I used to love being a European

I used to love being a European.

In fact, I identified more with being European than being British, and especially more so than being English.

How special was it to be able to get on a train in London and get off it in Paris?

Yes of course we can still do that, and in that sense nothing's changed. But everything's changed.

Now we go as visitors, we don't belong.

I can't walk the streets of Paris or Munich or Rome or Greece or Poland and think - "Wow - this is part of me and I am part of it".

The EU stretched over a vast distance and included an incredible diversity of cultures and races, traditions and cuisines.

We voted against the humble boulangerie baking hand made baguettes and silky smooth air-light buttery croissants, and the high art of the pattiserie with the Religeuse au Café and Tarte Tropezienne, and voted for what? Mass produced shitty pap that doesn't deserve to be called bread, and a fucking jam donut from Greggs.

Yes we have Stinking Bishop, Stilton and Golden Cross goats cheese - but these are the exception and not the rule. How many "cheese shops" do you know of? Do you have one in your village - your town even? We voted against the fromagerie with a countless variety of seasonal regional cheeses and voted for plastic wrapped tasteless cheddar from the supermarket.

Every little helps.

We've voted against the nobel art of Beethoven, Handel, Picasso, the science and philosophies of some of the greatest thinkers and achievers ever.

We voted instead for Slade and Farage.

I used to be part of Europe - it used to be part of me.

I used to love being a European.

A religieuse experience

There is a bit of a scandal in France. It’s made headline news and investigative journalists have recorded exposé-style documentaries, risking being beaten up while doing so. Late night deliveries are made using unmarked camionnettes and anonymous plain boxes. Big money is at stake and the French are being conned by connards.

Pâtisserie is a fine and noble art form. Being a pâtissier is a highly respected profession which takes years of training, the finest pâtisseries are jewel-like in their beauty. Pâtisserie is bought for special occasions, for a treat, or to simply celebrate the skill, craftsmanship and creativity of the artisan.

The scandal is that with the latest manufacturing technologies, astonishingly good pâtisserie can be churned out in volume to a consistently high quality at cost points that the lone pâtissiers can’t possibly match. Plus, of course, they don’t have to start work at stupid o’clock in the morning.

Customers get high quality product at reasonable prices, pâtissiers get a more reasonable work/life balance, and maybe they get to save their business. What’s not to like?

But of course they are no longer pâtissiers, they are simply dishonest resellers of someone else’s mass produced product. They are no longer artists, but con artists. Consumers are being misled, they can’t be sure that what they are buying is le vrai McCoy.

In England, good pâtisserie is even harder to find. OK so there’s Ladurée, famed for being on the Champs-Élysées and now around the world with several outlets in London, but this is high class production on a monumental scale. It’s hard to imagine it’s all hand crafted. Their sister brand Paul the Boulanger has a more earthy feel, but in reality is no less industrialised (IMHO).

But there are some shining examples of the real thing. Maison Bertaux on Greek Street, Balthazar Boulangerie on Russell Street and La Pâtisserie de Rêves in the French quarter of London, South Ken, are all well worth visiting.

So it was with great interest and surprise that my Parisian girlfriend Virginie and I yesterday spotted a new pâtisserie in Windsor. We hand-brake turned into Madame Posh’s and ordered one of the great pâtisserie classics, a Religieuse au Café.

According to Wikipedia, “Religieuse is a French pastry made of two choux pastry cases, one larger than the other, filled with crème pâtissière, mostly commonly chocolate or mocha. Each case is covered in a ganache of the same flavor as the filling, and then joined decorated with piped buttercream frosting.

The pastry, whose name means "Nun", is supposed to represent the papal mitre. Religieuse itself was supposedly conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, but the first version of the Choux pastry batter was invented in 1540 by Panterelli, the Florentine chef of the Florentine queen of France, Catherine de' Medici. After subsequent iterations, the batter finally took its current form in the early 18th century in the kitchens of Marie-Antoine Carême, "The King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings". Religieuse is a type of éclair.”

See what I mean about pâtisserie being fine and noble?

Classical elegance: Dalloyau, Paris

Classical elegance: Dalloyau, Paris

Choux pastry is meant to be a light pastry, containing only flour, butter, water, and eggs. The raising agent is steam which creates cloud-textured, puffy-fluffyness that’s soft and melts in your mouth with a satisfying butteryness.

The coffee flavoured crème pâtissière in a Religieuse should be smooth, rich and creamy, but lightly flavoured, its sweetness being a satisfying delight. The ganache covering the choux should be a delicate highlight of flavouring, subtle in texture and subtly sweet. A true Religieuse has an almost unbearable lightness of being.

In short, everything that Madame Posh’s Religieuse experience was not.

Madame Posh: Windsor UK

Madame Posh: Windsor UK

The pastry was more short crust than choux, being hard, crumbly, crunchy almost, and dense. The coffee flavour of the crème pat was so strong it punched through the latte I had to wash it down with, and the “ganache” was some kind of thick, sticky, treacly-toffee like substance, an overpowering sickly-sweet goo that was so gluey it broke the piece of decorative chocolate as I peeled it off, and left me with what I can only describe as a “chemically metallic” aftertaste all afternoon.

Far from being finely balanced, light, fluffy and deft, the whole thing was a heavy-handed sugar bomb, which sat like a medicine ball in my stomach for the rest of the day.

The waitress we spoke to said they make everything on the premises and indeed downstairs you can see plenty of cooking going on in the “Pâtisserie Theatre”.

But I can’t help but have my suspicions.

Avant garde rock star: Café Pouchkine, Paris

Avant garde rock star: Café Pouchkine, Paris

Sonnet 18, pour ma princesse

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? 
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: 
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; 
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: 
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Words by William Shakespeare, music by Dave Gilmour

The longest skid mark

Woooooooooooo!

That was... scary!

To the west of Quarry Wood Road is the dual carriageway A404, and the picturesque Thameside town of Marlow, to the east is Cookham Dean. Quarry Wood Road has a wonder hairpin bend which is about 1:6....

So as I was descending - the first "major" descent on my "hilly 45" mile route, I naturally started to slow down, to take the bend. Just a reminder, I'm currently riding single speed fixed wheel bike, I think a 68 inch gear. So my legs were spinning quite quickly as I started to slow, using the front brake, and pushing back on the upstroke of each pedal rotation.

Suddenly there was a BANG, a rattle, and the pedals stopped spinning. The back end of the bike was fishtailing and I was having to wrestle the bars to keep a more or less straight line. 

I knew what had happened, had heard of it happening to others, but it had never happened to me - so I was feeling more surprise than anything else. A quick glance down and sure enough there was the chain, knotted around the single rear sprocket, a quick test of the pedals made certain it wasn't going to free. I was still sliding down the road and I wondered if the rear tyre was going to blow... then I thought - crickey if I stop I'll fall over, better free my shoe from the clip-on pedal - so a frantic tug, tug and tug got my left foot off the pedal, just in time as I came to a halt, finally, and gently rested my foot on the tarmac.

I was about 20ft from the hairpin.

The stench of molten burning rubber assailed my nostrils as I considered my situation.

I dismounted and inspected the mess.

Spanner in hand (no quick release - this is a pure track bike) I undid the rear wheel bolts and pulled it clear of the drop outs. I tried to use the spanner as a proxy finger to unwind the knots, but in the end had to resign myself to getting oily hands - which I hate, especially in the countryside with no way to clean them.

My God!! What's this!! As I re-thread the chain I notice its been WARPED!! The chain has been BENT SIDEWAYS - I have NEVER seen that happen before!! I can't believe what I'm seeing... and then another shock!

One of the fishplates had SNAPPED IN HALF, and half of it was MISSING!!!

That is totally unheard of!

What forces were at work when the chain jumped? What on earth made the damned thing jump in the first place? The only cause I could think of was that it was too loose - but that's just not possible as I keep a very close eye on that... so I was perplexed and bamboozled... and oily.

I got the worst of the mess off my hands by using leaves and remounted - there's no way I can continue the ride, so resignedly I gingerly start climbing the hill, retreating the shortest way possible back home. As I dance on the pedals I realise the rear cog is tightening - as the chain wrapped itself around the wheel, it must have acted as a chain spanner and had started to undo the cog - despite there being a (now slightly mangled) locking ring in place!

I get home, shower, change, car it to the local bike shop. They're impressed. They provide me with a new chain. When I get home and take the old one off, and thread the new one on, I notice... that the rear cog I have been using is thicker than the "spare" fixed cog on the other side of the hub. A light bulb goes on - of course!!

I forget now the chain dimensions, but chains for derailleurs are thinner gauge than chains for fixed - but the original chain, the one that jumped, was a derailleur gauge chain - the new one is the thicker gauge for fixed wheels.

Today's ride goes without a hitch and the bike was running noticeably smoother than before - there used to be a "knocking" noise, a clunk every so often, which I couldn't figure out - but I believe that was it - the thinner derailleur chain just wasn't happy running on the wider gauge rear cog... and that's what caused it to jump.

I went down Quarry Wood Road again today, and I have to say that skid mark is really impressive.

WHAAM!

Whaam! by Lichtenstein

Whaam! by Lichtenstein

WHAM! WHAM WHAM WHAM! His fists flew, my head flopped from one side to the other as the blows landed alternating left, right, left right and for once I was glad to be wearing a helmet...

In the groove... the first ride of 2010 after a break of three weeks. It was good to be back, getting into the rhythm, Remenham Hill was climbed comfortably and the descent to Henley was the usual pell mell whirlwind with eyes streaming and bike skittering over the tarmac just the right side of being in control.

Over the bridge, through green lights, into the right hand filter lane. It may have been a Sunday but that didn’t mean everyone was relaxing and an impatient driver overtook me on my left and pulled out in front of me, but he was so short of distance before the red light he had to park up straddling the “bike box” at the right filter into Bell Lane. To avoid shortening my wheelbase even further by smacking into the back of his car, I swerved to the left and did my first trackstand of the year next to the passenger door, ignoring the car completely. A typical road incident hardly worth registering.

Red light red light red light amber GO, I took a nice line to turn right as per my right. The car driver was slower to get away and didn't like me getting in front and blasted away on his horn, the angry careless cacophony shattering the Sunday somnolence; I looked behind me and he was pulling in to the pavement near Starbucks.

So I gave him the traditional two-fingered salute, that symbol of sardonic respect and thought nothing more of it... for about two seconds after which there was a revving of engine and a screech of tyres behind me as the car came after me, chasing me pell mell down Bell Lane, which at this point is a narrow one way street. There were no exits, no alleyways to dive into, I had nowhere to go but straight on as the metallic monster chased me down, a powerful predator after its prey...

About 50m later there’s a choice - to continue straight on and exit Henley or take the right filter which would ultimately take me back to the town centre... I decided to go straight on... I rode wide to protect my line and to make sure I wouldn’t be overtaken and unceremoniously dumped into the gutter by way of being sideswiped, but didn’t figure on being undertaken and forced across the white centre line into the path of oncoming traffic... I am aghast, but with this car six inches from my left elbow there is just nowhere else to go...

...fortunately it was a Sunday so the traffic was light but even so a couple of cars had to pull in towards to kerb to avoid splatting me across their windscreen... 

... sketchy protection arrived in the form of a pedestrian island next to which I stopped, the wrong side of the road but at least there was something between me and this moronic monster. I quickly dismounted, he swerved across the road and parked up diagonally across it, blocking traffic in both directions and blocking any further froward progress of mine - no escape that way. By this time I was losing grip on reality - was this actually happening? This is a Sunday morning in Henley ffs!

Other traffic began to blast their horns for this nutcase to get out of their way, I picked my bike up and skittered on cleats across to the pavement and waited. The sleek silver shark glided away down the road, the small number of other cars that had been temporarily blocked trickled passed and silence descended....

I remounted and somewhat tentatively resumed my journey, hoping that my pursuer had given up and gone on to hunting grounds anew... but within a few yards it became apparent that I was some delectable morsel to be devoured undistracted. The driver was walking down the road, down the road towards me, arms outstretched as if to welcome me into his lethal embrace; there was no way to pass.

So I stopped, left foot on the ground, right foot still attached to the bike. As he strode towards me he was shouting and yelling abuse; he got up close and personal and continued his foulmouthed assault. He was somewhat taller than me and broader too, I being only of average build. His face that haunts me still was craggy, deeply lined, like some worn, battered and ancient rocky outcrop exposed to the harsh elements over several millennia; a short but also somehow scraggy whitish flecked and faded auburny-brown tired looking beard with tired looking hair made him look unkempt, uncaring and uncared for. He looked tired which was in contrast to the vitality end energy he was putting into his verbally vicious attack.

Strange I studied him in such detail. Strange that I felt completely unmoved by the toxic torrent delivered by this bicyclists’ bane; now that the flesh and blood was not contained in the defensive aggressive armoury of computer designed crumple zones I could eyeball my adversary.

Unstoppable, the putrid torrent of vile vomit spewed forth from this gargoyle’s gutter; my feeble response of “But you cut me up back there” was swept away like a mote of flotsam and jetsam in a tsunami; indeed my timid temerity simply swirled up ever more stinking, disgusting, rotting contempt from the putrid depths of his stinking, disgusting, rotting mind.

And then he spat at me.

Spat at me.

Spat.

Spittle splattered over my jersey, his intimate insides violated my outside; each disgusting fetid fleck of white spume glistened and sparkled in the sun but, just like his words, they were revolting, repulsive, repugnant. Who was this man? What infections or diseases did he carry?

Calmly and deliberately I spat back. You spit at me and I’ll spit at you. Fair play. But he didn’t think so....I saw him raise his arm before the first strike and I ducked...WHAM! WHAM WHAM WHAM! His fists flew, my head flopped from one side to the other as the blows landed alternating left, right, left right and for once I was glad to be wearing a helmet... 

As the blows fell I wondered what to do. How can I stop this berserk vandal, this ignorant pillock? This prick? This bully? This rabid emotionally retarded git? Should I kick him in the balls? After all, hard cleated cycling shoes firmly planted in his gonads would hurt. Should I throw my bike at him? Better not, it might get damaged and he was not worth that.

The pummelling stopped and I looked up, straightened up, and eyeballed this scum, this imbecile, this perverted personification of hatred, this bastard filled with blind unjustifiable anger, this exemplar of road rage lost in red mist. He puzzled me and I pitied him. 

He started again, but I had plenty of time to duck again... WHAM! WHAM WHAM WHAM! His fists flew, my head flopped from one side to the other as the blows landed alternating left, right, left right... this banjaxing of my brain was getting serious... 

With each blow to my calvarium I thought this might be my road to Calvary but the cavalry arrived; a bicycling band of brothers pitched up, the beating stopped, the bullying bandit backed off as a bespoked banderillero interceded and demanded to know what was going on.

Surrounded by cyclists the coward changed his attitude, portraying himself as the victim. Pathetic. Logic would say I would get witnesses, logic would say I would note his registration plate... but it was a surreal Sunday which made no sense, my senses had been scrambled and I left the scene.

As I defiantly continued my route, I reflected on what had happened. The thing that struck me, other than his fists, was that his invective and spleen was directed towards me being on a bicycle. He had tried to make me feel like low-life, like something that should crawl back under the stone from whence I came, that I was the lowest of the low; that being on a bicycle was socially unacceptable; I was a pariah; something that shouldn’t be allowed; that I was sub-human filth. I had no right to live. I was scum.

Bizarre.

When I got home the shock set in. I reported the incident to the police and got a crime number (24th Jan 2010 MH2158561/10) and got myself checked out medically... after all although I was wearing a helmet my head had been used as a punchbag. I spoke with Cycling Weekly and The Henley Standard and Maidenhead Cycling Club sent out emails throughout the cycling world hoping to find my saviours... but the trail had gone cold. It took 4 days before the physical affects wore off; if I drove or moved too quickly I felt woozy... 

Whoever this guy was is a menace to cyclists, he is dangerous. He was driving a current model silver Audi estate, an A4 or possibly an A6. By forcing me across the road into the face of oncoming traffic, it’s possible he attempted murder, with his car as the weapon. Police have checked CCTV and can see the incident, but can’t make out the reg plate. 

I need to steal myself and go cycling through Henley again and lay this ghost to rest.

Visited by Death, one sunny lunchtime many years ago

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The door crashed shut. A hand plunged deep into my chest and ripped out my heart; veins, arteries and sinews stretched and snapped and I collapsed empty and lifeless onto the dusty wooden floor of the empty and lifeless house. The door crashed shut, the door crashed shut, the door crashed shut. Again and again the door crashed. Shut. It was final. The end. They’d gone. 

I couldn’t move, I was paralysed, the numbing shock anaesthetised, I was petrified and terrified and the screaming jibbering jabbering daemons could be felt outside in the darkness that was encroaching; stealthily, remorselessly, a tide of tightening frightening blackness was rising and with it came the putrid detritus of the wreckage wrought. My mouth was dry with the bitter cinders and ash of failure, the union of souls a mountebank’s mummery; to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till Death do us part.

Death, loveless lonely lovely smiling Death who loves to rive with his scythe rived us apart, he sliced and slashed through the bonds that bounded; sounded his dread musical mort as we mere mortals fled and bled. They’d gone and the door had crashed shut and Death’s spoor was still there, hanging in the still, lifelessly limp, empty, silent and insipid air; so dead was the air it could barely nourish; it had no sparkle to it, life was an anathema to it and to I.

Colour, sound, taste and smell were absent in the wake of Death and in the sterile clock calm of antiseptic absence, of numbing nothingness, time stood still. I was alone, bereft of love, bereft of my progeny, bereft of ecstasy; I was alone and a shudder started at the core of me; the scythe’s cleaving caused a catastrophic catalepsy; the tectonic plates of my mind shifted and ground together in cataclasis, I descended deep into the depths of the dark catacombs within.

The door crashed shut and I was alone. The shudder worked its way through me as I lay on the dusty wooden floor of the unnaturally quiet house, their absence a quietus on my life. Insensate, I watched a spider silently pitter-patter past me: dust motes floated slowly in a sunbeam, amiably, languidly: a floorboard creaked loudly. The mourning grieving house was adjusting to the emptiness, now that they’d gone.

Slowly at first but then in a rush, my life began to return as from the deep welled up a chaotic cacophony, a tumbling jumbling kaleidoscope of colourful images and colourful sounds. Buoyed by this flooding flotsam and jetsam, I resurfaced from the depths of the catacombs and I drew breath deep into my lungs. Time had resumed its steady march, tick tock went the clock, life’s spring had sprung back, I was alive again.

The uncomfortableness of the hard dusty wooden floor insistently made itself felt on the corners of my body and I stirred. I heaved myself up and unsteadily, shakily, with palsy walked around the barren empty hollow house, their appalling abandoned remains strewn higgledy-piggledy, uselessly, randomly, desolately, pathetically.

I stepped outside, crashed the door shut, and went back to work.

The fractal bird

The Fractal Bird from Sydney Therese (link no longer works, and thanks to Alfred Bester

The Fractal Bird from Sydney Therese (link no longer works, and thanks to Alfred Bester

To my left there’s a sea of vivid bright yellow rape, swaying in the light cooling breeze; zizzy zephyrs cause green cats paws on this canary sea and in windless pockets, in the lee of brick built barns and whitewashed cottages and flinty pubs, the hinted heat of the day is sucked out of my lungs and deep into the peppery black tarmac over which my bicycle tyres rhythmically swish and swoosh, keeping time with metronomic muscles as they pump away at pedals.

The fluffy scut of a light brown rabbit bobs up and down as the startled staring animal hares pell mell along the grass verge in a blind frantic panic, desperately seeking sanctuary as this wheeled behemoth looms ever larger and larger; it zigs and it zags and it scurries and scutters and veers hard left and disappears deep into the welcoming protective arms of the roadside thorny hedge just as I pass, a hair’s breadth away.

A Red Kite surfs invisible waves, a spy in the sky balancing itself on windy currents; black, white and rufous underside clearly visible against the clear blue canopy, its wings and fanned tail twisting and twitching to keep it on station; its prey praying for salvation. A broody parasitic cuckoo, a clade in a glade, cuckolds and cuckoos and I count the years till I meet the grim reaper; a dull grey wood pigeon coos and woos its mate; a presumptive and premature drake noisily and pointlessly chases a duck in the splishy plashy shallows of a stream, piercing the air with reedy quacks which peter out as he loses interest, settling back into the water to nonchalantly preen himself.

Spring is sprung indeed, with virginal vivid colours, fresh and new. A pheasant hops into my path. But it’s not a pheasant, more like a peacock. But it’s not a peacock. This strange, exotic and beautiful bird delicately but confidently struts across my path, moving with sublime grace, poise and elegance; I am compelled to stop. She seems to shyly glance at me, golden-yellow-brown eyes briefly, tentatively, make contact with mine and she looks away and there’s the impression of an impossible enigmatic smile.

She wears a coat of luxurious golden feathers with rainbow hues lambent and willowing and rippling across its plumous whole, shimmering and glimmering in the soft gentle spring sunshine; this particoloured passerine, a panchromatic pavonine, shot through with periwinkle blue, soft muted warm earth tones and autumn shades; bright cool and deep, all at once fresh, pretty, bright, lively, soft, beautiful, relaxed, rich, exciting, dynamic, calm and quiet; golden-yellow-brown irises glistening, paired photospheres floating in a pellucid mother-of-pearl sea.

Then the bird starts to sing and what a song, what a voice! Enchanting and beguiling, a pure crystal clear voice flows up and down the octaves, her pure mellifluous, melliferous voice, a pure honeyed hypnotic entrancing voice, strikes a chord deep within and affirms life’s spirit. I am spellbound and agog, rooted to the spot; I am a nympholept, in a state of unsatiated satori and despite the clarity of perfect sound the message I sense in her sensuous song isn’t clear, it’s opaque to me; she sings in symbols and as the meaning starts to clarify, to crystalise, as I become vaguely aware of her penetralia, the tentative image shatters into myriad shards and I’m lost; lost as I flounder through the flinders of her impenetrable message.

My world shudders, my soul is cracked open; her music is a menstruum for my miscible senses; sound comes as sight to me; motion comes as sound to me; touch comes as taste to me; smell comes as touch to me; colour comes as pleasure to me; I see the sounds of her song in vivid patterns, now a multicoloured mosaic moiré, now a kaleidescope of clashing and complementary colours, now a soft veil of vertical borealis streamers. Amaranth and amethyst, bistre and byzantium, cinnabar and cinnamon circle and spiral out of sight as the colours of infinity ripple around me. 

I hear the ruffling movements of her feathers as they flutter in the fluffs and puffs, the sensuous sashay of the bright yellow rape speaks in strange tongues: “shwwere weeeeshhhh sshurrrr shooooshh”: the feel of the light breeze on me is acrid and chalky in my mouth, the cool smooth metal of my bike contrasts with its sharp lemon and lime tang on my tongue: the smell of the warm peppery-black tarmac is like velvet caressing my cheek, the strong scent of yellow green rape prickles and tickles my skin, like a million billion ants marching over and biting into my flesh, the very freshness of the air like sateen flowing through my fingers.

Colour comes as pleasure to me: her pointillistic panoply creates exquisite highs of ecstasy bursting though thresholds of orgasmic delight; goldenrod, heliotrope, malachite and myrtle generate thrills of intoxicating euphoria; the rainbow-white stars of wild garlic are tingly-electrifying; glistening golden-yellow-brown irises send me glissading along a wave of unbearable rapture; my will is ruptured; I am overwhelmed, bamboozled, dazed and confused; I do not understand this paralanguage at all. My feelings are exposed as nothing more than an arrogant arrogation, her musical obbligato obtunds my wit; I become morose as her music becomes morendo, losing volume, fading into nothing, dying al niente

Nigrescent darkness fills my mind as the glorious splendour dissolves and disappears; this amazing magical mysterious misunderstood bird that affected me so turns her back on me and walks away and I’m left bereft; to my misery my miserere is misprized, my misprision becomes my prison; how I suffer with rejection and dejection; but the Fractal Bird’s unintended gift to me is a febrific fecundity of words and verbs that I plunder and loot and value and treasure; her song was the key that undid the lock and which set me free. 

The rites of spring

Jez

Jez

I remember the day vividly.  

A decision had been made, today was the day for the rite of passage; one that would mark him out, allow him to distinguish himself, to join a more select group, increase his social standing, give him street cred and increase his self-confidence, his self-esteem. He would grow up a little today.

He’d been showing all the signs that he was ready for some time. Eagerness to progress, balanced by frustration that it wasn’t happening. So he had to learn and we went to the park. 

The dew in the grass reflected the warming spring sun’s rays and each droplet sparkled like a diamond set into a lush green carpet. He was apprehensive and excited, she was a quietly amused, bemused onlooker, I was determined and cheerfully optimistic.

He got on his two wheeled steed, recently shorn of its extra set of wheels, those all too visible identifiers that were the source of the malcontent. To balance him I held on to the back of his saddle and he started to pedal, I walked then trotted to keep pace with him, encouraging him to turn the bike this way and that, leaving his wheel marks and my footprints in the damp dew, the spore of some strange wild beast.

His confidence grew and he controlled the bike with increasing skill, using the brakes and not his feet to slow down and stop. All the while I was beside him, my hand less and less on the saddle, little though did he know it. 

Then it was time. Time to let go, to set him free. As we zoomed along, dancing our father and son tango, I gently and for the last time removed my hand from the bike, and slowed down to a walk and then stopped; he though carried on, swooping around curves, carving his own furrow in the grass, sun glinting off bright paintwork and chrome, legs a blur as they propelled him along, independent of me, his mum, those wretched stablisers, and I laughed.

~

I remember the day vividly.

I was sat astride my bike, on an awkward leather saddle with a propensity to pinch a boy’s prized assets, and I was determined to do it. One rod-lever brake, balloon tyres and a crappy U-tube frame; but it was mine, my key to freedom if only I could figure it out.

Dad had taken the stabilisers off and I balanced myself by leaning on the rough brick wall. I launched myself into a limitless liminal world and wobbled precariously along the path. A car swooshed down the road disrupting my concentration, but I’d made progress and I felt a surge of confidence; I could do this and with mounting excitement I remounted and had another go.

This time I made it. I made it to the top of the drive! I could do it! I did it again, and again, and again! Elation! Jubilation! I’d redefined myself, taken myself away from being a little boy; more of an equal to my big brother, on a par with Dad.

The ecstacy was disorienting. The new found freedom was intoxicating, made me giddy. The world had suddenly opened up, my horizons had expanded, limitations were removed, the possibilities were endless. I looked down the road and could see no end to the universe; I had passed the test. I was worthy.

~

I remember the day vividly. 

The day we both crossed a threshold and grew up a little.

I can't imagine...

Ben at home on Tryfan

Ben at home on Tryfan

... what the parents of the two boys that have been charged with murder can be feeling or thinking right now. Similarly I can’t imagine what the parents of the two boys that were attacked can be feeling either - other than intense relief that the incident wasn’t any worse than it already is.

As I type this, I think, on reflection, that I can relate to how the 9 and 11 year old boys’ parents might feel. The pic of Ben above was taken when he’d recently turned 9. We were with Climbing Mark and Eva in North Wales on a delightful stroll, or big adventure, doing a circuit of Tryfan. We started from the car park and gone up the steep side, at one point a smidge of scrambling where we felt it prudent to rope Ben up, passed that outstanding phallus The Canon, and eventually topped out and had lunch with Adam and Eve. 

Though not perhaps the Garden of Eden, the view was pretty stunning and an inspiring, intoxicating if barren place to be, guarded by those two sentinels of rock; Mark did the leap from Adam to Eve, the rest of us passed...

..nothing so remarkable about all of that. However it was only two or perhaps three weeks prior to this photo being taken than I saw Ben for the first time in 3 years. Three years. Three long years when my heart was as hard and as cold as the stone that made Adam and Eve. Three years during which the very essence of my being was challenged, the core deep within started to come adrift, the roots started to let go, one by one... I could feel them giving up.

I’d given up. I couldn’t fight the system. Not anymore. I was exhausted. Defeated. What should have been commonsense had become nonsensical; nonsense had become the norm and the Queen of Diamonds in that crazy world, Joan Brown, the assigned social worker was as barking mad as the Mad Hatter himself. Decency was derided, truth drowned out by dogma, blinded by those innocent eyes of the Deceiver and her bastard boyfriend, narrow minded officials not accepting that they and their precious system could possibly be wrong; far from helping they exacerbated the situation, stoking the fire with a tide of inane, inaccurate reports, which threatened to take me down with the undertow...

Well fuck them. Fuck them all to hell and back.

The deep damage they did was incalculable, not just to me but to Ben too... he was a wreck. And it took a lot of time and patience to get him back on track, which I am delighted to say, he is. Whether I am, is another question.

However to survive I had to stop. In my mind I could feel the sharpness of the blades as they slid effortlessly through flesh, the warm water of a bath is supposed to dull the sensation... all it would have taken would have been for one or two more roots to slip... 

So I had to stop. And when I stopped I grieved. I grieved for the loss of the boys I loved. Knowing they were still alive was, strangely, little comfort... they may well have been dead, indeed effectively they were. I grieved but there was no funeral. I grieved and there were rivers of bitter tears, but no comforting service. I grieved and talked and talked and talked... and finally, finally, the tears stopped and the talk stopped and I carried on regardless, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.

And now I look into his pure deep brown velvety eyes and can hardly bare the love I see, it pierces me through and through, I feel such a fraud.

But how would I feel had Ben turned out differently? What if it was he that had tried to kill another child? There, I have no idea at all.

The climber

Me on Brown Slab, belayed by Johann. We did Little Chamonix later that weekend in 1996.

Me on Brown Slab, belayed by Johann. We did Little Chamonix later that weekend in 1996.

Little Chamonix. An absolute classic, three pitches of joy at Shepherd’s Crag, nothing outrageously extreme, just a V Diff, but what a V Diff! He’d been looking forward to this day and the weather gods had smiled on him.

There was no noise.

Wind in his face and the aroma of bracken and peaty soil. And the rock.

He reached out and made the first move. Metal jangled as his gear swung on his harness. The first placement, the second, the rope snaked out behind him, the belayer was smoothly keeping excess slack out of the system.

He loved climbing, he loved the way it made him feel. The combination of agility and strength, thuggy moves and delicate, balancey holds.

Solving the problem.

Feeling every cell of his body and measuring, weighing up what would happen if he moved just so… thinking about not just the next move but the move after that too. The buzz of exposure, the frizzon of adrenaline as he made his way across an exposed sequence, the drop whilst not on the scale of El Cap, would certainly be fatal…

The first pitch completed, and the belayer seconded, stripping the gear and the pair tidied the belay position, ready for the next pitch.

There’s a funny awkward doubled-up move, made more so by his being somewhat inexperienced at leading; the rock felt menacing here, the weight of it loomed hard on the imagination; climbing fucks with the mind but he enjoys that too; the focus needed, the requirement to empty everything else out and just be the climb.

It’s not about pure strength, it’s about balance and technique, balance and poise, style. It’s not about muscle mass either. He was in the zone using his God given lithe, athletic and supple body, making it work, away from the confines of a life he didn’t believe in anyway; his heart was pounding and in this moment nothing filled his head other than the climb; nothing filled his heart more than the joy, the thrill of it; nothing fed his soul more than the satisfaction of perfect moves.

He finally topped out and created the secure three point belay, which looked absolutely bomber. And finally he relaxed, his hands worked the rope and ATC as his partner seconded the third pitch, and reality tumbled back into the mind he had emptied of all else, his imagination retraced a favourite path to find… her.

He smiled a little then, as the vision became so real he could feel her physically there, he gasped for breath, closed his eyes and despite all the gear, reached out to stop himself from tumbling. Deep inside his loins he felt something give and he wanted her…Aaaahhh!

~

The blogger sat back and looked at his creation, master of all he surveys, with a sense of satisfaction.

He loves writing, he loves the way it makes him feel.

He had been in the zone using his God given imagination, making it work, away from the confines of a life he didn’t believe in anyway; in this moment nothing filled his head other than the words; nothing filled his heart more than the joy, the thrill of it as the story flowed out from that mysterious creative space, through his fingers, onto the screen via the keyboard; nothing fed his soul more than the satisfaction of perfect blog, fresh and new.

Naked, in the shower after, as reality tumbled back into the mind he had emptied of all else, and muscles relaxed under the stream of hot water, he felt a bubble of happiness welling up inside of him; he smiled a little then, as the bubble rose within and burst out of him, he let out a whoop of joy and had to reach out to stop himself from tumbling out of the cubicle as he realised he’d finally laid the ghost to rest.

Snap, crackle, and pop goes Beano's

ELO Out of the Blue

ELO Out of the Blue

Earlier this year, the 7 inch vinyl record celebrated its 60th year; happy birthday. However, I for one never liked them. I found them to be... inconvenient, fiddly, delicate things and even as a young kid thought there had to be a better way. I’m not sure which was worse, singles which by their nature had to be swapped for another one after 3 minutes of play, or albums which always had to be turned over in the middle of the best bit, Dark Side of the Moon being a classic example with the irritating interruptus splitting the best rock playlist of Time, The Great Gig in the Sky, (turnover), Money and Us & Them. 

And then there was all the background noise - the pops and crackles which just don’t feature in live music and which I find to be a total distraction... and stuck needles and fluff... and having to clean the disks and they’d warp...

Only tapes were worse. Despite, albeit with a fiddle and faff, being able to create “playlists” from a selection of records, and the play-time was longer than the disk, tapes would inevitably get chewed up in the delicate mechanism, and of course being a serial medium, trying to find a particular song was damned difficult...

The ONLY saving grace of albums was the artwork. Occasionally, such as with Pink Floyd, you’d get posters and other gubbins thrown in; but even without these extra goodies, the artwork was pretty stunning - or could be anyway. Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was always a favourite, as was the Hipgnosis work on many a Floyd album, and I used to love ELO’s Out of the Blue for this reason as well. It was also the first album my brother bought me.

Anyway when CDs came out, I binned all my vinyl and replaced the lot with the new silver discs and proclaimed the next advance would be solid state music. Which we now have, of course. I am that marketing guru. 

Actually, I say I binned my vinyl collection - truth be told I took the lot to Beanos in Croydon and sold them as a job lot for tuppence ha’penny, or whatever the decimal equivalent might be, including a candle-wax covered edition of Pink Floyd’s Animals album which I’d previously bought from this emporium.

I learned from a chum that Beano’s had become spectacularly successful, indeed it was in its heyday the world’s largest second hand record dealer. I also learned, with much sadness, that the store is to close; it just can’t compete anymore, despite the recently reported surge in sales of vinyl.

Here’s the announcement from David Lashmar, chief Beano, which he sent me recently and has said I can reproduce here:

BEANOS FINALLY TO CLOSE - a message from David, the owner.

A severe and, I believe, permanent downturn in music retail has forced me to realise that I can no longer continue to finance this business as I have done for the last two years.  Since, in fact, when we announced that we would have to close back in 2006.

Regular subscribers to our 'beamails' will know that we have had several exclusive special offers. Our last beamail explained that we were still experiencing desperately poor trade and that we were extending our 'Half Price Sale' to the general public during September.

Unfortunately this did not provide the boost in sales that we expected and I have had to take the decision to wind down BEANOS.  After well over thirty years this is very difficult for me.

However, I will now have the time to devote myself totally to the design and launch of 'MARKET PLACE' our exciting way to revitalise this fine building.  (more of this later!).

Don't get me wrong, I still have an absolute passion for all things musical and records in particular and I have always been ready to rise to the challenges of retail but, things just don't feel right anymore and I doubt they ever will again.

Let's see what has happened to BEANOS over the years.  

The mere youngsters among you may need to know a little about our history (many of you will remember, as you were there!).  BEANOS started in 1975 in Bell Hill  (just around the corner from our current store) born out of a dream by a record fan who wanted to take his profitable hobby of selling records on a stall to a higher level.  Within a few years the shop became too small and larger premises were found in the adjacent Surrey Street Market where a former grocer's store was transformed into a musical heaven that had collectors visiting from all over the world.  Again, we ran out of space and we made the brave move to the beautiful former printing works in historic Middle Street (only ten paces from our Bell Hill shop!).  This was a massive site for a second-hand record shop but we managed to fill it all too soon. Gradually, over the years we expanded this to incorporate the two adjoining shops (a café and an office)

Only ten years ago we were the leading second-hand record dealer in the world.  Our three floors were absolutely crammed with every type of record you could imagine in every speed and size, CDs by the thousand, Videos (there's another fast disappeared format) and Memorabilia.  This was the time when you were a 'collector' and you really had to search hard to find that elusive item and were damned glad to get it when you did.  We had 24 dedicated staff who really knew their stuff and the whole place buzzed.

Then along came eBay.

Then along came Amazon.

Then along came 'downloading'.

Then along came the time when it was no longer necessary to actually possess anything musical. Nothing tangible like an LP cover or even a CD insert with some possibly interesting information. Nothing to file.  Nothing to show off to friends.  No, now your life can be on an iPod or a phone. Your music your photos, your contacts.  "Imagine no possessions" as John Winston Lennon once said.

Of course, we tried to embrace the new trend and at one time had ten enthusiastic typists working at our Sun House warehouse entering data as we started to sell 'on line' but, in the end, the administration sapped the profits and we had to admit defeat in this field.  (In fact, most professional dealers who spent their time selling on line have also given up).

By this time, eBay had made a 'dealer' out of every enthusiastic collector and it was no longer necessary to go to a Record Shop to sell, they simply put it on eBay themselves.  This was another nail in our coffin as we were rarely offered anything remotely interesting to resell so the quality of our stock diminished.

Oh yes, Amazon.  Well, we all use them don't we?  At least I do!  They are truly superb and have such a vast selection of second-hand CDs and DVDs that no shop could ever hope to compete unless they chose to add all their stock to the Amazon database and, if they did, they would be a shop no longer.  Roll on Amazon, I say.  You are the new god of on-line retail therapy: search it: want it: click it: get it.  Suits me but, it sounds the death knell for many a small business, mine included.

Which brings me to the all pervading, ethereal, intangibility of downloading music. What a fantastic opportunity for the record companies to continue without ever having to actually make anything (except for huge profits).  No factories, no reps out on the road, no faulty returned product and no warehouses full of unsold stuff.  So, why have they all messed it up so badly? Greed.  They tried to charge too much for their legitimate downloads and the punters simply would not cough up.  So, the iPod world searched and loaded from the 'unauthorised' sites and embraced file sharing.  How the devil were we ever going to persuade people that it was a really good idea to come into BEANOS and buy an album when they could get it for nothing?

Five years ago  the signs were there for me to read but I chose to ignore them thinking there would always be a place for Beanos.  Two years ago my accountants pointed out to me that we were losing a lot of money every month and, if the shop continued as it was, I would soon be bankrupt.  That was back in August 2006 and I accepted the inevitable and started a Closing Down Sale.  As many of you will remember, the reaction to this news was fantastic with hundreds of emails and letters giving us great support, so much so, that I decided to close just the top two floors and continue to trade on the ground floor.  This worked fairly well and freed me to pursue my idea of building an indoor market on the first and second floors.

The grand scheme, at the time, was to use the pull of Beanos to draw people in to the shop and thus provide plenty of trade for the tenants of Market Place.  I started the build of the stall units on the top two floors hoping to have these ready to let this year and, although they are now finished (and look great) I have had to put this scheme on hold for a little while for two reasons.

Firstly, I could not, in all conscience, bring tenants in and promise them a good trade when I know damn well that this will be the worst pre and post Christmas we have ever seen and, secondly, as Beanos continues to struggle it would not provide the attraction that I had hoped.  Now, having made the reluctant decision to close Beanos, I can convert the ground floor as well into more units for Market Place and devotee myself totally to this new venture.

So, although Beanos as a record dealer will disappear fairly soon, its spirit will live on in Market Place as this will be run with the same flair and incorporate a lot of the design ideas that made us so famous.  It is also going to be run on innovative principles which will guarantee somewhere really special.  It will be busy, colourful, exciting and safe.  It will not be anything like the tatty indoor markets that seem to spring up everywhere.  I have spent a long time looking at other indoor markets and I know exactly what to avoid.  I will be sending a further beamail fairly soon giving more details of how this will be structured and, believe me, this will be a fantastic project and will re-vitalise this area of town.  I did it with Beanos and I will do it again!

But, I am sure you must realise how much I am going to miss the shop.  It has been my life since it first opened in 1975.  It has given me great rewards and been a major part in the musical lives of thousands of our loyal customers, many of whom I know personally and will miss greatly. However, I hope that you will continue to support my new scheme and help to make Market Place as great a success as Beanos was.

We will still have our doors open well into 2009 as we sell off all that we have left and I will continue to email you with news as we convert the ground floor into something very exciting, in fact, you will see what we are building when you come in and, if you want to have a look at what we have done with the top two floors, just ask to have a preview.

This is both a sad time and an exciting time for me.  Although I might be of a retiring age I am not of a retiring nature so, please take note, David Lashmar has not left the building! 

And here’s what he has to say about the wax-covered album I sold back to them all those years ago:

“Yes, we are still trying to sell that album.  I have a sticker on it that says "the candle wax on this was dripped by Sid Barrrett on a bad acid day””

With a sense of humour like that, I think David and the new Beanos will rise phoenix-like and succeed again.

The box

Pic by Scott Zeigler

The old man was by now quite frail. He cursed Father Time for making the years weigh so heavily on him, simply by letting him live for so long. Some would be envious of his longevity and he had indeed outlived all of his contemporaries... there were none left, he was the last; alone; and he was so tired. He would welcome the end when it came; he longed for it; every new day was a curse. He muttered to himself a lot, and shambled rather than ambled; even in its sparsity his frame was at times just too damned heavy.

He coughed.

There was something he had to do.

He was in a big room. An empty room. It hadn’t always been empty. It was at one time full to bursting, but he’d been busy emptying it of all its contents. It had taken a long time; partly because there was so much in there, so much to clear out, to sort out, to get rid of, to chuck way, to dispose of, to dispense with, to jettison. And partly because he was just so damn old. And with age comes slowness: and he was very old indeed.

He shuffled. Once, he had been fit, athletic, toned. A long time ago, he could hardly remember. Or was it yesterday in crystal clear clarity? Time goes so slowly and yet so quickly; time means everything and nothing; time is just something you have to experience; tough for the young who don’t know anything, tough for the old who know too much. His glazed and rheumy eyes gazed around the room, barely registering what he could see. But then there really wasn’t much to see, the room being so dim, so vast and so empty. And so still. And so dead.

He sighed a sad, resigned kind of a sigh. 

He had to continue his search for although he could feel the end coming, he had this one last thing to do. It worried him. He longed for the end, it felt so close; he could sense it. He fancied that on more than one occasion he had glimpsed a dark shadowy hooded figure, with the glint of a curved steel blade in a bony hand. But that was probably just his imagination. At least that hadn’t stopped working. But before the end he wanted to find...

... a box. One. Last. Solitary. Final. Box. An anonymous plain brown cardboard box. It could contain anything, but he hoped and feared it would contain this one last thing. It hadn’t been in any of the other boxes. None of the thousands of other boxes he’d opened in his exhausting exhaustive search had contained it. So it must still be here; there was nothing else left. So it had to be here; still inside the box. Inside the otherwise empty room.

If only he could find it before the last grain of sand slipped through the narrow glass neck of his time.

He felt something brush against his hand and he stopped. He hadn’t seen it, so focussed and intent was he in looking for it that he’d missed it, but there it was. A box. Perhaps THE box. He contemplated it and as he did so he was aware his heart was beating faster and more strongly than it had for many a year. It was an unremarkable brown box. And to think that this could contain...

Gnarly old hands fumbled at the tape that had been used to seal the lid. Hands that used to be so dextrous, so strong, so sure and so gentle. The box wasn’t heavy and his clumsy movements moved it easily. It was a fiddle but finally the tape was off, the lid was loose. He trembled with trepidation and... 

...as he opened it he was suffused by a gentle warm light that glowed from within the box and which pierced his dulled eyes that had become accustomed to the dim dark room for so long that they shed tears, but he couldn’t look away.

The brightness spread and warmth radiated outwards, enveloping him with a sense of well being, of being alive; physically able and mentally alert the years sloughed away, his pulse was strong, he felt revitalised, rehydrated, nourished, reborn and the memories flooded back, filling his mind; the room was no longer empty, dull and dark; quite the reverse.

The light from the box grew stronger and he felt feelings he’d forgotten even existed. He thought he heard a whisper, felt what may have been the gentlest touch, or breath, or kiss even and he was overcome, he hadn’t expected this memory to be so strong, buried as it had been so very deep and for so very long.

The pure sound of her voice, the sense of her delicate movement, the impression of her being there filled him to the brim with joyous elation, a numbing and tingling ecstasy that fizzed around and through him. She turned and faced him, her magical mysterious multi-coloured eyes made contact with his, seeing through him as they’d always done and the last thing he felt, the last sensation, the last thing he was aware of, the last thing he knew, the last thing he experienced in life before oblivion engulfed him, was total and utter love.

Oil's well that ends well

Spinnaker flying, by me. I think this is "Muskateer of Stutton", a 48ft Nicholson

Spinnaker flying, by me. I think this is "Muskateer of Stutton", a 48ft Nicholson

Unbelievably we’d won!

hahahahaha! 

We’d stuffed even the Royal Navy’s entry in the Cowes to StMalo race, one of the off-shore qualifiers for the Fastnet race and couldn’t fucking well believe it! During the night the wind had gone very light, disappeared, really. Everyone but us had decided to kedge; one after another the anchor lights came on, twinkling their giveaway signal; whereas we’d carried on working the boat, trimming the sails, not making use of any real wind, but capitalising on something called tidal wind.

What, you may be wondering, is tidal wind? 

A sail doesn’t give a toss where wind comes from, or how it’s generated; a sail will provide drive and power regardless, as long as air flows over its surfaces. The tide is a lump of water about 1m high that’s dragged around the planet by the moon. In the Channel, massive tidal heights are caused by the funneling effect of the shape of the Channel. To a boat, this huge surge of water is flowing, like a river, the boat being shoved along in the direction of the water flow. Therefore there is air flowing over the sail. Therefore you can trim the sail and make it work. Therefore the boat will go through the water, not just be pushed around by it.

Admittedly in this case we were still going backwards, as were all the boats that had dropped their kedge; but the significant point is that we were going backwards at a slower rate than everyone else because we hadn’t stopped sailing. Get it? Nothing if not educational, these blogs, are they, dear and lovely reader?

And when the sun rose, the breeze kicked in, we plopped out of the lee of some island or other before anyone else due to our expertise at using tidal wind, and we caught the breeze before anyone else romped home with the silverware!

Ashley the skipper got very drunk and was still not compos mentis when presented with the trophy by the great and the good of StMalo yacht club. We won’t be asked back, I’m sure, and Ashley was still not really with us when we departed that ancient, fine and noble port by the massive lock and was shortly seen leaning over the stern, the feeding the fish with his supper of moules marinere as we headed homeward bound. Not a particularly strong stomach as he got puke on the transom. Tch, calls himself a Yachtmaster...

There was an absolute horror show on deck late that night as a squall came through and shredded the lightweight spinnaker; in the way of these things, by the time we’d got it all under control and remnants of fabric stowed below, and various halyards, sheets and guys unknitted, the wind had dropped to less than F1, so we stuck the motor on. Drone drone drone drone and the VHF crackled into life. One of the other yachts we were in company with had run out of oil, their engine had stopped, had we any spare?

Sure, no problem and we slung our spare oil pot at them. Drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone ... an engine is auxilliary power on a sailing boat and total garbage for propulsion really.

Breakfast on deck, a cloudless blue brilliant sky. The Needles off the western entrance to the Solent looked stunningly luminous off to starboard. Drone drone drone dro...

... the silence was so loud we didn’t notice it at first. Fuck it! Our engine had packed up. Head down into the compartment, thrashing around, spanners, tools, bleed the bleeder, hand pump the fuel... no oil.

Where’s the spare?

Ah.....

Providence was with us, or so we thought... we still had way on and drifted over to a motor launch that was just sat there, basking in the early morning sun. Got any oil spare? Sure, have ours! No, no just some, we don’t want it all! It’s OK, they reassured, they were just going into Lymington.

Drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone drone oh so bloody tedious as we headed eastward towards Cowes. 

Drone drone drone dro...

... the silence was so loud we didn’t notice it at first. Fuck it! Our engine had packed up AGAIN! Only this time we were in the shipping lanes and a pilot boat was coming out of Southampton Water... followed by one of those rather large container vessels. There was still no wind, a 10 billion tonne cargo vessel was approaching and we were right across its path; we were supposed to not be anywhere inside 1000m directly in front of this sucker and we were well inside that, the pilot vessel was starting to get stroppy with us while half the crew had their head down into the compartment, thrashing around, spanners, tools, bleed the bleeder, hand pump the fuel... 

There was only one source of motive power.

The crew.

And only one way of getting that power into the water.

The paddles from the dingy.

So there we were, Hawaii 5-O style, paddling a 36ft yacht with two paddles, in the Mecca of yachtdom, in view of the Royal Yacht Squadron, overseen by an unbelieving, eyes starting, increasing agitated if not angry pilot vessel, with a monstrous mountain of steel bearing down on us, in what for them is a tiny narrow stream...

It was a blocked fuel pump, but by the time we’d sussed that we were out of the shipping lane, thank goodness. 

We blamed the French fuelling birth we’d used for supplying dirty diesel, though somehow we didn’t think this sort of thing would have happened to the Royal Navy’s yacht.

But fuck it, we’d beaten them anyways.

;)

The wall

Jez

Jez

It’s still there, in all its hard, cold, folded, rippled pockmarked greyness, looming over the sports hall; the result of a Dahli-esque plasterer gone mad. I touch it, running my fingers over its textured surface and the years dissolve away... all those people. Lasting friendships; my climbing partner Debbie, Gavin, the cool couple Nigel & Gilli who are still cool but no longer a couple but with the miracle of beautiful Skye and their Beinn is now a teenager; climbing Mark who I love like a brother & Eva (and now young Alexander), Johann (where is he now?)... Our Red Nose day epic; the challenge to climb Everest in 24 hours, and we did 3 times that height, with just the one broken leg. Dave, the cabbie with the PhD. Debbie snapped her Achilles tendon just here, an 18 inch fall is all it took and she’s still limping. This is where I fell off and broke my heel bone, a two metre drop onto the hard sports hall floor as the matting had been moved. Just like the real thing, bouldering anyway.

Jez started it all, and Jez being Jez the Advertiser printed his pic in the paper. This was the start of the other stuff too. The bad stuff. But for now, there was something new to try. Learning to belay, learning to trust a figure of eight (ffs!), an ATC, an Italian hitch. All new. New gear, new techniques, new language.

When I was let go by Newbridge, as I descended further into the abyss, into the darkness, into the numbing deadness of depression, I’d take myself off to this wall for an afternoon and have it all to myself. It was the focus that I needed, to empty my head of all the badness that was in it and just be. And the endorphins would surge, nature’s own anti-depressant which kept the gibbering beasts at bay.

We got to know each other well, that wall and I. I got to know how it would try to chuck you off if you tried this sequence of moves in this particular way on that particular section. It got to know me, my weaknesses and fears, hopes and dreams and confidences. The wall would suddenly expose a problem and reward me with the delight and thrill of solving it; the challenge then got passed on to others later.

Jumping Jugs! Haha! Now that was a cool sequence, three moves to the top, starting by mantling off here... Oh and the hand jam on the overhang, shit that still hurts! 

It was good to see it again, like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend I once knew and reminiscing. A pleasure, even though at the time there was a great deal of pain.

Shame it’s not being used anymore. 

It’s a good wall.

Afterglow

Pic by Agente Artehormiga Lyrics by Genesis

Pic by Agente Artehormiga

Lyrics by Genesis

The gig had been a good one... the crowd had responded well, appreciated the performance and the band appreciated the appreciation and performed more, in a virtuous circle. That’s the drug; that’s what keeps the singer singing, keeps the songs fresh despite countless repetition, that taps deep into the emotions which makes performing live so rewardingly exhausting. It was time for the song. The signature song; no break, just a bridge to segue into the opening bars and a roar erupted around the auditorium. The lights dimmed, leaving the stage in darkness, just one coloured spotlight on the singer, his sweat cooled, and despite the heat of the stage he shivered. The song that took the time to write as it does to perform had become one of the best known and best that the band had produced, some said it marked a transition for them. But for now, for now, his voice was all, he filled his lungs, and sang as his God given voice would allow.

~

Like the dust that settles all around me,

I must find a new home.

The ways and holes that used to give me shelter,

Are all as one to me now.

But I, I would search everywhere

Just to hear your call,

And walk upon stranger roads than this one

In a world I used to know before.

I miss you more.

~

Something was going to happen, he could sense it. The first grass cuttings shed their powerful aroma, green foliage was intense with the freshness of spring and flowers were vivid. The two boys made their way with a sense of inevitability to the house which basked in the warmth of the sun. Sunbeams cut though mote filled air and shadows willowed across walls. The house seemed to welcome them in, gently folding its walls around them, the sound of girlish giggles from upstairs rippled throughout and seemed to sharpen his senses to a hyper-real pitch. Colours became supersaturated, sound amplified, even the stillness of the air could be heard. Upstairs and the bathroom door opened, and he caught his breath for there she was, the frighteningly beautiful blonde girl from next door, the sister of his mate, subject of many a childish fantasy, and now he had to grow up beyond his years; she let her towel drop and his pulse quickened, heartbeat pounded in his head, his face flushed, the air crackled with the intensity of the moment; she glided past in her nubile nudity and the boys followed her into the bedroom where she’d slept over with her friend.

~

Than the sun reflecting off my pillow,

Bringing the warmth of new life.

And the sounds that echoed all around me,

I caught a glimpse of in the night.

But now, now I’ve lost everything,

I give to you my soul.

The meaning of all that I believed before

Escapes me in this world of none, no thing, no one.

~

The sailor woke. He’d been in a deep, deep sleep and felt totally and utterly relaxed, his body deliciously inert, his mind empty, for once no demons, at peace. The flat was silent, the spring air, even in the city, felt fresh. The unfamiliar surroundings felt... comfortable. There was no doubt, he was smug, and felt he had cause to be. The cruise where they’d met had been a good one. The sailor had accepted the job at the last minute, standing in for another that didn’t turn up. A weather window opened and they’d made it to Cherbourg for the weekend, where a most entertaining time had been enjoyed by one and all; fair stood the wind for England, a broadish reach return; by which time, the scent had been picked up and the chase was well and truly on. Her call later, her soft, velvety voice and deep rich laugh, welcomed him into her life. A pell mell motorbike dash across London behind a courier, never to be done again; a shared Lush bath. Everything was just so... they’d known each other for a heartbeat and a lifetime; how could that be? How... could... that...be? A rare connection had been made; he stretched like a lazy cat; a cat with the cream; and she stirred, woke and smiled, her soft brown eyes sparkled, her un-tameable black hair was wild, and she looked to him so totally and utterly desirable, his heart dissolved, and in that moment, in that moment, he felt he knew what love was; he was totally gone, out there, in the zone, his mind was empty of all else other than her; her scent, her musk, the feel of her skin, the beat of her heart, the perfect shape of her imperfect body, and her inexplicable acceptance of him; she wrapped herself around him and lovingly accepted his physical self as only a woman can.

And I would search everywhere

Just to hear your call,

And walk upon stranger roads than this one

In a world I used to know before.

For now, now I’ve lost everything,

I give to you my soul.

The meaning of all that I believed before

Escapes me in this world of none,

I miss you more.

~

The singer’s last word died away, the band reached a climax, a crescendo of synthesised sound, moody Moogs, bass guitar beats, drum rolls and symbols rippling as they played out to the end. The end. The final performance. The song had served them well, always performed with love it had repaid them many times for bringing it into existence, appreciated by many, it had become a classic for the cult. But it was time to change, time to move on, perhaps to be revisited at some distant future point, but for now to be left trapped, frozen, stored on vinyl disks and magnetic tape, boxed up and preserved like so many things as a memory.

~

I miss you more

~

The cyclist

Cosmic Joke by Erik MacEachern

Cosmic Joke by Erik MacEachern

The first mild day of spring. The air smelt fresh and clean. The bike hummed, its stripped down simplicity offered no complications. One gear. One brake. No freewheel. One colour even, and that was simple chrome metal. Just the basics. Unlike most things in life, he understood it. He understood it on different levels; aesthetically, technically, emotionally. He understood how to ride it and he loved the way it made him feel. He liked the bucking and kicking of the track frame’s fierce geometry, the tautness and responsiveness outweighed its exuberant liveliness. The smooth rhythmical motion, on hills out of the saddle to keep the metronome going, swish swish swish went the tyres on the tarmac. Although he’d ridden this route hundreds of times before, he never tired of it. Only about 30 miles or so, it had everything; swooping descents, stiff ascents, long drags, smooth roads, fast roads, bumpy lumpy roads which only get more so; quintessentially English countryside, chalk downland with rolling hills and folded valleys, vistas that open and which keep eyes transfixed and which refresh and cleanse. Howsoever he was in the zone, using his God-given body, making it work, away from the confines of a life he didn’t believe in anyway. His heart pounded and sweat stung his eyes as he climbed a hill, and in that moment, in that moment, nothing filled his head other than the joy, the thrill of it; nothing fed his soul more than the satisfaction of man and machine working as one. 

Later, as he relaxed having showered, reality had tumbled back into his mind that he’d emptied of all else, muscles relaxed and his face glowed. Though his body buzzed from the afterglow, his mind was still battered and bruised from a tumultuous week which he looked back on with more than a tinge of rueful regret.

It's that time of year again...

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...when the road is calling... the tarmac is generally dry and it’s warm enough even at high speed not to shiver. Being cold is bad as it affects your bike handling... at least, it affects mine anyway, stiff muscles mean I can’t relax and so the ride doesn’t flow, apexes are missed, and the experience is poor. Possibly even unsafe.

I did ride a bike through one winter. My first bike, a Suzuki 600F otherwise known as a Teapot. The yacht I was racing, Abrasive, was based in Ramsgate, a fine yachty place and handy springboard for the French and Belgian coast, with Calais being only 4 hours away. On one occasion our new flash lightweight rudder snapped at the water line, leaving us bereft of steering. Actually, you might think that, but of course you can steer a sailboat by trimming the sails; the headsail takes you away from the wind, and the main spins you up into the wind, but this isn’t the most precise method of steering. 

As it happens, fair stood the wind for France and Calais was an easy hop, and a sailing challenge too, being rudderless, but alas we wanted to get back into Ramsgate which was less of a challenge, more of an against-all-known-laws-of-physics-impossibility, so we resorted to the time honoured tradition of calling out our mate, the harbour master in his powerful RIB, and buying a round when next in the clubhouse... although we did, we really did valiantly try the RYA recommended “emergency tiller” of lashing a wash board to the spinnaker pole and using that as a steering board by lashing that to the starboard rear quarter.... not a great success.

Back to the winter on two wheels. It’s a nerve jangling experience, or can be, as you tiptoe your bike around frost covered corners, fearful of the off that’s unlikely to damage you much, so although the NHS body shop may not be troubled with a busted arm or leg, it would generate expensive bike body shop bills. Motorways don’t have sharp corners on them, which makes them so dull to ride, but in winter this lack of a requirement to lean over can be quite re-assuring.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s a compromise to be reached; to get the journey over quickly you have to speed up, but that increases wind chill factor so you freeze; alternatively you slow down to reduce the chilling effect of wind and consequently stay out longer and freeze. And your bike and you get covered in salt too.

So I’d been on an ice-breaking early season round the cans event outside of Ramsgate and chugged back on Suzy the Suzuki with my sailing gear all stowed in my kit bag bungied to the pillion seat and had reached a “steady state”; speed vs frozen assets, occasionally warmed gloved hands on the engine, the bike’s fairings kept most of the Arctic blast off me. But even so after two hours, I was an immobile block.

Manoeuvred down my drive and onto the patio at the back, and killed the engine. Cocked my leg over the back of the saddle to dismount, only, as I was so bleeding stiff, and my kit back was on the wide side, hanging over the side quite considerably, my heel caught the corner of the bag and my momentum was unstoppable... over I went, landing on my side, in the dark, alone, with warm bike lying on top of me, pinning me to the floor.

Bollocks, as Roger Melly the Man on Telly would say.

On the plus side, I was alone and it was dark, so no immediate embarrassment, but on the other hand it was dark and I was alone... and it was going to be a cold night and I didn’t really fancy cuddling up to Suzy for the night, besides who would ever find me? I’d be a frozen corpse or if left long enough only my bones would occupy my helmet and leathers... I could see the headlines in the local rag already and wondered whether I’d be entered for the Darwin Awards.

Must be all the rock climbing or something as with a deal of grunting and shoving and not a little swearing, I managed to lift Suzy off me, pick her up and get her back into her lodgings and I haven’t ridden through a winter since.

We’ve been broadcasting for 1000s of years, but is it still radio?

Written after a gig at the Radio Academy in my capacity as Chairman UK Podcasters' Association

Written after a gig at the Radio Academy in my capacity as Chairman UK Podcasters' Association

So the farmer, for thousands of years, sowed his seed on the furrowed ground of a ploughed field; the fertile imagination and ingenuity of man planted the seeds of wireless mass communications in the late 1800’s and radio blossomed a few years later, for entertainment and information. Rather than invent a new word to describe this new medium the English language did what it’s good at and repurposed an old word from a totally different place - the world of the farmer, that most ancient of human industrial activity, was suddenly propelled to the forefront of technology as we began to “broadcast” through the ether.

There are many claims as to who invented radio, with many famous names in the roll call of honour... Maxwell, Marconi, Edison, Franklin, Tesla and Faraday are just some of the illustrious ones that contributed towards the development, exploitation and commercialisation of radio as we know it today.

As the first genuine mass media for entertainment and information, radio represented a leap forward in human-to-human communication and the business of radio created its own momentum; jargon and jobs, tools and techniques. Editing is editing, the fact that it’s digital today is neither here nor there; all digital has done is to recreate the analogue method on a flat screen. 

Everything was set, in the analogue world there was binary measurement. It was broadcast or it wasn’t; shellac, then vinyl disks were pressed and sold, count them one by one. A royalty payments system was easy to devise, implement and enforce.

In the digital world, it’s all very different. Actually no, it isn’t all very different, but it depends on what you mean by “all”. Digital delivery can be different and whole new experiences can be created for content consumption. But the core of what program makers do remains the same; quality production values for quality content, though it is true some of the tools have changed.

Much of the “digital revolution” that causes the heartache and pain felt by the industry is in delivery or distribution, not production. In the digital distribution world it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to monitor units delivered so the nice cosy world of royalty payments has crumbled to dust.

No longer are the public, our audiences, interested in preset programme schedules, partly because there are more channels or sources to choose from, but also society is more fluid, more fragmented. This means that the constant stream of the realtime broadcast isn’t as important as it once was, as the unmissable has become unmissable. 

A chum of mine makes the point that he can use an iPhone app to program his PVR from anywhere in the world to find “content” on a given topic; these TV shows are recorded and he can watch them whenever suits him. Being a smart chap he can download to iPhone and watch wherever suits as well. There is no reason, in principle, why his search couldn’t also include radio-style content, or any content such as blogs, for that matter.

So here’s an irony - linear broadcast TV is being used to deliver content to a non-linear digital device.

Marketers have a concept of core and augmented services, or products. The core service in the case of radio is the radio show - as it always has been. Until the advent of digital, there were very few ways in which this core service could be augmented; a listing in the Radio Times was about the only way for a long time, followed by a basic level of interactivity by way of the telephone phone in.

Today there are a plethora of options for augmented services; blogs, Twitters, Facebook profiles, Myspace, txt msg, MSN, Ning & other Social Networking sites... There is an argument that says these services ARE the new radio as they are being consumed at the same time by the new audience as the show... but they are not the core service offering. 

It is vital that the content of a radio station is paramount - you can’t have radio with moving pictures otherwise you’re simply re-inventing TV and although the internet audience is more forgiving in terms of production values, there is a threshold below which as a professional, one wouldn’t want to drop. 

The beauty of radio is that it doesn’t have pictures - it’s pure audio. This allows the listener, the LISTENER, to do a host of other things whilst listening. This could be driving a car, or papering the walls, or responding to a discussion thread on a blog. It’s difficult to do this as effectively with television, because that medium required the attention of eyes. 

However all of the added value web 2.0 stuff that falls into the “augmented service” does consume eyeballs. So radio now is a full multimedia experience if those options are used. But the prime function of augmented services is to drive ears towards the core service offering of the radio show.

So new skills are needed in the world of audio content - traditional radio as well as podcasts - but those new skills are all about promotion of shows, brand building and retention of ears.

But the totality of the new offering, the combination of core service and augmented service, isn’t radio - perhaps we need to re-invent another word to precisely capture what it is. Perhaps, as web 2.0 tools allows such personalisation of services, broadcasters should begin to think of themselves as “narrowcasters”.

B of the Bang!

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I wrote this original blog using iWeb, which despite its limitations in terms of SEO was a brilliant free-form content management system. Squarespace, just like Drupal and Wordpress, have settled on a modus operandi that resembles a word processor from the 1980s; pretty dire. The only way I could incorporate this blog into this site was to import it as a jpeg, so of course the interactive links have gone.

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