Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part two

I didn’t see the bump on the path; it was where the tarmac changed to concrete slab, and I would probably have gone over a similar bump a thousand times without any problems.

However, this time, my front wheel had a pretty severe reaction, and popped up violently into the air, probably helped by all the weight on the back wheel. It shot up so sharply that it threw the handlebars out of my hands, and by the time I’d managed to grab them back, the wheel had twisted to one side, and the bike, and me, went over. As the handlebars whizzed up again, I caught sight of my watch, which I remember was reading a very healthy 22 mph. I was fairly pleased with this, but as you can imagine, I had very little chance to congratulate myself before I hit the ground. In fairly rapid succession, I landed on head, hip, elbow, fist and shoulder, and came to rest quite a bit further down the road. I’d seen everything happen in slow-mo, as you do, and as I slid to a halt, I was looking behind me. Rather worryingly, I could see Bean’s front wheel bearing down on me, so I decided I’d be better off with my eyes closed. I waited for the next crash, which, surprisingly, wasn’t with my face.

Bean, with alert reactions that would have been impressive for someone a third of his age, had managed to swerve to avoid me completely. However, he didn’t have a great deal of time to celebrate, as his front wheel then hit a water bottle that had been thrown out of my bike, and he went over as well.

All was quiet, and thankfully, the Chuckle Brothers, who had been cycling a few yards behind, managed to avoid the carnage, and took a victim each.  I don’t remember a massive amount about the next few minutes, other than checking that I could still move everything,  managing to stand up, and noticing quite a bit of blood spilling out of the back of my elbow. With CB#1 taking charge, we used a water bottle to clean up, and some alcohol to clean the wound, which reminded me what pain could really be like. Steristrips were improvised from CB#2’s tape – I’m not sure if these came from a first aid kit or a tool kit, and I didn’t really care. CB#2 had a couple of bandages and dressings which we used to patch up the bits that were bleeding most.

We didn’t have much option but to get pedaling, in the hope that La Louviere would boast some sort of state of the art walk in medical centre with on-site pharmacy and, ideally, a 24 hour on call cycle mechanic. As the next twenty miles dragged by, I’d got it into my head that, at the very least, the hotel would have some sort of first aid kit, and as we rolled gently into town, I’d already rehearsed all of my lines for the conversation with reception.

Unfortunately, those lines never really got used – the hotel that we checked in to had a receptionist who was not really that interested in taking in guests, never mind giving any sort of medical help, although she did look up the nearest pharmacy that would be open. Unfortunately this was 5 miles away, and by the time we got there it would have been shut. I asked if there was somewhere nearer , and got a very impressive gallic shrug.

Fortunately, help was at hand, in the form of Mary. Let’s call her Very Mary for the sake of this narrative. She was very old, and wore a dress that would have suited her better when she was very young. She was very ebullient, and was attached to a very small dog. And she was very, very drunk. Mary had heard the conversation about the chemist, and offered to help. Asking someone to gardez her chien, she set off on foot to find a chemist, which I thought was quite courageous, but then realised she’d just popped round the corner, to see if knocking loudly on the local chemist’s door might persuade them to adjust their opening hours. She returned a few minutes later, and said ‘merde’ a few times while executing today’s second perfect gallic shrug.

We decided to have a beer, partly in the hope that it might deaden the pain a bit. As chief communications officer, I was dispatched to order the beer, so back into the hotel I went, where behind me, my left arm started to cause quite a commotion. Unfortunately, the makeshift bandage had failed to stem the bleeding, and I was merrily chucking blood out all over the barroom floor. This stirred Very Mary into both temper and action, and shouting ‘merde’ again a few more times, she shot out of the bar, around the corner to the chemist, to see if banging more loudly on the door would be more effective. Apparently it wasn’t, and she returned, crestfallen, a few minutes later, inexplicably carrying half a dozen eggs. We had a further conversation, involving more merde/shrugging, and Very Mary concluded that this was simply not how visitors to Belgium should be feeling. She then announced that she was going to go home, and raced (in a fairly uncoordinated style), out of the bar, leaving behind her dog, her eggs, and a faint smell of Pernod.

We decided to wait for Very Mary, although there really wasn’t any clue as to when, or whether, she would return. But one beer and 30 minutes later, she appeared again, with a large paper bag, which turned out to contain a variety of gauzes, pads and bandages. As it turned out, this was exactly what we needed, and I don’t think we could have been more grateful. We bought Mary a beer to say thanks, and unfortunately she seemed to interpret this as a bit of a come-on, also encouraged by us telling her that it was CB#1’s birthday. CB#1 is very much the eye-candy of the four of us (although he doesn’t have much in the way of competition) and it all started to get a bit uncomfortable, as we had a number of lines from anniversary songs, followed by the sort of ‘Grrrr’ animal noises that you might hear in an Austin Powers film, and finally some whispered exchanges between Very Mary and her friend, who, like many of the people we were beginning to meet, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. If you can imagine someone with the face of Freddie Starr, the skin colour of Dale Winton, the body of HM the Queen, and the dress sense of Madonna c1990, you’ll get a general idea of what Very Mary’s friend looked like.

All this was getting a bit intimidating, so I explained in French to Very Mary and her friend that I needed to take a shower. Their bloodshot eyes seem to light up for a moment as they nudged each other, and I had to explain that this was in order to sort out my wounds, and not an open invitation. Then I explained my plans in English to CB#1, who immediately responded that there was no way that he was being left in the bar with those two. Fortunately, I don’t think Very Mary was paying attention, otherwise she might have taken offence.

I hope this doesn’t come across as ungrateful. I’m incredibly thankful that a complete stranger in a strange town took pity on a wounded idiot. And I do wonder, had that been Belgian cyclists wandering into an English hotel, whether they’d have had anything, or anyone, like this as a rescue.

Bean and myself shared out gauzes and bandages between us and got patched up. We even managed to get something to eat. Not a very auspicious start to five days of relaxed cycling, and we were full of trepidation for the miles ahead. As it turned out, we were right to be concerned…

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Posted in Cycling, France, People, Travel | 1 Comment

Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part One

Off again for another adventure, this time into France and Belgium. We’ve been going cycling in June for a few years now, and settled into a fairly relaxed approach of cycling stupid distances with limited preparation, sta​ying ​in cheap hotels that rarely fail to disappoint, and generally enjoying what the cycle paths of Europe can offer us.

We normally assign roles at the start of the journey, which this year were as follows:

  • Myself – head of communications, largely driven by my pitifully small knowledge of the french language, but compensated by what I consider to be one of the best French accents in Norfolk, and a full set of Gallic hand gestures
  • Mr Bean – head of navigation – as he had not only an iPhone with google maps, but a data plan that worked, headphones to take instruction from the phone, and an array of batteries that could keep us, or a small village, going for a ​matter of days
  • Chuckle Brother #1 – the voice of reason, and deputy in both communications and navigation
  • Chuckle Brother #2 – chief mechanic and head of security. More on CB#2’s particular talents later

Our bicycles for the journey were prepared as ever with some care – they tend to be road bikes, adjusted to within a fraction of a millimetre to deliver the fastest and most aerodynamic riding position, but then loaded down with not only a rider but panniers holding five days worth of clothes, energy bars, spare parts and whatever else it takes to get the four of us from point to point.

As a result, our perfectly balanced machines end up handling pretty much as you’d expect​,​ if you attached the weight of two fairly hefty infants over the back wheel, and one over the handlebars. You have to be a bit careful of this lack of stability, as it means that your super lightweight bike ends up being both super heavy and completely unstable. And if your route takes you away from a road, then you have even more of a challenge…

Anyway, after a ridiculously early start, we arrived in Lille, and, to our surprise were reunited with our bikes, which, due to some odd complications in the way that Eurostar works, had made their own way there. The plan was to get out of Lille and head for Belgium, so Bean fired up google maps and we set off on the exciting prospect of exiting a large ​French city and not getting separated or injured.

The Lille town planners have done a top job in ensuring that all the main roads have cycle lanes, but unfortunately there are two separate systems, which may well be because of funding and the way that local government takes decisions. It’s almost as if one city council decided to have their bike lanes on the inside of the street , with cars and lorries hurtling by outside the cyclist, then either ran out of money, or power, or both, and another council ca​me in and decided it was a much better idea​ to have the bike lanes on the outside ​of the road. Consequently there is a bizarre series of chicanes, where you swap from inside to outside, and vice versa, in the opposite direction to the cars and lorries. You’d think this would be ridiculously dangerous for all parties, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right.

We managed to get out of Lille in one piece, and started pedaling in the general direction of Belgium, and the specific direction of La Louviere, about 70 miles away. Google maps did a reasonably good job at first, taking us on little roads across the countryside and all was reasonably well. After about 10 miles of this, we discovered a bit of a flaw in google maps’ cycle routing software. To explain, here is a diagram showing a bicycle, ideal for touring the roads of Europe:

Image (64)

And here is a diagram showing what google maps thinks is a bicycle:

Image (63)

Really, some of the routes that google maps took us in were ridiculous – I don’t think you’d want to walk along most of them if you had a choice – here’s a picture of one of the more manageable ones (you can tell that from the fact that the bikes are upright):

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Turning from a crumbling shale road onto another unmade track, CB#1 celebrated his birthday by falling off, although his bike had slowed by the time he went over, due to his front wheel disappearing into a gravel trench. As a result, it was one of those comedy falls that take place at negligible speed. However, comedy moment or not, nobody laughed. It was just the first fall, after all, and like punctures, you don’t want to laugh too loudly as it’ll be your turn next.

Eventually, we managed to find a road, and then into Belgium, where we hooked up with the Ravel bike network, which, all things considered, is a thing of wonder – a network of bike routes across Belgium, mainly on converted railway tracks and canal paths, but with a bit of consideration for the cyclist as well. We got onto the Ravel canal path at about 40 miles, and by 50 miles we were flying along, no other bikes on the path, nice flat tarmac and a slight crosswind. In a ‘this is the life I was keen to lead’ style, I decided to get to the front of the group and see how fast I could comfortably go, and, to my surprise, and possibly because we’d been messing about for so long getting to this point, felt pretty good as we got up to 20mph. At 52 miles, I looked at my watch and we were hitting 21mph, and at 53 miles we were easily hitting 22 mph. Nothing too exciting for a road cyclist, but a fair lick for a touring pace. The canal shimmered lightly as we whizzed past coal barges, and the birds were tweeting their merry Flemish songs in the trees to the other side of the path. All was very right with the world.

And then something horrible happened…

 

 

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Steady on, Now’s Your Chance!

I met my friend P in town a few weeks ago. We talked backwards and forwards, as you do, and before long got on to the subject, as middle aged men are prone to do, of football.

‘I’m fed up with it all’, said Pete.

‘Ranieri being sacked just says it all – it’s not sport any more. I’m not going to bother watching any more.’

Me and P’s wife nodded sagely – this was, after all, the man who had sat at the Barclay End of Carrow Road week on week for as long as I’ve known him.

While I do get where he’s coming from, I think he should give it another chance. Because, in this very amateur fan’s opinion, there’s still a few opportunities to get a bit out of sport, and, oddly, you could do worse than renewing your season ticket for the Canaries next season.

For those of you not from round these parts, it’s worth having a bit of a reprise of Norwich City’s fortunes over the last few years. Never really able to play the confident lead at the top end of football’s premier leagues, Norwich have tended to be pretty confident when they’re in Division One (which, if you’re really not from round here, is effectively division two), and fairly well under the cosh when they’re in the premier league (which is, of course, division one). The see-sawing at Carrow Road over the years has meant that they hold the fairly dubious record of being the club most often relegated from the premier league.

You’d kind of expect there to be a Duke of York ‘when they were up, they were up’ element to supporting the Canaries, but in reality, it’s not quite like that. When they were up, there was a bit of a feeling of doom about the place, as a succession of very well paid opposition journeymen, masquerading as team players, would hike up the A11, generally take the mickey out of our woeful defence for 90 minutes, and then, Louis Vuitton washbags in hand, whizz back for a cheeky night out at China White’s, or wherever it is that someone on £50k a week can relax of an evening. On the plus side, I could cycle to a premiership game from my house, and watch some of the best sides in Europe ply their trade, and still be home in time to listen to ‘Canary Call’, cup of tea in one hand, top part of my head in the other.

If you’ve never listened to Canary Call, I can’t recommend it highly enough. On one side of the conversation there is a Radio Norfolk presenter, who redefines the word hapless, teamed with an Special Guest who has been watching the game, possibly with the same tea/hand/head/hand positioning as I mentioned earlier. At the other end of the conversation will be a caller with an accent so strong that it’s been passed down through the generations from the medieval burghers of Swaffham, or Watton, or Sheringham, without any change whatsoever. Very hard to reproduce here, but I’ll try to give you a sense of the sort of call that you might well hear:

Hapless Presenter: “Well, on line three[1] we have Arthur, from Swaffham, and I believe Arthur has some thoughts on City’s back four this season?”

Arthur from Swaffham: “Ahh burt hare bor, hev you now bin hairin may?”

(slight pause for translation)

HP: “Yes, we can hear you Arthur, go ahead”

AfS: “Well bor, that hent roight and oil say tha tyor fess and wun gret nod won wud. Tha back forrrr, I min well I hint nev sin thar sor farssin an fussin since tha wally Roeder cim dan an fule us awl.”

HP: “Strong words, Arthur, strong words…”

Keen listeners will note that Arthur from Swaffham (or his equivalent) will call and make this point on any given occasion – I have heard similar calls on the back of both heavy defeats and heroic victories, and such is the way of the Canary Caller.

Meanwhile, the Canary Call Special Guest will hope against hope that they’ll not be brought into such a lively debate, in the knowledge that sentence starters like ‘The manager can only do so much with the hand he’s dealt, but…’ and ‘I don’t normally criticise the ref, but’ will get him through an even more agonising 90 minutes than the one they’ve just watched.

The CCSG will fall into one of two camps – they’ll either be a fans’ favourite (in which case the acid test will be whether they can correctly pronounce the caller’s town of origin – Wymondham, Corpusty, Costessey callers can keep them on their toes), or a desperate last minute guest brought in through some odd connection with the club, like being second cousin of last year’s kit man, or physio, or goalkeeper (of course, round these parts, many people can tick all three boxes, tee hee).

Sometimes, with a fan’s favourite, the call will drift suddenly away from this week’s glorious victory/embarrassing defeat/turgid draw into a weird world where a caller will phone in to demand that the CCSG recalls the time that they met: ‘I bumped into you in 1993 in the Ten Bells, you were a proper gent, and I’ve never forgotten that’. I heard a call last year where Brenda from Norwich[2] called Rob Newman,[3]  purely to mention that she’d always been a keen admirer of his thighs. In many phone-ins it’s hard to close the call down, but this was a work of beauty, as Brenda’s voice, just gently, breathlessly, drifted away, and you could just imagine the two men in the studio, unsure of the next step, while all of us listeners just listened to the dead time in wonder.

And there’s something quite attractive to me as a football fan to be amongst this sort of slightly surreal cynicism. If, after a home game, I find myself up the city[4] and I don’t know the score, I’ll try to work out from the expression of the fans which way the game has gone. I have never, ever been able to tell. And against that backdrop, you have a club that consistently punches above its weight in characters. Right from the top, where the blessed Delia will attend each home game in her trademark scarf, appearing occasionally in front of a camera at half time to deny her accusers of being drunk in charge of a football club, then, in the second half, give a little regal hand up to the Barclay End, who, bored with the football, are chorusing ‘Delia, Delia give us a wave’. It’s not a million miles from Noel Coward in ‘The Italian Job’. Ed Balls is still hanging around in the boardroom, and Stephen Fry was recently appointed, then unappointed as a Director, presumably as he found out it was about the only thing in life that he wasn’t really good at. I can’t think of a business with such a set of directors who are as, well, eclectic, as the ones at Carrow Road.

On the pitch, there are, actual and real personalities, who have largely escaped the new boss’s recent decide to cull the squad in order to pay the bills next year. Wes Hoolihan is an Irish midfielder who must be fed up with every journalistic description of him being ‘diminutive’. But I can really imagine when he was a kid, just being really, really good at football, deciding to do it for a living, and the fact that he only really just exceeded jump-jockey height not really bothering him. At the other end of the scale, Mitchell Dijks is a 6’ 4” left back, who is incredibly fast, particularly once he’s worked up a bit of a gallop. Because he’s so big, any normal sized opponent coming in to tackle him just spins off like a spanner being thrown into a threshing machine. Referees aren’t really used to this sort of scenario, and most of the time he seems to get away with the fact that his flailing limbs are sending other players flying, sometimes, quite some distance. The Murphy twins (Jacob and Joshua, which has made for a challenge on both the replica and real kit front) are 22, both pretty quick on their feet, and, on their day, both capable of what MotD punters would call ‘something special’. They’ve been with the youth team at Norwich since they were about 3 years old, carefully protected until they’ve been deemed ready to play with the big boys. They’re also reasonably interchangeable and will never both start the game, so, apart from anything else, this allows for a bit of sibling rivalry where Jacob, for example, will score a fabulous strike from about 30 yards out, and Joshua, warming up on the sideline, will reluctantly applaud, in the knowledge that he’s not going on in this game and probably not going to start the next.

There’s more, and the point of this is not to go through the whole of the team, more to give a bit of a flavour as to why they’re actually, win or lose, quite entertaining to watch, because there’s a bit of character on display.

And as long as the characters keep playing, as long as the non-playing staff continue to amuse, and as long as all the supporters continue to fork out to watch each game with a sort of suppressed passion that displays itself as complete indifference, and as long as I can enjoy Canary Call for all the wrong reasons….I’ll keep going.

OTBC! As they say round these parts.

 

[1] ‘Line three’ is stretching it a bit. This is Radio Norfolk, where you’re doing well to have a single phone line functioning. During a very brief spell that I spent aiding and abetting at Radio Norfolk, we’d have regular phone ins, and it took me ages to figure out why my friend Vince would say ‘the lines are really hot at the moment, so if you don’t get through, do keep trying’, while, the other side of a glass partition, the temp that he’d brought in to man the phones would just shrug her shoulders at us until, eventually, a light would come on to signal a call. Which was often a wrong number. Happy times.

[2] Not her real name

[3] Or his, possibly

[4] People in Norwich do not go ‘in to’ places, they go ‘up’ them at all times. They also go ‘Up Asda’, for example rather than ‘to’. I think it makes it more of an event….

 

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Acceptable wisdom

Apologies for the slight delay in missives from Emu Towers, there has been a stellar amount of stuff going on. One day, I must write it up…

And one of those things has been happening many miles away from home, and has necessitated a solo drive across country lasting the sharp end of seven hours. I don’t like driving at the best of times, and I’m reasonably happy, in a very non alpha-male way, to admit that I’m not very good at it. I find it very easy to be distracted or go to sleep on any form of transport, and unfortunately that seems to extend to when I’m in charge of the vehicle. Frankly, the only reason I don’t go to sleep when I’m riding my bike is because I need to keep pedalling. God knows what I’d get up to if I ever got on one of those electric things.

Anyway, ahead of such an onerous journey, I dose myself up with half a gallon of coffee, pack some bananas, set the satnav, and wave goodbye to my loved ones, who are a bit too ready with the ‘please let us know when you get there’ messages. After all, they’ve all been traumatised by journeys when I’ve gallantly taken the wheel, for example, when we had to drive for about ten hours from Norwich to the Loire Valley, and I started the driving, only to pull into a layby outside Thetford, claiming ‘extreme fatigue’. If you’re unaware of that particular geography, Thetford is about 30 miles from Norwich.

Nonetheless, off I set, and had on the passenger seat the hidden weapon in my staying awake plan, ie a phone full of podcasts. I love a podcast, me. I love comedy stuff, business stuff, drama stuff, and really anything that I can get my hands on, so all the way from the A11 to the A38 I was entertained, and, more importantly, kept awake, by The Bugle, This American Life, Crime In Sports, Witness, Danny Baker, S-Town, Freakonomics and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, all of which I heartily recommend.

And it was on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a show dedicated to telling people stuff they don’t know (funnily enough) that I heard something that I didn’t know. And it started with the question ‘Why do American drivers drive on the right, and drivers in Britain drive on the left?’ Other than the smart-arse answer of ‘If they didn’t then they’d crash horribly’, the real answer was brilliant and, given I tend to believe most things I hear on that programme, reasonably believable.

When roads started to be organised in Britain, apparently, it was a time of pedestrians and horses, and, when you passed a fellow pedestrian or horse rider on the road, it was important to show that you presented no threat. Given that most people were/are right handed, if your right hand didn’t have a sword or a dagger in it, then it was a fairly safe bet that you’d pass by with a cheery hello. Or possibly ‘Hail, Good Fellow’ if you were in the home counties. Incidentally, this is probably the same reason that a handshake is with the right hand, in that it would be hard(ish) to shake hands and simultaneously stab your new acquaintance with your dodgy hand.

When roads were introduced in the States, a few decades later, times had moved on, and most of the travelling was done by carriage, and, apparently, what you really need to speed your carriage along is a whip, which, naturally would be held in the right hand. And in order to be nearer the centre of the road but still allow passage, and enthusiastic use of the whip, the driver would sit to the left of the horse.

So there you are. One great nation drives on the left to avoid the more obvious opportunities of being stabbed, and the other drives on the right in order to continue a tradition of animal cruelty. So much has changed in our cultures, no?

The point of telling this story was to demonstrate, that, as times change, so do the standards, or accepted wisdom that we all follow. And in my little car, pootling along London’s bustling North Orbital, at a healthy 15 mph, I wondered if we should apply that sort of thinking a bit more in other parts of our lives.

Take elections, for example. The keen eyed of you will have noticed that we seem to be living in a time of frequent elections and electioneering, with each event being described as critical to our future, and, when the result goes the wrong way, catastrophic for the world at large.

Notwithstanding results, I wonder whether we should be taking a bit of a gander at how this electioneering process takes place – we have a system in place in the UK that seems roughly in line with practices of the 19th century at best, and I can’t help feeling we could be, well, driving on the other side of the road if we moved on a bit. Here are three ideas that I reckon would be worth thinking about:

1, Licence MPs.

If you’re employing a doctor, a dentist, a teacher, a lawyer or any other profession, you’d check their professional credentials. When you got them to the point of employment, you’d offer them a job subject to some sort of due diligence – credit checks, acceptable references etc. In my old corporate world, you’d also run regular vetting during the course of their employment, and sling them out if they went awry. To the best of my knowledge, which I accept may be flawed, there are no such checks in place for MPs, and the selection approach is actually not a million miles away from that of the 1700’s. Really, pretty much anyone can stand as a member of parliament and, if they have some sort of backing of their party, stand as a candidate and become a key part of the decision making process running the country. I know that the line of sight from ‘I’d quite like to be an MP’ to ‘I am currently minister for defence’ isn’t quite as clear as that, but I’d really like to know that the person that I’m voting for is actually qualified in the same way as the pilot that takes me up in a plane, or the doctor who looks in my mouth or the mechanic who fixes the brakes on my car. My last but one MP, who I’m pretty sure had no relevant qualification or experience, campaigned on zero tuition fees, got into parliament, abstained on that particular crucial vote, and went on to be about as effective as an MP as a damp piece of lettuce. In fact, I think of him whenever I see a damp piece of lettuce, although sometimes I need to pour quite a bit more more water on to get a really good comparison.

2. Licence voters

After the Brexit vote, there was quite a lot of noise made about getting what you deserve by giving a vote to people who didn’t understand the issue they were voting on. So, just in the same way that we licence MP’s, we should licence voters. Now, I know that many people have given up a lot for each and every person to have a democratic vote, but I think that was assuming that people would use their vote responsibly. And they don’t. People use their votes to follow a load of nonsense that is now being charmed with the title ‘fake news’ and, importantly, don’t seem to be particularly well informed on different sides of the argument. How about a process where each voter had to acknowledge that they’d understood what they were actually voting for? The point is that while times have moved on apace in many other places, the political system has left the voter stranded with a load of nonsense and attention grabbing misinformation, so they end up voting on the wrong issue anyway. If you don’t believe me, ask a pro-Brexit voter whether their vote was influenced more by immigration than economic sustainability. Maybe there should be some sort of hustings in advance of any election vote, where you actually got to choose between different policies, presented in a clear and differentiated fashion. Maybe we should grab some ideas from those comparison websites that actually put different products next to each other and describe the difference, without needing any biased ad campaigns…

3. Impose a media moratorium

…which brings me on to the media. In the 70’s and 80’s, I remember debate about how influential and biased the media was, and why this was A Very Bad Thing. Since when, very little seems to have stopped the slide. Nowadays, people are far more likely to believe information about (say) conservative policy from reading ill informed tweets about Theresa May, Facebook opinion about immigration and Sky News about, well, just about anything, than they are from some sort of balanced assessment. Many other parts of our world have moved on from this – again, if you look at how we recruit into organisations, the push for anonymity in CV’s to suppress bias over applicants names is a good example. So why not do something similar ahead of an election. Just for 24 hours even, allow nothing to influence the voter except information on policy. Might be a bit boring, but done right could help us all appreciate the value of this fabulous thing that we call democracy.

I think it’s unlikely that these changes will ever take place – if they do, they’re unlikely to happen any time soon in the UK or the US. Which is a shame, as I really can’t help feeling that we’re all driving on the wrong side of the road.

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Ever seen an Alien? No, me neither.

Mrs E, by her own admission, is something of an obsessive, particularly where music is concerned. When we first met, she was well into her Talking Heads phase, and, this being 1987, was suitably impressed by my life-size ‘True Stories’ poster that my friend Kevin B had kindly liberated for me from HMV. From there she went to an unparalleled devotion to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, and from there onto what I consider to be a slightly unhealthy obsession with Stuart Murdoch and the twee/tweed Belle & Sebastian.

But before any of that, and weaving a course in amongst it, there was Bowie. Always Bowie, and everything he ever did, with the possible exception of Tin Machine, to which she gave a sensibly wide berth. Before we met, she’d made a pilgrimage to Schöneberg in Berlin, where he’d stayed when he was recording Low, Heroes and Lodger, crossing Checkpoint Charlie to get there. Rather disappointingly, she reported it as reminding her very much of Catford.

When Bowie died, around this time last year, she was understandably devastated. Honestly, when I shuffle off this mortal c., I’d be happy with half the amount of tears and hand-wringing that defined Emu Towers in the weeks after he died. In that time, the stereo pumped out a fairly rigid playlist that was basically the Blackstar album, with anything else interrupted by ‘I’m not really in the mood for this’ or ‘This is nonsense’.

There were a few crumbs of comfort. Listening to Bowie, Bowie, Bowie wasn’t actually that much of a hardship, even though it was pretty much every day of 2016. And Christmas present buying had never been so easy.

Present #1 – ‘The Complete David Bowie” – a completely brilliant book by Nicholas Pegg that charts Bowie’s every song, recording session, gig and very possibly each evening meal from 1958 to 2016.

Present #2 – Two tickets to see ‘Lazarus’, in London’s glittering West End (cf a temporary theatre outside King’s Cross station). If you’re not familiar with Lazarus, it’s a stage show that sort of completes Bowie’s creative career, insofar as it was the very last thing that he worked on – and he got to see it too, in production off Broadway in his last public appearance, a month before he died. It’s the continuation of the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, the anti-hero alien from ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ – Bowie’s best (and some would say only decent) film appearance. Because it’s Bowie, it borders into performance art, and because it’s Bowie, there are reinterpretations of his songs, and some new stuff. And (bonus), it stars Michael C Hall, star of the wonderful Dexter series, who is the subject of a minor crush from Mrs E.

Partly as a result of #1 and #2, Mrs E was the happiest of bunnies all over Christmas, and much of our relaxation time in the evenings since has been spent preparing the ground for present #2, listening to the cast recording, tutting quietly over #1 (which she’s reading like a novel, rather than an encyclopaedia), and watching back to back episodes of Dexter. The book runs to 794 pages, and there are eight seasons of Dexter, so this is a pretty big undertaking, for anyone but the most hardened of Bowie fans. And her husband.

When I bought the tickets, it was already a sell-out, but I hunted around and got, at no small expense, two tickets (seats 17 & 18) in row Z, about two thirds of the way back from the stage. When she’d calmed down from opening the tickets, Mrs E did further research on the theatre layout, pronounced the tickets ‘excellent’ but then went onto Amazon and bought a pair of military-grade binoculars, ‘just to be on the safe side’.

The great day came, and we mooched around London, with Mrs E getting steadily more and more excited, and got to the theatre an hour and a quarter before show time. Because you never know when they might call an emergency tube strike, after all.

A cheeky snifter before the show, and we took our places, looking down onto the stage, which already had Michael C Hall on it, laying on his back, playing dead before the first scene.

“Excellent”, pronounced Mrs E, adjusting her binoculars, and checking MCH out for freckles.

The stage was set up with the band set back and up, with a big screen in the centre of the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it for your edification:
alien-5
With about ten minutes to show time, Seat W 17 was occupied by a large bloke wearing a parka coat with the hood up. Eventually the hood came down, but left a bit of a static halo around his head.

Before I’d adjusted my neck to compensate for the next two hours, the occupant of Seat X 18 arrived. To my surprise, he was sporting a magnificent Afro cut, the sort of thing that you might have seen on Jermaine Jackson, around 1978. Unfortunately there was no equivalent to the ‘removing the parka hood’ option for X 18, but with a readjustment of the neck, I could still just about see Michael C Hall’s feet.

A real bonus, however, was that seats Y 17 and 18, immediately in front me, were empty, and, as the houselights went down, I happily remembered the ticket instructions about no latecomers being admitted.

Unfortunately, someone in the theatre hadn’t read their own rules, because, just as MCH’s feet start moving out of view, some hushed excuses were whispered, and I was presented with the backs of what appears to be two Canadian lumberjacks, just in from felling redwoods, or working out at the gym, or possibly back from the steroid shop. I’m generalising terribly, but these guys were huge, with bull necks, checked shirts and hipster beards, so big that they could barely sit down without being on each other’s laps. As a result, my view suddenly became really quite limited. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it:
alien-4

Unfortunately, my view stayed pretty much like that for the rest of the show, so I can report very little about MCH’s acting skills, particularly as an awful lot of the play seemed to involve lying down on the stage. There were a few exceptions. At one point, a load of colourful clothes are thrown into the air, and they sailed into view for me just above the first Canadian prop forward’s buzz cut. I felt a bit like a midget watching the hats go into the air on VE Day.

And during ‘Absolute Beginners’, MCH manages to hold his negligee-clad fellow singer up, like a gymnast, flat against the big screen, legs and arms spread out like a star. This was delightfully framed by two bushy beards, but slightly spoiled by the singer’s open mouth and posture looking a bit too much like an inflatable sex toy, which I’m sure wasn’t the look they were going for.

By far the best part of the show however, was in ‘All the Young Dudes’, in which I managed to get an almost unimpeded view of the stage for over a minute and a half. ‘All The Young Dudes’ obviously has a place deep in the heart of your average Shoreditch/Canadian gym-bunny/lumberjack hipster type, as it was the cue for the occupants of Y 17 and 18 to engage in some really enthusiastic necking. No apologies for that rather dated phrase, which you might have last seen on a swimming pool poster, prohibiting necking, petting, smoking and bombing, because Y 17 & 18 were, delightfully for all parties in row Z, neck to neck, kissing and nibbling all through the second and third verse. (Incidentally, I’m going to form a company called Necking, Petting, Smoking and Bombing. It’s going to replace Sue, Grabbit and Run as my ideal Solicitor’s firm. Any lawyers wanting to join my startup, form an orderly queue.)

Anyway, at about the time in the song that Ian Hunter would have cried “I Wanna Hear Ya”, they separated necks, resumed their positions, and, I’m embarrassed to say, both heard me loudly sigh with disappointment.

So, all in all, I may be the wrong person to review this show. There was plenty of reinterpretation being flung about, as you’d expect from anything that Bowie had a hand in, and they stayed more or less true to the lyrics of the songs, which, because no-one really understands them, didn’t really help with the overall narrative.

But the musicianship was great, and a few moments (Life on Mars, being sung by the astonishing Sophie Anne Caruso; Valentine’s Day, sung by Michael Esper, and MCH’s Absolute Beginners for example), were sublime.

And Mrs E wouldn’t have missed it for the world. She’s an addict, after all, and she needed to know that she’d seen it. And she had the distinct advantage of sitting behind a very small and very old man wearing an anorak and a flat cap. (Him, not her, you understand. She’d taken her anorak off by then, tee hee). And she really enjoyed the whole thing, which kind of made her Christmas present worthwhile.

I asked her about what she thought of Michael C Hall on the way home.

“He must have got really tired”, she said, “he was on stage for pretty much the whole show”.

“Was he?” I asked.

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The mutt’s nuts (part two)

In our last exciting instalment, we left Solomon, a sweet adolescent dog (regarded by Mrs E very much as her fifth son, and treated with more devotion than any of the previous four), nervously anticipating a trip to the vets to remove any opportunities to create little Solomons in the future.

As we could easily have predicted, he wasn’t keen on the exercise at all, and started whimpering softly as the car pulled in to the vets, the scene of previous anti-emetics and painful injections. Mournfully he looked up at Mrs E, as if to say “Why Me?”. Mrs E, however, was probably thinking that if the exercise went well, she might investigate a similar exercise on certain of Solomon’s four predecessors.

We picked him up later that day, and he was more pleased to see us than, say, a dog with two tails. There was also a soldierly air about him that said ‘Oh this old scar, don’t worry, it’s not bothering me at all’. He was a bit like my friend M, who is a carrot farmer, and had a vasectomy scheduled one morning during harvest, so made it very clear that he needed to be right back on the tractor in the afternoon. Which he was.

However, Norfolk dogs need to be treated with a certain more care than Norfolk farmers, it would appear, and so Solomon was restricted to lead walks for a week so as to avoid pulling his stitches out, something which he found slightly irritating. And even more irritating when, after a couple of these, Luna found that she could wind him up by running full pelt at him from behind, bumping into him. then sprinting off into the distance. It reminded me very much of David Gower in a biplane at a test match, or, if early 1990’s cricket references aren’t your kind of thing, Dawn French in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Dawn’ (specifically around 4:50 on this clip, but if you’ve not seen this before, do watch the whole thing, at least three times) :

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2ndp6c

After a week of this, Solomon and Mrs E had had quite enough (although I think Luna could have kept going happily for a couple more months), and he was let off the lead, with no negative issues for either scars or stitches. At which point, on pretty much every walk, Luna spent a lot of time barking at him to calm down.

Some months ago, Mrs E told me that she would definitely need a final celebration of her special birthday year, which I dutifully booked. I opted for a romantic weekend, a mere skip and a jump from the Peak District hotel where we spent our wedding night (an evening, that, for reasons I’ll tell you about another time, was spent with Emlyn Hughes, and which, as a consequence, is marred in my memory by a ridiculously voice calling out “3:1! 3:1 we won that day” at a pitch that Solomon would have heard even more acutely than we did). However, the romance of the birthday break was soon to dissipate, as it became clear that this was primarily a weekend for Solomon to recuperate, and start his genital-free life anew.

Fortunately, the romantic cottage we’d booked was declared ‘dog friendly’ on the web, we quickly ordered a book called something like ‘Suitable Walks for Freshly Neutered Dogs in Derbyshire’, and set off for a gentle adventure.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d spent some time in the company of an estate agent, with a challenging taste in business wear and a generous weekly allowance for hair product, who told me that the estate agent’s best friend was the wide angle lens. I was reminded of this conversation as we walked into the cottage, and soon found the ground floor fully occupied simply by closing the front door. There were quite a few sideways and backwards moves required in order to navigate the process of preparing a meal, not entirely helped by the dogs not having a reverse gear. This picture will give you an idea of the starting position.

puzzle-image

Anyway, we were met by the very friendly, and fortunately, quite thin, cottage owner, who wedged her way into the porch to give us some advice, which included the news that the dogs would not be allowed upstairs, despite the stairs being completely open. With a nimbleness afforded only by many years of yoga and aerobics classes, Mrs E manoeuvred her way from position 3 to 12, with very little injury to either dog, and made it clear to our hostess (now resident at position 14), that there was no way that her little darlings were going to be kept downstairs in a strange house, no matter how cosy. Fortunately, a major diplomatic incident was avoided, as our hostess squeezed across to position 15, inspected the dogs, and declared (seriously) that they had short enough hair for this not to be an issue.

Having scored the first moral victory of the day, we all trooped upstairs, to investigate the ‘compact and bijou’ bedroom with some interest, finding just about enough room for two carefully folded dogs on my side of the bed.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was to spell the end of romance and very much the start of pampered recuperation. Solomon’s recent operation had, for some reason, altered his body clock to be wide awake at odd hours of the night. It had also given him a healthy appetite, and interestingly, an enthusiasm for all sorts of excrement littered across the Derbyshire countryside. He had a particular penchant for Sheep shit, but was also partial to a bit of Cow and Horse. As a result, his breath absolutely stank. He is probably oblivious to a combination of halitosis, farm animal excrement and gingivitis, but it’s hard to ignore when it’s delivered at 2 in the morning directly onto your mouth. Telling him to lay down and turning your back doesn’t really work either, unless your idea of a wake-up call is being rimmed by an enthusiastic puppy five minutes later. I mentioned this to Mrs E, who made it clear that her empathies were all with the dog. Anyway, all things considered, I prefer a snooze button.

Anyway, Solomon certainly seemed to have received the message that this holiday was for him, and him alone, and subsequently lorded it over all and sundry. I suspect he’s over compensating, as, if anything, his chest is puffed up even higher than ever, but at least he’s stopped humping animate and inanimate objects without warning. He seems pretty relaxed, if his sleeping position is anything to go by:


And if he winds me up, I just whisper ‘Jaffa’ in his ear. He doesn’t necessarily understand, as, being Hungarian, the finer points of British slang can be lost on him, but it makes me feel much better.

 

 

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The mutt’s nuts (part one)

I’ve rabbited on in the past about how dog ages work (if that’s the right phrase). Well it’s time to do so again, this time in reference to Solomon, the most handsome member of the family by some measure, and with the aid of this useful chart that I’ve pilfered from the internet, and, by that very act, am naturally taking as factually correct:

dog-age

 

A note about the chart, to start with. It shows three types of dog. S/M looks drop-kickable, so wouldn’t pass one of the strict entry criteria into the Emu household. For similar reasons, L looks like he/she wouldn’t last too long around here, on account of ‘trying too hard’. Much as we might all like a Jackson 5-style Afro and Flashdance legwarmers in their place, that place really didn’t ought to be a dog. Fortunately XL actually looks like a dog should look, IMHO, so there is a place in our hearts for this chart after all.

Solomon is 9 months old, which places him fairly and squarely in the teenage angst section of the chart, giving the current adolescent residents of Emu Towers a nice, if volatile, spread of 14, 16 and 18 years old. Meanwhile, Luna (or THCPWCDNWITEOATF(EDTH), if you’ve been paying attention), myself and Mrs E are all in the right hand side of the picture, and we’ll all feel rather short changed if we pop our clogs before we hit the 108 mark.

As an adolescent male, Solomon has been going through what we might generally call a ‘difficult period’. In particular, he’s struggling to come to terms with all sorts of strange things happening in the back quarter of his body. On the plus side, it’s made it very easy to tell him apart from Luna on a walk – they go along side by side, they’re almost exactly the same height and colour, but his legs are about four inches further apart than hers and he walks a bit like John Wayne after a taxing afternoon down at the Alamo. And there’s a certain pride to the way that he holds himself- standing, sitting or lying, he seems to be able to (and I can’t think of a delicate way to describe this) display his cojones fully to the watching world. I don’t think there has been a picture taken of him in the last few months (and, being a doting family, there are many) which haven’t featured his new-found masculinity front and centre frame.

The negatives all rather outweigh the positives though. As I mentioned, he’s struggling, and he doesn’t really know which direction to take his particular brand of testosterone into. He’ll get excited and bark at any little thing that catches his eye. He’ll play really excitedly with a squeaky toy. He’ll rub himself energetically against anything that happens to be near him including Luna, provoking cries of:

“Get off her Solly, she’s three times your age!”

Although, with reference to the chart, it appears that in dog terms she’s’only’ twice his age, so technically more a Donald Trump objection  than a Hugh Hefner, if you know what I mean. He’ll move on from Luna to an unsuspecting piece of furniture. He’ll stop, bend over, and apply a bit of a lick and a polish to his bits. He’ll run round in circles for a bit. He’ll lie down on his bed and (I swear this is true) have a bit of a cry.

And these things can happen in quite quick succession. I witnessed all of the above in one frantic two minute period a couple of weeks ago, and it was like watching a 120 second version of ’50 Shades of Grey’. Which, having sat through the whole film in real time, would have been hugely preferable.

Solomon is also nothing but an affectionate hound, and given any opportunity will move in for some sort of a cuddle. He’ll nuzzle in to you, and his tail will start to wag, and he’ll make little satisfied murmurs, that make you know all is good with the world.

Unfortunately, there’s now another tell-tale indicator to show the world that he’s a happy pup. Mrs E first described this delicately as ‘his lipstick opening’. It took me, naive as I am, a while to understand what she meant, and it wasn’t until he actually tried to apply his lipstick directly to my face (and shoulder, and arm, and leg) that I really got it. So to speak.

Enough is enough, I thought.

“Get off now, and find someone of your own bloody species”, I shouted at him.

And looked around and noticed that Luna was next to me, looking surprisingly coy. Bloody hussy.

Fortunately, Mrs E and I have brought into the world; loved; fed; clothed; cleaned; nurtured; and are currently partway through an exit plan for, four adolescents of our own. So bringing up teenage boys, demanding, challenging and painful as it might be, should be second nature to us.

In some ways it is. Solomon’s behaviour reminds us quite a bit of the last few years of the awkward individuals, not all of them our own, who have hung around in our kitchen. I don’t think either of us actually witnessed any frottaging of inanimate objects, but that’s not to say that it didn’t happen. Just saying.

Similarly, I can’t remember any time when we’ve been out for a walk and one of our boys has seen another…well, look, you’re ahead of me already aren’t you, and there’s no need to finish that sentence. The point is, a limit has been reached, and after much consideration, the decision has been made. An appointment with the vet looms. Everyone in the family is worried about whether we’re doing the right thing. We broke the news to Solomon. It was hard to read his expression, but in amongst the teenage angst, I think there was also a dark and brooding disappointment at what might have been:

img_1432

I’ll let you know what happens.

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