Monday, 28 March 2016

Bad weather, chocolate, cakes and biscuits – and no exercise!

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Easter Sunday was 'changeable'. By that I mean one minute there was rain, the next there was sunshine. One minute there were blue skies, the next there were grey clouds. It went on like that all day and in between I had lunch, I ate cake, and biscuits and, while it was all very nice, there was one thing missing. Exercise. From a cycling point of view the Easter weekend had been a complete waste of time, thanks to the bad weather. The only decent day was Good Friday, but I didn't go out. Talk about Lazytown.

I'm sitting in front of the television now, writing while watching Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, the one with the woman with all the pigeons. I put Home Alone into the same category as Back to the Future. I've never sat down and watched it from the beginning; it's always on, normally over bank holidays and  and what's really needed now, of course, is a cake. A cake and a cup of tea and nothing on the agenda. Except there IS something on the agenda. It's minor, but it's nagging away at me: the bins have to be put out and I've got to do it. But not right now. Right now I can just sit here, writing (some might say typing – that's what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road). Not that I'm in any way equating what I'm writing with either Truman Capote or Jack Kerouac, although I tend to agree with Capote's view of Kerouac's masterpiece. Apparently he fed a roll of paper into his typewriter, took a load of speed and started typing or writing, depending on your point of view.

This afternoon the weather has been fine. The wind has dropped and the sun has shone, but now – at just gone 1800hrs – the skies are darkening and there's spitting rain. Last night in bed the wind howled and moaned. Trees have been uprooted all over the place and this morning there was 'travel chaos'.

I sent Andy a text around 0625hrs saying abort because of the wind. He agreed and that means we didn't go out all weekend. Andy went out on Good Friday, but that was it. My bike has sat in the garage and hasn't been out since last weekend. What a sham.

Oddly, the weather seems to have improved from 14 minutes ago. The grey clouds have gone, there are trees silhouetted against bright blue skies, but nothing much to look forward to other than going to work for the rest of the week. That's the worst thing about a few days off, soon enough the time comes when you've got to head back to work or school or whatever it is you class as normality. Or perhaps being at home is normality and working and studying is abnormal. Who knows? Who cares?

Saturday, 26 March 2016

"You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis."

Nothing much was said. Normally somebody mentions it, but if they did I didn't hear anything. A family member might bring it up, but again, not a dickie bird, and no, I'm not talking about the cricket bloke either. In fact, I'm sure the expression 'not a dickie bird', has nothing to do with him.

This morning I found myself awake in the dead of night, but it turns out not as dead as I thought. I suddenly remembered and asked myself, "Have the clocks gone forward?" There was only one way to find out. I looked at the digital radio alarm clock. It was almost 0450hrs. I'd been awake almost an hour. There was a programme about somebody whose name I can't remember, but the former mayor of Toronto, who died last week, was mentioned and the guy in question recently got married – to another man and banned what Americans call cellphones from the wedding. Having not listened to the whole programme, I haven't the faintest idea what it was about, although I know one thing: the guy that was getting married hates secrecy and when the reporter asked another guy why that might be, the other guy asked if he could go off record – but still didn't answer the question.

Clear skies? No, just driving rain...
The Six O'Clock News soon followed – the clocks had gone forward – and a story about planned cuts to the UK Border Agency was the lead. Why, I wondered, would anybody want to make cuts of 6% to the UK Border Agency, I found myself thinking, when we've got the so-called 'jungle' on the other side of the Channel and terrorist bombs going off in Brussels. Labour's Andy Burnham feels the same way. Perhaps we can expect another U-turn by the government. The rest of the news was given over to the various Easter messages we can expect from the Vatican, the Church of England and, of course, the Prime Minister.

Something Understood, the programme that always follows the news on Sunday morning, was all about renewal, but, as always, I have to get up so I rarely listen to it; and yet it's quite a relaxing, Sunday morning, half asleep sort of programme with strangely mesmerising music. It's the same week in and week out and one of these days I'll just lie there and listen to it.

So the clocks had gone forward and, of course, technology had already proved itself to be one step ahead of everybody. My iphone, for instance, changes time automatically. Had I set the alarm on the phone I would have woken up in time (had I not been awake already) but I hadn't set it so today might well have been a disaster. Fortunately, it wasn't a disaster, but ultimately it all proves to be a little 'academic'.

I moseyed on downstairs, made tea, toast and Weetabix with blueberries and then remembered there was no milk. Yesterday in Waitrose they didn't have the big two-litre plastic bottles, unless I fancied buying the extortionate Duchy of Cornwall brand – and to be honest, I didn't. One thing I really hate is when there is no alternative other than buying the expensive alternative of something. I'm always suspicious of garages when they place locks on the low cost petrol under the possible pretence that it's out of stock. Rather than fill my car with the 'supreme' petrol, I prefer to find another gas station that might not be ripping me off. That, of course, is the problem. It's hard to know when you're being ripped off these days. "It's the actuator, mate," a mechanic told me recently. "£210." Really? But not being an expert at car mechanics, I had no option other than to accept and pay up. At least now I don't have to struggle into the driver's seat via the passenger door – that was a pain, I can tell you.

There was just enough milk for one strong cup of tea and an almost dry cereal and now, with the time approaching 0700hrs, I could do with another cuppa, but if I want one I've got to go out in the rain to the corner shop, only to find, no doubt, that it's closed today. Today is Easter Sunday, a kind of Super Sunday – Sunday Extra, perhaps, when, everything reverts back to the olden days when nothing opened on the Sabbath. Not that those days were bad. It was kind of accepted that everything was shut and in a way it made for an interesting day. The pubs would open at noon and shut at 2pm and not re-open until 7pm, only a newsagent would be open, but only until lunch time and it would only sell newspapers and sweets, not food. It was a time for lolling around or walking aimlessly through parks and fields, or simply going round to somebody's house or punctuating the day with a trip to the pub, but having the rest of the day wandering about and, strangely, being of no fixed abode.

Andy and I have been liaising this morning on Facebook. "Has it stopped raining at your place?" he asked me earlier. I got up and peered outside. "It's raining now. Abort?" We decided to leave it until 0730hrs before making our decision. I haven't even checked if Phil is standing on the front drive, although I doubt it. He was up for a ride on Saturday, but I couldn't make it. The best day was Good Friday – beautiful sunshine and clear skies – but I couldn't make that either due to 'driving' responsibilities. If we don't ride today that leaves just Bank Holiday Monday and the weather is promising 'more of the same'. In fact, the promise is Hurricane Katy, possibly 'Storm' Katy, although it's widely believed to be heading off north early on Monday morning.

This weekend could be a complete wash-out as far as riding is concerned. If it does stop raining it's going to be wet, which in turn means a wet arse for yours truly – unless I can find my waterproofs. And before you ask, I've not yet serviced the bike or bought mudguards. I simply don't have the spare cash. It's the same old story, I'm afraid.

Hold on, though! The skies are getter bluer, the birdbath is calm, Andy's suggested meeting at 0800hrs. Yes, I've replied, but first let me get some milk from the local shop...if it's open! It's taken two days, but at last it looks like we're game on for a ride. Better find those waterproofs!

Or perhaps not. Just as I was preparing to head out to the local shops the heavens opened. Abort!

It's now 1014hrs and it's been raining on and off all morning. One minute there are blue skies, or bluish skies, the next it's cloudy. As I write this there are grey skies with an occasional appearance from the sun and then some rain. As Jon Voight said in Deliverance, "You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis." 

And below (courtesy of WikiQuote) is a slice of dialogue from the movie Deliverance:

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system's gonna fail...then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That's the game - survive.
Ed: Well, the system's done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Futility of Gardening – all over the UK now!

People say that one of the longest-running stage plays in the UK was Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Well, I've played the game, that's all I'm saying. But there's a new play in town and it comes round once a year and runs for the whole summer. In fact it doesn't run out of gas until late in October. It's called, quite simply, The Futility of Gardening and it has a cast of thousands, mainly men, who, from around this time of year until the end of October, haul lawnmowers from their sheds or garages and walk up and down the garden moving from left to right or right to left – or a bit of both.

I went to a matinee performance today. It was my day off, you see, but these days, there's no such thing. And now that The Futility of Gardening is showing every weekend – everyday when you consider the fretting that goes on midweek about the forthcoming weekend performance – even my weekends will be taken up with 'work' in some shape or form. These days, there's no such thing as a day off.

The Futility of Gardening is all about that word 'futility' or 'futile' and it sets out to prove that gardening is basically a futile activity. In the same way that it's impossible to hold back the tide of the sea, it's impossible to hold back garden growth.

Rod Stewart used to sing about the first cut being the deepest. Well, when it comes to mowing the lawn after the winter 'break' – inverted commas deliberate because there's no such thing as a break in my world – the first cut has to be on a high setting otherwise the mower jams and has to be turned on its side so that the grass clogging up the rotary blades, preventing the thing from working, can be cleared out.
The height of summer in my back garden...

Up and down I go and then I decide to crank it down a notch to the next slightly shorter setting and move from side to side until I reach the bottom end of the garden. I don't really mind mowing the lawn. It gets me out in the fresh air and in many ways it's like cycling as it allows me to switch off and think about stuff I wouldn't normally have to the time think about if I was in the house trying my best to avoid a household chore. And believe me there are a lot of chores on the list: painting the woodwork on the stairway, hammering out a load of bathroom tiles from the downstairs toilet, boring stuff like stacking or unstacking the dishwasher or, horror of horrors, taking out the rubbish. You name it, it's there to be done.

So I was walking back and forth from the bottom to the top of the garden, wondering how stupid I would look to the neighbours if I was pacing up and down the lawn without a mower, when I looked over to the rather daunting flowerbed on my right. It was full of tufts of grass and a plant I like to call the Devil's Forget Me Not because it's not the light blue of the harmless Forget Me Not, it's this angry deep blue and it has a long, thick root that's impossible, most of the time, to pull out completely – meaning it'll come back when I least expect it to. At the moment it hasn't flowered and it won't for a couple of months, but when it's out, it's out and it's not a bad-looking flower, it's just that it spreads, and when it's not flowering, like now, it's just a bunch of floppy, green, cabbage-like leaves that spread like wildfire. I've given up all hope of taking out the Devil's Forget Me Not (I certainly won't forget it either; I can't, it's always there, goading me, laughing at me).

And then there's the tufts of grass; they've got to go too, but what amount of hassle is that going to create? I'll dig down and get it all out, but it'll take a month of Sundays and guess what? It'll be back next year – if not earlier. And once I've got it all out and I've dealt with the Devil's Forget Me Nots, I'll have to do the worst job of the lot: 'bagging up'. I hate bagging up. It's bad enough with twigs and sticks that poke through the plastic bag, but it's even worse with tufts of dirt-laden grass that I shake half-heartedly before dropping them in the bag, which becomes heavier and heavier and eventually has to be hauled across the lawn like a corpse. 

And what about that prickly, creepy thing that's entwined around the conifer? And the bushes pouring on to the lawn that need cutting back? What about the stinging nettles that grow back no matter how often they're cut and the moss on the patio?

At the moment it's all quiet on the western front. Not much is happening, but in a few weeks I'll have a big battle on my hands, the fight being to keep it all down when perhaps what I should be doing is taking a leaf out of Donald Trump's book. I should be building a wall around the house, like sea defences, to stem the tide of growth that's about to hit. And we've yet to talk about the front garden. I'm surrounded! It's as if I live on a suburban atoll in the middle of a stormy sea of weeds, thistles and shrubs and all I have to defend myself with is a trowel and a rake and a mower and a rusty old saw and some aptly named 'pruning gauntlets'. Because that's what you're doing when you head outside in your 'old clothes'. You're running the gauntlet or rather the gauntlet has been thrown down – by Mother Nature.

And don't for one minute think that when you've mowed the lawn and pulled out a few weeds it's game over. Far from it. And when you hear somebody say, "Shall we eat outside, it's such a lovely day," be afraid. Be very afraid. Because within minutes of making yourself comfortable on that garden furniture that cost you an arm and a leg, the wasps will arrive and you will spend the rest of your alfresco lunch swatting them and then, when all is lost, running indoors, plate in hand, to sit in a cool, darkened living room from where you watch those who remain outside waving their arms around frantically in a desperate attempt not to be stung.

Perhaps Astroturf and plastic flowers are the answer. But they will need dusting. I could concrete over the entire garden, front and back, but imagine how depressing that would be in the rain. There would be puddles too and I'd probably be saddled with a few troublesome potted shrubs.

Ultimately, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm a houseowner. I have a front and back garden and they both need tending from March through to October. As my dear old dad would have said, "Get on with it." And to be fair, I've done just that, and now that we're in March, it's all about to kick off and I haven't even mentioned hay fever. We'll leave that for another post.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Down and out at the Tatsfield Bus Stop...

There are two 'slow ways' to the Tatsfield Bus Stop. Two slow ways to the churchyard and the village and, if you like, two slow ways to anywhere. In the case of our regular cycling, there's a choice of turning left off of the 269 or right. Normally, we opt for the former and wind our way around the country lanes, down Hesiers Hill and then up Beddlestead Lane – a long, torturous incline – until we emerge on Clarks Lane.

Down and out at the Tatsfield Bus Stop? Not really. Just pretending to be asleep. We needed a different image.
To go the 'other slow way' we turn right on to Slines Oak Road and follow the route we normally take to Godstone Green, a route far less travelled mainly because of gear problems that persist to this day (and still need fixing). In fact, the last time we rode through leafy Woldingham and the golf course was about a year ago. I remember it clearly because it was snowing and I took a load of photos. We stopped, if I recall, at the car park halfway along the Ridge. See Twats of the Antarctic.

So Andy suggested turning right off the 269 and we sailed down Slines Oak Road, hung a left and then a right across a patch of 'off road' track, which was full of mud and puddles, and through Woldingham, a place that's jam-packed with well-heeled people who are a little exposed during the winter months by the bare trees, which give passers-by – especially cyclists – a good view of huge gardens with massive houses and gatehouses and loads of space.

The weather was fine, although there were signs that there might have been overnight rain – wet roads here and there. It was certainly not cold, even if it was still 'gloves' weather. The gloves stay on until at least May.

Normally I find this particular ride hard going – normally when we reach the golf course I start moaning – but not today. I did remark to Andy as we turned left on to the Ridge that it was a tougher ride that the other slow way. He agreed and we continued along the Ridge, past some huge houses, including Al Fayed's mansion. Is he still living there? I don't know, possibly not, but just past his gaff there's a short incline and then it's pretty smooth all the way to the bus stop. By the way, when I said I normally moan as I go through the golf course, I don't mean that I really moan, in a whingeing, irritating manner; I merely mention that it's not my favourite part of the ride. I thought I'd mention that in case you all thought I was a pain in the arse. I'm not, although Andy might beg to differ.

So we were headed towards the bus stop and all was good with the world. The weather was holding out and it was soon time for tea and biscuits. There were Lycra Monkeys around, quite a lot them, shouting 'Gravel!' and 'Car!' whenever the fancy took them; and Andy and I were just sitting there chatting – about pensions. Yeah, you heard correctly. We were talking like Lycra monkeys.What is it with some of the monkeys? They've taken to wearing luminous over shoes and matching gloves. Why? Well it's quite obvious, innit? Visibility.

"Why don't they just buy some lights?" asked Andy as we headed towards Botley Hill.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Time runs out in Dusseldorf

The Burns Art Hotel – time to check out
With business tied up by just gone 3pm I embarked upon another long, long walk across the city. It took, like yesterday, just over an hour, and the weather was a little colder. I reached the hotel around 1630hrs and then, after a little bit of faffing about with my suitcase, I bade farewell to the Burns Art Hotel and hit the streets.

Late afternoon/early evening is a funny time of the day because it's a good couple hours off dinner and it's too late for a snack, like, say, a cup of tea and a millionaire's shortbread. In fact, that's something I never really got together while I was out in Dusseldorf. I never found a cosy place to drink tea, munch on something sweet and read my book – The Moth, a collection of short, true stories, some good, some a little disappointing, but an ideal book to read in a Starbucks, if I could find one.

I'm always looking, but never finding, peace. That's what I need more than anything else: a bit of peace and quiet. A  cup of tea, an almond croissant and some time to sit and read the papers or a book or both. Coffee shops are the best place to be in this respect and, dare I say it, Costa, Caffé Nero or Starbucks fit the bill, especially mid-to-late afternoon in an American city. I remember a good occasion of this sort in Indianapolis a couple of years ago and one in Chicago last October – both courtesy of Starbucks.

On Wednesday I found myself in Dusseldorf's old town – or Alt Stadt – trying to find somewhere that fitted the bill. I eventually stumbled upon a Starbucks, but it was getting round to lunch time and I didn't want to start ruining things by eating cookies or whatever just prior to tucking into lunch. Not that I should have worried. On that particular day I'd already walked for what seemed like miles and then I walked round and round the Alt Stadt, not even window shopping, just walking and that's how the Starbucks came into the picture. But as I said, I passed on it and walked a fair old way back to the street where my favourite restaurant is located. But there was no room at the inn. I've written about this – how I went to the Thai restaurant instead – so I won't go on about it.

Stumbled across this sculpture in the Alt Stadt
So Friday afternoon's kind of similar, but in a sense the other way around. It was as if somebody had one of those huge old sand timers – what are they called? You know what I'm talking about, an hour glass, that's it. It was as if somebody had taken an hour glass, turned it upside down and I had to fit everything into an increasingly smaller space of time. And I was a little tired too. You would be had you just walked all the way across town like I had. I stopped off at a few shops on the way, like I did on Thursday. I bowled into a supermarket looking for God knows what. White hot chocolate, German tea, German breakfast cereal, a bottle of wine, but I didn't buy anything. Then I went into one of those posh but weird shops that sell odd stuff like upmarket-looking shaving brushes, pens, clocks – "men's stuff" – and I ended up trying some aftershave.

The long and the short of it is this: I ended up at the airport miles too early. Like four hours too early. I couldn't even check in so I found a restaurant and ordered tuna and penne and one of those big, balloon-like glasses of red wine and sat there reading The Moth. And then I made the mistake of ordering another. I say 'mistake', it wasn't so much a mistake, but I could have done without it.

Dinner here was not good, but not bad either
I went through security, had to take my laptop out of my suitcase and endure all the hassles – laptop in it's own tray, coat in another tray, suitcase in another, it's such a fuss, but it's all for a good cause – mine and my fellow passengers' safety. Once on the other side, time flew past and soon there was only 30 minutes before my flight was due to take off. But of course it never took off on time. Everyone was standing around at the gate and there was some kind of delay, but soon we all filed on board. I had seat 3a so I was soon sitting there, seat belt on, reading The Moth again. But other passengers delayed things. We eventually got off the ground about 30 minutes late. I hate night flights. You can't see anything. It was pretty smooth all the way over and having already enjoyed two glasses of wine I didn't order anything from the hostess.

We made good on lost time and hit the tarmac at Gatwick around 2122hrs. A cab journey followed and I was home in time for the news. Iain Duncan Smith  – otherwise known as IDS – had resigned from the government over Osborne's plan to cut benefits for the disabled, while giving the rich a tax cut. What a fucking bastard! Actually, they're both bastards. IDS is a bastard too, but I understand that his resignation letter is going to cause Osborne a few problems. Some have called for his resignation. Not good when you consider that Osborne has prime ministerial ambitions.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A long walk followed by a decent meal in my favourite restaurant...

If you're on Facebook and are not one of my pals, but just happened to have stumbled on this blog, then I've just been raving (on Facebook) about a restaurant here is Dusseldorf called Da Bruno. In fact, a few months back I wrote a glowing review of the place here on NoVisibleLycra – click here to read it.

You know what? It's odd because I like this restaurant so much that I've started to plan my trips around it. I pick a hotel nearby so I don't have to walk for miles and the one I've been staying in is under five minutes' walk away, less than when I was staying in the Friends Hotel at the other end of Karlstrasse, which is close to Dusseldorf's central railway station. In fact, credit to the people at Friends Hotel for recommending Da Bruno to me, I've never looked back.

From the top of Dusseldorf's 'Space Tower'.
The only reason I'm not staying in the Friends Hotel this time around is that I was never keen on the breakfast offering – it's not substantial enough, in my opinion, and they've sort of run out of space on which to put things. It's all a bit precarious in that sense and I never felt totally fulfilled when breakfast was over and it was time to face the day.

Where I am now is much better. The breakfasts are more inviting, the space in which they are served is cosy and, well, that's it. The food quality is better too. It's an all-round good experience. And as I've probably said already – possibly in the last post I wrote – the rooms here are better too.

So since I've been here – I arrived Tuesday – I've been obsessed with Da Bruno. So obsessed that on my first night, despite the fact that I got to the hotel around 10pm, I still walked there and managed to get a table. Last night they were fully booked when I turned up around 8pm – so I booked for tonight and then left, ending up in a Mercure Hotel restaurant and wishing I hadn't bothered. Although hats off to the waitress – Nicole – for top notch service.

I was one of two guests in the Mercure. I ordered goulash soup to start (which I suspect wasn't homemade – it was too much like dehydrated soup for my liking) and then followed up with grilled salmon (or fried, I can't remember) but either way it was under-cooked. I even considered mentioning this, but didn't want the chef gobbing on my food. I'm fine, by the way, no food poisoning, not like this time last year in Rio de Janiero when I went down with a dose of the squits. Not that I'm suggesting it was the food; it could have been anything, possibly even the fact that I went for a swim in Copacabana Bay – the famous Copacabana Beach no less. I remember reading about the quality of the seawater being piss poor, so it might have been that or the change of climate, who knows? Either way, the end result wasn't pleasant, I can tell you. Click here for more.

Goulash soup at the Mercure Hotel restaurant
When I find a good restaurant like Da Bruno, everything else pales into insignificance and I start to see the join in other establishments. At the Mercure, for example, there was the dehydrated soup and the under-cooked salmon (the wine, incidentally – Cabernet Sauvignon – was fine) but I can't help comparing. The Mercure bill was twice as much as I pay in Da Bruno and the food quality was nowhere near as good. A decent restaurant brings so many aspects of life into perspective as well as highlighting how crap most other restaurants are.

Last night, I walked into a place, sat down, perused the menu and realised immediately that it was a shit establishment. So what did I do? I picked up my mobile phone, started a mock conversation with nobody – I can act quite well – and then, getting up while still 'on the phone' I put my coat on, signalled in a feigned state of harassment that I had to go, and then continued my search for somewhere decent to eat. I walked around the block half a dozen times, turning down Korean, Japanese, Indian and Chinese restaurants before reaching the Mercure Hotel.

As I say, Nicole the waitress was the only redeeming feature so, after the soup and salmon, I declined dessert, made my excuses and left.

Salmon on a pile of spinach with rice at the Mercure – not the best
Today, once the business element of my day was over, I walked for over an hour across the city and back to my hotel in the early evening sunshine, and then to Da Bruno for the last time, although I'm still figuring out whether there's time to squeeze in one last visit before flying home. The problem is that Da Bruno is so good it's always packed.

The walk was wonderful as the weather's been fine: nice and sunny, but a little bit cold. I stopped off here and there in different shops – a couple of clothes stores, one or two supermarkets – I'm looking for Ronnefeldt teas but can't find them anywhere, and I'm also thinking about getting some German food products, like white drinking chocolate and a box of cereal. Wine is cheap here too so there's a few things on the agenda for tomorrow to kill time between 3pm and when my flight heads for home.

I walked for over an hour this evening...
Something that does piss me off about hotels is when they give their guests the impression that they're offering them something complimentary, but the reality is it will go on the bill like everything else. So there's the minibar, well, we all know that's not free, but what about that half bottle of wine on the desk, that inviting bottle of Pinot Noir? I was going to ask the woman on the front desk whether it was 'on the house', but I knew what her answer would be, so I'm leaving it well alone. Besides, I've had my glass of house red at Da Bruno and I'm feeling great so why go and ruin everything?

Last but not least, I've discovered a new chocolate bar, not that I'm making a regular habit of such things. It's just that they've got a big plate full of mini snacks like Twix and Kit Kat, opposite the front desk, but also among them is Balisto, a small 18.5g bar that I've never, ever seen in the UK. Anyway, just to say that they're fantastic and I'm glad they're not available in the UK as they could become habit forming.

In fact, while it sounds like I've been pigging out, I haven't been. I have a light breakfast, no tea even, and then there was the conference self-service lunch and lastly, Da Bruno. I've had just one glass of wine and now, hopefully, I'll get a decent night's sleep.

A Balisto bar – very tasty indeed!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Back in Dusseldorf...

It was too cold and too late to wait for a train
Normally I fly with British Airways out of City Airport, but because I'd left it to the last minute, BA was looking a bit pricey so I opted for easyJet instead and flew out of Gatwick. I was on the 1605hrs train from Redhill to the airport and then, once there, took the shuttle to the North Terminal, went through security and then just wandered about until I was directed to gate 105 from where the plane took off.

The flight was good, although I missed the dulcet tones of the true Brit pilot that goes hand-in-hand with British Airways. I like the reassuring, "Welcome aboard this British Airways flight to Dusseldorf. My name is Captain Roger Finnegan and with me on the flight deck this morning is First Officer...". You get none of that reassuring stuff with other airlines and that includes easyJet.

In fact, the first really annoying thing about easyJet was the fact that there appears to be just one flight to Dusseldorf at 1810hrs and it doesn't arrive until around 2100hrs. This, I figured, would put me at a disadvantage when it comes to eating dinner. In a nutshell, it could put an end to any thoughts of dining at my favourite restaurant, Da Bruno, which I know is only a short walk from my hotel. An even shorter walk from the Burns Art Hotel than the Friends Hotel, which is saying something. In fact I didn't realise how easy it would be until I walked out of the hotel, having checked in, and almost tripped over the place.

View from room 32, Burns Art Hotel, Dusseldorf, Germany
On arriving at Dusseldorf Airport I normally take the Skytrain to the railway station and then walk to my hotel – and that was the plan on this occasion too. But first the ticket machine wouldn't accept either my credit or debit card and then there seemed to be a longish wait for the train in the cold. Furthermore, taking the train into town would mean no dinner and I was starving having had a small bottle of red wine and a couple of tiny packs of salted peanuts and cashews on the plane.

I had considered a Pollo Caprese flatbread, but then I remembered a text I had received earlier from easyJet saying that the oven on my plane was out of order and there wouldn't be any hot food. In a way it was a blessing in disguise because I did make it to my favourite Italian, albeit at just gone 10pm and enjoyed penne arrabbiata before hitting the sack.

The other view from room 32, Burns Art Hotel, Dusseldorf
I'm staying in the Burns Art Hotel. What a fantastic place! It's right next door to a Thai restaurant, where I've just had a light lunch having discovered that Da Bruno is packed to bursting and didn't have room for me. But the Thai restaurant was nothing to write home about. The hotel, on the other hand, is definitely worth a few words.

First, it's a 'boutique' hotel, which is another word for small and edgy and also a little bit 'trendy'. But that aside, they've put me in room 32 on the third floor and it's more like an apartment. There's a living area with a balcony, it's own television and a mini bar (that's full – not that I use minibars, but it's nice to know that the hotel trusts its guests, some don't). Then there's a bathroom where everything works, nothing is 'trendy' – meaning a tap is a tap, there's a plug in the sink that I can understand and use and all is well. At the other end of this double aspect 'room' is the sleeping quarters (a wardrobe, double bed, a desk and a flatscreen television plus, oddly, one of those cabinets in which a television is normally found,  but it's empty and surplus to requirements. The floors, throughout the hotel, including the rooms, are marble tiled and it's very quiet. There's also a fairly good wifi.

A late dinner at Da Bruno last night...
There isn't a restaurant, but that's not a problem as my all-time favourite Italian is under five minutes' walk away. There was, however, a decent breakfast offering down in the hotel's basement. The last time I was in Dusseldorf I stayed in the Friends Hotel, which was also a 'boutique' hotel characterised by 'trendy' things. The problem with the Friends was its breakfast offering, which I thought was piss poor. In fact, one of the chief reasons why I am not there now is because I didn't want their breakfast. Here at the Burns Art Hotel it's good: a selection of cereals, cooked meats, pastries, breads, fresh fruit and fresh fruit juices.

One thing did bug me slightly – the tea. It was wrapped up in sachets that were impossible to open so I did without and opted for a small glass of fresh orange juice instead.

It's costing me £280 for three nights, which ain't bad, and if you saw the size of the room you'd be amazed, honestly.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

On the passing of Keith Emerson...

The first time I heard Brain Salad Surgery was in Great Bookham in Surrey. I was 17 years old and sitting in the living room of my friend Neil Palmer's bungalow on Blackthorne Road. I remember being immediately taken by it (the album, not the bungalow) because it was unusual and far from the norm of music at the time – although I didn't really know a great deal about so-called 'prog rock' at that time. Had I been more clued up I would have realised that Emerson Lake & Palmer were behemoths of the genre.

Brain Salad Surgery is one of two 'ELP' albums I bought and 'internalised'. By that I mean I played it so much that I could recite it note by note in my head whenever I fancied it. I would later brag that I didn't need a Walkman as I had all the music I needed going on in my head. Another album I had already stored on my own internal hard drive was Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

The cover art remains intriguing to this day...
What I found slightly odd – in a good way – about Brain Salad Surgery was its contrasting musical styles. It kicks off with a version of Jerusalem, Hubert Parry's amazing hymn, and then moves on to an intense and 'busy' version of Alberto Ginastera's Toccata before reaching the album's 'signature dish', Karn Evil 9 impressions one, two and three – a strange apocalyptic, science fiction tale put to music and ending with some amazing Moog work by Keith Emerson that, if I recall correctly, moves increasingly faster between speakers. This was the time when it was cool to have 'quadrophonic' sound in the house and with that last minute or so of Karn Evil 9 impression three, the Moog work spun around the room and then suddenly stopped – time to take the record off the turntable.

When I mentioned 'contrasting musical styles' I was refering to the other tracks on the album, namely Benny the Bouncer and Still You Turn Me On. I don't know, but these two tracks were mildly annoying as they detracted from the mood and theme of the rest of the album; they were, in my opinion, superfluous in the same way that My Wife, written by John Entwistle, was out of place on Who's Next.

It was a similar story with their second album, Tarkus, the other ELP album I owned (and loved). Tarkus was half World War One tank and half armadillo and while there were officially seven tracks taking up an entire side (of the vinyl LP) they all merged into one solid chunk of music with a similarly apocalyptic theme every bit as complex, if not more so, than Brain Salad Surgery's Karn Evil 9.

Part of Tarkus – I think it was Iconoclast – was so syncopated that a mate of mine and myself would be transformed into jumping beans whenever we encountered it. In fact we loved it so much we always stopped what we were doing whenever we knew it was approaching and enjoy it to the full. But it was all good: Eruption, Stones of Years, Iconoclast, Mass, Manticore, Battlefield and Aquatarkus.

But again there were the 'novelty tracks' on side two: Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddie? The other tracks – Bitches Crystal, The Only Way, Infinite Space and A Time and a Place were all brilliant. On The Only Way, Emerson opens with some amazing keyboard work on St Mark's Church Organ in a haunting song that includes the line, "why did he lose, six million jews?" Stuff like this sticks with you and it stuck with me and always will.

Iconoclast turned my pal Andy and I into jumping beans...
I kind of stopped listening to ELP after those two albums. When they lurched towards The Works and stuff like Fanfare for the Common Man they became more populist and I left them behind for punk rock, although I remember briefly borrowing, from the late Paul Hooper, a live triple album that opened out into three sections, spelling out E.L.P. From that I remember Hoedown for some reason.

Soon, for me and my aforementioned pal Andy, ELP (as they were known) gained cult status. Tarkus became our preferred composition, especially the highly syncopated bit on Iconoclast that turned us into wincing jumping beans.

And then I heard that Keith Emerson had died and that it might have been suicide and another 'era' came to an abrupt end. Yesterday on a drive from South Croydon to Sutton to see my mum, I decided to bring Brain Salad Surgery with me. I skipped the novelty tracks and found myself repeating (at least half a dozen times) the opening track, Jerusalem – powerful stuff – and then Karn Evil 9.

I can't say I wasn't disappointed when Jim Davidson chose Brain Salad Surgery's Karn Evil 9 – or bits of it – for the theme to his Generation Game. That's when you know you're old: when the music you love becomes a Saturday night television staple and no longer that edgy sound you once thought it was.

To the Tatsfield Churchyard in the fog...

The mist was there from the outset. It was hanging around outside my front door and it followed me – or did I follow it? – all the way to Warlingham Green. It stayed with us – Andy and I – all the way to the Tatsfield Churchyard where we stopped for tea and biscuits.

Everything was, at best, damp, and at worst, wet. Water fell off the branches of trees overhanging the road and, as we passed Beech Farm, somewhere in the mist, shots rang out. Shotguns. Even in the mist grouse shooting was considered safe. I began to wonder how they would spot the birds and whether Andy and I were sitting ducks, but I'm still alive to tell the tale so I guess there wasn't a risk of being shot.
Andy and Matt, Tatsfield Churchyard, Sunday 13 March

"I wonder how we would've got on without mobile phones," I said, sitting on a bench in the churchyard and surveying the wet and misty landscape surrounding me.
"How do you mean?" asked Andy.
"If one of us got a puncture or was running late."
"We'd just to have wait," said Andy.
"Yes, assume there's been a problem, give it half an hour and then go on without whoever hadn't turned up."
"We'd have to agree a meeting point and time on the landline before setting out," said Andy. "Just like in the olden days before mobile phones."
"And if we were out and, say, Phil wanted to join us later, he'd have to visit all our known haunts until he found us. I wonder what the best plan of action would be?"
"Ride first to the bus stop, then into the village, then down to here and then Westerham," said Andy.
"Only to discover that we'd riden to St Leonard's Church instead," said I.

"It's definitely not camping weather," said Andy, looking at the wet grass and the dripping trees.
"Did you see that homeless programme on TV during the week? A bunch of celebrities, including Willie Thorne, sleeping rough for charity?"
"No," Andy replied.
"If I was homeless I'd definitely buy a tent and head for the woods. The city would be too dangerous. I'd go to Croham Woods and every morning I'd walk into Croydon and beg for money."

The conversation moved on to Lycra Monkeys. We'd seen a few on the outward ride, as always, and now we were engaged in our usual chat about the discourse of the Lycra Monkey, which, for some reason, we thought, revolved around the subject of pension plans and other 'senior management' topics. The dialogue had started as we rode along the 269 discussing the price of cycling stuff. Andy talked about a bike that cost £8,000 and we moaned about the exploitative nature of the 'sport'. I put the word 'sport' in inverted commas purely because I don't think Andy and I consider what we do a 'sport'. We've said on many occasions that we ride out early in the morning to drink tea and eat biscuits. We're not concerned about 'precious grams' and, as avid readers will know, we don't wear Lycra.

We moved on to talk about farting – as you do – and how the very act is a measure of a new relationship moving on to the next level. When you start a relationship with somebody, farting in front of them is taboo, but when it does take place, it means that things have become a little more serious. A hypothetical chunk of dialogue between two women followed when Andy engaged himself in the following conversation:

"How's things?"
"Yeah not bad; 'things' are getting a little more serious between us."
"How d'you mean?"
"Well, he farted."

And with raucous laughter disturbing the misty silence of the churchyard, we wheeled our bikes past the headstones and down the stairs and then cycled up the hill towards Botley Hill Farm and beyond. As we passed Beech Farm the shots rang out again. Perhaps they were aiming for us, I thought, but we survived and as we rode on to Warlingham Green we noticed that the fog had all but disappeared. Pulling up outside the Co-op we discussed next week's ride. Andy wouldn't be going on Saturday.  "So enjoy your ride," he said with a smile and the expected sarcasm that always accompanies the remark.
"Unless Phil goes, I'll probably cycle over to mum's," I said, and with that we rode off in different directions.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Mist opportunities and the death of Keith Emerson...

At 0111hrs I woke up. I'd gone to bed early in disgust at the rubbish on television and spent some time listening to Radio Four, eventually falling asleep, but then, at the aforementioned hour, I was lying there, fully awake and determined to sleep. It must have worked. At some stage I found myself in a boat, loaded with refugees and out at sea. It could only have been a dream. Before long I was back in bed, lying there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And so it continued.

During this time I considered an 'abort' text to Andy and Phil, but I figured it could wait until the morning. It was unclear whether I'd be riding on Saturday due to a meeting in Carshalton, but it was far from certain.

Time crept on. Soon Radio Four sprung to life: the news followed by Clare Balding doing a spot of rambling. I caught bits of it – a young boy recovering from leukaemia and somebody else from the Fleet Air Arm. I got up and decided to abort. When I reached my phone, which was switched off and resting on the console table, I switched it on and waited. An abort text from Phil as I penned my own for Andy. Later Andy texted me saying he'd had a cold all week and was glad of the lie in. Personally, I wanted to go for a ride. You can imagine, therefore, my frustration when the aforementioned meeting was cancelled.

There had been an early morning mist. Thick fog would be a more apt, but it was all irrelevant as nobody went out. Phil aborted because of the cold, Andy was relieved to miss the ride because of illness and I was supposed to go somewhere, but didn't. All-in-all, a load of old tosh, as my dad might have said.

Right now it's 1155hrs, the sun is shining and there are hazy blue skies. We're game on for a ride tomorrow, just Andy and I, but possibly Phil too, who knows?

Hard at it – Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
I read online this morning that Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame, has died. There's a rumour of suicide, making a sad story even sadder. Back in the day I used to love ELP. I had Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery, two brilliant albums. Personally, when they moved on to Fanfare for the Common Man I got bored and then, when Jim Davidson used music from Brain Salad Surgery as a kind of soundtrack for some television game show he was fronting, I realised it was time to stop liking them altogether. Things get like that: they deteriorate gradually and soon turn to dust. What was once slightly leftfield, mildly underground, becomes mainstream and then slowly dies. When I hear once cult rock tracks fronting television advertisements or game shows I know it's time to admit defeat and consign stuff I once considered cutting edge, or just plain edgy, to the wastepaper basket. Like when I saw John Lydon being interviewed by Piers fucking Morgan.

ELP was a great prog rock band, one of the very best, and those albums I mentioned above – Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery were excellent. Whenever I see an image of one of those old World War One tanks I immediately imagine ELP's half tank/half armadillo on the cover of Tarkus.

There seems to be a spate of ageing rock stars dying off at the moment. It started towards the end of last year with Lemmy and was followed up by David Bowie, some guy from the Eagles and now it's Keith Emerson's turn. Oh well, as a pal of mine might have said, "We've still got Rick Wakeman."

We'll probably take a drive to the coast and then a walk along the beach. If we do I think I'll take Brain Salad Surgery with me, not that my choice of music will be appreciated – or understood – by the other passengers.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Solo ride to mum's and then Andy and I head for Tatsfield Village...

Never listen to anybody when they try to put you on a downer over the weather. On Friday people started talking down the weekend. "It's going to be terrible this weekend," some would say and I'd be left wondering whether I was going to be riding out on Saturday morning. "It's going to be nice on Sunday," they might add. As it turned out, it was fine on both days and I managed to cycle alone to mum's (on Saturday morning) and then to Tatsfield Village with Andy (Sunday morning).

Boiled egg, fingers, fresh fruit, bread and tea...
The weather on both days was fine. Clear skies, a crescent moon and a slightly chilly air, but not chilly enough to smack me in the face.

I took the usual route to mum's. This time, when I got there, I opted for the breakfast menu: tea, chopped orange, sliced banana and apple, two small slices of brown bread and, of course, light conversation. We sat in the new room – the room that's not new at all – and outside, while cold and crisp, the sun was shining. It was a nice day.

Breakfast at mum's is always good. We spoke about a wide range of 'stuff': mum's next door neighbour is fixing up his house. He's been knocking down walls, turning the back room into a large living space embracing a kitchen and a play room for the kids and somewhere to sit and lounge about. "But he's still got a front room," said mum.

"That's what I wish I had," I said, explaining how our house is all very 'open plan' – it was built when the 'lounge-diner' was all the rage, but it means that everything takes place in the same space: watching TV, reading, eating, everything. Fortunately we have an extension. We call it the 'conservatory' because it has huge picture windows and a flat roof, but it's not really a conservatory, it's an extension, a room in its own right and it's where you'll find my bookcase and desk and a couple of sofas that have seen better days.

Right now there are hassles at home. No hot water. It could mean a new boiler, but with the central heating still working, it's probably not the boiler – some say that won't stop British Gas from condemning what might be a perfectly decent, albeit old, boiler. It's amazing how we all take so many things for granted and hot water is one of those things. Try living without it for a few days and you'll know what I mean.

The ride back home was uneventful and I arrived at 0908hrs after a decent enough ride. As the day progressed, the rains came, but I reached home dry and that was good news.

Sunday – Andy and I ride to Tatsfield Village
Sunday was an equally pleasant day, possibly a little colder than Saturday, but again there was a crescent moon and a dreamy water-colour sky to greet me when I pulled back the curtain. No sign of Phil, but we all know how much he hates the cold. The truth of the matter, though, was that it wasn't that cold, or at least it didn't seem too bad. I didn't really notice the cold until Andy and I were riding south along the 269 towards Botley Hill. My feet were cold, but other than that I was fine and I didn't have the balaclava either.

My bike on Warlingham Green
We headed for Tatsfield Village where there is a covered wooden bus stop similar to the legendary Tatsfield Bus Stop on Approach Road. Out came the chocolate BelVita biscuits and the tea and we both sat there discussing the European Union, admitting that we don't really know enough about the real issues apart from immigration and not being beholden to Brussels for our legislation.

I'm quite torn on the issue in many ways, but in others it's a clear-cut case; and by that I mean I'll vote to stay in because I like Europe – as a place. I like the people too and I suppose like a lot of people, I buy in to the view that it's best to be a part of Europe than on the outside. Also, I'm not a 'little Englander'. I don't subscribe to the view that by being out of Europe we can make 'Great Britain great again'. We can't. And besides, it seems to me that all the people that want out of Europe are, well, a little bigoted in their leanings. I've always maintained that nationalism is unhealthy and that's what the so-called 'Brexiters' are pedalling. Union Jacks, 'who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler', casual racism in some cases (we've all watched those pre-election UKIP documentaries).

Sign near Tatsfield Village pond...
But then there's TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade & Industry Partnership. Why hasn't it received any major media attention? Nobody talks about it and yet it's being negotiated behind closed doors by faceless, unelected European bureaucrats and it will enable big corporations to sue foreign governments for loss of earnings, among other things. It will also bring into alignment EU and American quality and safety standards – but which way will those standards fall? Will EU citizens be winners or losers? Nobody knows.

What about 'ever closer union' and that whole sovereignity issue? What about the Euro, what about open borders and immigration? What about 'Operation Fear'? I'm hoping that over the next few weeks we'll all get a clearer view on what it's all about, but I suspect we won't get anywhere near it. Ultimately, it'll come down to our views on migrants and whether we believe the bigoted, nationalistic, Dickensian 'Brexiters' – like IDS – or those who say we'll be better off if we stay in the EU, like the Government...but should we trust the Government?

Andy with the bikes at Tatsfield
Tea and biscuits finished, we packed up our stuff and prepared for the ride home. The sun was still out, the skies were clear and the crisp air was still crisp. As we rode past Beaver World we both commented on the cold. I said it wasn't that bad, but I did have cold feet. Andy felt roughly the same. We turned right at the end of Approach Road, headed towards Botley Hill and parted company on Warlingham Green.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

And another thing that annoys me!

 The Archers on Radio Four. I don't like it and, for that reason alone, I never want to listen to it. I find it boring and, dare I say, mildly irritating. The annoying thing about it is this: whenever I have to nip out in the car somewhere OR whenever I think, 'I know, I'll listen to the radio', it's ALWAYS either on or about to start. "But now let's go over to Ambridge and see what's afoot in the Archers..." one of  Radio Four's announcers will say and soon, that well-known theme tune will play and I'll be compelled to quickly switch channels or turn off the radio altogether. This happens a lot. It's a bit like when you drop a piece of buttered toast on the floor and it lands butter side down or if you switch on a commercial radio or television channel and the ads are on.

Is Redhill railway station the most depressing place in the world?

Platform 2, Redhill station
Do you ever feel depressed? Nothing too serious, just a bit down; a bit pissed off? I do and I'm sure we all do at times. For me, there is nothing more depressing than standing on Redhill railway station in Surrey waiting for a train. Invariably, whenever I get there, I find that I have a good 10 minutes to wait before my train arrives – I've either just missed one or there's a delay of some kind. Missing a train is depressing enough, but more depressing still is having to wait on a cold, dreary and unpleasant railway station – and it's not just Redhill. I've noticed two trends of late: one is to tart up some waiting rooms with fake leather sofas and pot plants – Purley Oaks, Purley and Merstham all spring to mind; another trend, however, is to go the other way and offer uncomfortable, uninspiring and depresssing waiting rooms like those on Redhill and East Croydon stations.

But let's stick with Redhill for the moment. The waiting room serving platforms one and two is piss poor. It has glass walls and a few hard, wooden seats – two rows of them – plus glass sliding doors. At the far end there's a service desk where it's possible to ask for travel information, but there's nothing welcoming about the place, especially on a cold day, but even in the height of summer it's not nice.

There's really only two things you can do if you find yourself on Redhill railway station waiting for a train: sit in the dreary, uncomfortable waiting room or walk the length and breadth of the platform until your train arrives. A third option would be to leave the station altogether and walk for five minutes to the Costa Coffee where you can enjoy a cup of tea and a millionaire's shortbread, but that option invariably means you will miss your train. How often have I stood looking at the train times wondering whether there was time to walk to Costa? Many times and the answer is always the same: there's never enough time unless I decide to catch a later train than planned. It all leads to one sorry scenario: waiting, pacing the length and breadth of the platform and longing for the moment when the train arrives and I can settle in to the 15-minute journey to Purley.

There are two travel alternatives open to me. I can take the train from Redhill to Purley, change trains and then ride one stop to Purley Oaks. This way I have a 20-minute walk at the other end. It's not too bad, but it's a longer walk than the one I have to and from Sanderstead station. If I ride from Redhill to Sanderstead I still have to change trains, but instead of Purley I change at East Croydon where I'm greeted with an even more unpleasant waiting room – the one serving platforms five and six. In the morning at least there's a rack full of newspapers. By 1800hrs the rack is bare and while there is a Pumpkin Café – or something of that kind – it's not a proper sit-down establishment with round tables, and it's adjacent to a couple of fruit machines.

If I had any say in the future development of Redhill railway station – should it be on somebody's agenda – I know exactly what I'd do. First, I would get rid of the glass waiting room serving platforms 1 and 2. I would replace it with a cosy railway station café with round wooden tables and chairs, with possibly even a small tea light on each table, and a door with a narrow glass window in the middle with a net curtain concealing the cosy interior from those standing on the platform. There would be an inviting glow from the tea lights to attract passers-by.

As for foodservice, a small menu of home-made cakes, a range of teas, coffee and hot chocolate and possibly, during lunchtimes only, a limited hot food offering of traditional favourites, like cottage and shepherd's pie, chicken stew and so on. I would apply for a liquor licence and offer a small selection of fine wines – for all price points – and, of course, some cask-conditioned bottled ales. In other words, I would go some way towards making Redhill station's catering offer more like the Manningtree Station Buffet.

People would look forward to missing their train and they would enjoy the prospect of visiting Redhill railway station.