Friday, 15 December 2017

Taking a last walk in Vienna...

I decided to take a walk through the deserted fairground and along the length of Praterstrasse where I crossed the river (it might have been a canal). I'd been here before, back in June, on the bike, but I'd turned back after taking a photo of the machine on the bridge. This time I walked a little further, dipping into the odd bookshop for all of two minutes as none of the books were in English, walking down a few alleys, until finally I found a small and cosy Italian restaurant. Parma ham with melon must be as naff in Italian circles as the Black Forest gateau and prawn cocktail is in the steak house community, but I'm not proud. I followed up with Tagliatelle Caprese and a large bottle of Pellegrino sparkling mineral water and then, after declining dessert and paying the bill (EUR30.00) I retraced my steps and finally returned to Motel One where I retrieved my cases and chilled for a short while. I think I probably chilled too much because I soon realised that I might miss my flight if I didn't pack things away pronto and head for the airport.

It's weird walking through an empty fairground on a cold winter's afternoon
Reluctantly, I hauled my suitcase along the street towards Messe Prater station, bought a ticket from the vending machine (EUR2.20) and then got a little confused. First I missed the stop, then I just couldn't work out where to pick up the CAT train to the airport. I had to start asking people, which I hate doing, but eventually I made it and then remembered I was travelling business class and I could use the 'lounge'. Oooh! The lounge! Aren't I so posh! Am I bollocks! I hate this 'business class' thing. I popped my head around the door and there they all were, disgusting people who thought their shit didn't stink, taking up all the space. I walked around, bobble hat on, hair straggly, old, scuffed coat, jeans and trainers. I didn't look the part, I'm pleased to say, and then I left with free copies of the Times and the Sun (to read on the plane).

The flight itself was smooth. I sat in seat 4a and once seated the poncy pampering began. The steward referred to me as 'sir' and brought me tea in a proper mug, water in a proper glass, and then my favourite, a peppermint tea, also in a proper glass, not forgetting a kind of beef panini thingy on a porcelain plate along with steel cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin. Behind me the proles were being told they'd have to pay for their M&S 'grub', their tea would arrive in paper cups and nobody was going to call them 'sir'. I felt like passing my dessert through the curtain to the needy people sitting behind me, but it was so nice I scoffed the lot without a thought for the proletariat, and then had a crack at the crossword.



Thursday, 14 December 2017

In Vienna...

I reached Vienna at 1630hrs...
It's Friday morning, 0625hrs, and I'm in my favourite hotel of all time: Motel One Wien-Prater. The last time I was here was back in June when the weather was hot, the skies blue and the sun burning hot. It's much colder now and I notice that the bikes they had for hire have gone, they must have been a seasonal offering. I was going to hire a bike and cycle around the city today, but clearly that's not going to be possible, I'll have to walk. It's my first day without any meetings, so effectively I've got a free day as I don't need to be at the airport until around 1630hrs for a flight to London two hours later.

When I was last here, I raved (yes I raved) about the tropical fish screensaver on the television in my room, it was so chilled out. I remember how the receptionist on the front desk told me that in winter it changes to a roaring log fire, and sure enough that's exactly what it is – and once again, I love it. Last night I went to bed with the log fire roaring and when I woke up it was gone, it must have switched itself off during the night. I'm now watching CNBC Europe, more as background noise than anything else. I'm wide awake and drinking a glass of mineral water I purchased last night (EUR4.50) from a sullen, humourless barman here at the hotel. It's quite amazing how some people simply don't have any sense of humour. I made a comment about the bottle being made of glass, not plastic (which is rare for mineral water) and he looked at me as if I'd just admitted to being a neo-nazi.

Leonding's huge shopping mall...
Yesterday I took a taxi to a small town outside of Linz called Leonding, the boyhood home of Adolf Hitler, something nobody mentioned to me when I said I was going there. And no, I'm not a neo-Nazi and Hitler was not the reason for my visit. There is a huge shopping mall in Leonding and I mean huge. I had lunch there and then wandered around looking for some form of transportation to get back to Linz. I found a tram and after about 15 minutes or so, I was back and heading along Steinstrasse towards my hotel where I picked up my suitcase and headed, on foot, to the railway station. There was a train to Wien (Vienna) at 1516 and then a short ride on the metro to Messe Prater (line U1 to Prater-Stern, change to U2 and ride just one stop to Messe Prater). The hotel is right outside the metro station (take the Prater exit).

Something else I remember from last time I checked into this Motel One was the queue at the front desk. I stood there for a good 15 minutes waiting to check in, like last time, but the wait didn't bother me, I was glad to be here in the dark and cosy bustling lobby where there was plenty of people relaxing with a drink, chatting and laughing. Last time I was on the third floor, this time the first, in Room 165, but the room is exactly the same and has the same spotlights over the bed that last time I couldn't figure out how to switch off and had to resort to the receptionist coming up from the lobby to help me. How embarrassing, I thought, but then, yesterday evening around 1700hrs I found myself in the same situation: how to turn the damned things off. While I remembered what the receptionist had done in June, I couldn't for the life of me find the switch and was about to call the front desk (again) when I found it.

For me, at present, waking up at 0625hrs is classed as a good night's sleep, thanks to decent pillows and that 'roaring log fire' on the television on the wall opposite the bed. CNBC Europe is saying that Saudi Arabia is pumping US$19 billion into its economy.

Last night I went to L'Osteria, a restaurant I found the last time I was here; it's close to the fairground on Freudplatz 2 and I'm not sure I like it. It's one of those large spaces, very noisy, and it sells pizza and pasta from a laminated menu, but there's also a specials selection, which I always go for and then feel slightly disappointed when the meal arrives. It was pot luck anyway as the menu was in German and I based my choice on seeking out familiar words, although I can't think of anything familiar about Garganelli Buongusta, can you? Basically it's pasta with chunks of ham and whole olives. It was alright, but not brilliant, and it was accompanied by a small mixed salad and an Erdinger non-alcohol beer. I sat there alone, squeezed between 'couples'. It was too dark and noisy to read so I checked and responded to emails on my phone and then considered dessert, but it was the usual gooey stuff so I paid up and walked back through the deserted fairground. In the summer it would have been very busy and noisy, lots of screaming people being flung about on scary-looking rides, but now there was nobody here, the rides were shrouded in darkness and covered with tarpaulins. It was about a 15-minute walk back to the hotel.

The roaring log fire – perfect!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love Motel One – certainly this one close to the fairground. I love the bustling lobby. There's a long, wooden table opposite the front desk, with powerpoints, so I fetched my laptop from the room and spent about an hour writing this and that before heading back to my room and getting the aforementioned good night's sleep. All that remains now, at 0625hrs, is to shower and head down for breakfast.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Two great places to eat...in Linz, Austria

Today was characterised by eating. It started, naturally enough, with breakfast here in the hotel. I was awake early, up and about writing for this blog, or at least checking over (and rewriting) bits of it and soon it was time to hit the shower and then make my way to the breakfast room.

I had peppermint tea, fresh fruit salad, a bowl of muesli and a raspberry yoghurt, plus a couple of tiny croissants and while I debated with myself whether to have the scrambled egg, I decided not to bother and instead hit the streets in search of a pharmacy (I'd run out of shaving foam and needed a new razor).
Night time in Linz. I walk home in between bouts of window shopping...
Jobs done I went on my merry way, conducted a bit of business and then found it was lunchtime so I started to search around for something to eat. You can read the full story about Das Bruckner Kaffeehaus by clicking here, but suffice it to say that I had found an excellent place to have lunch and left the establishment with a skip in my step. I might even go back there tomorrow if I get the time, but I've got to catch a train to Vienna so things might get a little tight.

Later I went in search of somewhere to have dinner and I stumbled across Bigoli Bar and Restaurant, a small, cosy establishment with a relaxed vibe and a great waitress – and by that I mean friendly, helpful and pleasant, a bit like the waitress at lunch time. The menu was in German, but she took the time and the trouble to translate and eventually I settled for cauliflower soup followed by the most tender duck I'd ever eaten, which was accompanied by cubed and sauteéd potatoes. The meal was made all the better by a non-alcohol beer and I sat there, reading chunks of Rory Stewart's new book, The Marches in between courses. It was the most relaxed evening ever, made all the better not only by the excellent food, but by the laid back vibe and the knowledge that the waitress was always at hand to answer any queries I might have. I enjoyed it so much I ordered dessert, which was something very similar to Tiramisu and just as enjoyable. In all truthfulness, I didn't want to leave. I could have sat there all evening drinking non-alcohol beer. Over here in Europe they're a million times better than in the UK and, dare I say it, far more accessible. In the UK it's touch and go whether the bar or restaurant you visit serves a non-alcohol beer, invariably they don't, or if they do, it's Becks Blue, not a bad beer, but over here in Austria there's much more choice and a superior quality product.

The most amazing thing about Bigoli – apart from the food, the service and the ambience – was the bill. It was only EUR30.40 (that's roughly £30). A similar meal in the UK would have set me back at least £50, possibly £60.

For the second time in a day I found myself walking with a skip in my step. It was dark and the Christmas lights and shop fronts lit up the streets. I stopped and did a bit of window shopping here and there, admiring watches and boots, coats and shirts in shops that were now closed until tomorrow morning.


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.