopping district. I was located on Chicago's answer to Oxford Street and decided that I'd take a look later on in the day. For now, though, I continued my walk until I found a cycle hire place on the outskirts of the aforementioned Millennium Park.

Riding the streets of Chicago on an Electra Townie – very comfortable
I hired an Electra Townie bicycle, put my copy of Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World in the small pouch on the handlebars and set about riding around the city. While it was busy, it wasn't what I'd call dangerous, but being as I stuck to the city centre, it was all rather samey. In total I cycled for about two hours, probably a little more, weaving in and out of the traffic and watching the city from the perspective of a cyclist. I found myself on North Michigan Avenue and decided to dismount and check out some of the stores. The obligatory Apple Store was right next door to my hotel so, having padlocked the bike in the street I wandered in to take a look at the Apple watches and the lap tops.  The Apple Store is like some kind of temple for tech heads.

Crossing the river...
Across the street is Banana Republic, a shop they don't have in the UK and one I'm sure the two women in my family would enjoy. This one is huge, on three levels, and they have a 50% sale going on. Some interesting stuff – for women and men – but being very utilitarian where clothes are concerned (why have a 'trendy' tee shirt emblazoned with some kind of message or logo when a plain tee shirt will suffice?) I eventually left the store empty-handed. They have a Macy's department store so I wandered in, checked out the perfumery department and the menswear and again left empty-handed.

I thought it best to hand the bike back before having lunch so I pedalled off towards Millennium Park – which involved riding back along North Michigan Avenue and negotiating a busy left turn near the park. Over the road from the park is the hugely overrated Tavern at the Park, a kind of pub with tables and space at the bar to sit and 'enjoy' the cuisine, which is very predictable and not, in my opinion, that great. It was one of those places where you can bet you'll get unnecessarily large portions. I ordered the chicken hash lunch with a Revolution Porter – and to be fair the portion was average-sized – and finished off with apple crumble and ice cream. The main course was fine (ish) but it came with truffles and I've now discovered that I'm not endowed with expensive tastes. If I had to list the things I really hate eating, I'd definitely have foie gras at the top of the list followed by Queen scallops – let's make that all scallops – and now I'd like to add truffles. They overpowered my chicken hash, which was basically chicken stew (but not as good as my wife makes it). It came with two poached eggs, which I knew would be runny and messy-looking on the plate once I had sliced through the egg and allowed the yoke to mingle with the stew and...ugh!

Scenes from the city as seen from the bike...
Foolishly I asked for dessert and, to be fair, was told that the portions were pretty large. I opted for something I thought would be safe: apple crumble and ice cream. But it was far from safe. I don't know what they did to it, but it was overly sweet and sugary, the ice cream smothered in something that was bound to be really bad for the health – some kind of syrupy, caramel concoction. Other guests passed comment on the size and I smiled back with a look of apprehension, wishing I'd never bothered.

Multi-storey car park and apts.
Next to me was an investment banker from California and after a couple of Revolution Porters the last thing I wanted was a big political conversation, not least because I know fuck-all about American politics. Equally, I didn't want to talk business either, but we did both and I was quietly glad that I was finished eating and simply awaiting the return of my credit card.

I ambled back along North Michigan Avenue amidst the crowds of shoppers and tourists, clutching my copy of The Man Who Cycled the World, which, for some reason, attracted the attention of the Americans, some of whom passed comment. "Did he do it?" And I'd reply, "Yes, he did it and then he cycled the Americas." The book became a kind of icebreaker as, earlier, the investment banker had asked me about it too. So if you own a copy of this book and don't want to be bothered by strangers, leave it at home.

Revolution Porter
When I reached my hotel room I hit the sack. I have, in fact, just woken up at 0400hrs UK time and whatever it might be here in Chicago (2200hrs). I was woken up by the female voice on my lap top exclaiming, "It's four hours." I thought I was dreaming or that the clock radio on the bedside cabinet had come on or there was an intruder in the room who liked to remind people of the time. It was a good excuse to get up and clean my teeth and check out my schedule for the day ahead (until I realised that it was only 0400hrs in the UK and that here in the Windy City it was still the night before. So I turned to the computer and here I am. That same female voice has just told me that it's 'five hours' back in the UK, meaning it's 2300hrs here. I think I might hit the sack again, or watch some TV or just lie on the bed and contemplate great things (like what I don't know).

But I haven't mentioned the bike or the Chicago Marathon, both of which need to be discussed. First, the bike. An Electra Townie, which they sell in the UK. It has a front brake and a mechanism whereby you pedal backwards and the bike stops. It works well, This is a comfortable bike, ideal for the city, but I'm not sure how good it would be on the sort of rides (and distances) covered by NoVisibleLycra. Don't get me wrong, if I owned one, I certainly wouldn't be trading it in for something more suitable as it would do the job. Remember that in most cases a bike is a bike is a bike, although I'm sure Mark Beaumont would disagree and I certainly wouldn't fancy cycling the world on an Electra Townie.

Not as good as my wife's chicken stew...
Sunday sees the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and all over the city I've seen people in trainers, especially in the hotel. Going back to my room in the elevator (lift) I got chatting to a guy from Ecuador who was running his first marathon. We were soon joined by another Ecuadorian doing the same thing, but not necessarily for the first time (I didn't ask him).

Wherever I go there are people wearing brightly-coloured trainers who, I'm guessing, are fast asleep at this very moment in preparation for the big day tomorrow. I say 'tomorrow' because it's still yesterday as I write this. It's only tomorrow in the UK.

And now it really is time for me to revisit my bed and get some more sleep, although I doubt I'll get much now that I'm fully awake and in writing mode.

Breakfast in America...

View from my hotel room window...
American breakfasts have always been known for their size, but the great thing about my hotel is that they leave the gluttony up to the individual. In other words, I could have made a pig of myself, but I didn't. Instead, I opted for some fresh slices of melon, a Greek yoghurt with blueberries, tea and fruit juice and some scrambled egg with a few diced and baked potatoes – they're probably called something, but in essence they were diced and baked (or possibly fried) potatoes. It might be hash browns, not sure.

What I hate about some hotels is that everything costs something, although I know that's true of everything. So the waiter puts juice and hot water on the table and says that the juice is so many dollars, the tea costs so much, the serve-yourself buffet is $22.00 and so on. I was waiting for him to say "and the chair, if you want to sit down, is $50, the cutlery, $25 and you have to pay me to serve you," but of course it was never going to be that bad. Perhaps it is in some places.

I've started reading Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World and it's an excellent read. So far he's riding through Poland but already he's experienced bike hassles – two punctures and the spokes on his rear wheel snapping, forcing him to find a friendly bike shop to fix it, which he did, and now that the rain has stopped for him – it pissed down as he rode through Germany – the sun is now out, his nose is burnt and he's staying in a strange hotel that seems to be run by the Russian mafia. I'll keep you informed and a book review of sorts will follow just as soon as I finish reading the book. I'll be writing more on David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries too, so watch this space.

Back to my breakfast. Once again I found myself mildly miffed that nobody other than the English seem capable of serving a decent cup of tea. They might turn up with their lacquered box full of packaged teabags – resembling a humidor and offering an unnecessarily large choice of different teas – but they can't serve it properly. Milk has to be requested, I'm given a teabag and some hot water and that's it. This is, of course, coffee land and it's always expected that people drink the stuff. I don't.

Room 811, Warwick Allerton Hotel, Chicago
The breakfast was fine. As an afterthought I had a banana and one of those small boxes of cornflakes in a bowl so large it made the portion size seem small and somehow beached on the plate, like an unwanted, toxic cargo from a sunken ship, washed up on a lonely beach. I sprinkled a sachet of sugar over it and finished it off in between paragraphs of Mark Beaumont's excellent book.

The breakfast cost me $26.74 – including the tip – quite pricey when you think about it, but I'm going to take a stroll around town shortly and hopefully I'll find a little café somewhere downtown that might offer a little more value-for-money, although, knowing me (and knowing most people) the convenience of the hotel breakfast will win through.

In Chicago...

This is the first time I've been to Chicago without being 'in transit' somewhere else. Normally I arrive here at some ungodly hour and then, after eating a meal at Romano's Macaroni Grill, I catch a connecting flight to Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. Today, I went no further than Chicago. In fact there was one time recently – or possibly not that recently – when my flight to London was cancelled due to a faulty aircraft, and I was forced to make an overnight stop in the Windy City. It's documented on the blog. I stayed in a Marriott close to the Cumberland CTA station, so the following morning, prior to flying home later in the day, I took a trip to Clark and Lake, wandered around for a bit, had lunch in the Corner Bakery and then took a taxi back to the hotel where I enjoyed a glass of Cabernet before taking a shuttle bus back the airport and then onwards to London. I remember feeling that Chicago was a boring place, but this was because it was Sunday morning, I found myself in some kind of business district where everything was closed and that was the end of it.

Soup IN a roll! I ate the lot.
On Friday I took flight BA297 out of Heathrow's Terminal Five at 1605hrs and got there with enough time to have lunch at the airport – at a place called Huxley's. I had breakfast there once and it was pretty good. I remember because I uploaded a software update to my iphone and it took ages to sort out. Anyway, Huxley's wasn't as good as I expected it to be; I ordered butternut squash soup followed by a chicken burger with chips and a couple of glasses of Merlot – much needed. The soup didn't come in a dish but in a hollowed out bread roll with a lid, like some kind of pastry pot. I wasn't sure of the protocol but I ate the pot. And then, feeling a little down (alcohol can do that, it accentuates how you're feeling and I wasn't feeling good), I wandered aimlessly for a while wondering why women like shopping so much as I passed by Louis Vuitton and saw a few of them admiring the handbags. I considered a cup of tea and a cake at EAT, but couldn't be bothered and eventually took the escalator down to where the driver-less trains take people to various gates. In my case Gate B47.

The flight was uneventful. I swapped seats with somebody's 'mom' so they could sit together. I still had an aisle seat, which was what I wanted, but I would have much preferred seat 37A, an exit seat with plenty of legroom. The annoying thing was that I could have taken it when the seats became available on line 24 hours prior to flying – but at a cost of £58! Even the woman on the BA desk at Heathrow said they should have been free. Had I been sitting in that seat I would have enjoyed the flight much more. As it was, I stood most of the way. Once I'd eaten my dinner – chicken curry with rice followed by a chocolate mousse and a small piece of cheese with two crackers – I walked to the back of the plane and basically stood around for most of the flight. I chatted to a computer consultant from Cleveland who plays the stockmarket and buys property. A nice guy, Lebanese, on his way back from a trip to Beirut via London, without his wife who, for some reason, didn't fancy the trip. Apparently there used to be a direct flight from Cleveland to London operated by Continental, but not anymore. I wish I'd known that, although, if I had I would never have known how wonderful it was to sit and enjoy Pollo Caprese and a glass of Cabernet in Romano's Macaroni Grill (opposite Gate H3).

View from the rear of the plane – an arduous, boring flight
Sometimes, to ease the boredom, I used the toilet, but only to stand there for a few seconds of solitude, not even to take a piss. Then I flushed the toilet, purely for effect, and re-emerged feeling just as weary and cheesed off as before I went in. With about one hour to go, the trolley dollies brought out a chicken sandwich and a mini Kit Kat, so I returned to my seat where I'd spent no more than two hours during the entire flight. I'd listened to Saint Caen's Symphony Number Three (fourth movement) plus Stylo by Gorillaz, Park Life by Blur, Boy in the Bubble by Paul Simon, Jive Talking by the Bee Gees (I like the bass line) and The Wizard by Black Sabbath, not forgetting Joy Division's She's Lost Control and Love Will Tear Us Apart. I couldn't be bothered to watch any movies.

The flight was smooth – no turbulence – and daylight all the way. We glided into O'Hare and even the usually arduous task of immigration was smooth and fast, thanks to machines rather than humans. My suitcase was there on the reclaim – now that's an anxious part of flying – and soon I found myself in a taxi heading downtown to my hotel on North Michigan Avenue. My cab driver was from Namibia – where he says there are lots of Germans – and used to work for the cosmetics company Avon here in the Windy City, but was made redundant and took up cabbing. He moved to Chicago because he knew people in the city and hadn't been impressed with LA or New York. He found the latter dirty and wasn't keen on LA's downtown. It wasn't a long journey and soon I found myself in my room preparing to get some sleep. I haven't slept well (who does after a transaltantic flight?) and I know that over the next day or two I'll feel tired and weary at odd hours of the day until my body clock kicks in to US time. And then, of course, it'll be time to go home.
Even the view out of the window was boring

I've slept for about four hours. It's now 0608hrs and I've been up for around an hour.

The hotel room is fine: the TV works, the room temperature is just right, there's a minibar full of 'stuff' and a 'snacks draw', not that I'll be indulging in any of it. The room is sort of L-shaped. You come through the door and turn first right for the bathroom and second right for the bed. The desk, however, is too close to the cabinet that houses the minibar and 'snacks draw' and it took me an age to get the laptop's cumbersome charger plugged in – the desk is too heavy to move and so is the cabinet. Other than that, no hassles. I've entered the breakfast time zone so I think I'll head on downstairs to check things out. I could do with a decent cup of tea and some cereal.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The perfect day

Chalk and cheese is the only way to compare Saturday and Sunday. Take a look at the previous post and you'll be able to read about the fog. It was thick. Very thick. Not just patches, it was everywhere. From the moment I set foot outside the door. There was also a calmness about yesterday. As I rode along Ellenbridge Road, en route to the top of Church Way, there was no wind. Everything was still and all that could be heard was the birds. The crows. Or rather one crow sitting on a branch in one of the trees. And let's not forget the mist that hung in the trees. There was no let up.

This morning – Sunday morning – there was a vast improvement in the weather. The skies were blue, the sun was out and it remained that way all day. I nearly didn't make it. I'd woken up at 3am and can't remember when I eventually got back to sleep. Unknown to me, however, I'd turned down the volume on the radio alarm clock so when it went off at 6am I slept on, waking suddenly at 0657 – three minutes to seven. In a blind panic I pulled on the nearest pair of trousers I could find, grabbed a teeshirt, socks and trainers and went downstairs to check if Phil was waiting on the doorstep – he wasn't.

I put the kettle on, resigning myself to missing my usual leisurely mug of tea and a slice of toast. Soon enough Phil arrived. I made the 'give me five minutes' sign and got on with making the tea and then I was outside, opening the garage door and unpadlocking the bike. We rode to the green to meet Andy and then headed for the Tatsfield Bus Stop. Yes, I know, it's getting boring. If it's not the bus stop it's the churchyard or the village. We've become very unadventurous, but for some reason it suits us fine.

Today was, however, the perfect day. For a start, Phil had made his legendary sausage sandwiches. He'd bought some extra water and some more teabags so we could all enjoy a second mug of tea, and Andy had bought the Belvitas. But it wasn't just the food that made things perfect. Yes, the weather was good, but it was more than that; the conversation, the chat, the camaraderie, it was all spot on this morning. We mentioned the England rugby team's disappointing performance – the first time in the history of the Rugby World Cup that the host has gone out during the qualifying rounds. Stuart Lancaster is considering his position, although the governing body has said 'no knee-jerk reactions'.

Then we discussed rugby and footy. If I had to make a choice it would be football. Surprisingly Andy opted for rugby. We all agreed that cricket was good as it was a sport that simply went on and on and on and in between the runs you could enjoy a picnic, a few beers, anything you wanted. I mentioned an old mate of mine whose father was a novelist who lived in Spain. Once or twice a year the dad came over to the UK to watch the cricket and would take his son along. They used to spend the entire day drinking beer.

We moved on to discuss the lack of 'rogues' and cheeky chappies in sport. No more John McEnroe or Nastase, no more Jimmy Connors, no more Boris Becker (he's looking a bit rough these days, Phil remarked) no more Botham or Tufnell and no more fat blokes like Mike Gatting. For some reason Paddy Ashdown was brought up and then the conversation turned to people who had made capital out of being 'bad boys' – meaning their bad behaviour hadn't done them any harm. 'Paddy Pantsdown', Bill Clinton and his Monika Lewinsky episode sprang to mind.

I brought up my encounter with Mr Ashdown on a train coming back from Salisbury, mildly intoxicated, with my pal Louie. It's been mentioned before on this blog so I summarised. We – Louie and I – had been drinking Wadworth's 6X having presented a pub with an espresso machine. As our train pulled into the station I spotted Paddy. We joined him and started discussing time travel and how it must be possible to travel back in time if you started in the eastern hemisphere and flew in a supersonic jet of some kind. How many times would we be able to celebrate the new year before running out of time? We contemplated various scenarios, unaware that Mr Ashdown had been listening to every word we were saying. We figured we'd end up in the middle of the Pacific somewhere and then Paddy interrupted us, giving us his interpretation of the scenario we had been describing. It was one of those classic moments, which I'm sure Mr Ashdown has forgotten. Click here for Mr Ashdown's first mention on this blog.

The reason we'd been talking about time travel was because Phil wanted answers. Something about clocks and planes and a discrepancy in time. We couldn't help, but the sausage sarnies, the tea, the biscuits, the chat and the weather made it a great morning at the old bus stop. We revisited the idea of (somehow) getting a decent-sized table to the bus stop so we could enjoy a plated meal one morning, accompanied by a glass of wine or two or Buck's Fizz – something resembling a Jack Vettriano painting. It would only be possible if one of our other halves drove to the bus stop in a hired van and deposited the table and the food, but somehow we didn't see it happening any day soon.

Andy parted company halfway along the 269 and Phil and I continued on the road towards Warlingham and beyond. It had not only been a great ride, but also a great conversation and brilliant weather – nobody had any complaints, put it that way.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Thick fog at the Tatsfield Bus Stop

Thick fog at Warlingham Green
One of my greatest fears when I wake up in the morning and make my way wearily downstairs to open up the house is finding a wild animal in the living room. I'm not talking about bison or buffalo, python or pig, but I am referring to a squirrel or a fox that might have unwittingly fallen through the chimney stack. I think the worst find would be a squirrel because of the havoc it might wreak once I've opened the door and it's scampered off to wake up the rest of the family.

Oddly, the fear only arises when I reach the downstairs hallway and discover that the door to the living room has been locked. I worry that on opening it I'll be confronted by an affronted, bushy-tailed rodent who then charges off and ruins my weekend – I'd certainly have to send Andy an 'abort' text and then set about the task of apprehending Squirrel Nutkin and ejecting him from the premises.

Fortunately, when I opened the living room door this morning there was nothng to be concerned about, although I do once recall finding a pigeon staring at me in a rather peeved manner and that wasn't too pleasant, I can tell you. I mean, it ruined everything. What was going to be a leisurely start to the day – some Shredded Wheat, a slice of toast, a cup of tea – had been replaced by manic panic while I desperately wondered how the hell the situation could be rectified.

It's October now and when I wake up at 0600hrs it is dark outside. Winter approaches, but so far the weather has been wonderful. All of last week was brilliant sunshine and, apart from a few 'chilly starts' – they really weren't that bad – you could say we've been experiencing an Indian summer. Throughout the working week I've been walking long distances at lunch time through wetlands surrounding Redhill in Surrey and I've trekked from there to Merstham a couple of times too. All-in-all, as Jon Pertwee used to say, "A perfectly excellent chicken korma."

My highlight of the week
A highlight of my week was on Thursday morning when I innocently boarded the 0827hrs train from Purley to Redhill and found myself face-to-face with none other than Michael Portillo, the former Tory Minister of Defence and now a media star in his own right. Portillo – a surname perilously close to Portaloo – is more well known these days for his programme Great British Railway Journeys. And that was why I found him on my train, complete with camera crew. He was on his way to Merstham where, he told me, Alfred Nobel tested his first ever stick of dynamite.

Michael Portillo
With brilliant weather all week, there was always the chance that the weekend would be appalling, but the television forecasters predicted that the good weather would continue over Saturday and Sunday (possibly getting a little cloudy on Sunday) but then the bad weather would kick in next week. All week there had been talk of early morning fog and today there was plenty of it. In fact I've never known it to be so thick and so widespread. On the ride along the Limpsfield Road towards Warlingham Green it was so dense that I couldn't see the Green until I was virtually on it.

As we rode towards Botley Hill there was no let-up. The fog stayed with us all the way to the bus stop where we had agreed to stop, drink our tea and relax with a BelVita biscuit. Well, alright, we had four each as there was no Phil this morning – he'd aborted, but promised sausage sandwiches for Sunday. The fog remained thick throughout our chill-out time at the bus stop. Passing cars simply disappeared within nanoseconds of passing us and we both knew that the ride home would be more precarious than the outward journey, mainly because of thick fog and increased traffic flow.

Steel, Syria, Religion and nationalism
Our conversation was multi-faceted covering the closure of SSI UK's steel plant in Redcar and the reasons behind the company's decision to shut up shop (cheap Chinese steel imports, punitive UK business rates – higher than in France and Germany – and, of course, equally punitive green taxes). We moved on to discuss the crisis is Syria and how the West should be supporting the Russian initiative (to eradicate ISIS but leave Assad in power) rather than adhere to ideologically-based thinking designed solely to create divisions and fuel unrest both regionally in the Middle East and on the international stage. That said, how can Assad remain in power when he is effectively the cause of the problem and the mass migration experienced in Europe these past few months. One could argue, however, that the West has caused all the problems and then effectively done nothing about it. We invaded Iraq (illegally and after Blair had weaved a pack of lies about 'weapons of mass destruction'. We had a big hand in the downfall of Gaddafi and we've been supplying arms to various rebel groups in Syria to fight Assad.

Thick fog at the Tatsfield Bus Stop
The conversation weaved its way around to religion and nationalism and how both are the root of all evil in the world.

Soon it was time to head home and we thought it best, once on the 269, to use the off-road track. This is a risky tactic because of the hawthorn bushes that line the path. We were both chancing it. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if we get a puncture," I said to Andy as we reached the roundabout near Warlingham Sainsbury's.

We rode to the Green where we resolved to meet again tomorrow morning at 0730, hopefully with Phil and his amazing sausage sandwiches.