I have a dream

Well, if I’m being more honest, “I had a dream”.  This did not involve the aspiration that people would cease being vile to each other on the trivial grounds of how recently (and, indeed, willingly) their ancestors left Africa: I fear humanity is rather too attached to its mutual hatred to give it up during my limited span upon this Earth.  In consequence, I seriously doubt that even a single US state will create a public holiday as a result of this post – though, if any are interested, please feel free to go ahead!  No, my dream relates to my attempts to sojourn in the arms of Morpheus this night just gone.

I am fully aware that other people’s dreams are, if possible, of even less general interest than their baby photos and holiday snaps (though Facebook and its ilk are a brave attempt to fly in the face of this particular, undeniable truth), so I shall try and move swiftly through the dream-world and onto the conclusion (I deliberate avoid the world “punchline”).

As I lay in my hypnogogic state, it would seem that I was on a train journey – but one which was delayed by an unspecified, or now forgotten, incident.  In an attempt to avoid the incident, my train reversed for some distance and then took to the sea to bypass the problem.  Obviously, it remained close to shore – a modern EMU rake is not designed for operation in the open ocean (even a dream must maintain some contact with reality).  High above the sea flew winged men (but no women – this may say something very deep about my subconscious views on female flight-worthiness or be an attempt to retain a PG rating for my slumber as all the flying folk were bare-chested). Their wings had more of the condor about them than the angelic, replacing their arms, and they flew in a manner appropriate to their feathery appendages – no doubt riding thermals from the nearby cliffs.  As well as these flying men, their were also swans which dove – gannet-like – into the briny.  They emerged from the sea in a manner more reminiscent of an ICBM than a bird – it was really quite a remarkable thing to behold.

Even now, I can remember what I thought as I dreamt – still believing, as dreamers often do, that the matters described above were real – that this fascinating behaviour, by a hitherto unknown member of genus Cygnus, would make for a great blog post.  It would seem that even when dreaming, part of my brain is working on content for GofaDM – perhaps there is even another, parallel blog which exists only in the dream world?  Sadly, of course, none of this was real and so I was left with no new material from which to form a post – and so the hunt for fresh inspiration must continue…

ECML

For those unfamiliar with this not-quite-an-acronym, it stands for the East Coast Mainline – the railway that links London to Edinburgh and, some might say, goes on to Aberdeen.  For my money – and as they don’t allow me to ride it for free, it is my money – this is one of the world’s great railway journeys.  It may lack vistas of majestic wildebeest or snow-capped mountain ranges but the traveller gazing out of the window is still offered a smorgasbord of visual treats, albeit of a more understated nature.

Some may feel that the eastern side of the country is boring and flat – and while the latter descriptor may have some truth (a truth probably rather less apparent to the cyclist on the ground) it is far from boring.  For the power station buff, almost the full range of UK generation options is visible – from examples of coal, gas and nuclear powered stations to solar farms (a poor choice of word, as the sun isn’t grown there, merely harvested) and a veritable plethora of windmills.  As the train heads north, the sights (perhaps) grow more obviously dramatic.  As you leave York, there is often a chance to see a steam train in action round the back of the National Railway Museum.  Inspirational views then come thick-and-fast:

  • Durham opens the bidding with the stunning double-header of castle and minster,
  • Newcastle responds with the Tyne and its bridges
  • Alnmouth, a more distant view, raises the stakes and is just one of the most beautiful places on earth (I like to think on a parallel earth, another me is living there)
  • Berwick offers the Tweed followed by a spectacular cliff-top ride before…
  • The final stretch into Edinburgh closes the bidding with rising hills and views of the Firth of Forth.

Flying may be faster, and often cheaper – assuming you have minimal luggage (always my own, personal aim) and little need for liquids or blades (and I always feel naked north of the border without at least a Claymore at my hip) – but it cannot compete in the viewing stakes.  The country seen from the air has a certain novelty value (and is something few of my ancestors could have experienced), but I like the chance to be up-close and personal with a view.  In most flights, at some stage the Captain (or his First Officer) will come over the intercom and hope that we are enjoying the flight.  I always feel ‘enduring’ would be a better word as I’m strapped into a cramped, uncomfortable seat in a metal tube many feet above the ground.  On short flights, there is no entertainment laid on – except for the safety demonstration – and the food is generally unimpressive and expensive.  Any fun that exists will be of my own making – and could have been arranged and enjoyed more readily at home.

The train is (at its best) a very different story: more space to sit and move around with an ever-rolling vista to enjoy out of the window.  You can carry bags full of knives and carry your own bowser and nobody bats an eyelid.  Travelling first class (as is my tendency for longer distances), I enjoy plenty of legroom and (by booking in advance) can easily eat and drink the modest difference in cost over ‘standard’ accommodation.  I think the railways – away from commuter routes – have managed to maintain a little more of their historic romance than the airlines: though a lot has still fallen by the wayside over the years and was probably only available to the rich, even in the past.  I do worry that the economic inequality of today is not generating the same level of romance as its counterpart from yesteryear (or perhaps it just needs the passage of time to work its magic – but I have my doubts).

I have ridden the ECML a lot over the years: for a while I commuted weekly between Newcastle and London and more recently have visited Edinburgh several times each year.  The glory days were under GNER – when, by talking to the staff, I learned how to walk safely along a moving train and discovered that serving food and drink to passengers in First Class was a decent job (it may still be, but I’ve not had such detailed conversations with the “on-train team” in recent years).  Sadly, those days are long gone, poor old GNER was finished off by issues in its parent company: this remains one of life’s little tragedies and a useful reminder that privatised rail companies don’t have to be dreadful.  I fear I may be viewing GNER through the same rose-tinted glasses as an earlier generation views LNER: so if anyone knows that it was actually a dreadful corporation, please take pity on an old codger and keep this knowledge to yourself.  Anyway, I must accept that those days have gone – and I must say that VTEC (the current franchisee) laid on a very fine journey north last Wednesday.

As a result of my somewhat regular transits, the ECML route is very familiar to me and arriving into London, Newcastle and Edinburgh all have the feel of a home-coming of sorts.  In fact, I have come to realise that, for me, many journeys have a feeling of home about them – perhaps more than the static locations in which I have actually resided.  As well as rail journeys, cycling into Sawston, the bus route from Edinburgh to my friend’s house and walking certain streets in Crouch End, Cambridge or Southampton all bring a feeling of belonging.  Is it normal, I wonder, for the domestic realm to be extended out to take in a certain portion of ‘journey’s end’?  For me, I think, this extended demesne forms an essential part of the feeling of ‘home’ – without it, the whole concept becomes too isolated and solipsistic.  Or is this all just part of my continuing (and doomed) attempts to escape from myself?

You’ll believe a man can fly!

Please by reassured that no lycra was harmed (or, indeed, worn) in the making of this post.

Recently, my working life has required me to take to the skies and visit foreign parts – and there will be at least one further such occasion later this month.  Given the failure of mother nature to provide me with my own pair of functional wings (or any other way to overcome the surly bonds of gravitational attraction), I am forced to use that modern mechanical contrivance: the aeroplane.

I am, at best, a nervous flyer.  I do realise that my life is far more likely to be brought to a premature conclusion on my journey to the airport than it is in the air, but being trapped in a packed, metal box high above the ground still makes me decidedly twitchy.  I have come to suspect that airlines – and/or their staff – share my anxiety about the whole process.  Faced with these fears, they have – as generations of fearful humans have before them – fallen back on observing a series of rituals.  These seem entirely arbitrary and vary somewhat from airline to airline, but are fiercely adhered to with all the fervent commitment of the religious fundamentalist.  I am particularly amused by the insistence by all UK-based airlines that in the event that we land on water, our life-jacket should be secured using a double-bow.  I feel this would be a fairly challenging call when relaxed and in a wide-open space, but will be well-nigh impossible when under significant stress in the very cramped confines of a modern aircraft.  I do wonder if it is an attempt to forestall panic, as the passengers will be far too busy trying to tie a double-bow to worry about the potential for their imminent, very damp demise.

I also wonder why, if it does not inflate, my yellow plastic oxygen mask is supplied with a limp, dangling plastic bag.  What purpose does it serve? Other than to extend the safety demonstration by an additional sentence.  Is the plastic bag, perhaps, lucky?  Or does it permit the passenger to indulge in a little auto-erotic asphyxiation as he (or she) plummets to their fiery doom?

As a nervous flyer, the first thing I do on reaching my seat – after my seat belt has been safely fastened (“like this”) – is to check out the safety card.  This identifies the location of the exits on the plane (in a way that the mime used by all cabin crews worldwide does not) and how they are operated – which I feel may become important information.  This card is free of words and instead relies on pictures and pictograms to convey its various messages.  Those are normally cryptic in the extreme – frankly I think I’d have more chance if the card were printed entirely in Chinese – but those used by FlyBe on my flight to Dublin last Thursday were in a league of their own.  So far as I could tell, in order to exit the Dash 8 aircraft one needs to do something with some nearby, geometrically patterned wallpaper – though I was unable to locate this wallpaper or determine what to do with it once found.  On the Embraer 190 which delivered me home, one pictogram showed the front and rear top surface of the plane burning merrily, but no nearby pictograms seemed in anyway to relate to this image.  Was this a serving suggestion?  Would Monsieur Mangetout recommend that the Embraer be eaten flambéed?  I am willing to make myself available to review flight safety cards (for my usual fee) in an attempt to make them a little more readily understood by a typical passenger (or failing that, by me).  I shall await the call from IATA.

I feel some of you may be feeling short-changed by the title, as the only flying covered so far has been the rather prosaic form which relies on a commercial airliner.  Fear not, this post has also been crafted to cover a more personal form of flying achieved by the author only yesterday.

The regular reader will know that I am aiming to represent TeamGB in Rio as a gymnast.  As part of the intensive training required, I am attempting to master the back lever.  This is challenging and a series of progressions are used to reach the objective.  This last week, a giant rubber-band was delivered to the good people at Brightside PT to assist in this process – and yesterday I had my first chance to try it out.  As well as helping me achieve the back lever, it also offers help towards a number of other ring-based activities which I hadn’t previously considered, but which now look to lie within the realms of possibility (or at least share a land-border with them).

With the aid of the rubber band, I was almost immediately able to manoeuvre myself into the correct position for the back-lever – albeit supported in the middle by the aforementioned band.  Cunningly – as you will see below – this band was chosen so that it can easily be removed by use of a green screen and so the user will appear to be performing unaided!

Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Of all the things I have done in my 48.5 years on this planet, this feels the most like flying – and it feels wonderful.  It is worth all the hard work and DOMS involved in preparing for the back lever, just for the amazing feeling of being airborne.  I’d highly recommend it to all readers – though they should perhaps seek medical advice (or check their life insurance is up-to-date) before attempting it (I, of course, take no responsibility for any distress – mental or physical – caused to readers from following any of the advice given in this blog).  Obviously, it will be even better without the support – but that is going to take a little more work.  I can’t believe how stony-faced the typical gymnast looks when performing such manoeuvres – after 24 hours it has still proved almost impossible to wipe the smile off my face.  I do worry that traditional gymnastics training either leaves one hopelessly jaded or is wasted on the young.  I shall endeavour to retain my child-like (in terms of mental age, at least) enthusiasm – even should I become a world famous gymnast (or failing that, a terrible lesson to you all).

The Traveller

I look at myself as a traveller, rather than a tourist.  This is not because I consider myself superior to the tourist hordes (though obviously, I do and am), and not because I go out of my way to seek out the authentic local experience (though I do try and avoid the nearest fast food chain, Irish pub or venue serving “English” food).  No, I make the distinction because the tourist generally chooses their destination with the object of seeking after pleasure – whereas my destinations are chosen for me by “the man” and my object is business-related.

After more than a year with work taking me little further afield than the horrors of Woking, the last month I have been racking up the air miles (or I would have been, if I travelled by airlines which offered such “incentives”).  Milan, Paris and Berlin have all be graced with my suited presence.

As a result of all this travel, I have discovered that Stansted Airport is entirely useless.  It is very close to Fish Towers, but has flights to no useful destinations unless your business involves sun, sea, alcohol abuse and gland games – sadly (or, if I’m honest, happily), mine does not (yet).  This means several hours of travel, before I see the airport let alone a plane, as I trek to Heathrow or Gatwick (neither of which are sited with the best interests of the denizen of South Cambs).

I have also been reminded about how vile flying truly is.  The poor flyer has to pay to be treated like a bovine with a grudge against the state who is possessed of a sufficient knowledge of chemistry combined with and weakly anchored enough moral compass to do something violent about it.  After you have cleared this feeble pretence at security, you put on your hiking boots and munch on your Kendal mint cake as you walk to a neighbouring county (or state) to find your gate before being locked into a cramped metal box with lousy air for a couple of hours.  I really feel that they should be paying us to endure this – but apparently, large numbers of people are willing to part with hard cash for this mis-treatment.

ImageMy trip to Paris was very different as I took the train, as the good Lord intended.  No nasty airport terminal full of the worst that multinational chains can offer.  Half-decent patisserie from Le Pain Quotidien and a very brief stroll through security carrying all the liquid I could handle.  A comfy lounge with free wi-fi followed by a very short stroll onto a comparatively spacious and comfortable carriage.  Even better, the train leaves from the centre of London and arrives in the centre of Paris – rather than an obscure location some miles and many minutes away.  The trip will also have made my nephew dead jealous – yes, I now find myself train spotting at one remove and taking pictures of all the interesting rolling stock I see while abroad as part of my avuncular duties.  For those unfortunate enough to follow my Facebook feed, the trip also clearly showed how poor I am at self-photography: the look of dread concentration on my face as I attempt to work the iPhone was really quite worrying (luckily, WordPress refuses to accept images of such poor quality, so here is a Gare du Nord train photo for my nephew instead).

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As well as the travelling, I have been sampling international hotels – or at least those approved by my employer.  These are perfectly adequate (if not entirely luxurious), but do suffer from a fault which seems common to almost all hotels.  Given the vast body of research that suggests 16°C is the maximum temperature that is conducive to sleep, why are all hotel rooms set at a temperature more suited to a Turkish bath?  I have also found that it is almost impossible to cool rooms anywhere close to a comfortable temperature for a good night’s sleep.  Surely, all this excessive heating is costing the hotel business a small fortune each year – dropping the thermostat a few degrees (as a standard) could provide the first chain to implement it with a huge competitive advantage (and I’d only want a modest fee for myself for originating the idea).

My visit to Paris offered other advantages over and above the mode of transport used to achieve that romantic city.  My meeting took place in a chateau (dating back to 1399, so the oldest building in which I have yet given a talk!) some way outside Paris.  I stayed in Paris overnight (opposite the Gare du Nare – which was very convenient, if rather expensive) and took the Transilien train out to Mery sur Oise in the morning (these services are almost entirely run by very new, very funky new rolling stock as shown below – but both my journeys were on some really antique old examples).

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Despite its enormous cost, my hotel did not include breakfast in the room rate – and I refused to pay a further €17 for hotel breakfast fare -so, I walked out of my hotel (imagining I was Jason Bourne.  Something I could do again in Berlin, as my hotel was on Alexanderplatz) turned the corner and saw no sign of a slightly beaten-up mini but did see an Artisan Boulanger.  So, a fine breakfast of orange juice and artisanal patisserie.  The chateau, as well as offering a more interesting and attractive venue than most of my business meetings, also did a fine line in patisserie-based snacks for the delegate (and, indeed, the keynote speaker).  Even the Gare du Nord on my journey home could offer something.  As a result, for roughly 24 hours my diet was nearly 90% patisserie – heaven!  (Obviously, not something to do everyday – but great fun when it is almost forced upon me).  Sadly, on more normal trips I am forced to snatch any food I can find when there chance presents itself – Berlin was a particular low point as I only just made my flight home and so was forced to eat easyJet’s over-priced fare to avoid my blood-sugar levels falling dangerously low.

This coming week, I believe I will manage to stay on these shores – though will have to head into London at least once (and perhaps more often).  Hopefully, with a little less travel this poor blog will be slightly less neglected.  Interestingly, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of recent updates, people continue coming to GofaDM in hope of enlightenment or entertainment (unfulfilled hopes, obviously).  Based on the geographical stats provided by WordPress, the sun truly does not set on this blog – the map is now coloured in shades of orange from east to west and north to south (thought is still a bit patchy in Africa and no Antarctica).  Still, it is good to have ambitions still to be satisfy – I don’t want to end up like Alexander the Great (though, if I am being realistic, this is probably quite a low risk).