Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Welsh connections

April 15th, 2012

Formative years in West Wales, family originally from the north of the Principality, website artwork from Pembrokeshire, even my bicycle maintenance training in the shadow of Snowdonia. So only proper then that I make it into the Features section of today’s Wales on Sunday newspaper. Click here to see the online version. I’m quite keen to see the printed edition, not least because I suspect it’s got a few of my photos added. Unfortunately I’m not in Wales, which may make acquiring a copy a bit tricky, so if you can help, please do get in touch!

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Two Wheels, One World

April 13th, 2012

For more information about the Silver Street Centre, including location and parking, click here. See you there!

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Postcard from Paradise

April 8th, 2012

I’d been working with a seasoned Features writer, providing the photos and the notes whilst she did the actual copy, for a forthcoming piece in Wales on Sunday newspaper. But that was far from all. Invited to write a chapter for the next edition of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society Expedition Handbook. It’d not pay, but that wasn’t the point. A chance to share what I’d learnt, a real sense I’d something fresh to say. The skeleton I’d shown the editor now neatly overlaid with pencilled scribbling, refinements to strike that very fine balance between inspiring the novice and keeping the respect of more seasoned riders. Quite a few of whom I know well.

I’d also been busy readying for my inaugural talk, selecting photos and sketching out stories, for it was to be an evening of illustrated anecdotes rather than some dull travelogue. Was there to be a book? I was beginning to shift my stance, conceding this was now a possibility. The catalyst had been an unsolicited comment from a journalist, the mention of an engaging light touch style. Not for a while of course, despite a growing passion for writing. Rather too much to do crafting CVs and covering letters to prospective employers.

In the mean time, you might expect the odd piece to appear on the blog, musings from back in Blighty. And a chance to develop writing skills. Incidentally, always interested in suggestions, even commissions, to put together prose for others. Do get in touch.


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Sophie’s choice

April 8th, 2012

Continuing the religious theme – well, it is Easter – various accolades a few weeks past for Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams who’s announced he’s standing down later this year. A thoughtful, learned chap, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn he plans to return to academia. But the religious leader I’d found myself in most admiration for is one Clemens August Galen. You’d be entirely forgiven if you’d never heard of him, for I certainly hadn’t until I’d uncovered him quite by chance in the pages of a friend’s paperback.

A Catholic bishop in Germany during the dark days of National Socialism, he’d bravely spoken out against Hitler’s racist policies, the Gestapo, of the euthanasia of those perceived as weak and infirm. And, surprisingly, with an element of success, at least the overt killing of mental patients being halted. But not without considerable risk to himself, leading Nazi Joseph Goebbels assuring friends Galen would be executed just as soon as Germany had achieved victory.

I’d been reading the story of Sophie Scholl, a young woman who’d also chosen to speak out against the unspeakable, before being brutally executed in Munich in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. A grim but somehow heart warming. That even in the darkest of places, there are always good people, prepared to sacrifice everything for what they believe is right. Challenging the oft, including my own, mistaken belief of a people cowering under tyranny, unwilling to speak out.

But I was off to meet a fellow traveller, recently returned from distant southern shores, for lunch in a quirky London restaurant south of the river. He’d travelled extensively throughout South America, for which I’d both admiration and curiosity in equal measure. And I liked the directions for the rendezvous. Quiet suburban street. Philippino women. Pristine new page in my A-Z with the unmistakable scent of fresh print, the road circled with a fountain pen and house number committed to memory. Noon sharp. Contemplating the quickest route, I’d found myself doodling over the Thames. Concentric shapes, straight edges rather than curves.

Thoughts of the southern oceans abounding, for I’d once sailed around Cape Horn, I’d come across an analysis of Shackleton’s leadership during his expedition to Antarctica aboard the Endurance. It read a little like those self-help books, the sort sold to tired, worn out suits at airports. A somewhat lighter read than Sophie Scholl, it was the Preface, penned by his grand-daughter, that drew me in. Her account of a visit to her grandfather’s grave in South Georgia, and the sudden recollection that I’d been there with her. Bitterly cold but bright I seemed to remember. My fellow traveller knew her well.

Leadership lessons from Shackleton quickly digested, my afternoon train out of London being fairly quiet, and I found myself returning to darker literature. Inspired this time by a recent BBC Radio 4 piece about State sponsored assassinations, I’d dug out an account of plots to kill Hitler, surprised at just how many there’d been. Positively queuing up. If Adolf had ever felt paranoid, he’d have been quite justified. Led quickly from the court room to meet her fate, Sophie Scholl would never have known that she and her fellow conspirators were far from alone, that others also wanted to bring war to an end, and were prepared to act, even if it placed them, and their families, in great peril.

But, despite the supposed enthusiasm of Israel’s Mossad for such things, it seemed most nations were actually quite reluctant to go around bumping off even the most vile and undesirable. Difficult to determine whether exactly this was necessarily a moral judgement, or a practical one. Or simply concern that whoever replaced a deceased, might be at best an unknown quantity, at worst a far greater danger. Certainly a persuasive argument for the Allies in not pursuing the assassination of Hitler. Perhaps nations were just reluctant to admit they favoured some measures, presumably to avoid recriminations. Or, in the case of occupied territories, retribution against innocent inhabitants.

There’d been respite from the moral maze. Her name was Ifrah and she was from the Sudan. Djibouti. But now settled in south London. She’d soft facial features, warm and engaging, and we were quickly engrossed in conversation. Did she often go back to Africa? Where was home now? Adding I’d love to ride through that part of the world. Even made a brief stop once in Djibouti. Quick to explain I wasn’t quite as mad as I might seem, had managed four continents, had a good measure of the risks. Kidnapping for one. About the only indecent living to be had there.

[Ken has been reading “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose” by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn, published by Oneworld Publications, “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, “Killing Hitler. The Third Reich and the plots to kill the Fuhrer” by Roger Moorhouse, published by Vintage Books, and “Heydrich. Henchman of Death” by Charles Whiting, published by Pen & Sword Select. Who knows what next week will bring…]


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Troublesome bunnies and reluctant pussies

April 8th, 2012

Hectic few weeks, but, amidst much feverish activity, a few things have especially caught my eye, the temptation to share them with others becoming irresistible. Besides, if David Cameron could proffer an Easter Message, surely I could, no longer the sole preserve of the Pope. It’d not be without risk, as I’d discovered a few days ago when I’d shared my thoughts on that most controversial of subjects, the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast.

Simply asking who actually listens to the Shipping Forecast these days? I mean, at 5.20am. Five twenty. AM. Washed up on the shore by the steady flow of technology perhaps. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’d still be a following amongst the smaller fishing communities but they’ve mostly disappeared now. Left with the odd yachtie I’d suggested? Quite a few in seemed, judging from the robust rebuttal I’d quickly received. Obliged to promise I’d be off shortly to the cake shop. Special order. Humble pie with lashings of cream.

Various four legged friends have also been in the news. Apparently cats can survive falling up to forty storeys – I say apparently because most cats are reluctant to participate in proper scientific study, say researchers. Boring. But now the story’s out, so to speak, look out for budding “copycat” scientists. Or rather their pets, especially if you live in a high rise. Could be worse. Same report mentions horses… Whilst, on another continent, some say the law is an…. Well, you know, bit like a donkey. Or your posterior. But not in Libya. Camels. As the son of the former Dictator has discovered, charged, so far at least, not with heinous crimes against his fellow citizens, but for possession of a few of our dromedary friends without a license. What next? Bringing the Police to book for shooting an innocent man using ‘ealth and Safety laws? Surely not…

And such a fine example of the law of unintended consequences is ‘ealth and Safety. Who, after all, could have foreseen it becoming so much a part of the fabric of British society? Intertwined into our daily lives, its tentacles spreading ever wider. It’d been a line of cars and vans snaking around a roundabout, a lengthy queue for petrol, that’d been such a sharp reminder. Self-perpetuating drama, for there was no fuel strike, nor one planned. And the underlying tanker drivers’ dispute? Not exactly clear, but ‘ealth & Safety concerns are in there somewhere. Which probably translates into more cash. But before anyone cites the supposed dangerous nature of their work, first take heed of what I consider a truly hazardous occupation. That’d be tackling improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, below which everything else really pales into insignificance.

Reassuring news next, a warming glimmer of hope. Denmark isn’t full of serial killers. Political intrigue maybe but not mass murderers. I’d Sandi Tosvik to thank for this insight. Responding to a question from a fellow member of in the audience at the Royal Geographical Society recently, enquiring as to how well did the recent spate of Danish TV dramas, The Killing amongst others, airing on the BBC reflect life in Legoland? Sorry, I made that very last bit up. Denmark. No such thing as a stupid question…

But for real twists and turns, I’d my own village, galvanised of late by prospects for resurrecting our pub that’s been closed now for a couple of years. Public meetings with pretty much every house represented. I’d sent my apologies. Talk of communal buy-outs, internet cafes, of tax efficient investment vehicles. Laudable stuff, even if secretly the only thing I thought might stack up were the pizzas. Our very own soap opera, but a bit too racy for Ambridge, especially with the arrival of the Easter Bunny. A dubious e-card purportedly from the vacant establishment’s present owner. Hugh Heffner would be proud.


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Social media and football punditry

March 17th, 2012

I’d been wrestling with a suitable title for a forthcoming talk about my exploits on the road. Played with pathos. “Lonely Roads… one man’s two-wheeled odyssey around the world”. Started well but too long. “An evening with…”. Far too pretentious. Endless lengths of the local swimming pool had failed to stimulate creativity. So I’d turned to Facebook for inspiration. Posted a few ideas. Invited suggestions.

It’d struggled at first with social media. What was the point exactly? Surely if you wanted to be sociable, you’d meet for coffee and a slice of moist cake. Maybe a spot of lunch. Dinner if you really liked them. Not poring over a small screen, fingers skimming over a tablet or eyes staring intently at a smart phone. But I’d eventually got it. Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Tools for sharing, for connecting. Complementing, rather than replacing, more traditional social interaction.

My return from Somerset was earlier than I’d have liked. But there was a dinner in London to attend and didn’t want to risk disruption on the rails. Must though have been a rough part of town, for those on the door had side arms. No, really. And I’d needed my passport for admittance. Took the one with the least dubious visas. Formal but, as these things should be, very relaxed. It was a Black Tie affair. Acceptable attire a pretty broad church which some had taken it quite literally. I’d so wanted to ask them if they thought this was a Wake, or if they’d been obliged to come in haste directly from the funeral.

I was certain Debretts would advise against such outbursts of wit. Settling instead on teasing my Dad a few days later that I’d been obliged to listen to some sort of football pundit. Definitely not my game, but obliged to admit even I’d heard of the chap. Eclipsed though as an after-dinner speaker by a popular Irish comedian and chat show host. Almost wept. Scribbled a few of his lines on the back of the menu. Well, you never know. But don’t think I’ll ever have his delivery.

Back on the south coast a few days later, tucked away house-sitting for a good friend, endless iterations of my CV were drawing to a close. Honing. Refining. Choice of words had intrigued me. For, I’d learnt, the world was, apparently, full of excellent communicators and outstanding leaders. Just ask anyone in HR. They’ll tell you everyone is. There are endless books to help. But that’s part of the problem. Striking the balance between a welcome familiar format and a grey formulaic offering. Tricky.

If I’d made a mistake with Facebook, it was to suggest “Travels with Emma” as a possible title for my talk. Drawing in a few dubious double-entendres. But there was one offering I really liked. A real gem. “One World, Two Wheels”. Nice ring to it. Short enough. What it lacked in pathos it had in inspiration. But it was now time to put the coffee on. Wondering what intrigue the next week would bring. A job perhaps.


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Tempting aromas

March 17th, 2012

Tempting aromas, I imagined, around the village the previous evening. Trapped by the still, cool evening air. Bacon. Sausages. Mushrooms perhaps. Gently ebbing amongst the cottages. Enough being cooked for hundred or more. If you’d have forgotten the next morning was the communal village breakfast in the Tithe Barn, you’d surely have remembered.

But I’d missed this chance for salivation. Enjoying wandering along the darkened lanes, interrupted only by the odd passing car or the occasional cooing of pigeons, the previous night. Off visiting friends for supper half a mile or so from my own place. Talk of China, of Sandhurst. Been quite a canter around. But no, this particular evening I’d joined my neighbours for a visit to a newly re-opened pub a short drive away.

Interesting I’d been told. And it was. Actually more of a surprise. On the outside the familiar look of a small country pub. But step inside and enter a smart restaurant. Pie and a pint no longer on the menu. No longer the place for the passing walker, the tired traveller or the local with his dog, wishing to quietly sup ale. The man that is, not his faithful companion. Now fine dining. I’d venture bordering on exquisite. And rather reasonably priced for what it was. It just wasn’t what we’d expected.

I’d returned to Fitzhead from a spell of house-sitting on the south coast, ostensibly to lend a hand with the village breakfast. But that’d been simply the excuse to catch up with friends, to reassure everyone that home was in the village. My absence a mere interlude, a passing moment in the scheme of things.

The breakfast seemed to go well. I’d volunteered my services and appointed chief washer-upper. There was only one. The bottom rung of a long ladder to become egg lady. Assuming you got past bean stirrer. I was optimistic, but it’d take a while. And there’d be a sabbatical to do as a table waiter. Let out of the kitchen briefly to tuck into tea and toast, a chance to meet the community’s new arrivals. Emma, Douglas, Monty and Bunny. Convinced I’d never remember their names.

There’d also been a chance to catch up on air with the local community radio station in Wiveliscombe a couple of miles away. It seemed to have gone well, chatting mostly about feelings, of emotions on the road rather than plain facts and figures. Stumped inexplicably only for a choice of music they might play. I’d a track in my head, obscuring all others, but couldn’t remember its name. Obliged instead to try and describe it with remarkably little clarity.

Interview complete, I’d drifted around the town for a while, waiting for my bus. Butchers, hardware shop, the delicatessen. All looked familiar. Unchanged. A small library. Converted from a shop. Thought that was new. Wandered past the open door of a terrace house. Didn’t think I’d been staring in, rather walking purposely past, but the woman inside nevertheless said hello. It was nice to be back.


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Westerly brewing

March 10th, 2012

My choice of words conveyed my distain. Rather well I thought. Brief and to the point. I’d almost laughed but instead had chosen to be abrupt. Purchased not a cup of tea, but rather a cup of tepid water and a separate tea bag I’d have to unwrap and dunk myself. A good brew this could never be. Self-assembly I’d said to the woman behind the buffet car’s overly tall counter.

A man had appeared from the galley. They were not, he explained, allowed to touch the tea bags lest they spread disease amongst the passengers. Now I laughed. Conveying a sense of ridicule I hoped. This, I said loudly, was ’ealth and Safety gone quite mad. He seemed surprised by my assertion.

Back at my seat a young woman stared and tutted as I clambered back in. Her boyfriend was sprawled out in the seat opposite, fast asleep. She woke him and muttered something about it being a Quiet carriage. He soon dozed off once more. I supped my tea loudly. Must definitely stick with the buses.

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Inspector Knacker

March 10th, 2012

In the corner Inspector Knacker of the Yard was being chummy. Probably not a hack as they’d be off covering the Levenson Inquiry. Or on the run. And it was plain old coffee rather than a bit of bubbly and a brown envelope. Tough times for all. I’d stopped off in a small cafe opposite New Scotland Yard. Made better time with my errands than I’d thought, and disliked the idea of getting to Paddington too early for my train back to the Westcountry. Instead, passing the time listening to PC Plod making the inexcusable schoolboy error of not picking an establishment with alcoves. Sharing their indiscretions with anyone inclined to listen.

I was pleased to be heading over to Somerset. It was my home of course. And it wasn’t Corby-by-the-Sea. I’d not quite been declared persona non grata. Not yet anyway. But had been gentled teased that a few friends and acquaintances had seen through my especially feeble efforts at concealing its real identity. Busy sharpening their pitchforks I’d been told. Some people. No sense of humour. Which had surprised me. Living there.

The guard on the train was from Exeter. He said so over the tannoy. Very proud of it. We’d probably have guessed anyway. Affable chap. Softly spoken. Something of a favourite uncle. I’d met him as I’d boarded. Quiet train he’d said to me, smiling. I’d nodded appreciatively, struggling to stow my bulging rucksack before the other passengers caught up with me. His modest enthusiasm was infectious. Cheery. Masking the tatty upholstery unchanged since I’d commuted on the same line over a decade ago.

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A darned good read

March 6th, 2012

There’s been quite a bit of talk of writing a book about my venture. But not by me I might add. You’ll find me quite reticent on the matter. Reluctant to commit. Simply because it’d be a sizeable undertaking and, to succeed, it’d have to offer something different. That’s not a no. More a qualified maybe. Still, has got the grey matter mulling over what makes a good book. A really good one.

I’d posed this question on Facebook. Asking what makes you not want to put it down, to ignore those around you? Is it humour, pathos, perhaps characters you identify, even empathise, with? Intriguing responses. Pace, clarity, a bit of self analysis, humour and opening the lid a little wrote one. Echoed by another who suggested honesty, and feeling like you’re really engaging with the real personality of the author. Choose a decent title, not an after-thought. Vary the length of your sentences. Ok.

Is there a method here? Not so much a neat formulaic approach, with the precision, the elegance, of a mathematician’s solution. But a pattern of success at least? Perhaps. Consider a couple of well-regarded novels from the Twentieth Century. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Published almost two decades apart, either side of World War Two. Both dealing with dark visions of the future. Individual struggle against the State.

One conveys the sense of a chilling, soulless world in just the first few lines:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him."

The nondescript surname for the main character suggesting a lack of individuality. Together with the choice of name for his apartment block – "Victory Mansions" – the first hints of an oppressive State apparatus. A little later the author describing another building, the Ministry of Truth, as:

"…an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air…".

And there’s the three Party Slogans to be recanted without scrutiny:

"WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

Jump beyond 1984 to a more futuristic world and you’ll find Huxley echoes similar sentiments. But in a somewhat more concise form.

"A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY."

A pattern of sorts. Think I prefer Orwell’s efforts. His writing drawing you much more quickly into the lead character. And a sense that the author was troubled by dark clouds, a foreboding for what lay ahead. Of Totalitarism. Oppression. Probably time for me to board another bus.

[The author, as much to his own surprise as everyone else’s, actually did better in O-level English Literature than English Language…]

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