Saturday, 24 June 2017

To Flowers discuss Glastonbury, charity songs and one minute's silence

There has been some extremely hot weather in the UK this past week. Some have likened it to the heatwave of 1976, which British people will never forget. When I jumped off the plane from Stockholm on Wednesday afternoon I was hit by the heat as if I'd just arrived in Athens or Malaga. It was oppressive and all week the windows of the house have been open throughout the night.

It's now Saturday, 1250hrs, and I've been back from the ride for a good three hours. The weather is still hot, but not as oppressive; it's not warm enough, for example to make sitting in the conservatory unpleasant.
Tea and cake at Flowers Farm near Godstone. Pic by Andy Smith
We rode to Flowers Farm for tea and cake and the ride was perfect, certainly on the way there, although the return journey was made all the more challenging by the huge hill that takes us from the farm all the way to the golf course at Woldingham. It's a long, hard slog peppered with patronising Lycra Monkeys. "Well done," one of them remarked as we climbed the hill and he rode down. "Fuck off, you ----!" is what we felt like saying, but it would have been most unsportsmanlike of us, so we both emitted an awkward and insincere laugh that roughly translated to 'Fuck off, you ----!' But it's water off a Lycra Monkey's back and in all honesty we're not really bothered. What gets me most is their shouting when a bunch of them hurtle down hill and spy a car approaching from the opposite direction. "Car!!!!"

We laughed off the lunacy of Lycra and continued on our merry way, parting company at the top of Slines Oak Road. Andy continued towards Wapses roundabout where he climbed towards Caterham-on-the-Hill, while I got my head down and tackled the mountain that is Slines Oak Road, emerging on the 269, turning left and heading for Warlingham and then Sanderstead. I reached home around 1000hrs and treated myself to a relaxing cup of tea.

While scoffing cake and drinking tea at Flowers Farm we chatted about all manner of roasted meats including how Glastonbury has become an establishment event reserved for those who can afford the extortionate price of what has become a kind of 'rite of passage' for young people, an event controlled by the establishment and no longer a hotbed of drug-taking subversity and anti-government feeling, but instead a kind of musical version of Wimbledon. Except that it's not Sue Barker telling us that Andy Murray is on Court One playing Federer, it's Jo Wiley, the eternal student, informing us that Radiohead is about to perform on the Pyramid Stage.

Outside Flowers Farm. Pic by Andy Smith
I like Radiohead, but why they used the occasion to 'get political' I'll never know. What's the point when you're playing at an event that has been hijacked by the establishment and where the audience largely consists of little rich kids whose parents voted Conservative and are probably back at the tent making a chick pea curry for supper? It's all so middle class. I found myself wondering what was left for the great unwashed and couldn't think of anything.

As if on cue a charity record came on the radio and Andy fidgeted uncomfortably. We both wondered why charity records have become so popular and how every disaster, natural or otherwise, has to have one. In the olden days there was no such thing as a charity record. I don't recall the Beatles and the Rolling Stones getting together to produce a charity record for the Aberfan disaster. And what about the Staines air crash or the victims of the Moors murderers or the Herald of Free Enterprise horror? But suddenly there's Cowell and Malone rallying the troops for yet another poppy show of low octane popsters wearing headphones 'in the studio' or singing in front of one of those huge, retro microphones. Give it a rest, guys.

I suppose if we're talking about charity records we might as well have a word about the one minute's silence. They seem to be quite common these days thanks to terror attacks and awful tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire, but ultimately their potency will wane if we have one every week. Again, in the olden days the one-minute silence was reserved for armistice day, not everything bad that happens in the world. When will it end? And, worse still, who decides on what warrants a national one minute's silence? If we've done it for one terrorist incident, we've got to do it for all of them or somebody's going to feel that their tragedy is being downgraded.

It was time to leave and a punishing hill awaited us, but you've read about that already.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Last day in Stockholm...

I awoke this morning and immediately found myself thinking about the shower in my hotel room's bathroom and how I was going to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to set it right and get some hot water. It's not something I particularly relish; I don't want to be fretting about something so minor, but that's the way it is. There was some faffing about, I knew there would be, but somehow I managed to get the water hotter than yesterday, although there was a risk that it would get dangerously hot so I did what I had to do and got the hell out.
Cramped bathroom in NOFO's room 315...

Drying in such a small room is nigh on impossible. In terms of swinging cats, which people always discuss when a small space is involved, it wouldn't be possible, so you can imagine how problematic it was to dry myself down. It became a two-location process: first, a general dusting down while in the bathroom and then finish the job out in the room, although even then there are issues.

The word 'faff' is a good one as it explains so much about NOFO. It's a nice hotel, but there's an element of faff about it. First, the faff of the cold water coming from the shower, then the faff about the teabags. You may recall that yesterday I was baffled by the napkin-like pieces of paper that were supposed to be teabags, well, they ARE teabags, I discovered today. In essence, the hotel expects its guests to make their own teabags. What I thought were napkins were, in fact, open teabags. All you have to do is spoon your chosen tea into the bag and then leave in resting in the cup until the tea is infused in the bag. Fine, but why oh why be put to all that trouble when a simple teabag would do? That said, this morning, out of principle, I did have a go and it was fine. I enjoyed a mug of English Breakfast tea after initially giving up and going for the safe option of coffee.

Breakfast, by and large, was the same as yesterday: muesli, fresh melon, coffee, a few biscuits but no rice cakes. They were there, I just didn't fancy them.

Locally brewed beer at Bistroteket...
Check-out is at noon, but I've got to be at the airport by then so I'll have to get a move-on. Last night I enjoyed a really good meal at a place called Bistroteket (Bondegatan 54, 116 33 Stockholm). I'd been scouting around the area for somewhere to eat and eventually decided that I'd give Bistroteket a go, even though, initially, I thought I'd made a big mistake. I hadn't. There was no English menu available so the waiter explained what was on offer and I chose cold meats (charcuterie) with salad to start followed by salmon steak with asparagus and a couple of locally brewed beers from Stockholm, not forgetting a cappuccino.

The restaurant's clientele was mixed, old and young and the place had a kind of French vibe about it. There was low-hanging lighting, marble sills and table tops, black and white floor tiles and a retro bar area. There were single candles on each table and there was music too. Afterwards I found my way to Bistro Boheme for a last beer before bed and then, after a fairly good night's sleep I got up, faffed around in the bathroom and then went for breakfast.

I'm going to repeat my outward journey of Monday in a minute. In fact, I did a dummy run after breakfast and realised that Stockholm South railway station is only 10 minutes' walk from the NOFO Hotel, just a straight road. On the way back I bought some Lipton's teabags in a Co-op close to the railway station and now, here I am, back on the blog with just minutes to spare before I need to be on my way.
Salmon with aspargus at Bistroteket... nice!

While there are a few white clouds out there and a light breeze, it is still a pleasant day. I need to be at the airport by noon and shortly I'll be taking the train to Marsta and getting the 583 bus to the airport where the plan is to catch the 1410hrs Norwegian flight back to Gatwick Airport and from there a taxi home, or the train, whatever appeals to me at the time. There's little much else to say, other than Stockholm is a nice place and I hope I'll be back soon.

All that remains now is to pack my bags – or rather continue the packing process that started prior to my earlier walk – and then check out. I don't like checking out of hotels, but then I don't like checking in either. Either way it's got to be done so I'll bid you all farewell and see you next time.

Oh well, back to Theresa May and Brexit and all the usual politics bollocks I've come to expect from the UK.

For my Trip Advisor hotel and restaurant reviews, click here.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

In Stockholm...

I can't remember the last time I was in Stockholm, but I think it was longer ago than I think. I almost stopped off here on the way to Lulea recently, possibly towards the end of last year, but a pilots' strike by SAS, Sweden's 'national carrier', halted my progress from the UK at Copenhagen and I flew home. But prior to that attempt I have the sneaky suspicion that I last visited the Swedish capital in the last century.

I flew out of London Gatwick Airport this afternoon, around 1330hrs, on a Norwegian 737 (seat 11a) and after a smooth flight, during which I enjoyed a spicy, hot chicken tikka masala and a couple of glasses of red wine, not forgetting some cashew nuts (I hadn't eaten since breakfast) I settled down for what turned out to be a smooth ride into Stockholm.

Stockholm South station, now just a shortish walk in the heat
Once on the ground and through baggage reclaim, passport control and everything else, I bought a train ticket to Stockholm South, which is close to where I was staying. At the airport (Arlanda) I had two options: take a train from Uppsala C or take a bus, the 583, to Marsta railway station, a short bus ride away, where the fare to Stockholm South would be much, much cheaper. For a moment I wavered (I was on expenses so why bother saving the money?) but then I thought why not? There was a big difference in the price. At Uppsala it was something like 150 Swedish Krona whereas at Marsta it was only 43 Swedish Krona. I took the bus and there was a train in the station when it arrived.

The journey to Stockholm South was long, probably around 30 - 40 minutes, but the sun was shining the skies were blue and the weather was the same as it's been in the UK this past week – hot and sunny. When I arrived at my destination, I asked one person for general directions to a region of Stockholm known as Sodermalm and then followed my instincts, which turned out fine. Soon I found myself at the NOFO hotel and was I glad that my sense of direction had been so on the money.

NOFO Hotel, Stockholm
I'm also glad that I picked such a quirky hotel. The NOFO is a strange place; it used to be a brewery and then the Columbus Hotel for the best part of 40 years, but now it's the NOFO and while I was told what the name means, I can't remember, or rather the explanation was a little confusing so I gave up trying to understand.

Södermalm is described as the 'vibrant heart of the city' and the NOFO Hotel is said to be 'steeped in the history of Söder. It was built in 1783 and has served as a brewery and as a barracks for the city guard. Today it is claimed to be one of the world's most stylish city districts. "You will love the enchanting mix of people, bars, shopping, restaurants and culture," says the NOFO's general manager, Desiré Eklund. She's right, it's a very pleasant part of Stockholm and yes, I could live here!

NOFO is both a hotel and a wine bar set in its own quiet courtyard. It's dark and welcoming interior and it's friendly receptionist made the whole experience very warming and I was glad I was here for the next two days as there seemed to be a lot of depth about the place and I was eager to enjoy it to the full.

I would have stayed in for dinner, but I got the feeling that the offering was fairly light when what I needed (as always) was a substantial meal. The receptionist offered some suggestions and I set off in search of a restaurant. Only a short walk from the hotel, down Sodermannagaten and then hanging a left on Skanegatan (I'm leaving off crucial accents on some these place names purely because I don't know how to find them on the keyboard) I found a small green, which, according to the map provided by the hotel, was called Nytoget. There were restaurants close to the green, two of which the hotel had recommended, but I chose a place called Bistro Boheme (Skanegatan 83, 116-35 Stockholm). It was hot enough, even around 2000hrs, to sit outside, so I ordered a Czech beer (a dark beer) along with grilled tuna steak (tonfisk) and salad and a Californian Pinot Noir – all good – followed by a Creme Catalana, the Boheme's take on a Creme Brulée. A cappuccino rounded off the meal and I made my way back to the hotel, trying to remember the route I had taken.

Tuna steaks with vegetables and salad at Bistro Boheme...
I'm now back in Room 315 and to say it's small would be an understatement; but despite its cell-like proportions, I rather like it. In fact, I've always been a fan of small rooms (as opposed to huge ones) and I like the Velux window, which means I can see out, but people can't see in – just how I like it, although the view is limited,  just trees and sky, but I'm not complaining. The bathroom is a little compact too, but it's all good and I should really be hitting the sack and getting a good night's sleep as it's now almost 2230hrs here in Stockholm (an hour earlier in the UK).

I stayed up and watched the first Mad Max movie on Netflix, hitting the pillow around midnight. During the night it rained heavily, hitting that Velux window with such force it awakened me on a couple of occasions. While a Velux is fairly quirky there are a couple of downsides: first, heavy rain hitting the glass surface makes a real din; and second, while there is a blind, I left it half-concealing the window and so I was awoken early by the brightness of a summer morning. In all honesty, I like traditional curtains that can be drawn and a more pleasing view than just trees and sky.

Cinnamon cremé brulée
It's 0618hrs the morning after the night I arrived (it's Tuesday) as I write this and a day of work beckons, although I'm a little concerned about the state of my clothes. I've brought two shirts with me, but they've both seen better days and I need to buy some new ones. Likewise my suit, which is now hanging from a coathanger on the wall (there's no wardrobe, just four coat hooks mounted on wood and screwed to the wall). The walls are white and the floors laminated wood. The bathroom floor and the tiny entrance lobby to the room – I suppose in some perverse way you could say I was staying in a very small one-bedroomed apartment – are tiled.

There is a small desk, a wall-mounted flatscreen television, an angle-poise lamp like the one in Toy Story movies (or all Pixar movies) and what is made to look like a make-shift lamp fixed to the wall with a flex hanging down and plugged into the wall, as if a temporary measure. I suppose that alone bestows 'boutique hotel' status on the NOFO. A single bed is crammed into the corner, there's a fire detector on the ceiling and two shelves by the entrance where 'tea and coffee-making facilities' reside on a tray next to a hairdryer. I don't think I've ever used a hotel hairdryer. There's no sign of an iron, but under the shelves a large shoe horn hangs from a smaller arrangement of hooks screwed to the wall. I don't think I've ever had occasion to use a shoe horn either. Three magazines rest on a shelf underneath the desk but they're all written in Swedish so all I can do is look at the pictures. There are four decorative cushions under the Velux window resting on what looks like a huge block of concrete, which has been painted white; I'm using it to spread out my 'stuff' like my mobile phone, travel adaptors, last night's dinner receipt, my glasses case, wallet, maps and yesterday's newspapers (picked up free at Gatwick).

View from Room 315, NOFO Hotel, Stockholm
The weather has changed. The blue skies and sunshine have been replaced by grey skies and blustery wind, more like the weather should be in these parts. I remember coming here when it was minus 26 degrees and then I flew north to Lulea where temperatures plummeted to minus 40 and there were lakes frozen over – so much so that cars could be driven across them, the ice being something like three feet thick.

Going back to my hotel room's compact bathroom, it is a so-called 'wet room', which basically means the sink, the toilet and the shower are in the same room, with the latter only separated by a shower curtain. For some reason, there is a window cleaner's squeegy lying on the floor and I can only assume it's there to wipe the mirror clean when the hot shower steams it up; except that the water is cold, lukewarm at best, and it took me an age to work out how to get it lukewarm, by a process of trial and error. In the end it was just about bearable and I managed to wash and shave while in the shower. I turned the tap on the sink this way and that to see if there was any sign of hot water, but no, there wasn't; and in my book a hotel without hot water – or a hotel where getting the hot water to work is a serious faff – is not worthy of a return visit. I don't need the aggravation, although I kind of like NOFO so before I decide not to make a return visit, there's always tomorrow's shower – it might work!
Room 315, NOFO Hotel, Stockholm

It's 0730hrs and I'm ready for breakfast... and now, at 0815hrs I'm back and can report that breakfast was fine. I enjoyed cereal (muesli with raisins), some rice cakes and some fresh melon plus a cup of strong, black coffee. Why not tea, you might ask. Well, in all honesty it was a little confusing. They had two huge containers of coffee (with depressable levers to dispense it) and one containing hot water, presumably for tea. Next to the hot water was leaf tea in glass containers, but nothing remotely like a teapot in which to place the tea prior to dispensing the hot water. There was also a small glass jar containing 'tea bags' but on closer inspection these appeared to be paper napkins (I couldn't see any tea inside them) so rather than engage in more faffing around (the shower had already proved a bridge too far) I opted for black coffee and enjoyed my breakfast watching a muted BBC World News – Brexit talks and the passing away of Otto Warmbier after returning to the US from North Korea featured.

And now at 1648hrs, the blue sky and sunshine back in place and the tree outside my Velux window swaying slightly in the breeze, I'm back in my room. The bed has been made, as I expected it to be, but all else is quiet. I keep thinking about going downstairs for a glass of wine, sitting in the courtyard and relaxing with the newspaper, but there's work to be done and by the time I've finished it, it will be dinner time and then, tomorrow, I fly home. It's whether to go back to Bistro Boheme or try somewhere different, but I'll make that decision later, after I've completed my work.

For my Trip Advisor hotel and restaurant reviews, click here.

At least the cushions aren't on the bed!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

To the Tatsfield Churchyard...

Having returned from Poland on Friday evening, I figured that a planned ride to Flowers Farm for tea and cake might be a bridge too far, bearing in mind the huge climb on the return journey to reach The Ridge. Not only that, the weather was hot and had been so all week. The thought of such a hill on such a sweltering day filled me with dread so we decided that we'd ride to the churchyard – the fast way.

The Tatsfield Churchyard, Saturday 17 June 2017
The journey, as you might expect, was pretty uneventful. I was running about 15 minutes late, but that was fine and when we reached our destination, instead of climbing the steps leading up to the churchyard from Clarks Lane, we followed the road around to the front entrance of the church, which was a hard uphill slog, and then cycled round to where the benches look out across the headstones towards the south downs shimmering in the hazy summer sky.

Out came the tea and the biscuits and we tried to keep our conversation away from politics, and largely succeeded, talking mainly about my time in Poland.

There's nothing better than the churchyard on a hot day, but soon that moment came when we had to cycle back home. I packed up the flask, the milk and my cup and soon we were heading down the steps towards Clarks Lane and the uphill ride to Botley Hill, followed by the fast ride along the 269 towards Warlingham where we parted company.

Sunday morning...
We had planned to ride to Flowers Farm this morning, Sunday 18th June, but Andy aborted and signed off with the obligatory "enjoy your ride" – although, sadly, I didn't. The alarm hadn't gone off and I laid in bed until 0825hrs. It's now just over two hours later, I've eaten breakfast and the sun is already scorching the back lawn. I'm considering a ride around the block, purely to provide some exercise, but I can't see my travelling far in the heat, although I might venture out later when the sun cools a little.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Warsaw – a chilled out city

Cream of asparagus soup in Kaiser, Warsaw
I woke later than usual, purely because I didn't have to get up early. A late breakfast followed (cereal, yoghurt, tea, fresh fruit) and then I checked out, leaving my luggage with the concierge. The woman on the front desk gave me an umbrella because it was raining a little bit outside. I took it and strolled out of the hotel towards the old town, past Buddha, an Indian restaurant that I've enjoyed twice in the space of three days.

The journey took no more than 20 minutes and I popped my head around a few shop doors en route, checking out an antiques shop that sold military coats and gas masks and typewritters from a bygone age. I looked at a few clothes shops for women. My route took me back up the main street in search of a decent restaurant for lunch. I had time to kill before catching my flight to London Heathrow so I figured I might as well chill out.

It's funny how wherever I go around the world everything is so samey, especially in Europe, but everywhere really. Budapest or Bucharest or Berlin or Warsaw or Amsterdam or Dusseldorf, it doesn't matter where I am in the world, there's a sameyness about it all; cities follow an established format, like countries do, so there's a bike share scheme (check); there are restaurants with umbrellas outside (check); there's an obligatory church or two (check), a main square of some description (check), a monument of some sort (check), global brands like Starbucks and Costa (check on both counts) you know what I'm saying. In fact, where the latter brands were concerned there was an abundance of Costa Coffee outlets, most of them known as Green Costa Coffee. Once I remember flying for something like 10 hours to Calgary in North Western Canada and when I got there I found a Claires Accessories. It was a very depressing moment.

Grilled chicken with vegetables at Kaiser
I'm very choosy when it comes to restaurants, but I eventually stumbled upon Kaiser at Chmielna 24, a pleasant-looking restaurant with outdoor seating and a chilled vibe generated by laid back jazz music. Despite the rain earlier on, the sun had broken through the clouds as I took a seat, having noticed something about an asparagus festival. 

Kaiser is a pleasant restaurant, not too far from the Sheraton where I have been staying since Tuesday. All is good. I've just enjoyed cream of asparagus soup and a glass of Rioja. In fact, I've just ordered another one while I await my main course of chicken with vegetables – including asparagus.

Rather annoyingly a huge dust cart is disturbing the peace. I'd been enjoying the laid back music and generally chilling, but now the music is being drowned out by a Scania P270 and it would be nice if it just drove away and left Kaiser in the chilled out state it's been used to over the past 30 minutes. But no, life isn't that simple.

The waiter just offered me a cushion to sit on and I declined his offer; you see, I'm sitting outside on a wicker chair, but it's fine. Now the dumpster has gone and my food has arrived. Life doesn't get much better than this.

The food was top notch too: perfectly grilled chicken breast with boiled potatoes, carrots and asparagus, nicely arranged on the plate. I've just ordered apple pie with vanilla ice cream and a cinnamon coffee, although it was tempting to order another glass of wine.

The sun is out, at last, and I've just weakened and ordered another glass of wine. I mean, why not? It's a beautiful day, there's a laid back jazz playing, I've had a couple of good days and I've got time to kill before my flight home. The coffee is great and the apple pie is on the way.

This is truly wonderful. Warsaw is a laid back place and it's, hold on a second, the apple pie has now arrived and, like the main course, it is well-presented. There is an ample slice of pie surrounded by fresh strawberries, raspberries and blackberries alongside a small dish of vanilla custard and a serving of vanilla ice cream, not forgetting strawberry coulis. It's all too much for yours truly but I'm loving every minute of it.

Apple pie with vanilla ice cream at Kaiser
In fact, if you ever find yourself in Warsaw, visit Kaiser and stay in the Sheraton Hotel too. You never know, you might bump into Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and Blur fame. Alright, I didn't bump into him, but I did see him across the street in a Polish restaurant, sitting outside with some of his band mates. Both Blur and Gorillaz are amazing and if you've not listened to anything by Gorillaz then you're missing out.

My day got even better. After lunch I strolled back to the hotel to retrieve my suitcase and then I considered taking the train to the airport. The receptionist told me it took around half an hour and the train station was about a 10-minute walk away. There were trains, she said, at ten to the hour and twenty past, but in the end I figured it would be best to simply jump in a taxi, which I did, and on the way there I listened to Howard Jones on the radio, "I won't let the sun go down on me..." and found myself getting confused with Nik Kershaw's excellent "Wouldn't it be Nice". I'm not sure of the exact title, but it's a great track and, as I queued for the security and all the hassle of taking my laptop out of my bag, I tried to sing the song to myself, initially gettting it mixed up with the aforementioned Howard Jones track, but eventually getting there.

I wandered aimlessly around the airport killing time before the flight. I can't recall how many circuits I made of the terminal building, but it was a fair few. Having eaten a large meal I couldn't be bothered with sitting in a Costa with a Millionaire's Shortbread and a mug of tea so I just strolled about, getting increasingly bored. But my boredom turned to elation when I boarded the 1815hrs BA flight to Heathrow and discovered a virtually empty plane. I had a window seat in an Exit row and nobody in my row, so I ordered a sandwich, two of those little bottles of red wine, a paper cup full of English breakfast tea and a bottle of mineral water, all for around £13.

The flight was smooth and bathed in sunshine all the way over, and I found I was even more chilled out than when I was sitting in Kaiser eating chicken and drinking Rioja.

By the way, check out Gorillaz' Stylo by clicking here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

In Warsaw... and David Cameron's on the plane!

The first thing worth pointing out is that I never, repeat, NEVER, take an early flight unless it's absolutely necessary; but if I allow somebody else to book my plane ticket... well, what can I say? This morning I had to get up at the crack of dawn (0400hrs) in order to catch the 0725hrs BA flight to Warsaw.

I showered and shaved late last night and then jumped into bed, but was rudely awakened by my iphone alarm at 0400hrs and had 20 minutes to make the final preparations for my trip, namely sort my lap top out, eat a banana and zip up my suitcase. The taxi driver was already waiting outside, but after my trip to Nashville, when the bastard took me to Gatwick instead of Heathrow, I wasn't holding out much hope. In fact, I got a bit worried when he said he was going via Fulham rather than round the M25, but being as it was only 0430hrs I figured there would be no traffic and it was fine.

Once at Terminal Three of Heathrow airport I enjoyed a breakfast of omelette, toast and tea – top marks to the waiter for offering me a free top-up of tea – and then, after a minor wander about I headed for Gate 11 and the flight to Warsaw.

Omelette for breakfast at Oriel, T3.
What amazed me about Terminal Three – although perhaps it's the same for all airport terminals, I don't know, is that very early in the morning it was empty, hardly anybody there. I strolled nonchalantly into the duty free section, sprayed myself with some expensive after shave and then found Oriel and, of course, breakfast. The restaurant was empty but slowly it filled up and before long it was a bustling place along with the rest of the terminal, a bit like watching one of those speeded-up time movies.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron was on the same flight, but I never saw him, although it explains why there was a uniformed copper in the jetty joining the plane to the terminal building. I wonder where he was going? I considered 'having a word' about the in-out referendum he'd been responsible for, but figured it wasn't worth it. "Leave it! He's not worth it!"

The flight was fine, as smooth as you like, until it hit some cloud on the descent into Warsaw, then it got a little bumpy, but nothing to write home about, he said, mildly shitting himself. I know, ultimately, I'm a wimp, but I don't care; and besides, it doesn't really bother me. I'm so used to it these days I just go with the flow.

I'm glad I had breakfast at Oriel because I resent paying BA for an M&S sandwich and a cup of Rosie. No, they should be giving away their food and drink as part of the fare, and, hey, I bet you any money you like that the fare has gone up rather than gone down.

I had some writing to do while in the air and it worked out well, although thanks also (once again) to John Simpson's column in High Life, which is always my saviour on flights long and short. I like Simpson's writing style and I love the stories he tells, this month about a brick he found (and was allowed to keep) in Iraq back in the 1990s. All good stuff in my opinion.

View from room 201, Sheraton, Warsaw...
Having written what I needed to write and not having a book to read – I couldn't fit Steinbeck's East of Eden into my case – I spent the remainder of the flight circling all the destinations I had visited on the High Life route maps and then realised that there were many places around the world that hadn't been graced by my presence. One day, I thought, one day.

Once through passport control and baggage reclaim, it was a short cab ride to the Sheraton Hotel from where I write this. From what I've seen of the hotel so far, it's very good; the room is excellent, not dissimilar to the Hyatt Regency in Irvine, California, except that the weather's not as good.

A curry for lunch – you can't beat a curry for lunch or dinner – and now it's down to work, but I might take a shower and freshen up a little bit first.

Earlier, when I first reached the room after a fairly straightforward check-in process, I did my usual foraging around to check things out: First, the hotel DEFINITELY trusts its guests. Second, the coat hangers are just that, proper coat hangers with hooks; and third, there's a fully-stocked minibar. There's a large double bed, a huge flatscreen television, a decent-looking bathroom, a desk, free WiFi, tea and coffee making facilities, an iron plus an ironing board, a safe and ample wardrobe space. In other words, it's all good – so far – and everything looks neat and tidy as it's all packed away and out of sight.

Room 201, Sheraton, Warsaw, Poland – nice room!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

To Westerham – to sing the blues (Der-derdalla-dum!)

It's the weekend after the June 2017 General Election and Andy and I meet on the green at the usual time. We decide to 'get our heads down' and ride to Westerham. The weather is fantastic, perhaps not as hot as last weekend, but just as nice in many ways; there are cottonwool clouds in a blue sky and all is well with the world. There is one rule, however, before we set off and that is: we're not going to talk about politics. It's a good idea. Since 2015 when David Cameron, leader of the coalition with the Lib-Dems, promised an 'in-out' referendum on Europe and promptly took the country out of the European Union (he put party ahead of the interests of the country because he was running scared of UKIP stealing Tory votes) we've heard nothing but "Brexit". Cameron then resigned and Theresa May took over, trouncing bumbling Boris 'yes I do look ridiculous' Johnson and Michael 'call me Orville' Gove in the leadership contest. Boris became Foreign Secretary (who made that stupid decision?) and Gove was unceremoniously sacked.

Then, having promised not to call a General Election until 2020, Theresa May changed her mind – she's known for doing that – and we all set off for the polling station on Thursday. That's the bad news. The good news is that she messed up completely. Not only did she put in a piss-poor performance throughout her campaign, thanks to two hapless advisers – Nick Timothy (he of the awful beard) and Fiona Hill – she was almost defeated by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, which made considerable gains, while the Tories lost seats and now have to form a government with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on a 'confidence and supply' basis. And the funniest thing of all? She didn't have to call an election until 2020! I haven't stopped laughing! As for politics fatigue, we might well have another General Election later in the year.

Westerham, Kent, Saturday 10th June 2017 – note virtually cloudless skies
We rode to Westerham in silence, concentrating only on the road ahead, which was empty. Yes, the occasional Lycra Monkey en route, but nothing to write home about, and soon we found ourselves on the Green, sitting behind the statue of General Wolfe. We drank tea, we ate biscuits, we always do, and for some reason we started a conversation about music. I said that I simply didn't listen to music anymore, or rarely, normally in the car, but I've lost it completely, there are no bands I particularly like, I can't remember the last time I bought a CD and, well, that's it. How, I don't recall, but we got on to the subject of things people are kind of 'expected' to like. For instance, if you're really into your music, you're kind of duty-bound to say you like The Blues Brothers and The Commitments, two films I've never seen – along with Star Wars, the Matrix and so on; and then I said something about how I can't stand the blues, and threw in the rather arrogant notion that anybody can play the blues, just give them a gazoo and off they'll go. It's simple: You make up your lyrics and punctuate them with "Der-derdalla-Dum". So, as follows:-

I woke up this morning
I was feeling quite shit
Made me some coffee
I felt like a tit
Then I went to bathroom
I needed a shit
And that's when I knew mah life-wazza-sham
Coz I'm a loser, baby
24 carat! – I'm such a tit
I'm a loser, honey
Yeah! Can't even write a hit
"Derdalla, derdalla, derdalla derdalla dum, da-da dum"  
Came outta the toilet
Went straight to the car
Turned on the ignition
But I ain't goin' far
No gas in the tank
So I head back indoors
I'm feeling so mean
I just git to the stores
And that's when I knew mah life-wazza-sham
Coz I'm a loser, baby
[Short guitar riff – 'bip beele!, bip beele!]
24 carat! – I'm such a tit
[Bip beele! Bip beele!]
I'm a loser, honey
Can't even write a hit
"Derdalla, derdalla, derdalla derdalla dum, da-da dum"  
Said I'm a loser, little baby
Man! I'm such a tit!

Just in case I have written a hit song, it's Copyright Matthew Moggridge!

Perhaps I'll stop there, but you get my point. Who needs Eric Clapton or Seasick Steve when you've got me, Moronic Matt. I can turn out a tune with the best of them! Who can't?

The ride home was like it always is and, as always, we parted on the green and went home to enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

General Election 2017: All political parties are the same. Discuss.

It's the morning of polling day and, as always, I'm wondering who to vote for and whether voting at all will have any effect on anything, it's doubtful. Where I live it's predominantly Tory so if I vote for any other party it probably won't do much good – or so I'm told. I'm not going to vote Tory because I don't believe they in any way serve my interests as an individual. It's a principle too; after reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell you could say I've seen the light, although to be honest I voted Labour before I read that book. If anything, the RTP cemented my views and kept things in the right perspective for me. It's one of those books that sticks with you. But listen here, the Tories are the 'party of business', they're the party for those who earn over £100,000 per annum or run a small or medium-sized enterprise: fine, vote Tory. I'll never understand why people who live a normal semi-detached life with two kids and a mortgage make the decision to vote Conservative. I know there is that big misconception that the Tories are the only people capable of running the country because they've all been to public school and have an Oxbridge education (although that's true of most politicians); or that the Tories are the party of law and order, the only people who will get tough with the criminals in an old-fashioned way (people who vote Tory lean to the right and, therefore, are probably in the ballpark of wanting capital punishment back on the statute books) but it doesn't rub with me. They're also the party where racists lurk, or people, again, that swing that way, who are xenophobic and probably harbour a Corporal Jones attitude towards foreigners, particularly those of a different skin colour: "Those fuzzy wuzzies, Mister Man'ring, they don't like it up 'em!" I mean, you get my point here, don't you? They'd probably re-introduce national service if they could and, well, just pick up a copy of the Daily Mail and you'll see for yourself what I'm talking about.

So I was never planning on voting Tory, although, despite what I've just said above, there is a part of me, certainly after the terror attacks in Manchester and London recently, that says the Tories are the only option, they'll keep us all safe. I mean, Theresa May has promised to abolish human rights and slam potential terrorists in gaol (that's 'jail' if you're reading in the USA) to serve long prison sentences. Lock them up and throw away the key! But that feeling of the Tories being the only sensible party, full of politicians that look like politicians (think Michael Fallon, people with 'British' written all over them) lingers. The Tories to me are the men in bowler hats and pin-stripe suits working in the City in the 1950s, they represent a kind of Midsomer Murders Britain that people who voted UKIP and who wanted (and got) Brexit voted for; they are, for want of a better word, 'the establishment'.

Labour on the other hand is supposed to represent the worker, the man in the street, the cannon fodder of World War One being instructed by their Tory superiors, epitomised by Stephen Fry in Blackadder, to go over the top and fight the Hun. Labour represents the working classes who are supposed to 'know their place', although the Labour Party has changed. Back in the day it was (and probably still is) the working classes that waved flags when they saw a member of the Royal Family or would happily fight for 'King and Country' but not any more. Today the Labour Party – even more so now under Jeremy Corbyn – is a little more subversive, a little more 'anti-establishment', the party of 'political correctness' that welcomes mass immigration, likes to say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, believes in equality and workers' rights. Those traditional working class voters, the ones who wave flags at royalty, the World War One cannon fodder, they've been let down by the Labour Party, certainly by 'New Labour' under Tony Blair, he who realised that the only way to get into power was to ape Tory policies and be more dog, only to take us all into an illegal war that has led to the current terrorist outrages (although the main blame lies at the feet of George Bush and American foreign policy in the Middle East). But let's not digress here. Traditional Labour voters have been deserted by Labour and have been wooed instead by UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) which is a one-trick pony designed to get us out of Europe and back to the dishwater years of the 1950s where we belong. It's anti-immigration (so that the British working classes can get their jobs back from the nasty foreigners who stole them) and, well, it was winning votes from traditional working class Labour voters and, it must be said, Tory voters too (those who wanted a harder line taken on all the big subjects, such as immigration). UKIP, then, is further to the right than the Tories, but not as far right as the BNP and, therefore, a little more respectable ("it's not racist to want curbs on immigration," UKIP supporters say – and yet there are plenty of closet racists lurking about).

Today's Labour Party, then, is a bit more middle class, it's a haven for 'Champagne socialists' and so-called Middle Class Bohemians who are doing very nicely thank you and tend to vote Labour out of a sense of 'morality'. Today's Labour Party – although it's always been there, to be fair, it's just more pronounced these days as the party moves away from it's traditional voter base – is the party of protest, it's the religious education teacher with an acoustic guitar, sitting on the desk strumming Streets of London by Ralph McTell, it's the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, remember Bruce Kent in the 80s at the height of the Cold War when Frankie Goes to Hollywood rode high in the charts with Two Tribes and Thatcher and Reagan ruled the world? But then it's been that since the 1960s and, you could argue, hasn't really moved on. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, is the flag bearer of this kind of Labour politics and that could be his undoing today as people go to vote because, I think, the default setting in this country, by and large, is to vote Tory. Fine, not everybody reads the Daily Mail, but I think (I might be wrong) that a lot of 'ordinary' people who regard themselves as sensible and don't like the X Files probably vote Tory and watch GMTV. Corbyn is proper left wing. He supports unilateral disarmament and he's all for peace, not war, something that people in this country get a little twitchy about; they don't want a leader who refuses to push the button and kill millions of people, they don't want a leader who looks at terrorists and thinks, 'well, perhaps they've got a point worth listening to', they don't want somebody in charge who is going to be more lenient with criminals and all these things are seized upon by the predominantly right wing press, particularly the Daily Mail, which will write headlines the day before Election Day stating "Apologists for Terror" referring to Corbyn sharing a stage with extremists in the past; but, of course, while the whole thing is taken out context most of the time, it's enough to make people stop and think.

The only other party we should be talking about is the Liberal Democrats who, let's face it, have lost the plot. Scarred by Nick Clegg's student fees U-turn back in 2010, the Lib-Dems have limped from defeat to defeat, losing badly in the last General Election and are now under the stewardship of Tim Farron who has great difficulty answering the questions. I've already had a go at Farron for his abominable interview with Andrew Neil on the BBC and that interview has given me (and many others) a very low view of the party, which is a shame because there are politicians like Vince Cable who has always been one of those 'voices of reason'. I often think it would be good to bring together all the 'decent' politicians from all parties and form another one. All the parties have decent politicians. I've always liked David Davis, Vince Cable, Hilary Benn, Nick Clegg, Michael Portillo (when he was a politician) Alan Johnson and others, who seem to have more sense than those on the front line.

The 2017 General Election was characterised by a lot of left-leaning 'also-ran' parties: the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and, I suppose, the Lib-Dems, all of whom turned up for the television debates and railed against the only right-leaning 'also-ran' party, UKIP, but none of these parties are going to get anywhere today, meaning they're not going to form a government, although they have provided food for thought for the electorate and probably influenced the vote in Labour's favour (it's always been a battle between left and right). Yes, the UK is characterised by 'see-saw' politics: if it's not Labour it's Conservative, one party spends all the money, the other party saves it, there is no middle ground.

The Tories thought they would have an easy ride and, writing this at almost 0700hrs on the day of the General Election, that might well be the case, but Theresa May hasn't projected herself in a good light. She did a bad interview with Andrew Neil, she's opened herself up to major criticism, particularly surrounding the so-called 'Dementia tax' and her record on reducing immigration (a key election issue) has been poor. Corbyn, on the other hand, has had a good campaign, so much so that some pundits are predicting either a Labour landslide (unlikely in my opinion) or at least a hung parliament, although that might mean Sturgeon and the SNP and nobody wants Jeanette Cranky in a position of power.

A lot of people, of course, are disillusioned, and who can blame them? Most people have grown cynical towards politicians, they don't like them, what with the expenses scandal, which continues to this day, and the fact that they don't answer the questions fired at them and tend to make promises they have no intention of keeping, it's not looking good for the political classes.

I don't know what to do, other than not vote Tory. But then 'round here' where I live it's Toryland. There are lots of Daily Mail readers hiding behind the net curtains or kneeling on their front lawns doing a bit of weeding with one of those little mats to protect their knees. A vote for anybody else would be wasted so I'll have to resort to tactical voting, but what does that mean? Some say vote Lib-Dem to reduce the Tory majority and to be fair, the last thing we want is a Tory landslide.

Ultimately, though, whoever gets in – with the possible exception of Jeremy Corbyn – nothing will really change. Theresa May won't reduce immigration 'to the tens of thousands', she won't this, she won't that and in about a year from now the BBC will run clips of her promising this and that long after those promises have been broken; and the politicians will wriggle out of answering the questions and we'll all realise that the whole thing has been a charade (as it always will be) and that when there's another terror attack, the same old establishment response will be wheeled out: sombre statements from the politicians, a shrine to the fallen, the culprits being already 'known to the police' for many years prior to the attack, suspects rounded up but released without charge...and there's a load of other stuff too, but it's getting late and I need to take a bath and get down the polling station. Coalition of chaos, anybody?

Sunday, 4 June 2017

To Woodmansterne Green and Westerham...

Matt and Jon at Woodmansterne
Saturday was a wonderful day in terms of the weather. The sun shone brightly all day. I rode to Woodmansterne Green to meet my brother Jon and we sat there, in the sunshine, chatting about a whole range of subjects. We didn't have any tea or biscuits purely because the original idea had been to ride to mum's where we would have enjoyed breakfast, but because we were engrossed in conversation we lost all track of time. At just gone 0900hrs we parted company. Bon rode back to Epsom and I cycled along the Croydon Road, largely on dirt tracks, until I was forced on to tarmac as I approached Foxley Lane.

On Sunday the weather was just as good – blue sky and sunshine. Andy and I met on Warlingham Green and decided to ride to Westerham. When I woke up at 0600hrs the radio informed me of last night's terrorist attack in London. It goes without saying that everybody is talking about it and all the television and radio channels are discussing it too.

Our bikes on Clarks Lane on the return ride from Westerham
Andy and I talked about it too as we munched our BelVita biscuits and drank our tea on the green at Westerham. It was just gone 0900hrs when we mounted the bikes and headed home. The good weather made the hill bearable and we stopped to take the shot on the right as we rode towards Botley Hill.

The hot weather continued into the afternoon and I spent a lot of time sitting in the garden reading Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book about Chris McCandless who walked into the wilds of Alaska and sadly died of starvation.


Rainbow's in town! And so is the rain!
Despite a lot of sun this weekend, it started to rain around 7pm and then this rainbow appeared.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

General Election 2017: Where are the statesmen?

Last night I found myself fidgeting uncomfortably while watching Andrew Neil interview the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron. Mr Neil deserves a medal for not undoing his microphone and storming off in last night's television interview, one of a series of interviews he is conducting with the leaders of UK political parties competing in the 2017 General Election.

Churchill: a proper politician

Farron not only refused to answer any of Neil's questions, he instead just kept on talking and spouting his party's manifesto rather than engage in sensible discussion with, arguably, our only proper heavyweight political interviewer.

Andrew Neil's interviews have highlighted the perceived dishonesty of MPs through their unwillingness to simply answer the question. Theresa May's interview with Neil was described as a 'car crash' and so it was as she too refused to be direct with the electorate on certain issues, and while he wasn't as bad, Jeremy Corbyn also let the side down by simply not answering the questions politicians should be answering. He went on to attend his own 'car crash' interview on the BBC's Woman's Hour when it was revealed he didn't have the figures for one of Labour's key policies.

In fact, only two politicians interviewed by Neil have answered his questions: Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and Paul Nuttall, leader of UKIP, although Nuttall, while 'a nice bloke', let himself down with his extreme views on certain subjects, such as the war against terror, although it could be argued that all he is doing is saying what most people think, but don't blurt out.
David Cameron: a career politician

The political debates on television have also been very poor, mainly because the two main party leaders – Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May – have arrogantly refused to be involved, giving the general public the impression that they are 'running scared' of public debate, particularly with one another. Furthermore, the debates in question have not only been biased towards the left (everybody against the Tories and UKIP) they have also been slanging matches which, again, haven't exactly been good for the reputations of this election's 'leading' political figures.

In fact, odd as it may sound considering the student fees issue back in the 2010 general election, the only person who actually got to the root of two of the big (and linked) issues dominating the 2017 campaign was Nick Clegg on last night's Question Time on the BBC.

Immigration is a big, big issue and a central plank of the reason behind Brexit, and Theresa May is campaigning on reducing immigration to the 'tens of thousands' if she gets back into Number 10. Fair enough, you might say, but she's been saying that, both as Prime Minister and Home Secretary for some time and has consistently failed. The latest way of, if you like, 'getting out' of answering the question is to say that once we have control of our borders, ie left the European Union, then we can start getting serious about reducing immigration. Not true! Not only has May consistently failed to meet her own targets on immigration, she is deceiving the electorate by claiming that leaving the EU will solve most of the problem. It won't. Not only are the Tories being very careful with their words – trying to confuse aims with objectives and vice versa – they are constantly ignoring the issue of non-EU immigration which, by and large is the bit that is 'changing the face of British society'. As Clegg quite rightly pointed out yesterday, loud and clear, Theresa May has been capable of reducing non-EU immigration for years but has not done so, and all Brexit will achieve is the reduction, say, in the number of Danish engineers coming into the UK or German scientists and so on. Thank you, Mr Clegg, for getting that point 'out there'.
Farron: a very poor interview

The problem with British politics is that there are no longer any 'great statesmen' out there. Back in the day we used to have Ted Heath running the Conservative Party and Harold Wilson running the Labour Party and both had some seriously 'proper' politicians behind them. But somewhere down the line something happened and politics became dominated by what is known as the 'career politician', a type of politician not interested in the greater good of the country but only concerned about the success of his or her own party. David Cameron springs to mind. Running scared of UKIP taking votes from the Conservatives he offered an in/out referendum on Europe, which was characterised by mis-information on both sides of the debate and now, of course, as David Dimbleby said at the time, 'we're out!' Theresa May talks of 'no deal' being better than a bad deal, but, again, as Clegg pointed out on Question Time last night, the bad deal is not being in the EU and all we can possibly achieve in the forthcoming exit negotiations is to get the best 'bad deal' on offer.
Andrew Neil: patience of a saint

I've always had a theory that virtually everything is deteriorating rather than getting better; pop music has gone from the likes of the Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and so on to Simon Cowell and the X Factor, boy bands and the like – in other words, it has deteriorated and surely can't get any worse. Literature has gone from Shakespeare and Dickens to Dan Brown, and politics has gone from George Washington to (ahem) Donald Trump or from Churchill to Theresa May. I'd like to say I'm optimistic for the future, but I'm not.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Another fantastic day so we head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop!

Monday 29 May: Yesterday the good weather continued late into the night. Around 2130hrs, feeling the effects of mild exposure to the sun, I took a stroll around the block to enjoy the welcoming cool evening air, but around 0200hrs there were some heavy storms. Now, at 0637hrs on Bank Holiday Monday morning, it is bright and still outside and it looks as if we'll get a decent ride.

We rode the slow way to the Tatsfield Bus Stop on the assumption that there wouldn't be a dry seat anywhere else – apart from the village – and when we reached our destination we chilled and watched steam rise from an adjacent field. There was a wonderful freshness to everything and it felt good to be out in the early morning air and close to the cornfields.

Riding the slow way means Beddlestead Lane, a long, twisting snake of dark tarmac that winds its way between the fields and carries Lycra monkeys from one end to the other who always manage to surprise us when the pass.

Our bikes in the cornfield behind the Tatsfield Bus Stop, Bank Holiday Monday
There are two types of Lycra monkey: one is the well-spoken senior management variety, and the other is a kind of working class, Alf Tupper 'Tough of the Track' type with exposed calf muscle tattoos. To make it easier for you, think of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett.

Lycra monkeys wear 'cycling gear' and by that I mean 'sponsored' cycling shirts and, of course, Lycra shorts or leggings. It's not a good look and when you consider that these guys aren't sponsored by anybody, it makes it kind of pointless. They often ride in groups and tend to raise their voices, occasionally shouting "Car!" or "Gravel!" as they whizz past us.

I often wonder what they must think of me in my paint-stained, many-pocketed trousers and my equally paint-stained hoody, unshaven and wearing a dirty old pair of trainers. They probably think I'm a farm worker on my way to the strawberry field or on the run from Border Control. Who knows?

Something must be done about my sartorial elegance. I need to ditch the paint-stained clothing and tidy myself up a little bit. I don't mean go out and buy some Lycra, but I need to smarten up.

It was pleasing to see somebody on a racer who wasn't wearing Lycra. A man puffed his way up Clarks Lane from Westerham wearing an old tee-shirt and what looked like a pair of boxer shorts. Not an ounce of 'sponsorship' could be found on his clothing, which was refreshing to see.

Two cups of tea were consumed and two packets of BelVitas too – it's our staple diet on all rides – and soon it was time to pack up and head home. We headed for Botley Hill and then north along the 269 towards Warlingham, occasionally acknowledging fellow cyclists riding in the opposite direction.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

To the Tatsfield Churchyard...

Saturday's weather was fantastic. I had planned a drive to and from Sussex so I didn't ride out because I needed to conserve my energy. Andy rode alone to Godstone and the surrounding area.

Sunday and the weather was still fantastic: bright, blue skies early in the morning, a glowing sun for most of the day and then, by late afternoon, there was a strong downpour. "Good for the garden," my dad might have said. When the rain ceased there was a wonderful smell of rain in the air. I love the summer.

But let's get back to this morning's ride. I met Andy at the green and we initially planned a ride to Westerham, but as we made our way along the 269 Andy changed his mind. "Let's go to the churchyard instead," he said, so we did.

Along Clarks Lane a squirrel went crazy. Andy said he (or she) fell from a tree, which is odd when you consider, as Andy later explained, that a squirrel's key behaviours are 1. Climbing trees and 2. hiding nuts for a winter's day. Well, on point 1. this animal wasn't doing well. He scampered across the road as I might have done if I had a wasp up my arse, and then careered out of the undergrowth and into the road again, this time hitting my back wheel as he hopped his way back to the other side of the road.

With tea and BelVita biscuits at the ready we stretched out on the park bench to enjoy the good weather. Since we last met, however, there had been a terrorist bomb tragedy in Manchester and naturally it became the main subject of conversation. I mentioned how my local railway station sported two armed coppers on Thursday evening and while it was reassuring for the public to be given the impression that the UK security services were 'doing their bit' to calm the nerves, news that MI5 had the killer on its radar prior to the atrocity, but did nothing, and the fact that those who knew the killer had expressed their doubts about him – they were concerned he might engage in an act of terrorism – then suddenly that word 'flabbergasted' surfaces. With so many dead and many more seriously injured and still in hospitals in the Manchester area as I write this, then to know that the security forces had more than their suspicions about the killer, well, what can I say?

A report by the BBC claims that the security services were warned three times of the killer's extremist views, but failed to take further action because he was 'under review'.

Manchester has fallen victim to terrorist attacks in the past and has pulled through; this time round it appears to be coping well in the aftermath of the tragedy. It's a fantastic city full of great people and amazing musicians and I hope it remains that way – I'm sure it will.

As I passed those two armed officers on the railway station last Thursday night I couldn't help but wonder how they would deal with a similar terrorist attack if it took place away from the station in the centre of town, in the mall, for example. The truth is that they wouldn't be able to deal with it at all and not through any shortcomings of their own, just that nobody can be in two places at once and when you're dealing with an enemy that cares little for its own lives, let alone those of its victims, then you quickly realise that the whole situation rests entirely on intelligence and not so much an outward 'show of force', although I guess it helps.

It all sadly leads to what some call 'the standard response' of the establishment to terrorist atrocities of this nature: condemnation by leading politicians; a shrine to the fallen, thumbnail portraits of the victims in the newspapers; shots of ordinary-looking houses where suspects are being rounded up; and, of course, news that the suspect (or suspects) were known to the security services.

We discussed the forthcoming general election. During the week Andrew Neil, a leading political broadcast journalist and former newspaper editor, had interviewed the leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May, and the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn performed better than May, who dodged virtually every question Neil fired at her in what was later described as a 'car crash' interview. Corbyn had a few wobbly moments when Neil challenged him on his views about the IRA, but he stood his ground a little more than May. This afternoon Neil interviewed Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist party. Up until this afternoon, I can't say I've really warmed to her, but after May's awful performance, it was refreshing to note that Sturgeon wasn't taking any prisoners. Furthermore, she never once avoided a question and put across her case perfectly. I must say that she went up in my estimation.

In the UK it's what is known as a 'bank holiday weekend', which means we get Monday off in addition to our weekend. So far the weather has, as I said, been absolutely brilliant. All week the sun has been out, but nothing lasts forever and it's certainly true where the British weather is concerned. This afternoon we had the aforementioned big downpour, and more has been promised for tomorrow. Uncertainty about the weather prompted Andy and I to hum and hah a little bit about whether we'd be riding tomorrow. All I know for certain (well, relatively certainly) is that thunder storms are on the agenda 'up north' but I think it will be heading our way too around noon. If this proves right then we should get out for a Bank Holiday Monday ride, but right now it's anybody's guess.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The continuing appeal of Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike

I doubt I'll ever be famous or accomplished enough to be a guest on Desert Island Discs, but if I found myself on the programme I wouldn't be happy about being given the complete works of William Shakespeare to accompany me on the mythical isle. But I do know what my luxury would be: One Man and His Bike by Mike Carter.

You might be thinking: Why is he still going on about that book? Good question. And the answer is simple: I love it!

I'm afraid I'd have stern words with Kirsty Young about the complete works of William Shakespeare. Who wants to spend their time on a desert island being reminded about exams? Not me. "Nay, but this dotage of our general..." my arse!

Over the past few days – now that summer has clearly arrived and we're all basking in 25 degree heat – it's that time of year when, on reaching home, I take a small walk (of no more than three minutes) to the local off licence where I purchase (for £1.49, it used to be 99p) a large can of Stella Artois. The thing that really annoys me about Stella – or 'wife beater' as it is more popularly known – is that, of late, the brewer has reduced the abv (alcohol by volume) from, I recall, 5.2% to 4.8%. As a result, Stella doesn't have that kick any more and after drinking a can I start to feel as if another one would be worth making a return journey to the shop. But no, leave it alone, one's enough, a little man sitting on my right shoulder advises me; and he's right.

So, part one of my summer fantasy – a large, chilled can of lager sitting in the garden – has been achieved. Now for part two.

Part two is simply reaching for a copy of Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike, picking a section of it at random and then sitting down and reliving Carter's amazing adventure around the coastline of the United Kingdom on a bicycle. It is quite simply my one and only fantasy, riding off around the coastline of the country without a care in the world and enjoying everything that comes my way.

Alright, it's not my only fantasy, but picking up One Man and His Bike and reading random sections of it now and then has become a little bit of a habit. Why? Because I find reading it, transports me back to being on the ride the first time round, when I first read the book. It's not only relaxing but therapeutic too. Put simply, it lifts my spirits (what more can anybody ask from a book?) and one day I might simply decide to re-read it. Right now I don't have a book to read, having just finished Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, and I'm debating whether to read one of four cycling adventure books that have hit the shelves of Waterstones.

The key contenders (the only contenders) are The Man Who Cycled the Americas by Mark Beaumont – a book which has been on my list since I read his The Man Who Cycled the World – but also two other books, one being The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore and the other Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P Sykes. There's also a fourth, Kapp to Cape by Reza Pakravan and Charlie Carroll.

I've dipped into all of them over the past seven days with a view to buying one, but I'm doubting whether any of them can put Carter's masterpiece into the shade, although I'm sure they will be 'good reads', which is all I'm after.

I have two other books in mind, which are more nature-related, one being Roger Deakin's Waterlog, which charts Deakin's adventures on a wild swimming odyssey around the UK and another book, the title of which I have forgotten, written about somebody who walks around the UK following little known footpaths. I wish I could remember the title and the author, but I can't, but it has a similar vibe to the Deakin book.

For now, then, I'll continue to enjoy dipping into Carter's One Man and His Bike. This evening I read most of Chapter Four where he rides to Mersea Island, has trouble trying to reach the Brightlingsea ferry and eventually meets up with a man called Tony Haggis having cycled through the dilapidated Jaywick, through Clacton and on towards Frinton on Sea. Earlier in the week I'd read a large chunk of a later chapter when he was in Scotland and being attacked by a swarm of midges. It's all good and in many ways has become a kind of 'bible', something to pick up when spirits need lifting or if I simply want to escape reality for a short while and find myself on a bike in the middle of nowhere looking for a campsite or a bed & breakfast late on a hot summer's afternoon.

Tonight I had a small glass of red wine instead of the can of Stella and I finished off with fresh strawberries and a choc ice (you don't get much better ). I'm still sitting outside in the garden, but a breeze has come up, the surrounding trees are developing slowly into silhouettes and the birds are having their final sing song before bed.

The skies are clear of cloud, but the blue is starting to fade and I'm starting to feel a little cold, especially when the cool breeze hits home. I need to send an abort text to Andy as I can't ride Saturday, but I'm free for Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday (it looks as if this week-long spell of hot, sunny weather has a few more days to run and I definitely need to be on the bike).

Uneasy Rider by Mike Carterclick here.

One Man and His Bike by Mike Carterclick here.

In Irvine, Californiaclick here.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Great weather and two rides – to Westerham and the Tatsfield Churchyard

Outside of Westerham on the ride home, Saturday 20 May 2017
When I opened my eyes I got a shock. It was light outside. I simply can't get used to the fact that summer has simply arrived unannounced. It seems like only yesterday that it was dark in the mornings and that slippers were needed as soon as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The sunlight was filtering through the curtains and I started to consider black-out drapes, like those found in Alaskan hotels during the summer months, making it possible to sleep in a place where there's only four hours of night time. I remember once sitting in the bar of the Anchorage Hilton at 2330hrs and it could have been 1100hrs instead.

It was Saturday morning, I remembered, and immediately recalled how last week at this exact time I was still three hours away from Heathrow Terminal Five in a jumbo jet, seat 32C, on a BA flight from Dallas Forth Worth.
Outside of Westerham on the way home, Saturday...
I hadn't been cycling for two weeks and was in desperate need of the exercise, so I jumped out of bed, changed into my riding gear (jodhpurs, red hunting jacket and knee-high, polished boots) and headed downstairs to make breakfast (two Weetabix, grapes, blueberries, banana and raspberries topped with some natural yoghurt. I also made myself a cup of tea – no sugar).

All week has been strained due to slowly fading jet lag, but I'm fine now and a decent ride on the bike is just what the doctor ordered.

I unpadlocked the bike and headed out along the usual route, meeting Andy at the green where we decided to ride to Westerham (a 22-mile round trip) where, we discovered, preparations were underway for a summer fair. A smallish group of people, including the local Rotary Club, were setting up display stands as Andy and I sipped tea and munched biscuits, our bikes resting against the park bench on which we were sitting.

Fortunately a horse arrived meaning no shots of gravestones. Pic: Andy Smith
We sat there until just before 0900hrs watching other people work and then mounted our bikes for the arduous journey up the hill. When we were back at the green we vowed to meet on Sunday, although we hadn't discussed the destination other than to say we might go to Westerham again (just like in the good old days) or even the trusty old Tatsfield churchyard, always a good sunny day destination.

On Saturday afternoon there was a bit of rain here and there, but nothing too depressing, and now, on Sunday morning at 0654hrs it is another bright day, just like yesterday. In fact it would be fair to say that this weekend has been the best in terms of the weather so far this year. I'm sure things will get even better as the summer progresses, but right now it's the best to date. In fact, today is the best day of all.

We met on the green at the usual time and decided to head for the Tatsfield Churchyard – the fast way. For some reason we couldn't face Beddlestead Lane. Andy was complaining of tiredness and there's little worse than the slow way to anywhere when you're feeling a little under the weather. We haven't been to the churchyard since 10 September last year (click here for more).

Last week Andy rode to the lakes...
When we arrived we talked about politics and the forthcoming election, we chatted about photography and social media and then set about taking photographs of a white horse grazing in an adjacent field before heading home again.

Ultimately the theme of our conversation was futility, which left us both feeling a little futile on the return journey. I was thinking about the sad inevitability of Theresa May being in Number 10 for the next five years and on top of that I was considering the world of social media and its futility, not to mention the futility of gardening, which I would be engaging in later in the day. The futility of gardening, however, is a little nonsensical, a bit like saying that shaving is futile. Yes, the grass grows back and so does the beard, but at least while you're keeping grass and stubble at bay there's a general tidiness about the situation. Unkempt grass and an unkempt beard don't exactly add up to anything positive and rather reflect neglect and apathy. A bit like my hair over the last week or two. After about eight weeks it gets a little straggly and I start to look like the Toecutter from the early Mad Max movies, but for some reason it takes me an age to get around to visiting the barber. I made it yesterday, however, and now I feel clean cut again and ready for what the world might throw at me.

Sunday's weather was bags better than Saturday's. For a start there was no rain, but there was also plenty of warm sunshine and it's still shining now at almost 7pm.

Our ride home retraced the outward route. We followed Clarks Lane towards Botley Hill and then turned right and rode straight down the 269 heading north towards Warlingham where we parted company. When I reached home I chilled for a bit, then had a shower and then went into the garden to mow the lawn. The original plan was to do both front and back, but a rogue sycamore tree had to be dealt with and after I'd cut it into pieces and placed it in the brown cart so kindly provided by the local council, my enthusiasm had waned.

A few words about the Specialized Rockhopper. It's now roughly six months old and while I'm tempting fate by saying I've yet to have a puncture, it's the truth. The bike's been performing well, but recently there's been a strange noise in top gear, not dissimilar to the noise made by a handful of small plastic bearings being shaken gently in a tin can. It's not affecting the performance of the bike so I'm not too bothered about it.