Night rider

As the world continues in its perambulations around the sun, and we continue to live through different, in many ways, reduced times, I seem to have found that I have reached the end of myself. It is not that I am at any immediate risk (insofar as I know) of meeting my maker and finally having a chance of remonstrating with them as to their decidedly shonky workmanship but more that I am totally depleted of energy and (largely) joie de vivre. I seem to have temporarily (I trust) lost the ability to bootstrap myself from knackered revenant to the life and soul of the party (even if that is often a party of one) despite minimal sleep. Even my haemoglobin has lost its lustre, or at least reduced in concentration within my bloodstream, and so I have been benched for three months by NHS Blood and Transplant.

I feel lack of sleep is a major contributor to my current ennui as is the lack of the usual novelty that life used to provide before mid-March. I fear the seams of my personal mine are currently exhausted: to massively over-extend an already creaking metaphor, I need to sink new shafts and, perhaps, invest in more powerful pumps to keep the water out. The urge to retreat from the world is strong: which I suspect means that I should do the exact opposite as I have learned to distrust my ‘instincts’ (one of many conversations I shall be having with the All Father).

Hope is not lost; merely misplaced: I’ve probably put it somewhere “safe”. With my blood no longer in demand, I can take more serious chemical measures to force myself into the reluctant arms of Morpheus. We shall temporarily side-step the issue of consent in our rather fractious relationship: I fear he’s just not that into me but I am unable to move on…

This afternoon, after a failed attempt to return to bed for a nap that never arrived (leaves on the line?), I discovered the unexpected history of the courgette. At this time of year, and now safely into middle-age, the mini-marrow forms a significant part of my diet and, indeed, today’s second dinner/lunch. Apparently, the harmless veg we know today was tamed by the autochthonous Americans from a wild and poisonous ancestor. I shudder to think of the generations that suffered and died to bring us the modern courgette. One has to admire their single-minded purpose towards what is, in many ways, such an unimpressive goal: and they didn’t even have the option of grilled halloumi to pair with it!

Secondly, after many Essay-less weeks, Radio 3 have suddenly dropped a dozen into my podcast inbox. The first few are based on the Decameron and come from the fine folk at 1927 – who I have always seen accompanied by extraordinary back projections, which do not transfer to the radio but their essential nature of 1927 very much does – and they are weird and wonderful and have rather perked me up. The power of novelty: even if the source material was knocked out by Boccaccio in the 14th century, appropriately at a time of plague…

I have managed to accomplish one thing this week, a high point in the otherwise rather featureless desert of my accomplishments: very much the Ely cathedral punctuating the Fenlands of my inanition of the last week. For at least five years, I’d been intending to head into the imagined darkness of the New Forest on a clear night for a bit of stargazing (fair-haired lessie optional). As so often with my plans, nothing then happened for a long time. The original thought had been to go by car, but lockdown has taught me that arboreal astronomy is accessible by bike. So, at 9pm on Wednesday evening I took my bike, new binoculars and a fortifying pint of Steam Town’s Stoke to a heathland portion of the Forest. It was a joy to cycle through the dark streets of the city, past its illuminated docks and cranes and then out through the suburbs into the countryside. The roads and cycle paths were mostly deserted and my two-wheeled steed made short work of the miles.

Despite entering the deep, dark wood during the hours of darkness I was safe because I have read widely and know how it important it is not to stray from the path. I had picked a location to the south of Ashurst that seemed to be maximally distant from any sources of light pollution. This plan was mostly a success, though the amber glow of Southampton does extend quite the distance from the city. Nevertheless, I was rewarded with an enormous bounty of stars, plus Jupiter and Saturn, many visible with my naked eyes (well, I was alone and so partial nudity was an option) and even more through my swanky new binoculars. I am force to admit that I do make a rather shaky tripod (OK, bipod), but the ground was a little damp for sitting down in a more stable configuration. More stargazing will definitely follow and the hours of darkness, if not periods of clear sky, are only growing longer as the year winds down. For my next excursion, I need to do a tad more research so that I know what I’m looking at: for now, if it isn’t Ursa Major or Orion, I am basically clueless.

Going out on my bike does remain the one constant that brings my joy, however banjaxed I am and when all other joys have fled, and this weekend looks free of gales or lightning (at least at the moment), so I may will be out and about during the hours of daylight. Hopefully, the combination of some exercise and a chemical cosh at bedtime will restore me to a more normal (for me, and possibly Norfolk) state…

Channelling Gogol: Panem et Circenses

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown amid further easing of restrictions based on the art of chresmomancy, Juvenal’s most famous words suggest that the governance of nations has not progressed as far as we might like to believe in the last nineteen centuries.  I seem to recall that the British did seek to create parallels between their empire and its Roman antecedent and so perhaps this continuing resonance should not be so surprising.  I presume it is only be a matter of weeks (or days) before a horse is made a special adviser to the government.  Where are the Prateorian Guard when we need them?

As part of an attempt to feel mildly useful at the moment, I am involved in three separate COVID-19 studies: two of which came about via my membership of the Cambridge BioResource, which is less scary than it sounds.  One of these has me completing a very extensive bi-weekly survey which attempts to gauge the state of my mental health: a brave project at the best of times.  I have noticed that with the last couple of questionnaires, my state of mind has deteriorated substantially relative my earlier responses.  Clearly, there will be multiple reasons for this.  I have been separated from my friends and family for more than three months now: I’ve bumped into a few from time to time in the flesh and see a small subset regularly via a screen but the feeling of isolation must be growing stronger.  I could also note that the weather for the last week has not been very conducive to exploring on my bike, and so I’ve been spending less time outside and in nature.  However, I think a key factor has been the gradual erosion of my hope that the world we will emerge into is one that will justify the effort of sticking around.

In its patchy efforts to support the economy, the governmant appears to have chosen to throw everything (and a sizeable proportion of the people) I care about under the bus.  Almost my entire economic activity, once we have dealt with the foundational levels of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, can be directly linked to small independent pubs, cafés and breweries and the arts: live music, theatre, galleries, dance, spoken word and, of course, books! Some of these will shortly be allowed to open again (albeit, for theatres, without one of their primary roles) but in almost all cases this is an invitation to increase the rate at which they haemorrhage money and rack up losses.  Nevertheless, many are trying to do so despite the huge costs of delivering both social distancing and “more” given the difficulty of sourcing perspex, masks and hand sanitiser et al and the recent steep inflation affecting the price of such items.  They recognise their vital role as places of community: something we have been starved of for so long.  I suspect some also fear that their take-out businesses will suffer as giant, chain pubs and restaurants re-open.

As well as many friends being laid off, Southampton has already seen NST Theatres go into adminstration and the closure of the Stable, a very decent pizza and cider restaurant which was a regular host to live music (and to me drinking slightly too much cider): these both from a single pair of new buildings which are at the heart of the city’s Cultural Quarter.  I’m sure many other places have already gone, I’m just not yet aware that their temporary closure for COVID has become permanent: and I fear many more will be lost in the weeks ahead.  The feeling I get from friends in music is that the hope of anything very much live occurring in 2020, apart from drive-in gigs, is looking decreasingly likely. Even if musicians and artists can keep going somehow into 2021, will there be anywhere left for them to perform: no doubt the already famous will still have stadia to visit but will there be any grassroots left?  Without roots, and the whole ecosystem that surrounds them, very little will grow…

Still, for the 99% of us not consigned to the ever growing statistic of excess mortality, life goes on.  Major, and positive, changes have taken place in the organisation of my flat: having time on my hands does (very occasionally) translate into concrete action.  With lockdown, I came to realise that my television was not justifying the space it consumes as, even while stuck at home (rather than being out every night), I was rarely using it.  So, I splashed out on a new, 32″ 4K monitor to replace both my existing monitor and the TV.  This enabled a re-organisation of my living/working space to give me a lot more room.  It also enabled the removal of around a dozen cables of various forms and seems to have given me back the window as a room feature: if only the glass were a tad less filthy…  My reforming zeal has also extended to the bedroom and I can now walk around three sides of my bed largely unimpeded by floor-living junk!  It has only taken seven years to tidy up after moving in: I think I’m improving!

I am sure I am far from alone in discovering in recent weeks how little of the stuff I own I actually use, even if I have literally nothing else to do.  Lockdown has provided a presentiment of retirement and I’m starting to think that my ambitious plans for self-improvement and the acquistion of new skills, once my working life is done, may not make the degree of progress that pre-2020 me fondly imagined.  If anything, my existing skills seem to be draining away the more time I, theoretically, have to improve them: somehow time, like fine sand, seems to slip through my grasp ever faster as the weeks progress with less-and-less being achieved.  I can’t help feeling that my life is a living metaphor for the concept of entropy…

At the start of the year, after 15 years of procrastination, I finally decided it was time to face the horror of estate agents and solictors, and sell my flat in Cambridge.  I never planned to become a landlord, but thanks to a cock-up by the developers, I was unable to sell the flat at the time I moved out and it has taken me a while to resolve the issue: fools don’t only rush in, sometimes they just sit on things for years.  All was going well until a global pandemic broke out: truly, my timing is impeccable.  Still, despite the difficulties, I finally managed to exchange contracts and complete last Friday.  I am now the proud owner-operator of only the single tiny flat in which I reside and am mortgage-free.  I feel that being without debt (beyond this month’s spending on my credit card) for the first time since 1987 should be boosting my positivity but I don’t think the fact has entirely sunk-in yet.  Perhaps I need to buy a bottle of Aldi champagne for a thrifty celebration (alone given the current circs) to fully appreciate my good fortune…

In other getting-things-done news, I finally cleaned up and brought back into full service my best bike: the steel-framed retro(ish) beauty I had built for me when I lived back in Cambridge.  It has seen very little use in the last seven years, but with all the sunshine (I refuse to allow it to become wet or muddy) it was time for it to shine again.  It was such a joy to ride it again after all these years and its acceleration and ability to elide hills was something of a contrast to the aluminimum framed 29er mountain bike which is my day-to-day workhorse on the roads of Southampton.  While my steel steed lacks the cushioning suspension to insulate my buttocks form the worst of the local road surfacing, the change in posture and different saddle do seem more comfortable on my much abused nethers.  I think this evening the weather may, after a week of heavy rain and very stong winds, by good enough to take it out for a spin and I can hardly wait!

Despite some of the ramblings above, I can mostly stay positive by focusing on the short term and drinking (this latter, as part of my plan to keep a couple of my favourite local pubs and breweries going: I gain no pleasure from it).  Superman had his Fortess of Solitude, which given its location may be growing increasingly damp on a warming world, and I have my own – now much tidier – analogue.  My own Fortress is largely constructed from music and books.  Lockdown gigs and other video sightings of third party homes suggest other people are able to own shelves without them immediately being filled with books: in some ways I admire the purely decorative shelf, but have come to accept that such a thing does not lie in my own future.  The latest addition to my groaning shelves has been Intae the Snaw by Thomas Clark: a set of poems translated into Scots.  It is amazing and I am now totally obsessed by the Scots language – and by my embarrassing attempts to pronounce it (sometimes, being locked-down alone has its upsides).  It has such marvellous words, each poem yields at least half-a-dozen that are entirely new to me: and I’ve read a decent amount by Scottish authors over the years.  How, for example, have I lived more for than 54 years without ‘clanjamfrie’ in my vocabulary: a word with particular resonance to our current leadership.

All the while such delights can still enter my life, I think I’ll stick around: though now I have something other than debts to pass on, should perhaps prepare a will.  I just need to decide where should I divest my very modest holdings, that the world is left doubly a better place by my leaving it…

He does all his own stunts, you know

This blog may have given the impression that I live surrounded by carrara marble (less expensive that I’d thought) and precious metals, bathe in Santovac 5 (not a practical or desirable bathing fluid, but reassuringly expensive) and have an extensive staff (below stairs) to cater to my every whim.  If so, you have been misled: I don’t have so much as a cleaner, let alone a stunt man.  Frankly, I’m not sure that in my quotidien existence I’d have enough use for a stunt double to make it worth hiring one on a full time basis: though this week one might have been handy.

Somewhere in the cloud, in an unfashionable corner of Facebook, there is a short video from Tuesday of the author performing a near-prefect back lever on gymnastic rings for a good two seconds.  The more tech-savvy among you may be able to track down this screen gem.  As the title of this post suggests, this is the actual author and has not been faked.  On this occasion, I was fully in control of my movements – or I was until the oxygen ran out (I cannot yet breathe in the full hold).

Later that evening, thanks to the malign efforts of a feline assailant, the author performed another acrobatic manoeuvre but this time without so much control.  As I was cycling up to the theatre, a ginger cat (its colour is not relevant, but is included to add substance to the account) decided to hurl itself under the front wheel of my bike.  If I am known for anything, it is for my lightening reflexes, and so I was able to stop the bike without hitting the animal assassin.  Despite liking to think of myself as a dangerous maverick, it would seem that I am still bound by Newton’s Laws of Motion.  So, while my bike stopped very quickly and efficiently, my own journey did not cease at quite the same time.  As a result, I sailed over my handlebars and landed in a crumpled heap on the road, somewhat entangled with my bike.  Sadly, there is no footage of this incident, but I like to imagine that my passage through the air was marked by its singular grace before my travels were brought to an abrupt end by the tarmac.

What happened next, says quite a lot about me – though does not necessarily show the author in the most favourable or logical light.  Having come to rest, I lay there for a moment or two cursing my assailant – who had vanished into the night by this stage (it failed to leave any insurance details or make any sort of apology, but I suppose that’s cats for you).  I then returned to my feet and checked for witnesses and whether I would need to attempt to “style-out” my unconventional dismount.  My isolation confirmed, my first concern was for damage to the bike.  This seemed ok and so I mounted it again and continued on my way.  This involved a degree of discomfort, but seemed to go alright until I came to park my bike at journey’s end.  At this point, I believe my body moved from embarrassment into shock and I felt quite unsteady on my feet.  Nonetheless, I made it to the foyer of the Nuffield Theatre looking only slightly like Banquo’s ghost.  At this stage, I went more fully into shock – which is an interesting experience, lots of tingling in the extremities, a reduced ability to form coherent sentences and feelings not unlike those that arise just before you faint.  Luckily, at this point I was surrounded by people who know me (and that I do not normally look like one of the undead) and had access to a chair: so I sat down.  Staff at the Nuffield manage to rustle up a glass of coca cola (which seems the modern, more rapidly conjured equivalent of hot, sweet tea) and so unusual did I feel that I actually drank it.  I soon started to feel much more normal (or at least like myself, which may not be the same thing) and it was only at this stage that I decided to ascertain the damage to my body (a rather long time after checking the state of the bike). There were cuts, grazes and contusions along with some minor bleeding on my legs and some discomfort from my hands which had presumably broken my fall.  Inspection of my cycle helmet, which was the only serious protection I’d provided to my body, indicated that it had not had been called upon to serve in the “incident”.

Most of the damage to the author was of a nature that he regularly inflicts upon himself by his inability to walk round objects, preferring to take the short cut through them, but the damage to my left hand and wrist was more severe.  As a result, I decided against cycling home and thought the bus would be a better option.  A friend decided that this was not appropriate either and, while was eventually convinced not to take me straight to casualty (without passing Go), insisted on driving me home and on regular text updates that I was still numbered among the living.  (*** Spoiler alert *** I survived)

I must say that if you are a Friend of the Nuffield Theatre you are not part of  a one-way friendship, or it certainly hasn’t been that way for me.  Being a “regular” definitely has its perks when it comes to arriving at a venue in a sub-par condition.

So, I had an unexpectedly early return home (without my bike) and decided to start icing my left hand with a freezer pack.  Yesterday morning, with my left hand/wrist still giving me gyp, I took myself to the Minor Injuries Unit at the nearby Royal South Hampshire.  On the basis of this trip, I would suggest that the NHS is now a provider of car parking with a small healthcare side business.  Signage to the various car parks was extremely clear, but that to any kind to medical facility substantially less so.  Still, having found the MIU and filling in an extensive form (not ideal with damaged hands), I was seen very quickly.  It seems unlikely that I have broken anything, I’ve just strained or sprained my wrist and I was told to continue with exactly the attempts at self-medication I was already using (on my recent performance when it comes to self-diagnosis, a career in the medical profession must be on the cards).

I have now moved on from the rigid freezer pack to the more malleable form of a bag of Waitrose Essential Peas and Beans (broad and french) to soothe my sprain (well, it was that or a pack of frozen broccoli, which I felt would be less conducive to a swift recovery).  Yes, this is dangerously middle class but I hope it is speeding my return to full function.  When required, I take painkillers – but mostly I can function without.  My left-hand is fine for typing and can play the piano and guitar a little, though fff and barre chords are currently ixnayed.  I’m right handed but make a surprising amount of use of my left (as I am now discovering), but I am slowly finding work-arounds.  Even remotely heavy lifting is currently out of the question (as are gymnastics) and buttons are surprisingly challenging: but life can broadly continue as usual while I heal.  I must admit that the lack of serious exercise is starting to get to me already, I’m trying to think of a workout that can be performed without use of my left-hand – but the options seem limited.  I may have to use a treadmill and actually run: urgh!

Pleasingly, my wrist has finally become somewhat swollen: there is little more dispiriting than being a brave little soldier when nobody knows you’re injured (another positive of this post).  I am also taking this is a sign that the process of recovery is underway…

Fly-tipping

A “sport” many might consider easier than the traditional(?) cow-tipping, but I would beg to differ.  Some might imagine that the fly’s lower mass would make the task easier, but I would point out that your typical fly has its centre of gravity (and mass, for that matter) much nearer the ground than its bovine counterpart.  The fly further enhances its stablity relative to its mooing rival by dint of its two additional legs.  Perhaps most importantly, not only can the fly see the potential tipper coming from a much wider range of angles but also has the option of taking to the air: not something the earth-bound Fresian or Hereford can manage (without some sort of powered exoskeleton, which I think would be against the spirit – if not the rules – of the sport).

Why, you might ask, have you been subjected to the previous paragraph?  Well, it is because the author was tempted to indulge in a little fly-tipping of late (based on its more common definition).  Actually, to be honest, he was more tempted to arrange a burial at sea (it is somehow a more romantic end), but as a species we have used the oceans as a dumping ground for far too long (presumably on the basis that out-of-sight equals out-of-mind which in turn banishes the unwanted matter from existence: something which even disposal in black hole may struggle to guarantee) and I felt it would be poor form on my part to add to their burden.

Following the emptying of the storage unit, I had some stuff that needed disposal.  This stuff could not be placed into the bin, nor was it substantial enough to count as bulky waste, and so it was up to me to take it to the tip (or recyling centre as I believe we should now call them – though that description would hold more water in South Cambs than it does in South Ampton).  In common with most municipal tips, my nearest one is not located or laid out in a manner which is friendly to the pedestrian or cyclist with rubbish in need of the last rites (but wishing to avoid them his- or her-self).   However, the city council is clearly worried that its traffic-friendly policies are not attracting enough precious vehicles into the city and hopes that the additional traffic generated by the tip will bring its dream of gridlock a little closer.  Having given my car away some time ago, I was forced to hazard my disposal trip on my bicycle.

On a positive note, the disposal process worked – my rubbish is gone and I am still walking (or cycling) through the shadow of the valley of death.  On the downside, I may be unable to have children: which, should perhaps be counted as part of the upside.  Does anyone really want these genes to be propogated?

I have been mountain biking though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should clarify that no mountain was involved.  BUT, I have ridden a mountain bike, off-road, on unprepared surfaces in terrain with closely grouped contour lines.  Technically, the areas involved in North Yorshire and the North Pennines did not involve mountains, just hills, but I think the principles of the activity were fully covered (including a sudden, unplanned dismount into a stream).  I thought this – and 3.5 years living in Southampton – had prepared me for cycling on uneven road surfaces: but I was wrong.

The route between my tiny home and the tip contains quite the worst surface (whilst metalled, I fear I cannot call it a “road” for fear of being called before an OED Board of Enquiry) I have ever had the misfortune to experience from a bike.  If anyone wishes to dislodge a loose tooth, sheep tick or unwanted limb or spouse, could I recommend cycling along Third Avenue (in either direction): it will do the trick.  I do seem to have retained most of my body’s vital appurtenances (and several of my fillings) – but the frequent, heavy impact between the saddle and my nether regions may have destroyed any residual hope for further grandchildren that my parents might have been nurturing.

I think I can say that the Romans would despair of what we have made of their legacy, at least in terms of their transport infrastructure.  Next time (if there is a next time), let’s just say that I shall be wearing a lot more padding “down there”, or should I embrace a future as a soprano?

It was a(nother) dark and stormy day

We find ourselves dragged kicking-and-screaming into cyber Monday.  I’m sure that as St Andrew was tied to a rakishly-angled cross, he was dreaming that one day his sacrifice would be marked by a torrent of emails trying to flog me (and many more besides) discounted tat.

Cyber Monday does sound worryingly like a normal Monday which has had various of its biological parts replaced with technological augmentations.  It would certainly appear that resistance is futile and that our individuality is as nothing in the face of this new onslaught.  In deference to its Greek etymological roots, I insist on pronouncing ‘cyber’ with a hard C which does rather bring Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond to mind – but also hope that it will pass.

Anyway, that is more of an amuse bouche than the main meat of my thesis.  The weekend was preceded by the soi-disant Black Friday, an event imported from the US without also acquiring the associated bank holiday which gives it the ‘meaning’.  Given that the main purpose of the day appears to involve acquiring electrical goods during a riot, it seem more natural to hold the UK version of the event on a Friday in early August to commemorate the events of 2011.

It would seem that I am railing in vain against this new addition to the continued commercialisation of the calendar – despite a savagely satirical post at roughly this time last year.  I could begin to suspect that GofaDM is not having the world-changing impact I had been imagining!  I realised all was lost when the universe started taking the name seriously and delivered an almost Black Friday with oppressive cloud cover meaning that the day barely became light.

When I was a lad, there used to be a recursive story, in which each iteration of the tale began with the words “It was a dark and stormy night…”.  Of late, while the nights remain dark they seem to be relatively storm-free.  The frequent storms which have afflicted November seem to be focusing their efforts on the daytime: when I need to be out-and-about on Shank’s pony or my bike.  There has seldom been a better time to  be a vampire: near 24 hour (at least semi) darkness and excellent travel conditions in the middle of the night.  My gym, at least is open 24/7, and so I have been tempted to reorder my life to a more nocturnal pattern.  I’d be a lot less windswept and my waterproofs would see rather less service.  I could go the the theatre and/or music gigs between breakfast and lunch in my version of the morning.  All I need is a job based around the working hours of the land of Oz…

I begin to suspect that the stories of my youth may not have been climatically accurate.  Or is this another element of the malign influence of climate change?  I don’t remember the UK being so windy when I was a nipper, but I suppose I did spend rather less time on a bicycle in those days.  Maybe it is of a piece with the rather misleading advice on Iberian precipitation promulgated by the musical My Fair Lady.  Despite the insistence of one of that pieces most popular numbers, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the higher ground with the plains being rather arid.  It would seem that just because something rhymes, it doesn’t make it true.  Still, it could be worth a try: has any political party ever tried using rhyme to make its lies and half-truths a tad more palatable?

The Boar’s Head

Please read the title carefully and so understand that this will not be a post about the fountainhead of GofaDM.  No, I shall be musing about different approaches to the concept of hospitality in our debased, market-obsessed age.  I shall be illustrating these musings – using words rather than a slideshow or an ill-advised excursion into the visual arts – by reference to some of my activities over the last weekend (and probably some other entirely gratuitous material which takes my fancy).

From humble beginnings, hospitality is now often described – including by its corporate practitioners – in unhappy conjunction with the word ‘industry’.  While the word has a fairly broad definition, I still feel that the phrase ‘industrial hospitality’ is not one liable to induce warm feelings in those exposed to its activities.  The head of a boar was, of course, considered a symbol of hospitality from its more halcyon days – today, the head of an accountant might be more appropriate.

Later this week, I shall be visiting Cambridge for the first time in almost six months and so have booked some accommodation: despite the milder temperatures July affords, I decided against sleeping rough.  When I travel – whether for business or pleasure – my hotel (or equivalent) needs to provide a bed (preferably comfy), a small amount of hanging space, some basic ablutional facilities and free wifi (or, at least a decent 4G signal from Three).  Anything beyond these basics is a bonus, but has little economic value to me: I have not travelled to visit the hotel, I’m there to “do” something(s) in the locale and need a place to rest my weary, activity-tousled head at the end of the day.  In Cambridge, during term-time my needs are satisfied by one of the local Travelodges which offer en-suite ablutions and a desk, chair and television above requirements (but do charge for wifi, so I use my mobile phone as a hot-spot).  When the students are away, I stay in one of the colleges which offer varying facilities but easily meet my minimum requirements and provide a substantial breakfast in the refectory (plus a chance to wallow in nostalgia for my bright college days).  This rarely sets me back more than £50 per night – but even within Cambridge, I could pay as much as £600 for a hotel room.  What can they possibly be offering that would be worth an extra £550 every night?  How much extra furniture, floor space or additional, fluffier towels can one man use in 20 hours (or so)?  I suppose they might have a gym, but one can readily acquire a DayPass at a much better-equipped local gym for less than a tenner.  In fact, I struggle to think of any combination of additional equipment or services that such an expensive hotel could offer that I couldn’t acquire vastly more cheaply from an alternative local supplier.

On Saturday, I took afternoon tea at a rather posh hotel a short cycle ride from New Milton station (just across the New Forest from my home).  If I wanted a room for the same dates as I shall be staying in Cambridge, I would need to find £800 per night – though this would be in a ‘treehouse suite’ (more a wood and glass structure, raised above ground level on one side, than my idea of a treehouse).  This does provide a forest view and terrace (with hot tub), among other features – but given that I could take a decent holiday to almost any European forest for the cost of a single night’s stay, this is not making for a compelling commercial proposition.  The hotel does have some rather pleasant grounds and not one but two helipads(!), but could not offer a single decent Sheffield stand for the visitor to secure his bike (only the very inferior and insecure style where your front wheel is held in a ‘V’ of thin metal, open to the elements).  Luckily, my expression of dismay when faced with the poor cycle security was noticed by one of the porters who offered to valet park my bike somewhere more secure (and under cover).

Afternoon tea was perfectly pleasant – and did allow me to enjoy the grounds, and particularly the kitchen garden (I am turning into my parents) at a very reasonable rate – but did seem to have been designed to a budget.  The rather odd combination of an attempt at luxury and the fact that every sandwich soldier, mini scone and cake had clearly been counted and the jam and cream portions precisely measured.  In fact, as a table of six we had to share three teapots (one for each type of the three teas selected) but only two strainers and only a single small saucer of jam.  Their attempt to mix the feeling of extravagance with this accountant-led, thrift was oddly jarring.  Still, I didn’t really go for the tea or the hotel but rather for the sparkling company (not provided by the hotel) who made it a very enjoyable afternoon.

I fled this slightly ersatz luxury by bike and rail for, in theory, much more basic surroundings at the Courthouse in Eastleigh.  This is, among other things, a performance space for music and provides studios for a number of artists.  It is sited in the old magistrate’s court and is a tad tricky to find (not helped by my expectations of a white neo-Pallandian edifice – rather than the squat, modern grey-brick building I eventually encountered via the miracle of GPS).  The Courthouse makes no pretensions towards luxury, but for my money made a much better stab at hospitality than its temporal predecessor.  It too lacked bike stands, but my bicycle was quickly stowed in a corridor out of the way.  The staff were very welcoming – as was the foyer’s greyhound who certainly made me feel wanted (I have yet to meet a greyhound both without the sweetest of natures or more than two brain cells to rub together).  The Courthouse doesn’t have a licence (for £2 you can bring as much liquor from home as you like) but does offer a range of snacks and supplied me with a bottle of water to slake my post-cycle ride thirst for only 50p (which may be the cheapest soft drink I have bought in many years).  The furniture in the foyer – and the two courtrooms used as venues – may not shout luxury hotel (but might be able to say boutique hotel in a stage whisper) and certainly didn’t all match but it was very comfy.  There is even a small art gallery to visit while you wait for the gig to start.  The whole place has a wonderfully friendly and informal feel.

The gig itself was a line-up of three talented guitarists with a range of styles which I enjoyed from one of the most comfortable seats upon which I have ever had the pleasure to rest my buttocks (it must be in the top three): I even had heaps of legroom!  The venue is literally a courtroom and you can still see the raised platform on which the judge and other court officials used to sit, though disappointingly no sign of the dock.  It was a very convivial evening, though apparently in the winter visitors might be advised to bring a coat and gloves.

Given the choice between the high-cost, industrial hospitality of an upmarket hotel and the low-cost, ‘craft’ hospitality of an arts centre, I’ll take the latter every time (future dates should considered themselves warned!).  It seems to me that the rich (or at least some of them) really do have more money than sense!

The king across the water

When I moved to Southampton a little more than twenty months ago, one of the clear advantages of my new location was its proximity to the widely-admired (if inaccurately named) New Forest.  Given that it lies little more than half-a-dozen miles away (as the crow or drone flies), I could regularly partake of its arboreal delights.  Prior to last Wednesday, the number of trips I had taken to the Forest could be counted using the fingers of one foot (a foot, I should emphasise, unaffected by radiation-based mutation).

Finally, last Wednesday as the temperature soared in a series of events we may come to look back on as The Summer™, I decided the time had come to visit the hunting grounds of William the Bastard (or Conqueror as I believe he preferred).  So, packing up a few essentials into a spotted handkerchief (OK, a messenger bag) I cycled down to the Town Quay to seek passage across Southampton Water.   There is a regular ferry that will take the traveller over to Hythe, but as I discovered, it is very much a no-frills operation.  This lack of frills extends to an almost total lack of any signage (there was in fact one sign, but someone was standing in front of it, totally obscuring it).  The potential user will also be well-advised to carry a lot of change as one’s ticket is purchased from slightly modified parking machines which do not take credit cards, notes or even the current ten pence piece.  I lacked suitable change, but luckily the ferry company will exchange your notes for small bags of change acceptable to the machines – at a very competitive 1-1 exchange rate.  Such formalities out of the way, my cycle and I boarded the MV Great Expectations and made the short crossing over to one of this country’s many Hythes.

In Hythe, the cyclist can join NCN 2 which promises to transport you to the New Forest and thence to Brockenhurst and probably beyond.  I will admit that it does do this… eventually.  The routing through Hythe and Dibden has clearly not been optimised for either speed or distance and the signage is a little thin on the ground, but patience (coupled with a little luck, an A-Z and a 1:25,000 map from the Ordnance Survey) did eventually deliver me to the edge of the New Forest.  Entering the forest proper required my bicycle to make its first ever crossing of a cattle grid – which it handled like a pro (though it was less comfy for the rider).

The first thing you notice about the New Forest is the relative scarcity of trees – or at least on this eastern edge, where gorse-covered heathland dominates the scenery.  The second thing you notice is that New Forest ponies are not rare – there are loads of them, and (in common with most motorists, some cyclists and a few pedestrians) they clearly believe that they own the road.  I am generally quite nervous cycling near horses (or ponies – though the Shetland variety might be OK) given that they are larger and heavier than me and tend to the unpredictable – but luckily, most of the ponies seemed more interested in taking on four-wheeled opponents than a middle-aged cyclist.  Otherwise, cycling around the heathland in the balmy weather was really very pleasant (the scenery is of a type more associated – by me -with a holiday then a short troll from home).  Seeking refreshment I stopped off in the village of Beaulieu and eventually used the Montagu Arms Hotel as it seemed to be the sole provider of a stand to secure my bike (though the stands may have been provide to secure a four-footed form of transport).  This was a long way from the cheapest option for tea and cake, but I felt they should be rewarded for their bike (or horse) stands and they did provide a lovely garden for the refuelling.  They were also very generous with the quantity of tea (nearly enough to refloat the MV Great Expectations) and the parkin (the only cake on offer) was excellent – also very nice facilities to purge some of the tea before continuing on my way.

I then cycled back to Hythe, using my own route through Dibden Purlieu to the ferry terminal which was substantially more efficient then NCN 2 (though did require navigation of a rather busy roundabout).  With a few minutes to kill before the ferry (actually, more than a few as the timetable seems more a suggestion than a rigid commitment) I stumbled upon an excellent greengrocer which provided me with local tomatoes and rhubarb – if only I could find one nearer to home.

All-in-all an excellent afternoon out, and probably my longest cycle ride since moving to the south coast.  My body held up rather well to the rigours, though I was reminded why – when I used to cycle such distances daily – I wore padded boxer shorts.  Still, I have no real intention to pass on my genes and the contents of my under-crackers seem to be healing nicely.  I shall have to obtain a map of the cycle routes in the Forest and try and allow less than 20 months to elapse before my next visit – perhaps next time I shall take my bike on the train and delve deeper into the Nova Foresta (as the Domesday Book would have it).

Car tales

The more obsessive reader may recall that, early in the summer, I decided to release my car from its bonded servitude (or some form of hire purchase as the finance company would prefer I call it) by making the soi-disant balloon payment (sadly, no balloon was forthcoming).  At this point it became mine (all mine!) and I promised the GofaDM reader that I would start to use it on a more regular basis, i.e. more than twice per year.

I am sorry to report that I find myself to be a liar – since making that rash promise, the car has not moved so much as an inch (relative to the surface of the earth).  I will try and blame Edinburgh and volume of work (and work-related travel) for my failure – but would have to admit that I didn’t have any real need to use the poor, neglected vehicle and failed to generate such a need.  I have used the car so little for so long, that I have almost completely lost the habit for driving – and struggle to remember why “normal” people do so.  The traffic in Southampton and dire state of its roads may also act as a disincentive.  The city is oddly traffic-bound for a place so relatively hostile to both pedestrians and cyclists.  I feel it should try and satisfy at least one travelling constituency – and I would suggest that those on two wheels or none would be by far the cheapest and would also require much less wholesale demolition of the city (the Germans did their best during the last unpleasantness and town planners tried to finish what they had begun, but still the traffic-hardened arteries of the city can probably only be eased by a major bombing campaign – which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating).

I have learned at least one thing from this lack of vehicular movement: I am unable to successfully identify a lime tree.  Unter den Linden always sounds a wonderfully exciting boulevard in Berlin (immortalised both in song and the Kontakte TV series from which I learned my rather limited German) but it would be no place to park your car.  After a mere week or two, my normally red car is rendered almost black – though even this colour is somewhat concealed by the compost-heap of vegetative debris shed by the aforementioned arboreal menace.  In my defence, I would say that I have parked the car under at least three different trees – which to my eyes appeared markedly difference in both leaf and more general form – but all swiftly coated my car in gunk.  I am starting to wonder if the linden is a shape-changing tree – able to camouflage itself to fox the unwary.  Or has the lime been unfairly singled out and, in fact, many trees share its unwanted habits?

Anyway, yesterday my guilt finally overcame my apathy and I took the car out for a little drive.  As a treat, I took it over to Southampton’s main (so far as I know) household waste recycling centre (or the “tip” as I will continue to call it).  This was to dispose of some junk that has been awaiting this trip for a little over twelve of your earth months – it’s best not to hurry such things.  The tip proved functional, though rather poorly labelled compared to my previous experiences in South Cambs – most containers were unlabelled so you have to guess what might belong in them (or ask a tip-man).  It is also right down at the docks – if you go any further you have to join a very long line of container lorries – and not very well signposted (by the time you find a signpost you have arrived – it also helps to know the acronym HWRC is going to be important to your excursion).  Still, my task was a success.  Excitingly, after a mere 39 months the car has finally travelled a total of 2000 miles.  Yay!

Actually, before the drive I had to take the car to be washed to enable me to see out – which kept a band of our eastern European brethren busy with soap and power washers for quite some time.  Still, my car has once again been restored to its rubicund best.  Before the trip, I did a little cycle-based reconnaissance and believe I have found a tree-free location to re-park the old IQ where it is now ensconced.  Passing it on my bike earlier today (after 24 hours), I could see that it remained clean and detritus free – so far, so good.

I should also re-make my oath to use the car more often, declarations made in public (or in front of the modest readership of GofaDM) are supposed to be more binding psychologically – and with winter coming (though, hopefully, without ice-based zombies) there should be more excuses to go for a drive.  If nothing else, it will keep the battery charged and help me to avoid finding out whether petrol has a “best before” date.

Wake up sheeple!

Last night, I went to the cinema.  I almost didn’t go as the weather forecast suggested the evening would be exceeding wet (and I would be en vélo) and I did worry that the film would be a little grown-up for me.  As it transpired, it was rather less wet than advertised (though made up for this later) and I had passed sufficiently far into adulthood (though this latter assertion is very much a matter of opinion).

I am so glad I went – it was probably the most amazing film I have ever seen.  Whilst I am no Barry Norman (or modern equivalent), it is up against some serious competition this year alone.  Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s latest – was also an incredible movie and managed the amazing task of making the protagonist seem more “real” than most “actual” people.  I somehow left disappointed that I couldn’t go out for a beer with Mason Jr, as he was (mostly) fictional.  However, Citizen Four trumped it – despite being a documentary, a genre I tend to avoid at the cinema.

It tells the story of Edward Joseph (Ed) Snowden from his first contact with the film’s Director, through his revelations and beyond to cover some of the consequences for him and those journalists involved in telling the story.  The young lad (29 at the time) comes across as very likeable, principled and – despite his denials – as close to selfless as one is ever likely to find.  This contrasts with the governments of the US and UK who come across as almost totally unprincipled (no real surprise there I guess) and willing to do almost anything to protect themselves (again, I’m probably not going to make the front page of the papers with that particular revelation).  Barack Obama really comes across as a man whose principles (assuming they ever existed) have not survived the achievement of his ambitions, very much in line with the expectations of the 1st Baron Acton (though they never met).

I suppose I have been broadly ashamed of the UK government for some time (pre-dating, though accelerated by, the current incumbents), but this film did bring this into even sharper focus.  So draconian (a word I was disappointed to discover has nothing to do with dragons) is UK anti-terror legislation that the film’s director and several of its speakers were unable to visit for this UK première – though could go to the US for the première there.  It was also clear that whilst the US government is routinely invading the privacy (and liberties) of its citizenry, this is as nothing compared to the UK government’s activities through a GCHQ programme called TEMPORA (though, it must be said that its primary listening facilities are sited in truly beautiful scenery).  It was also interesting that the European Union was far more interested in protecting the human rights of we Brits than our own government – again, probably not that shocking given that human rights seem to be anathema to our current political masters.

Only yesterday, I recall news headlines about how busy the police were dealing with terrorism.  Regularly, we hear of yet more people being arrested under anti-terror legislation – but we rarely hear of any of these people making it to the courts and never (so far as I can recall) hear of an actual conviction.  In fact, this week has yielded news of at least one person making it as far as the courts.  I haven’t being paying much attention, but he (or it may have been she, as I said I really haven’t been paying attention) appeared to have made some threats about Tony Blair (but then again, which of us hasn’t been tempted) and have his home address (which I suspect is not hard to find).  This strikes me as a far lower level of threat than almost any even mildly public female figure receives on Twitter on a daily basis.  It would seem that if the terrorists were to restrict their activities to threatening the stronger sex, they would be able to continue unmolested by the forces of authority.  Indeed, although preaching hate while in possession of a beard and tan is a very serious offence, doing so while in possession of a pint and a fag is a loveable new force in politics.  I know Islam isn’t too keen on beer – its loss – but its more radical adherents might want to learn some lessons from UKIP, an organisation with which they share more than a few views.

Of course, some will say that I have nothing to fear from all this surveillance if I haven’t done anything wrong.  If I’m being honest, I must admit that – despite my attempts to appear as a devil-may-care maverick in GofaDM – I am dreadfully law-abiding in real life.  I won’t even walk on the grass or jump a red light on my bike (OK, I have occasionally done the latter late at night when the alternative was to wait several hours for a car to arrive and wake the traffic lights from their bike-ignoring somnolence).  I must admit that I was tempted by a little civil disobedience earlier in the week as I cycled past a very expense car (of a marque which was probably once British) which was clearly owned by someone senior in Wonga (corporate loan sharks to the desperate – surely, it is only a matter of time before the other staples of organised crime are brought into the corporate fold), but in the end my essentially law-abiding nature won out over the temptation to a little criminal damage

I suspect the law-abiding only have nothing to fear if you trust the government – and have you seen them?  I wouldn’t trust them not to mis-use a tea-cosy, let alone the personal data of an entire nation.  I suspect the only thing protecting us is their incompetence.

Still, excellent as the film was, I have to admit I didn’t sleep very well last night (though, given my chronic insomnia, this could just be a coincidence).  However, it does make me feel much better about the frequency with which I forget to carry my mobile phone or to turn it back on again after being at a gig (or similar event) – at least it might be making GCHQ work a little harder for my (entirely boring) secrets.  I think I might have to start buying more stuff in cash – just to increase the air of mystery that surrounds my doings.  I am rather tempted by this new life as a spy – at least in some small, rather ineffective ways – and already dislike going more than a few tens of yards in at straight-line when out walking (to throw off, or reveal, a tail – obviously).  I know what you’re thinking, how are these attempts at secrecy consistent with blabbing everything on GofaDM?  Well, (a) I never claimed to be consistent and (b) how do you know I’m not just making this all up?

Returning to Citizen Four, it struck me that it should be required viewing in all citizenship classes in the UK.  The film has a 15 certificate as the F-word is occasionally – and entirely reasonably – used.  I’m not entirely sure what 14 year old the BBFC is trying to protect, but frankly I think that ship has sailed for most children before they reach double figures.  Nevertheless, the film would still work at KS3 even with this certification.  Amusingly, a year to two back, I had a chance to flick through the citizenship test we inflict on foreigners wishing to live here.  The “syllabus” could be divided into three main areas:

1. Facts that would actually be useful to someone new to the UK, this was the smallest area.

2. Some very useful facts if the new citizen wishes to hold their own in a pub quiz, but which would be useless in normal life.

3. By far the latest category covered political and other opinions with varying degrees of basis in fact.

I think the good news here is the UK’s continuing commitment to quizing – a commitment all too evident in education policy which focuses on rote-learning of “facts”.  I think we can all agree that rote learning is the only way to grow the economy of the future (who needs understanding or creativity) – which is good news for me as I was always very good at it!  I look forward to the day when financial success is determined by quiz, rather than the tedious process of economics we use today.

Anyway, I seem to have digressed – and this post was long enough without me wandering off-topic.  My biggest worry on leaving the film was how young Ed is keeping himself (and girlfriend) in Moscow, as I doubt he managed to rescue his savings from the US.  I did wonder if we should be organising a whip-round?  I’d certainly be willing to chip-in.

Given the subject matter of this post, my closing peroration should probably be “Death to the West!” – well, who needs Cornwall anyway. (Sorry Cornwall! It’s nothing personal – just geographical).

Pump up (the jam?)

I’m no expert on the making of conserves – I haven’t made my own in a quarter of a century – but I’m pretty sure that pumping had no part to play in the home-made technique I practised back in the 1980s.  Perhaps Technotronic’s hit referred to the industrial process?  Talking of which, if you work in a jam factory do you get free access to the scum?  When I was a lad, this was a definite perk of hanging around the kitchen when jam was being made as the scum was always the best bit of the jam.  Are Tiptree hiring, I wonder?

However, this post is not about jam, or even marmalade or chutney, that whole digression arose from the need for a pump-based title.

My old track pump – not a euphemism – gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and I’ve been having to keep my bicycle tyres inflated using a compact hand-pump (or, more accurately, lived with an ever decreasing tyre pressure) ever since.  As I read back that last sentence, I feel the ghost of Sid James hovering near – but I shall press on regardless.  The roads of Southampton are an unforgiving medium – more hole than surface in most places (returning home from the flicks in heavy rain one night, the surface was so bad that my rear brake light was riven in two by the force of the vibration from the much decayed surface) – and so with this afternoon’s sunshine I decided it was time to head over to the Hub Cycleworks for a new pump.

My new pump is a thing of beauty, née wonder.  It was the most expensive track pump in the shop (though there was only a choice of two models), but the Bontrager Turbocharger HP is the prince of pumps.  It is a good 3 inches taller than its predecessor: a boon for the tall but older chap looking to manage his bending down.  A further (related) boon is that the pressure gauge is sited at the top of the pump, not ¼” above the floor (where even the shortest of cyclists must struggle to read it).  I no longer have to fiddle around with adapters as I move from Presta to Schrader valves – the pump handles all that for me.  Oh, but the pumping force it generates is revelatory – there is a serous risk I could actual explode my tyres so powerful is it.  Nevermore (to quote the Raven) shall tyre inflation by a good 5 minute workout, the whole process is over in a few seconds.

So good is my new pump that I did not feel right leaving it outside in the bike store (where it might catch a chill or become lonely), but have brought it into the flat.  I think I may buy a special plinth for it, so that it can take pride of place in my parlour as a practical piece of modern, kinetic art.  For now, here it is in the hall (waiting for its plinth to come):

I'm like totally pumped, man!

I’m like totally pumped, man!