They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring

2017 was always going to be designated as a ‘milestone birthday year’, albeit not in the way that other birthdays had happened. Quite a long time ago, I remember going out for drinks on my 21st, drinking and smoking my way into a terrific hangover, and thinking that life was unable to get much better than this (I was completely wrong). When I was thirty, I sent out invitations to celebrate, or commiserate, passing into middle age, and we had a huge party, reforming the bands we’d been in a few years before, in the realisation that we were all headed for some sort of rock & roll decline (which we were). Another party for my fortieth, but this time with a more expensive suit, and a further band reunion, but, worryingly, sitting down to play. And then, a few years ago, 50, which, unnervingly, is least clear of all, lost in a haze of extreme running, ice baths and ill advised tequila competitions with kids who were young enough to be my children. Which, of course, they were.

Being 55 was different, but notable in its own special way. Firstly, there were a series of letters reminding me that years ago, I’d suggested that May 2017 would be an excellent time to retire, and I would save every last penny I had to make that happen. I kept my promise on the savings front, but unfortunately others in my life didn’t*, and I found myself woefully short of the sunset retiree lifestyle that Michael Aspel and Gloria Hunniford seem to witter on about, given half a chance.

Then came more letters, the first one the day after my birthday, inviting me to take out insurance for my declining years (with free Parker pen, but only if I reply now!), then offering holidays, to be taken with other over-55’s, probably so we could have long chats about Brexit and the youth of today. A horrible prospect indeed, a bit like an 18-30 holiday but with less energy, less tolerance, and less wet T-shirt competitions (I’d hope).

And then, the letter I’d been looking forward to least. Because, at 55, you get put on a special health screening list. The first letter is fairly innocuous, welcoming you to the world of the NHS, and giving you assurance that early screening of bowel cancer is a fabulous way of getting old gracefully. Or, I suppose, at all. The letter is beautifully put together, with soft words around screening and images and prevention, and makes very little reference to the main point of the exercise, which is to put a smallish camera up your backside, with a longer lead than you might imagine possible.

So what you do is fill in the form, because you figure that you do really really really want to know if you have the other c-word in your life. And you put the appointment in your diary and try not to think for a few weeks, and, largely, you don’t. And then, a couple of weeks before you need to start remembering about the appointment that you’re trying not to remember, a parcel arrives.

I still love getting parcels, especially unexpected ones. A few years ago, I got a book posted to me about great naval battles of the Second World War. Inside, it said ‘To Kevin’. Nothing else, and no clue who’d sent it, other than a Manchester postmark. It remains one of the most brilliant moments of my life. Last week I got a parcel from my parents, just as unexpected, which had two packets of smoked mackerel in it. Not as weird as it sounds, but just as delightful. So when this parcel arrived, I pounced on it like Michael Fallon at a Young Conservatives rally.

I tore the parcel open, and (you might be ahead of me here) was disappointed to see nothing about great naval battles and no sign of smoked mackerel. Instead, there was a tube, a plastic container full of clear fluid, and a set of instructions on how to use your enema.

I’ve never had an enema before, but my wife, a woman with the patience and black sense of humour shared by many in the nursing profession, told me that there was nothing to worry about. In fact (and I should have smelt a rat here), she offered to help administer the enema, to make sure that it was ‘working properly’.

When the diary date finally arrived, I knocked off work a bit early, got home and reread the enema instructions for about the 50th time, and Mrs E kindly suggested that she could help with what she charmingly called the ‘introduction’. For a while, I wasn’t absolutely sure what she meant, and then suddenly I very much was. There was a definite imbalance on the enthusiasm of the two of us taking part. I don’t think she actually shouted out ‘Geronimo’, as she ‘introduced’, but she might as well have done.

If you’ve had one of these enemas, you’ll be fairly aware of what happens next. Not very much for the first 10 minutes and then, fairly suddenly, something that feels like a small volcano in your lower intestine. Fortunately in our house there are only a couple of dozen buttock-clenching strides between the sofa and the toilet, where I realised the true sensation of what I understand is called an evacuation. When, as Lionel Ritchie once said, there was ‘nothing left to give’, it was time to go to the hospital. In a plan that was either macho, naive or stupid, I’d planned to cycle there, but agreed with Mrs E that it might be, after all, worth taking her up on her offer of a lift.

Mrs E dropped me off at the hospital, arranged to pick me up at some vague point in the future, and I distinctly heard her cackling away to herself as she drove off. Found my way to the gastro ward without asking for directions (always a win), and opened the door to the waiting room. My appointment was for 18:15, and I suppose I expected a small room with 3-4 people awaiting their evening appointment with a sigmoidoscope. Much to my surprise, the door opened to a really large waiting room, with maybe 50 chairs, and almost each one occupied. I sat down at one of the chairs, and looked around. I noticed that everyone else was looking around surreptitiously as well; I wasn’t really sure why until it suddenly struck me – I’d not been in this situation since I was about 15.

Just to be clear, no-one shoved a camera up my backside when I was 15, but that was probably the last time that I’d walked into a room of people of exactly the same age. And then, like now, everyone was looking round, while trying not to catch anyone else’s eye, to see, well, how the last 40 years had gone for everyone else. Slightly different thoughts to the ones when I was 15, perhaps a bit more ‘looks like he had a good Christmas’, and a bit less ‘crikey, where did he get those shoes/trousers/haircut?’, and some new thoughts too, like ‘I wonder why he brought his wife along, particularly if she’s going to look so bloody miserable’, and ‘ there’s an odd place for a tattoo’. And we were probably all having these thoughts as the receptionist kindly matched called out names to match faces. I seemed to get called about 10 minutes after checking in, which did make me wonder how I’d jumped the queue. Maybe this was just somewhere that a selection of 55 year old men go on Wednesday evenings for their own entertainment. Perhaps some of them had enjoyed the process so much in the past that they’d turn up hoping for a cancellation.

Then you’re shown into a small room and asked to undress, put one gown on backwards, another one on forwards, and keep your shoes and socks on, and put your clothes in the shopping basket provided. You emerge from the little room, carrying your basket, and sit down next to the other men who have just been through the same process. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a supermarket scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, but if there is, we were reenacting it, sitting there with gowns and modesty barely intact, still wearing unlaced boots and socks, and each clutching on to a shopping basket. It’s not a look I’ll be planning to replicate, but it’s definitely one to remember for a while.

Another call, and this time into a room with a proper door, and serious equipment and people inside. There were four of them, and I was introduced to each one in turn. One was going to make me feel comfortable from the front, the next was to keep an eye on things from the back, the lead role was to be taken by a kindly soul who would be wielding the camera, leaving Steve in the corner who was going to be doing the ‘impressive stuff with the computer’. Well, they all looked very relaxed about the whole situation, especially Steve, who had an especially comfortable looking office chair. I asked if they normally heard or told jokes during this sort of procedure. They didn’t, but would be very happy to hear any material from me. I said I’d not really prepared anything specifically for this event, so I told them a bit about the enema and how it reminded me of a John Cooper Clarke line:

‘Like a recently disinfected shithouse
You’re clean round the bend’

Steve pitched in with his favourite joke, which wasn’t necessarily a gag as you or I might know it, but ended with some sort of a punchline from Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones ; ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.

With all parties sufficiently relaxed, a nervy silence crept into the room, only to be broken by the lead role:

‘What you’re going to feel next is my finger’

Which I did.

If you’re lucky enough to have the over-55 invite still to turn up in your post, rest assured, because the rest of the exercise is relatively pain free. In common with teenage sex, watching Norwich City at home and the final couple of Clash albums, the excitement of anticipation isn’t really matched by the following reality. There’s a bit of discomfort; a really disconcerting video stream in front of you showing your healthy pink insides and a phenomenal feeling that you’re going to poo yourself in front of four people. There were a few encouraging ‘please relax’ shoves from behind, and a few calming words from the front, telling me that all would be well, and admiring my resting pulse. ‘Are you a runner?’ said the voice in front, and, naturally enough, the next few minutes passed by in a very convivial fashion, with me talking about my favourite subject to a captive audience.

And in no time at all ‘All clear’ was announced, with everyone in the room aware of the double meaning. I started to move off the table, and was met with firm holds on three sides.

‘We’ll just give that a bit of a wipe’

And I think I would have last heard those words, in that context, about 50 years ago.

Sometimes I guess we all feel a bit nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have to bother about self-dignity. I guess that might be something else to look forward to as we get old.

 

 

* In no particular order, the others in my life who stopped me from retiring were : Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, and Fred Goodwin, along with the hilariously well-rewarded 2007-8 Risk Committee of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

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A short guide to blasphemy

It seems a long time ago, but I guess it was when my parents were about the age I am now, that they spent a fair bit of time trying out new stuff. One of their adventures was into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, which is where our story of blasphemy begins, in a very very roundabout way.

They were pretty good at what they did, which was mainly old chairs – my Dad had enough patience to painstakingly strip away layers from the wooden bits, and my Mum learnt how to weave the canework onto the seats. She got so good that she started advertising her services in the local paper, and was quite taken aback when the responses to ‘Caning by Annette’ seemed to be after, well, a specialism that she couldn’t offer.

To get a ready supply old furniture, they started to visit auction houses, and would return with all manner of knackered wooden chairs, plus anything else that took their fancy. And, unfortunately for one of their three offspring, one week, what they fancied was a painting called ‘The Watercart’.

‘The Watercart’ is a painting that pretty much defies description – you really need to witness it for yourself to understand just how awful it is. It manages to combine all of the saccharine aspects of Constable’s early work with the brushwork of a deranged Broadmoor patient. It’s about 2 feet wide, meaning that it would stand out on any wall, and is complemented by an ugly frame that is probably worth slightly more than the painting itself. Around 50p, at last estimate.

I think they realised their mistake fairly early on, and my sister, who recently described their marriage as ’60 years of bickering and jokes’, was particularly vociferous in her criticism. We could tell that matters were not going to end well when my Mum starting blaming my Dad for buying the painting in the first place, then, slightly more quietly, my Dad would suggest it was all her fault. Matters went from bad to worse, and the painting was removed from public view, and then my Mum came up with her ingenious scheme to use the situation to punish her own children.

I was probably about 30 when The Watercart entered my life, and I think I’d hoped by then that parental punishments might have become a thing of the past. Just goes to show that you should never underestimate your parents; a lesson that I’m very keen on passing on to my own kids.

Basically, the punishment would go like this:

  • Child offends parent in some way (possibly not turning up for a party, buying a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, mentioning that gardening is essentially a boring activity etc)
  • Parent consults with other parent for some time, usually out of earshot
  • Declaration is made that the child is to be punished by receiving ‘The Watercart’ in parent’s will

It is an unwritten rule that the painting will need to be displayed prominently when it is passed on, to make it a real and constant punishment, and I like to think that it will be used extensively to penalise future generations. I am very much hoping that neither I nor any of my children (rules have recently been amended to allow the punishment to skip a generation direct to a least-favoured grandchild) will be in the firing line.

Most recently the will has been pointed at my sister, for some imagined slight, possibly letting slip that the taste of this year’s chutney wasn’t quite as good as the year before. However, it may now be heading in the direction of my brother, who I believe was the force behind an official letter from Buckingham Palace congratulating my parents on their 60 years of marriage. My father, who has been a die-hard republican all of his life, is a little perturbed that HM has been writing to him and my mum personally, and would probably see any individual responsible as deserving a bit of a Watercart discussion.

There’s a reason for telling you all of this, and it’s really as a warning to my own family that I may well be about repoint The Watercart in my own general direction. Because this blog is about swearing, and my Mum’s views on swearing are very traditional. She will not approve.

One of the first times I can remember my Mum getting cross with me was when I was about eight, in the garden, I dropped something on my foot and exclaimed ‘Bloody Hell’. She went absolutely bananas, not just because I’d cursed in front of her, but also in front of my grandmother, who was actually looking on with what I thought was quiet approval.

In those days, ‘Bloody Hell’ was pretty serious stuff. On a one to ten scale, it was probably only a five or six, at about the same level as ‘’Cor Blimey’, but it was as far as any right thinking child would go. Just below would be ‘Flipping Heck’ or ‘Flaming Hell’. Just above was ‘Bastard’, ‘Bugger’ and ‘Shit’, and  beyond that were the words that you knew, but would never use, except perhaps to look up in dictionaries or to whisper to yourself at night, just to understand what they sounded like.   

Remember I’m talking about the late 1960’s here, this was a fair while before the Sex Pistols upset Bill Grundy, and across the land people kicked in the front of their TV sets after Steve Jones used the F word (#9 on our 1-10 list). Next morning, my paper round took much longer than usual, as, wide-eyed, I read and re-read the headlines:

pistols
Well, this was forty years ago, and the world seems to have relaxed a bit around the whole blasphemy malarkey. I would struggle these days to upset anyone, even my mother, by saying ‘bloody hell’ while, for example, hammering my own thumb. But at number 9 & 10 on our profanity index, there’s still an opportunity to offend.

Unless you’ve spent the last five months working on a building site which, as it happens, I have.

And on a building site, there’s a whole different way of talking, where F&C words are just thrown about like confetti, and, as a result, they don’t really mean anything. It’s a bit like wearing your winter coat in September, when you know it’s going to get colder; there’s nowhere really to go. Where you do need the equivalent of another layer of clothing in November, the F&C gets repeated and repeated, and used in innovative ways, just to get the point across.

To illustrate how it works, to avoid any undue distress, and to allow this blog to creep through some security filters, let’s carry on with a bit of word substitution. For the F word, we need a word that works as a noun, a verb and an exclamation, and describes something fairly old and knackered, with sexual overtones. So we’re going to use the word Stringfellow. For the C word, we need to substitute a word that means something deeply unpleasant and incredibly distasteful. So we’re going to use the word Trump.

As an example, when I got to work last Monday morning, these are the words that greeted me:

‘Morning, you old trump, you look completely stringfellowed.’

Hopefully you get the gist. To illustrate how to use our words on site, the Emu will now be submitting the following definition to the Oxford English Dictionary (Stringfellowing Builder’s Edition)

 

Stringfellow

vulgar slang

Origin – early 16th/20th century: of Germanic/Northern English origin

Verb

Vulgar slang

verb: stringfellow; 3rd person present: stringfellows; past tense: stringfellowed; past participle: stringfellowed; gerund or present participle: stringfellowing

  1. have sexual intercourse with (someone) or (of two people) have sexual intercourse.
  2. damage or ruin (something).

Examples:

  • That digger is totally stringfellowed since Fred’s been driving it.
  • <insert name of supplier> have been stringfellowing us about since Christmas

noun

noun: fuck; plural noun: fucks

  1. an act of sexual intercourse;a sexual partner of a specified ability.

Example:

  • I hope you’re a better stringfellow than a bricklayer, mate, cos otherwise you’re no stringfellowing use to no one.

exclamation

exclamation: stringfellow

  1. used alone or as a noun or verb in various phrases to express annoyance, contempt, or impatience.

Example:

  • Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Who put that stringfellowing scaffold pole there? It just stringfellowed me in the stringfellowing head!

 

Trump

Noun

Vulgar slang

Origin: Middle English/Scottish/American/Lunar

noun

vulgar slang

noun: trump; plural noun: trumps

  1. a woman’s genitals.
  2. an unpleasant or stupid person.

Examples:

  • He’s a total stringfellowing trump. I mean, I’m a trump, you’re a trump, but he’s a complete trump.
  • That mortar’s as dry as a nun’s trump

For extra emphasis, trump can be used as a verb, for example:

  • He’s as nutty as a trumping fruitcake

If you want further examples, just give me a call. I’ll put you on speakerphone and just carry on about my business.

And mother, if you’ve read this far, I’m really really sorry. I’m putting a hook in the wall this evening.

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Now We Are Three

Well, we’ve been here before.

Four years ago, we saw #1 off to Uni, and it broke our hearts, not in a clingy or mawkish way but because we knew we’d miss him being such a big part of our lives all the time. Then, two years ago, #2 went off 200 miles in the opposite direction, and another little piece of our heart dropped away. #2 had eased our emotional passage by taking a few months off to explore the drug cartels of South America, which he might have felt would soften the blow of living in the more cosmopolitan parts of Bristol. He was right, up to a point; he told me the day before he left for year three that his new flat was next door to a brothel that smelt mysteriously of gravy, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the least, so I guess we’ve all come to terms with managing without each other. And we now have a huge stock (geddit?) of broth-el jokes to while away the winter evenings.

And now it’s time for number three.

I don’t even know where to start telling you about him. One day he’s going to get married, and there will be a queue of people at the wedding trying to grab the microphone and tell the story about the time when Felix said this, tried that, travelled there, made up that song, told that joke, forgot the really important thing and remembered the stupid one, and so on. And we probably ought to leave most of those stories for now, but just as a taster, in case you’re thinking about whether to RSVP to his wedding invite in 2028:

  • This is the boy who, age 3, almost drowned, jumping into a swimming pool to retrieve his toy polar bear. I asked him about this recently and he said he had a very clear memory of jumping in, and realising before he hit the water that he’d no idea how to swim.
  • This is the boy who would wander about so aimlessly (he once went walkabout with a friend when we were walking in the country, and got returned to us by a guy holding a shotgun, whose shoot he’d interrupted) that we started dressing him in a bright red duffle coat so we could spot him in the crowd. He spent most of years 4-8 looking like a still from Schindler’s List.
  • This is the boy who saw a friend walking past the house, and knocked on the window in his bedroom so enthusiastically that he put his arm through the glass, cutting a artery in the process, and spent the rest of the day in A&E, having generously decorated the bathroom red beforehand. All of this was on Mother’s day, which we will celebrate forever more at Emu Towers by watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • This is the boy, who, on a school cycling trip to Holland, managed, within 24 hours, to badly damage his bike within the first mile using only a lunch box and a bungee, get stuck up a tree, and burn his armpits with some dodgy deodorant.
  • This is the boy who can learn every song lyric on a single listen, and who can then sing it back, pitch perfect. Who can gatecrash his father’s gig and belt out the songs far better than his old man. Who can steal the show in front of pretty much any size audience, even if he does choose musical theatre as his preferred medium (I’ve still to come to terms with that).
  • This is the boy whose life was pulled apart when some toerag stole his facebook id, and posted really abusive messages to all of his friends. And because we all assumed that said toerag was one of his ‘friends’, he was the boy who walked to school on his own for the next year, who stopped going out in the evening, who changed schools so that he could distance himself from the scene of the crime, who made a whole new bunch of friends who he knew he could trust, and who did so with far more maturity that we could have ever expected.
  • This is the boy who took £20 into town to buy some stationary for school, got £18 change, and, on the way back gave it all to a homeless man who needed it more than he did.

He’s just a lovely, smart, funny, awkward, charming, beautiful kid. Obviously he’s our kid, so he’s lovelier, smarter, funnier and more awkward, charming and beautiful than any other child that’s ever been born, so it’s always going to be hard work to say goodbye. But we’re old hands at this now, we give him a note that tells him how much we love him, say goodbye and touch his face for the last time before Christmas, then step away before anyone sees any actual tears.

 

Then, like all the other parents dropping their kids off this weekend, we spend the journey home talking about all the things that make them special, and all the differences that there’ll be now that there’s an extra bed in the house, less noise to contend with, and a weekly shop that actually lasts past Tuesday.

 

And in a few days time we’ll see him on a screen on Skype and we’ll talk about little things until the screen freezes and you know it’s not going to come back but you still have the image of his face and you just put your hand out to touch the glass. And, several hundred miles away you know he’s probably doing the same thing.

 

In our case, we trundle home to two lively dogs, and a 15 year old who is extremely nervous about being repurposed as an only child, with all the direct parenting that that entails. We haven’t had a three person family for twenty odd years now, but I’m sure we can remember how to do it. Well, at least until Christmas.

 

 

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The (Hi-viz) Cloak of Invisibility

A long time ago, I found myself working in an office with a go-getter of a manager, the sort of person who had a clear plan of how his life needed to work out in order for him to feel successful. It was so well planned, in fact, that he actually had a piece of paper that personal development coaches would drool over: degree from first class university, management trainee role, directorship role by age 30, partnership/owner of agency by 35, etc etc. It was so ambitious, that I think by the time he was 50 he was planning to be leader of the free world. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t got there yet (I just checked on Linkedin), but then again I don’t think he’s hit 50 yet either, so who knows.

I mention this because in the context of such an organised plan for life, the rest of us might have a bit more of a haphazard approach to where we end up spending our working time. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I ever looked at a job, and applied for it, thinking it would help me along a particular axis of achievement. What’s happened in my life so far has been a process of take on a job, do it for a while, and just as I’m getting bored, or incompetent, or both, someone kindly comes along and offers me something more interesting.

Which is what happened about a year ago. After spending most of my working days in a corporate office environment, it was time for a break, and I left, with no particular plans for the future. Pretty much as the door was closing behind me, I got a call from my (soon to be ex) boss, who was thinking about writing an autobiography, and was after some assistance with fact checking, editing, proofing and all the sorts of things that you need to do in order to get a book published. Which, incidentally, neither of us had a clue about. Seventy shades of fun ensued, getting familiar with all manner of new ways of working, getting a reader ticket to the British Library, spending hours looking through microfiche in dusty basements, speaking to incredibly bright and interesting people who thought little of talking to me between celebrity cookery shoots and the lost archives of PG Wodehouse, and finally holding a finished product in my hot and sweaty hand. Hot and sweaty, largely because I collected it directly off the press, which was a thirty mile cycle ride away.

Then, only a few hours after the hangover of the launch party had cleared, I got a phone call – a friend of a friend was running a construction project, and needed a bit of assistance organising stuff, making sure documentation hung together, and generally to keep him on the straight and narrow. (This, incidentally, is a more detailed job description than anything I’ve received since taking the job on. The benchmark for my continued employment is in line with the only two questions actually asked at my interview – ‘Are you reasonably organised?’ – ‘Yes’ and ‘Are you going to wind everyone up because you’re a complete arsehole?’ – ‘No’). So I said yes, on the condition that at any point (possibly when yes and no above got reversed), we could shake hands, I could walk off the site without having my lunchbox filled with mortar, and go back to wearing a suit and going to meetings for a living.

Anyway, the first couple of weeks went pretty well, so did the first couple of months and before I know it, I’m actually really enjoying myself, learning a ton of new stuff, meeting completely brilliant people, and being part of something that builds something really tangible, that people will enjoy living and working in. And there are bucketloads of lessons to be learnt in both directions between the people who put buildings in the air and people who (say) run projects in corporate environments. There’s stuff about governance, control, project management, people management, partners and suppliers that’s just itching to be written down…but that’s for a future blog. Because this one is about something really specific about working on a building site, that hit me in the face within hours of starting.

When you work on a site, you’re issued with, according to your health and safety rules, personal protective equipment, or PPE. This means you are supposed to wear, at all times, steel toecap boots, a high visibility vest, and a hard hat, plus all sorts of other exciting stuff like ear defenders, gloves, goggles, masks and harnesses, depending on the work you’re supposed to be carrying out, or if you’re headed for the Thursday Fetish night at the Loft (handily positioned just round the corner from our site).

And because you put this stuff on in the morning, if you leave the site, to get some milk or get some plans printed, or top up the unnerving amount of loo roll that seems to be being used up on a daily basis, you keep it on. So as you’re wandering along a street, humming gently to yourself, saying hello to someone you vaguely know, smiling benignly at young parents with difficult toddlers, holding the door open for somebody coming out of a shop, and…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.  You wear boots and a high viz jacket, and the world will summarily ignore you. The security experts of the world call this ‘hiding in clear site’, and apparently it’s all the rage if you want to bypass checks at festivals, nick equipment from offices or get up to any other sort of activity where no-one will look at you. Which is all very well, but a bit odd when you’re not used to it happening.

A couple of weeks after I started on the site, I was buying a coffee from the cafe nearby, actually in the process of handing over the money and getting my change, when a woman pushed right in front of me and ordered a ‘skinny soy latte to go and could you please hurry as I’ve got a terribly important meeting’. I genuinely had to reach around her to get my change; I can’t believe she didn’t see me there, but clearly I didn’t matter in the great skinny soy latte scheme of things. A few days later, I had to go to a meeting, and was wearing a suit – I went to the same cafe, got the same coffee, had a similar pleasant chat, and turned to see an orderly queue formed behind me.

A month or so later, I was walking into town, and saw a friend I’d not seen for about a year. We were walking towards each other, I threw my arms out, and this is what happened:

  • she saw a bloke in a high viz jacket heading towards her with his arms outstretched
  • she noticeably flinched, and swerved slightly to her left to avoid contact
  • noticing that this hadn’t deterred the bloke, she forced herself to look up at his face
  • thankfully she recognised bloke and swerved back into position

And I think that’s pretty much what happens all the time. People see the high viz jacket (it is, after all, doing a fairly good job in drawing the eye). As soon as they do, there’s a negative reaction that, at best, might be ‘this person doesn’t matter to me’. So they look straight past, possibly scanning the horizon for stuff that does actually matter.

All of which is a bit of a shame. Hiding in clear sight may be quite the thing for today’s modern criminal, but it’s very disappointing when it interferes with the morning coffee run.

Next time – why everything you’ve ever learnt about project management is wrong. Or something like that.

I’m just popping out to get coffee.

If you see me, don’t forget to wave.

Like that’s going to happen.

 

 

 

 

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Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part 5

We had a couple of refreshing cold drinks in the big square in Châlons-en-Champagne, grabbed something to eat, wandered back to the hotel, without the need for the detailed map, and slept the sleep of Kings. After each eating our body-weight in breakfast the next morning, we started pedaling off in the general direction of Crépy-en-Valois, which would allow us to drop down into Paris the next day.

On paper, this was a pretty straightforward East to West jaunt of about 90 miles, and luckily, Mrs Google Maps agreed. We had a dream of a start, beautiful weather, light tailwind and a great route next to a canal, weaving in and out of Sunday cyclists. Naturally enough, Mrs Google Maps only really allowed us to enjoy this for a couple of miles, before insisting that we cut across the map without actually using a road. Perhaps knowing that she was on her last chance, Mrs GM played an absolute blinder, luring us along a perfectly reasonable track until it was too late to turn back, then shoving us up a one in four hill made entirely of flints the size of your fist.

‘What better place for our first puncture’, I thought to myself, just after CB#2 announced that he’d punctured, and just before Bean told us that we had another 3km of this before we were likely to see any tarmac again.

CB#2 has many of the physical features of the Incredible Hulk, and pretty much the same sense of social grace. One of the reasons he’s such good value on these trips is because he can fix most things without the need for any tools. His fist operates as a reasonable lump hammer, and he can tighten most nuts without a spanner, not to mention whip off a tyre and tube without anything as fiddly as a lever. So at least his tyre was fixed fairly quickly. I was expecting a bit more rage when his rear rack snapped off after some more stupid off road riding, but he was quite relaxed, almost philosophical. Strapping up the remaining rack (to take home for repairs or parts, apparently), he decanted some of his luggage into our panniers, leaving him with a fairly heavy bag and no form of support. CB#1 told me that his money was on CB#2 strapping it to his back, and I half expected to see him  gripping it between his teeth, but he took the option of strapping it on top of his handlebar bag, making his bike completely unstable. It didn’t seem to stop him descending at a ridiculous pace, and his bodged luggage arrangement lasted all the way to Paris, so we survived. Which is more than could be said for his luggage rack, which he removed a little while along the route because it was ‘beginning to annoy’ him. To be fair, if I thought I was beginning to annoy CB#2, then I’d probably hide in a ditch in France until he’d gone away as well.

The jettisoning of CB#2’s rack took place just after we’d got to the bottom of the unmade road. Speaking politely, the way up had been what the mountain bikers would call a ‘technical ascent’ which means that you’re lucky if you don’t fall off, and it was followed by a technical descent, which meant that you’re both lucky and surprised if you don’t fall off. When we finally hit some tarmac a bit further down the route, it was like cycling into a mirage, and we vowed, not for the first or last time on this trip, to never be dragged away from the road again.

A few uneventful, if murderously hot miles later, we rolled into Crepy-en-Valois, a town almost famous for its extensive array of industrial zones, which unfortunately was where I’d booked our hotel for the night. There being very little either moving or shaking on an industrial estate of a Sunday evening, we ventured into town, ending up at le bar de l’Europe, where I was despatched, as head of communications, to order four beers. This I duly did, opting for the ‘standard’ option. Three beers later, we had not only established that Troll ‘standard’ lager is a thirst quenching 7%, but we’d also established a generous entente cordiale with our fellow drinkers, most notably an Algerian man called Muss, who told us that the new French president was a moron, and that Trump was a puppet to money and oil. Or at least, that’s what I think he was saying, we were both beginning to slur a bit. We both made valiant efforts to involve the non-English and non French speaking parts of the bar together, and managed to find a game which I’d recommend to anyone in a similar predicament. Basically, all you have to do, is remember the French (or English) that you were taught when you were at school, and try to have a conversation in both languages. It doesn’t need to make sense, and works better when you’ve had a couple of refreshing Trolls and work really hard on your accent. The sort of snippet you might have heard as you were walking past the bar de l’Europe might have been:

Drunk French Person: “The sky is blue”

Drunk English Person ‘Ici le Professeur”

DFP: “I have forgotten my umbrella”

DEP “Jean-Paul lance le ballon”

Then Muss bought us all another beer, and things went a little downhill. I have vague memories of steering my bike at a reasonable pace down a one way street, eating pizza and then following a mystery route back to the industrial estate, but it’s all a bit cloudy.

The next morning, we had the sort of breakfast that you’d expect from a dodgy hotel in the middle of an industrial estate on a Monday morning, and got away as soon as we could. At a relatively sober part of the evening before, Muss had insisted that we find the Canal d’Orque and go along that into Paris, and we’d agreed to do just that. And, given that a promise made is a promise kept, we tried our best to find the canal, and to our surprise, Mrs GM actually helped us to do so without dragging us across seven shades of off-road hell.

All of which was pretty good, although by the time we got to Paris Gare de Nord we’d had the sort of city riding experience that we all hate, so it was a relief to get to the station without being knocked about by cars, vans, trucks or pedestrians. Got the bikes on the train, got back to London, and back home in time for all the family to coo over my injuries in a curious style. My youngest son took a number of detailed photographs, and I asked him why – he said that he just needed to show some people. Mrs E made a trip to the 24 hour chemist, and stocked up on dressings for the week, thereby showing a care for her husband that he didn’t really deserve, given that he’d selfishly buzzed off without her for for five days.

I’m writing this last part about 3 weeks after we actually got back, and we’re a week into the Tour de France, where they have faster crashes than ours on a daily basis, and often just get up, change their bike and get treated by the team car while they’re riding back to the peleton…..

t.co/utVt8L03Dd

Which is a bit frustrating, as one of the injuries that I got, on my hip, is still steadfastly refusing to heal. Unfortunately, given its position, the only way I can let it get any air to dry out is by walking around the house in an outfit not a million miles from a Borat mankini. So if you’re planning to pop round any time in the next few days, please make sure you phone first.

troll

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part four

Châlons-en-Champagne is a beautiful medieval city, it’s the capital of the Marne region, despite being tiny compared to Reims, which is in the same department. It has all the hallmarks of being very French and very medieval, a beautiful central square, lots of timber framed buildings, and peculiar stone bridges over a winding river. But if you start from the centre of the city, and head out towards your hotel for the night, as we did, the medieval-ness very swiftly gives way to more modern buildings, so that by the time you’re a couple of kilometres away you could be in pretty much any modern European town.

Stay at the Hotel Bristol, though, and you’ll find yourself transported to a spotless time capsule of around 1972, and you’ll be greeted with an enthusiasm and attention to detail that’s hard for me to do justice to here. The landlady, who spoke fluent French, German and English, soon ascertained that we were English, so proceeded to give us a guided tour in French, with a few words of German for Bean, who had let slip that he’d learnt a bit of German at school. The level of detail presented was astonishing, and it took about 40 minutes to check in, which must have been a bit frustrating for CB#1 and CB#2, who were minding the bikes outside. I made the mistake of asking the best way to get into town, and was presented with two bus timetables, withe the best routes highlighted. and clear instruction on how to walk to the bus stop just outside the hotel. Then a card for a taxi company and clear directions to whatever restaurant that we were to be to call (under no circumstances should we attempt this call ourselves), and details of the hotel (and security access key) neatly stapled to the back. This in itself took about 10 minutes to explain, plus another 5 for the translation into German for Bean’s ‘benefit’. After checking in, we were shepherded into our rooms where we were given the low down on how to use the shower, the blinds, and (I’m not making this up). the sheets and covers. Bean and I were sharing, so received instructions in French/German, CB#1 and CN#2 had the same experience in their native tongue, which left them equally perplexed.

There were, however, two simply fabulous results for us. Mme Bristol followed up her explanations by delivering all manner of baked goods into our rooms, apparently oblivious to the fact that Bean and I were just wearing bib shorts in order to check each other’s injuries (probably not our best look, I really hope she remembered we were cyclists). After getting showered, I braved a reunion, to ask if there was a pharmacy anywhere nearby. Delightfully, I was told that there was one about 400m away. Although it was actually on the same road as the hotel, a map was drawn, showing local landmarks and several places of interest en route.

With these clear instructions to hand, I limped up the hill to the pharmacy, rehearsing the phrases I’d try to learn from Google Translate. These were, essentially, ‘I am concerned about infection on my wounds’, ‘My left arm appears to be twice its normal size’ and ‘Should I see a Doctor?”.

Getting to the front of the queue, I managed all three sentences in rapid succession to a bemused pharmacist, who clearly didn’t understand my flawless pronunciation, and asked a number of quickfire clarification questions which, of course, I had no hope of understanding. There then followed an uncomfortable pause where we both realised that there was negligible common ground. As far as she was concerned, I may as well have been asking for cough medicine, and, for all I know, she may well have been asking me to exit her shop.

I decided to break the impasse by removing the bandage and showing her my elbow. This brought forth a series of ‘merde’s from both pharmacist and interested customers. Fortunately, it also drew the interest of the second pharmacist. Knowing by now that I was beaten on the language front, I asked if he spoke any English, and he said he knew only a few words. Delightfully, three of those words were ‘Walk this way’, as he beckoned me into a side room. I was very tempted to tell him the joke about the man in the Chemist shop who asks for some vaseline, and the Chemist says ‘Walk this way’. ‘If I could walk that way’, says the customer, ‘I wouldn’t need the vaseline’. The prospect of translating this wasn’t too attractive, and I didn’t really know my audience, so I kept the joke to myself.

Anyway, into the side room, where all dressings were removed, and the ‘merde’s were interspersed with some light tutting. The good news was that there was, apparently, no infection, but that the dressings needed to be sorted out properly. I was assured that my new friend could see to this, and he prepared all manner of new dressings and gauzes for action. He made something of a point of showing me an antiseptic spray, which he said might sting a little. I fear this might have been my mis-translation – having experienced the spray going on, he might acually have said something like ‘this will hurt like a hot iron directly spraying hydrochloric acid onto your wound’ It’s just I’m sure it sounded like ‘sting a little’.

There was a slightly awkward point when I had to pull my pants down for him to patch the wound on my hip. This he did by kneeling next to me and gently placing gauze and plaster next to my groin. Naturally this was the point at which pharmacist #1 came into the room, interpreted the scene for herself, muttered a quick ‘pardon’, and immediately exited.

The whole episode had lasted about 30 minutes, and we went back to the counter, where my new friend showed me on a map where the doctor was, wrote down his number, and told me how to tell if the wound became infected. I told him I was incredibly grateful asked him how much I owed him.

‘C’est gratuit’

I protested, I should at least be paying for the dressings, I said.

‘Non, c’est normal’

I shook his hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I could sense that Pharmacist #2 was giving me daggers.

It was the second time on the trip that we’d been subjected to random acts of kindness. It’s an odd feeling, being on the receiving end of someone being so kind, just because they can be; you feel warm and unworthy at the same time.

With my left arm auditioning for a part in The Invisible Man, I headed back, and on to find a restorative cold drink…

 

 

 

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part three

We attempted an early exit from La Louviere; largely as we were keen to avoid any untoward geriatric female attention, although I assured the team that at 7 in morning, anyone we met would at least be fairly sober. As we grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel, however, there was a surprising amount of activity, the pinball machine was rattling away in a fog of cigarette smoke, and everyone in the bar seemed to be nursing the first beer of the day. No sign of Very Mary though, which was a relief to CB#1.

We escaped, and started heading South, following directions from our trusty google maps service. Unfortunately GM had more tricks up her sleeve today (Bean by now had started referring to GM as ‘she’ because of the satnav voice, and was beginning to have something of a tempestuous relationship with her), and we ended up being directed to a grass track, which took us past the awesomeness of the Strépy-Thieu boat-lift and then onto a mud track that was impossible to ride.

ascenceur_strepy

After the customary swear-fest, we dragged the bikes through the mud and forest and found a road, which we managed to stay on as far as Chimay. I only knew Chimay through the beer, which has a fearsome reputation (it varies between 7% and 9% alcohol content), and is brewed by Trappist monks. I think if I was employed for any length of time in producing and tasting this beer, I’d probably lose the power of rational speech, so it probably works quite well all round.

We didn’t see much of Chimay other than to have a fairly civilised lunch, as we just wanted to get this one out of the way. Bean and I were both feeling a bit fragile, and although we were both ok to ride, I had a horrible shooting pain in my left arm every time we hit any sort of a bump. So imagine my delight when we hit a section of cobbles that lasted for 3 miles. ‘You’ll always get cobbles in Belgium’, said CB#2, helpfully.

If you know you’re cycling and your geography, you’ll know that we were fairly close to the Paris-Roubaix route – this is a bike race, charmingly known as the ‘Hell of the North’, which has been run every year since 1896. It’s known as one of cycling’s toughest races, the course is 260km and normally has over 50km of cobbles. I was whining about 5km of cobbles, but the Paris to Roubaix riders are doing ten times that, and they’re racing at 25mph plus, in groups, often with the cobbles wet (the race is in April), making it even more perilous.

So complaining about the cobbles seemed a bit churlish, As did complaining about the whole pain thing. We were in Southern Belgium by now, just above the Ardennes, and quite a few times we’d get to the top of a climb, look to our side, and see hundreds and hundreds of war graves. These weren’t the big American and Allied cemeteries that are more in the North of the country and closer to Ardennes, they were more the local ones for French and Belgian soldiers whose bodies were repatriated – but the numbers were still pretty astonishing, especially for such a rural area. CB#1 reckoned that any one of those soldiers would have loved to be doing what we were doing, which was both a charming and a grounding thought, so with that in mind, we carried on pedaling and I ignored the small hammer banging the nail into my elbow every time we hit a bump.

About 80 miles all told, and we ended up in Charleville-Mézières, birthplace of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and home to a Soviet themed hotel and, as far as we could make out, no pharmacies. On the plus side, a skip and a jump from our gulag was the Place Ducale, which struck us as an excellent place to visit, drink a Rimbaud themed beer, eat mussels and be treated to a free concert from a Belgian heavy rock band. Four things there, very much in descending order of enjoyment.

We kept going South, the next day, rolling into the champagne region, and towards Châlons-en-Champagne. Bean was just on the point of divorcing Mrs Google Maps by now, so we pretty much did the opposite of everything she suggested, and stayed on the roads.   Rolling was the right word for our travel – if you’d taken a knife through the route we took South, and looked at the cross section it would have looked like a corrugated roof. This made for fairly easy, if slightly monotonous cycling, and we decided to fox Mrs GM by taking a main road for the last 20 miles. Cyclng in the gutter of a main road is a challenge anywhere, it’s worse with crosswinds, and much worse with cars and lorries that seem to see you as a target rather than a fellow traveller. On the stretch we took, it was pretty busy, but we were mostly given a reasonable amount of space, and only got buzzed once (predictably by a hot-hatch full of yoofs) – it would have been a far worse experience in the UK.

Anyway, we got to Châlons-en-Champagne without incident, and then went out again, dutifully following directions to our hotel, which was not only in a different part of town, but also in a different part of the space-time continuum…

 

 

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