Tuesday, 12 December 2017

In Linz, Austria...

While it seems like only yesterday since I was last in Linz, it is, in fact, just over a year. It's amazing how familiar it all seems when I consider that I've only been here once before, in October 2016, and yet everything, from the moment I arrived was instantly memorable. I was in Vienna, of course, in June this year and had a lovely time riding around the city in the sunshine on a bike I hired from the hotel, Motel One.

Travel is fraught with problems and very often I find that one minor thing will trigger loads of unnecessary hassle, although perhaps that's exaggerating slightly. Last night at around 11pm I ordered a taxi to pick me up around 0600hrs this morning and they always ask about the terminal. Whenever I order a taxi, certainly early in the morning, it's always to the airport. "Terminal Five," I said over the telephone, having retrieved my travel documents.

The following morning I was rudely awakened by the sound of my iphone alarm and jumped swiftly out of bed to deactivate it, momentarily switching it to 'snooze' before realising and turning the damned thing off. I then went about a few bits of last-minute packing (unpressed shirts, so I'll need to search my hotel room for an iron later on).

Breakfast consisted of 11 grapes and eight raspberries in a bowl, a glass of orange juice, a croissant and a cup of decaffeinated tea. In addition to not drinking (which I'm starting to enjoy) I'm also avoiding caffeine. Neither the non-drinking or the refusal to allow much caffeine past my lips are the result of being told to lay off anything (if I wanted to I could simply order a beer or a glass of wine and I do occasionally accept caffeinated tea, but my preference, at present, is to avoid caffeine and alcohol and, as I just said, I'm rather enjoying it). Why? Well, mainly it's good to be in the real world, meaning that I'm not worried all the time about whether I'm 'over the limit' to drive or whether drinking a cup of tea late at night will mean no sleep until the early hours. I can drink a cup of decaff at any time of the day. As for the alcohol, I'm really not missing it, but I must stress that I haven't given up drinking because of some embarrassing incident that has forced me to reappraise my general attitude towards life. No, the reason I stopped, as I've said before, is that I had an inner ear infection or some kind of vertigo issue, probably brought about by overdoing it in the USA (I flew, as you know, to Memphis via Chicago, then drove a car to Arkansas and back and then flew first to Dallas and then to London, all in four days – not a good idea. Anyway, apparently, dizziness and alcohol don't really mix so I stopped the latter and turned to peppermint tea, which I love. I just don't need it and plan to remind 'dry' (as people with drink problems say) into the New Year. I might even attempt to go 12 months without drinking and in all honesty I don't see such a feat as problematic so I might as well have a go.

Lunch, Café Ritazza, Terminal 3, Vienna
Fortunately, there's a new wave of non-alcoholic beers on the market. I'd rather drink non-alcohol beer than fizzy drinks because I know that fizzy drinks are pretty bad news all round, full of sugar and God knows what else, and likewise fruit juices, which are packed with sugar. Mineral water? Well, alright, I don't mind the stuff, but on a night out (not that I have any nights out) water seems a bit frugal. Anyway, enough of all this not drinking chat, it's boring and nobody really cares so I'll shut up. Suffice it to say that, for the moment, I've stopped and I haven't made my mind up when I intend to start again, if at all.

When I reached Terminal Five the check-in machine alerted me to a problem, like perhaps I was in the wrong terminal. It turned out my travel documents were wrong and that I should have been in Terminal 3 – very annoying as I had to take the Heathrow Express one stop and then the hassles began. For a start I was randomly chosen for the 'hands above the head' scanner and then they searched my bag (I'd left toothpaste in there). Irritating as it meant there was no time for breakfast.

I had enough time to check out a couple of bookstores and thumb through a few books before I headed to Gate 9 for my 1hr, 55 minutes flight to Vienna.

When I reached Vienna after a reasonably good flight in, of all places, 'business class' – or Club Europe as British Airways call it – I found that the next direct train to Linz departed Flughafen Wien at 1433hrs from Platform 2, giving me plenty of time to enjoy lunch in a Café Ritazza in Terminal 3 of Wien Airport. I ordered a non-alcohol Paulaner and a Chicken Club Sandwich, which arrived with a portion of chips and two sachets, one containing tomato ketchup, the other mayonnaise. As only the Europeans like mayo on their chips, I opened up the ketchup and spread it liberally over the chips. This really was a decent meal and it cost a reasonable EUR17.80. Actually, going back to 'not drinking' for a second (I know, it's boring) but it's worth pointing out that not drinking seems to suppress the old appetite too. Not in a big way (I still can't wait for dinner when I get home of an evening) but for me, the high point of drinking, certainly while I'm travelling, is that moment when I'm in a restaurant, meal ordered and wine on the way, normally a 250ml glass of Merlot (and very often two). It's the thought of that glass of wine that prompts me to get out and find a restaurant early. But now that I'm not going to indulge, I'm sitting here in my hotel room, writing and won't go out for a while as all I'm doing now is refuelling rather than enjoying the experience. Perhaps that's not a good thing. Perhaps all I'm doing is shutting things down that I find pleasurable and one day I will be left with nothing worth living for; in fact I do feel a bit like I'm shutting down, as if I'm a robot, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and that somebody's switching off various circuits and cutting off any enjoyment in the process. Not that this has anything to do with anybody else – or 'enjoyment' for that matter – it's all my own doing, my own decision-making processes.

I love the Café Ritazza brand – and this one was excellent
I ought to mention something about Club Europe, especially after my recent rant about the BA flight back to London from Dallas at the end of October (click here for more). For a start, on short-haul flights it's hardly worth it: there are no beds in which to fully recline, all you get is a vacant space between you and the other passenger in the row, as if the middle seat isn't occupied. Then there's the full English breakfast served on a proper plate and with stainless steel cutlery, not to mention a proper mug for tea, not a paper cup, it's a bit like being in a poncy restaurant with waiters fussing around me. Now I know why they draw that curtain across, cutting off Club Europe from the proles behind, it's because there's so much care and attention and polite manners going on up front, it's embarrassing and the 'lower orders' out back might get restless, a little green with envy. BA doesn't want those in the cheap seats seeing how the other half lives, there might be a revolution. I've always hated the notion that money buys respect.

After lunch I took the train to Linz, arriving around 1630hrs. I jumped into a taxi for a ride to the hotel, checked in and then tried to make my way to the room 307, except that nobody told me the lift only worked if I used my key card to activate it. I spent a long time in that lift, just standing there looking like an idiot and wondering what the hell was going on until somebody told me about the room card.
Leaving Flughafen Wien and heading for Linz – two hours up the track
The journey from Vienna to Linz was pleasant enough. I dozed off at one stage and at other times I read the paper or gazed out of the window. There's something magical about a winter's afternoon between the hour of 4pm and 5pm and I don't know why. Perhaps it's the fading light, the unfamiliar, darkened suburban houses, memories of carefree days. Everything looks welcoming, even the bleakest of landscapes, Christmas lights in trees and the prospect of time at home, chilling and watching festive television late into the night.

It was time for me to head out into the night and find somewhere to eat. I asked at reception and was told to turn left outside of the hotel, then right, then left, which I did and found myself on some kind of main street lined with brightly decorated shop fronts and festive decorations draped across the street. Shops but not restaurants bar a few pubby-looking places that didn't appeal. After a 10-minute walk I found Pizzeria Ristorante Da Vinci Linz. I found a table, tucked away, perfect for the solitary diner, and ordered Tomatensuppe (tomato soup) followed by Risotto Milanese and washed down with a glass of non-alcohol beer. In all honesty the meal wasn't that brilliant. I liked the soup, but the risotto was, well, it looked a bit like something the cat might have brought up, a pale, colourless mush that sat on the plate without any aplomb. If it had more colour it would have been best described as a 'pavement pizza' and talking of pizza, that would have been the best option, I'm sure of it. The non-alcohol beer was fine, but the combination of the risotto and the 'lifeless' beer made for a depressing evening alone. I mean, it's depressing enough without food that fails to ignite the soul. Fortunately it only set me back EUR14.70 and because I was of sound mind I didn't feel the urge to seek out an Austrian bar and later wake up with a furry tongue in need of a litre of mineral water in the dead of night.

I walked back along damp, puddle-littered streets, past the glowing shop fronts and into my hotel. I'm pretty tired and looking forward to an early night. Remember, I was up at 0500hrs this morning. Goodnight.


Saturday, 9 December 2017

Me, electric bikes and comments on Twitter...

I've always thought of electric bikes as a bit of a con, almost in the ballpark of placing a playing card on a clothes peg and somehow attaching it to the rear wheel to make the sound of a motor, like I used to do when I was a kid. Electric bikes, I recently commented on Twitter, are as silly as having a motorised rowing machine down at the gym. For me, surely, a bike is for keeping fit, but, it turns out, I'm completely wrong – and stand corrected.

While I'm quite content to use my non-electric Specialized Rockhopper for regular (weekly) rides into the semi-rural space of the Surrey Hills and northern Kent, I've happily assumed (wrongly) that people ride bikes just for fun and nothing else; this probably has a lot to do with the large number of so-called 'Lycra monkeys' I see on the road at weekends, wearing their clip-on shoes and sporting seemingly heavy-sponsored tops and leggings. We're all doing it to keep fit, or that's what the aptly-named Mamils (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) are doing.

Pic: ebikesingapore
Clearly, however, I forgot that there are a lot of people who use their bikes, not just for the sheer fun of riding out to some lonely covered bus stop on the Surrey/Kent border, but to get from one point to another. Bikes are a mode of transport in the true sense of the word, they've been around for many years and the electric bike is simply an evolution and one that I have no right to knock.

In fact, that whole thing about using a bike to get around takes me right back to my school days when I remember kids being ferried to school on a bicycle using one of those little seats attached behind the saddle of the machine. These days, I'll admit that when I see a very tiny person in a seat behind the saddle of a moving bike, I feel a little worried for the kid's safety, but that's a traffic issue and if the Government really go its act together and laid down some decent cycle lanes, like those found in continental Europe, then I guess there would be even more cyclists on our roads.

A lot of people took to Twitter to comment on my tweet, which claimed that 'electric bikes defeat the whole object of cycling, which is to get some exercise'. I was commenting on a post by Valerie Shawcross (@valshawcross) who tried an electric bike in London with @willnorman and spoke of a 'nice easy ride'. For some reason I felt that 'a nice easy ride' somehow missed the point, the point being you ride a bike to keep fit (or fitter than you would otherwise be if you hailed a cab or jumped into a taxi.

Fiona Blackley (@fionablackley) responded with 'In no way is exercise 'the whole point' of cycling. Often the main aim is to get from A to B...'. I sat back and thought about this for all of two minutes and started to think of all those people who cycle to work of a morning (and cycle back in the dark afterwards). Are they doing it to just to keep fit? Some are, yes, but perhaps others simply don't have a choice and, therefore, an electric bike might lighten the load.

My rather blinkered view that cycling is just to keep fit was also picked up by @JamesBlurbs who was kind enough to point out that I'm 'far from the only person to have made this mistake', adding that the view that cycling is primarily for sport/leisure/exercise rather than transport causes a lot of problems with poor planning for utility cycling. James argues that the physical activity is an added bonus.

The comments came in thick and fast with Bike Riding Aids (@AdsCondron) claiming that cycling professionals have been using them [electric bikes] for years. Theo (@theoonabike) told me that people use electric bikes to go further than they would otherwise be able (a very good point) and RossiBike (@RossiTheBossi) argued that 'For some people cycling is physically easier than walking' and that for many, bicycles are considered to be a mobility aid. "E-bikes as an option allow even more people to ride and enjoy the freedom, mobility and efficiency of cycling," said Rossi.

Helen Blackman (@helenblackman) pointed me in the direction of an article on the University of Colorado's website entitled 'Electric assist bikes provide meaningful exercise, cardiovascular benefits'. According to the article, 'pedelecs' (that's electric bikes) 'provide modest assistance while the rider is actively pedalling, making it easier to cover greater distances and hilly terrain'.

CU Boulder (that's Colorado University, Boulder, USA) recruited 20 'non-exercising' car commuters, tested various aspects of their health, including blood glucose regulation and fitness, and then asked them to substitute their sedentary commute for riding a 'pedelec'. After a month, the volunteers returned to the lab where tests showed improved cardiovascular health including increased aerobic capacity and improved blood sugar control (for more, click here)

Wolf Simpson (@2_Wheeled_Wolf) agrees with the CU Boulder research, claiming that his heart rate monitor proves it every time he goes out on his bike.

Well, I must admit that after listening to all these pro-electric bike comments I felt a little silly, having made (as I always do on Twitter) a throwaway comment about cycling being solely about keeping fit. Yes, cycling makes you fitter, but it's clearly not the only reason why people own and ride bikes and if an electric bike can get people out of their cars and out into the fresh air, well, who am I to make sweeping generalisations to the contrary?

If I have anything bad to say about 'pedelecs' (as they're called in Boulder, Colorado) it would be the price. I've seen electric bikes in shop windows costing well in excess of £2,000. I'd imagine that if the price comes down more people will buy them and we'll all be a lot healthier.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Two trips to the Tatsfield Bus Stop – the fast way

Fast way, slow way, what difference does it make? Normally, we take the slow way so we can chat, make small talk, without the hassle of too many cars. On the fast route the cars are fast too and sometimes they do get a little close. But it's often a case of 'needs must' and this weekend just past was the first time I'd cycled twice since I went down with that awful inner ear infection I've been going on about. For the last two weeks I've only managed Sundays and I don't know why that is; probably something to do with needing a lie-in after a week at work, who knows?

The famous Tatsfield Bus Stop
Riding up Church Way, reaching the top of the hill and then sailing along the Limpsfield Road towards the green, I felt relatively fine on both Saturday and Sunday. Andy and I were both on tight schedules, with 'stuff' on our agendas, so a shortish ride – the Tatsfield Bus Stop fit the bit nicely – seemed like the best bet, and rather than ride the slow way, we opted for the 269.

Saturday was considerably colder than Sunday, but there was no frost on car windscreens. I was right to wear the balaclava, but on Sunday the weather was much warmer so I put it in my pocket and never felt the need to put it on. While Saturday was coldest, Sunday was awash with fog, thick fog, especially up on Botley Hill. Cars disappeared into the murk so I decided it might be best – being as I had no rear light – to use the off-road path and risk the very real possibility of a puncture. I've had my Specialized Rockhopper for just over a year now and since I picked it up from Evans in Gatwick, I've somehow managed to avoid a puncture. It's bad enough tempting fate and discussing the subject, but to use the 269's off-road path was inviting trouble. Fortunately, I got away with it on the outward and inward journeys. Andy stuck to the road on the outward journey, but joined me on the way back. The nice thing about 'off-road' is not having to worry about traffic, it's liberating.

I do need a rear light. I want one that's easy to fix on the bike or one that's on the back of the helmut, and preferably one that is rechargeable as the chief cause behind me not riding with a rear light is just that: the batteries fail and I end up forgetting to buy some in the local store. Besides, batteries are pricey, which also puts me off. That said, it's now Wednesday and my intention to buy batteries or, indeed, a new light, have so far been put on the back burner.

On both rides we did what we always do, and I hardly need to remind you, but just in case you've forgotten, we munch biscuits, drink tea and chat 'about this and that' while watching the Lycra monkeys as they whizz past us talking about pensions and other boring subjects while wearing tight-fitting Lycra (which doesn't look good) and ridiculously bright 'booties'. We often discuss how there must be a moment when they're about to leave the house, togged out in their Lycra, when they pass a mirror, stop, and think 'ooh, I look good' before clumping out into the cold, wearing those weird clip-on shoes Lycra monkeys wear. As for our own sartorial elegance, we don't have any. I wear an old M&S jumper under an old M&S hoody and a pair of 'utility' trousers, you know the sort of thing: loads of pockets, and my ones can be unzipped at the knee to make shorts! Add to the picture matted, uncombed hair, an unshaven face and a look that says 'just go back to bed' and you pretty much have it covered.

We're getting close to Christmas and yet I haven't really remarked on the subject in recent posts. The Christmas trees are up on Warlingham's and Westerham's greens, some people have festive decorations in their front gardens and local shopkeepers are doing their bit too, but as yet I don't feel in the mood.

It's probably worth mentioning that I haven't allowed a drop of alcohol to pass my lips since 28 October, that's 39 days (not that I'm counting). Actually, I'm not counting. In fact, I rather like not drinking as it frees me up a little to do things that alcohol prohibits, meaning I can always drive if need be. I didn't stop drinking 'because I had to' like some people, I stopped purely because I figured it best not to drink while experiencing dizzy spells. One thing led to another and now it's been almost 40 days without alcohol and, as you might expect, I'm warming to the idea of spinning this out, seeing if I can go for 12 months, seeing if it's possible simply not to drink again. I'd certainly like to have a crack at not drinking for a whole year and can't see any obstacles in my way in terms of willpower or a 'need' to drink. I certainly don't need it, I've discovered. In fact, I'm quite happy to drink peppermint tea and no-alcohol beers.

"Go on, have a half, won't do you any harm?"
This week my pal Dave was up from the New Forest so we met for a drink and a curry and I really thought I'd weaken, but I didn't. A lot of this has to do with the dizzyness. It's left me with a strong desire to spend as little time lying down as possible. Mornings are still the worse; if I'm going to feel dizzy, it's at night and in the mornings and the thought of adding a hangover, or even a mild headache, to the proceedings, fills me with dread. I've also lost that 'peer group pressure' thing. And fortunately my real friends, like Dave, don't provide the hassles I associate with other 'friends'. With the latter, a typical discourse would be as follows:

"What you drinking?"
"Nothing, I thought I'd lay off for a while."
"Not drinking? You? Bloody hell, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, just thought I'd give it a rest."
"How about a half?"
"No, thanks, just a no-alcohol beer will do."
"Go on, have a half, won't do you any harm."
"It's not that, I just don't want to drink."
"Well how about something different, a whisky, gin?"
"No, really, I'll just have a no-alcohol beer."
"I can't believe this; I never thought I'd see the day, my old mate not drinking."
"It's not forever."
"You're getting old, that's what it is, the slippery slope."
"Age has nothing to do with it, I just want to lay off for a while."
"You're getting boring in your old age."
"Fuck off!"
"No, seriously, you're getting old."
"Aren't we all."
"Yes, but why give up drinking? Come on just a half."
"No seriously, I'll have a no-alcohol beer."
"Gaylord."

And it goes on. There's so much pressure on people to drink and if you don't you're considered abnormal or some kind of sexual deviant. People throw all the insults at you in an attempt to get you drinking. I've had situations in the past where people have ignored my pleas for a soft drink and simply ordered me a pint. There is definitely a social stigma attached to not drinking and half the battle people face with 'the demon drink' is not so much the giving up, but that pressure exerted by friends and family.

Christmas is always a bad time to give up drinking, but right now I just don't fancy it, mainly, it has to be said, because of the dizzy thing, but now, 39 days on, I'm warming to the challenge and intrigued by how those around me react. Not that I'm the party animal I used to be: I hardly venture out these days, preferring to be at home, watching Stranger Things on Netflix or Strictly It Takes Two with Zoe Ball and then settling in for a night of slobbery. Who wants to be trudging the mean streets late at night, getting home at some ungodly hour, feeling a little fuzzy-headed and waking up with a furry tongue? Not me. It's simply not much fun and I'm now asking myself: Was it ever any fun? Did I ever wake up in the morning feeling good about a hangover? No. Do I really want to spend my mornings, after a particularly heavy session, wondering who I might have offended the night before? No. You could say I've had it with alcohol and when I look back on my 'drinking career' I can't think of there being anything positive that has come out of it. I've either put myself in physical danger or I've upset somebody or I simply feel terrible (throbbing head, nausea, the usual symptoms) so what's the point? Put it this way, alcohol has never done me any favours, that's for sure.

In the kitchen, resting in a wicker basket, is a half bottle of red wine I purchased from the off-licence around the corner; it's been there for 39 days untouched. Right now I can't see any reason why I would open it so it will probably end up round at mum's on Boxing Day for others to enjoy. Me? I'll enjoy myself and when I leave I won't feel fretful, I won't have to worry about whether I'm 'over the limit' to drive home. What I would love, of course, is to be stopped by the police and asked, "Have you been drinking, sir?" To which I would definitely reply, "Yes, occifer, I have had a few." To which they might enquire what I have been drinking and hopefully I'll be able to string them along until eventually, if they ask me how many drinks I have consumed, I might say "easily three or four" before mentioning that I've had a couple of cups of tea, an orange juice and a glass or two of mineral water. "You can't touch me, suckers!"

Sunday, 26 November 2017

To Tatsfield Bus Stop, the slow way!

Up just before 0600hrs and eating porridge before quarter past the hour, with tea. I was feeling chipper this morning, unlike Saturday, although I'm beginning to believe dear old dad and his words of wisdom about being 'out in the garden'. It's true, there's something therapeutic about it, being in the fresh air, doing things, like chopping down plants and shrubs that should have been chopped back weeks ago. Actually, it was Friday, not Saturday. Saturday was when I bagged up all the twigs and thistles and took them to the municipal dump; that's always a tad depressing. I get the feeling that the people I see down at the dump don't wash themselves. They turn up with a car full of crap in their grey track suit bottoms and lurid orange trainers and worn out old tee-shirts, pale, bloated stomachs exposed, and for some reason I think to myself, 'I bet you just jumped out of bed and came here'. I probably only think that because I too have done the very same, but not on this occasion.

Going to the dump is always miserable. There's the hassle of parking and then getting all the bagged up shit out of the boot, finding the right skip in which to sling it... it's a pain. But once it's done and dusted and I'm driving home, the boot empty, there's a feeling of accomplishment. Rubbish has been disposed of, the garden looks neat and tidy, something has been achieved, meaning I can relax a little.

Andy rides through an icy puddle on Saturday morning
Saturday there was no way I was going cycling, but I didn't realise this until it was time to leave the house. I'd gotten up around 0600hrs, just like today; I'd gone downstairs and made the porridge and the tea, just like today; and I'd made the tea for the ride, put four teabags in a mug and dispensed milk from the bottle into my special cycling bottle, just like today. But when push came to shove I simply wasn't up to it (see previous posts for the reason). So I sent Andy a late 'abort' text. Sending an abort text after 0700hrs is sinful because it means that the other person is likely to be out of the house and en route to the green, meaning that even if they'd wanted to lie in, even if they'd been hoping for an abort text before they left the house, it hadn't come and would only arrive once they were out in the cold, on the bike and on the way. I didn't feel good about it.

Having spent time in the garden yesterday, I had filled my heart and soul with hope and its little flame burned through the night and was still lively when I awoke this morning, at 0554hrs, minutes before Radio London piped up. I felt good and I was glad. Porridge eaten, tea finished, I found my boots, prepared the flask and headed outside. Last week I cycled along Ellenbridge feeling a little bit light-headed and when I reached the green I considered calling it day, but persevered and rode the fast way to the bus stop. Today I felt fine, just a little apprehensive, but all was fine and Andy was at the green when I arrived. We decided to head the slow way to the bus stop and the journey was fairly uneventful. It wasn't as cold as yesterday, Andy remarked, but that hadn't stopped me wearing the balaclava and four layers of clothing. Fortunately, there was no rain.

We sat at the bus stop and discussed cheap bikes with block brakes and how it's possible to buy one for £99. I said I'd put a new saddle on it and some decent gears and I might buy some new bars. Andy said that I had the opportunity to do just that last year, but decided instead to buy a more expensive bike (the Specialized Rockhopper 29). Yes, because I wanted something reliable and I wanted decent brakes, negating the entire argument about buying a cheap bike in the first place. Well, yes and no. The point was this: for what we do, a cheap bike would suffice, it's that simple. It's like owning an iPhone, nobody needs that much computing power.

It was time to head home.

"I hate the ride home," said Andy as we prepared to ride off. "I just want to be there."
"Yes, but that's the point," I replied. "The great thing about cycling is you cycle out somewhere and you have to cycle back."
"There's always a headwind too," Andy groaned.
"Yes there is and it's always on the ride home," I said as we pedalled towards Botley Hill and then put our feet on the gas along the 269.

At the green we parted company. I let Andy go first and then, delicately, I set off too. I was fine and I was glad to be out in the fresh air. While the weather was cold – let's make that 'crisp' – the skies were fairly clear and the light fantastic. Photographers' weather, Andy had said earlier, before admitting that he couldn't be bothered to get off the bike. "That means you're a cyclist, not a photographer," I said, but Andy said it was too cold to get off the bike. He had a point.


Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Battle of Kiln Castle...Part One.

On 4th November 1974 an important battle took place. It happened in a place called Sutton, in Surrey, at the far end of a suburban semi-detached garden, and it symbolised the end of an era. The era in question was that of playing with toy soldiers, something that my brother Jon and I had been doing for many years. It was, however, time to grow up so we thought we'd have one last battle and, thanks to the availability of fireworks, it turned out to be a battle to remember. In fact, ever since that day, every year, Jon and I call each other or send texts or leave voicemail messages to commemorate the day. The texts often have a war theme. "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them" might appear on the screens of mine or Jon's smartphone. Voicemails tend to be poor renditions of the Last Post.

Black Cross Fort
As kids, Jon and I both owned toy forts. Mine, christened Black Cross Fort, was a huge wooden construction painted white with black crosses, hence the name; Jon's fort was a rough-surfaced affair and more squat in appearance than mine, but they both dominated opposing alcoves in our bedroom. Oddly, you might think, our forts and their respective armies were not at war with each other. Far from it, our soldiers were often out on the town together drinking 'crates' (not bottles, crates) of whisky in the Hotel Sinaraji, which was mum and dad's Ercol side cabinet in the living room. Most evenings, the key characters from either fort could be found in the hotel's piano bar swigging the hard stuff into the early hours and miraculously never falling over afterwards.

The journey from fort to hotel was precarious. There were no trains or buses, no planes either. The soldiers had to jump into something resembling a large skip suspended by ropes at all four corners and lowered from a great height into the abyss. Basically we dangled them over the upstairs landing in a 'skip' made of Meccano and lowered them to the hall floor below. There would have been a point where they entered mum's line of vision, if she was in the kitchen making cakes – as she often was – and normally their mid-air presence was not a welcomed sight. But too late, they had arrived at their destination and it was only a matter of minutes before the rowdy bunch of toy soldiers from many different periods in history, descended upon the Sinaraji, ready to order their first crates of whisky.

After what can only be described as mob-handed drinking they would make their way back to the skip and be transported to their respective forts, Jon and I would have tea and then hit the sack too.

The precarious journey to Hotel Sinarajee
The political situation surrounding the Battle of Kiln Castle was fairly straightforward: the rebels were once the incumbent armies in both forts, but they were ejected by a group of Queen's Guards, some medieval soldiers, including "Jester", and a bunch of North American Indians, led by a variety of colourful characters including HRS Harlow, an American Cavalryman; HRS Stonehalle, a Queen's guardsman who was rarely seen off his horse; and "Chiefy" an American Indian who sat cross-legged smoking (ironically) a peace pipe. There was also Wyatt Earp, the famous sheriff, but this one was made of metal and was regarded as immortal – or rather indestructible – by those who followed him.

The rebels were led by 'Kayak', a disgruntled, bare-chested North American Indian who carried the burden of being named after a canoe. Over the years, Kayak and his merry band of rebels, consisting of knights from The Crusades, German stormtroopers and British paratroopers from the Second World War, launched attacks on both forts with a view to regaining control of what was once their home. It wasn't easy especially when you consider some of the unhinged individuals charged with the task of protecting the fort from invasion. Consider, for instance, the Jones brothers, all corporals and Queen's Guardsman. They were four brothers, identical quadruplets, all of whom were crazy enough to tie their ankles securely to the chains of the drawbridge of Black Cross Fort and then swing down from the battlements and head butt those who dared to invade the fort. Consider also the Shot brothers, J Shot and T Shot, who, as their names suggest, were crack shots; and spare a thought for "Jeepy" so-called because he owned a Jeep and was rarely seen out of it. These men were the heroes of the forts and, sadly, they all met with an early demise, some not even making it to Kiln Castle.

A typical rebel, courtesy of Timpo Soldiers
Early demises were always the result of outright stupidity. One of the Jones brothers, for instance, engaged in an extreme sport: skydiving without a parachute. He thought he was clever. Not for him the 'skip' to the Hotel Sinaraji, oh no, he jumped into the abyss with the sign-off of "see you in there." One day, having been decapitated after landing badly, he (not surprisingly) died, and was replaced by one of his brothers, all of whom were nicknamed 'the nutters'. Their nuttiness, however, was rewarded: they were all highly decorated soldiers.

J Shot was a short-lived character, but his demise was slightly bizarre. Once a year Jon and I used to visit the south coast with our sister and parents and we always took a toy soldier with us; the bedside cabinets in our respective rooms would be their 'hotels'. I imagined mine as a Swiss chalet where J Shot would relax after weeks of fighting Kayak and his band of rebels. Unfortunately, he never returned home and was feared lost on the vast expanse of pebbles on Felpham beach. To this day he is probably still alive, like some old Japanese soldier who thinks that the Second World War is still raging. T Shot returned home alone.

Early occupants of both forts joined Kayak's rebel forces to fight the
occupying forces of both forts
We can discuss Jeepy's demise later on as he perished, again through his own blinding stupidity, at the Battle of Kiln Castle. In a way you might say his death didn't matter as the Battle of Kiln Castle was the last 'game of soldiers' and as Jon and I were effectively playing God with our soldiers' lives, it was down to us who lived and died, meaning we could have saved him – the storyline could have been changed. In Jeepy's case, probably true, we could have saved him, but Corporal Jones' decapitation and J Shot's mysterious disappearance were out of our control and in the hands, no doubt, of the real God. Where J Shot was concerned, we still both console ourselves with the thought that 'he's out there somewhere'.

When punishment was meted out to 'rogue' soldiers and enemies of the forts they were both terrifying and laughable. In the case of the former, a common punishment for the rebels was to have their limbs burnt off. Kayak himself had only one stumpy arm for this very reason. Conversely, another form of punishment was to be hung out on the washing line swathed in toilet paper. This once happened to Chiefy who might have joined the rebels, I can't remember, but for those who were literally hung out to dry it didn't seem to bother them. Invariably there would be others in the same situation, suspended high over No Man's Land (the back garden) with nothing else to do but engage in small talk.

"Alright?"
"You mean apart from being covered in bog roll and hanging thousands of feet in the air?"
"Yeah, obviously."
"I'm fine. Bit of a cold coming on, but mustn't grumble."
"That's all I need, to catch your cold."
"I'm through the contagious stage."
"How long are you out here for?"
"Not sure, they never tell you, do they?"
"No, but it can't be that long, can it?"
"How long have you been here?"
"This will be my second night."

Over the years there were various skirmishes, numerous attacks on both forts, many trips to the Hotel Sinarajee and countless battles, but the Battle of Kiln Castle would be the big decider. Whoever won would be the ultimate victor and rightful owner of the forts.

Kiln Castle was located in No Man's Land and it would take days of marching to reach it. Part two of The Battle of Kiln Castle will examine the build-up and discuss everything from the weather conditions to the men themselves.










Sunday, 19 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's to next weekend's ride.

Monday, 13 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 October 2017

BA192 –Dallas to Heathrow, Friday 27 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Heading home via Dallas Fort Worth...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Friday, 27 October 2017

Back in Memphis...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 October 2017

In Blytheville, Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer in Bistro Eleven 21...best part of the meal
I ordered chicken noodle soup to start, but they hadn't provided me with a soup spoon. I started eating with what amounted to a teaspoon, but eventually had to ask if they had something bigger. They did. No sooner had my soup been taken away (it was good, but a little too salty) than my main course arrived – tuna steak with rice and green beans. While the food served my purposes (it was wholesome and relatively well-presented on the plate) there was something tired about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was either trying too hard or not trying enough, I wasn't sure. Dining alone doesn't help, of course, but I certainly couldn't relax as I had to walk back to my hotel in the dark.

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

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

In Memphis...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 October 2017

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

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

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

"You CUUUUNNNNTTTT! You fucking CUUUUNNNTT!!!! You WAAAAAANNKER!!!!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to ride home.