Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Grand Don't Come For Free

Last year I entered a strange and mysterious secret society. Well, not that strange, I suppose. Or mysterious, come to think of it. On reflection, I guess it's not so secret.

Ok. I entered a society. Sort of.

You may have seen me mention it in one or two of the many postings I made in 2014. I suppose you could have missed it, buried as it was in the near-photographic recollection of everything else that happened to me in the twelve months. But for those of you that weren't paying attention, I became a cyclist.

I know. It surprised me too. I just thought I'd obtained a bike. But no. Without realising it, I had become a member of the Cyclorati.  It turns out that when you walk your new bike out of the shop, the Cycling Gods catch sight of you and put you under their spell, or something. I can't explain it.

I mean, there I was, minding my own business, when I realised I wasn't getting any younger (apart from Benjamin Button, who is?) and my waistline was expanding to equal my age in years. That's never a good thing to realise as you plummet headlong into your mid 40s, is it?

I'd toyed with the idea of regular exercise in the past. Approximately a million years ago I'd been a regular member of a gym. Of course, by 'regular member' I mean I had a direct debit going out of my bank account and some lovely branded towels in the airing cupboard. But after the first few months of going, I'd come to the conclusion that sitting on my sofa with some biscuits was much better for the soul.

More recently, I'd taken up going for long walks in the countryside. But, lovely though the countryside is, it tends not to move too quickly when you're walking through it. I get bored quite easily, you see.

So, inspired by my workmates, many of whom were ardent cyclists, last April I went out and got something called a Giant Escape 3 Hybrid. I was slightly disappointed to realise that 'hybrid' doesn't mean 'it has an electric motor to help you up hills' (although such things do exist), merely that it was a sort of mix between a road bike and a mountain bike. Here it is:


But here's the thing. I actually found that I quite enjoyed riding the thing. After my first purchase of padded shorts, it hurt a lot less. You can't see in this photo, but the saddle is not a seat. Oh dear no, it's a shelf, upon which you may rest your derriere from time to time. But don't expect anything in the way of comfort. My backside is, basically, my suspension.

We were lucky in that 2014's weather was relatively benign and so I ended up going out on it regularly, all the way up to December. And I was out on it once more on the second day of 2015, when the rest of the civilised world still seemed to be sleeping off the port and sausages.

And as I headed out on 2 January, I had a thought. I'm not one for New Year's Resolutions. But it's quite nice to have a target to aim for. And there I was, 2015 stretching out in front of me like a sodding great big 52 week-shaped blank canvassy-thing. So why not set myself a little challenge?

I'm in the position now where I can do 20-mile plus rides relatively easily, although hills are still an issue and I tend to bimble along at an average 10 mph, so I'm not what you call competitive. But why don't I see if I can hit a mileage total for 2015? How about 1,000 miles over the year?

Your serious cyclists will by now be collapsing in laughter. One thousand sounds like a lot, especially if you write it in words, but to your seasoned lycra-jockey it really isn't. Some competitive events - open to amateurs, believe it or not - hit 600 km (360 miles) in a single ride. I'd think twice about driving that distance in a fully-fuelled car, to be honest.

But to hit 1,000 miles, the distance of each ride is less critical. Consistency is the key. I need to get on my bike weekly throughout the year. I need to perhaps get on it more often than that when daylight and weather allow. And I need to satisfy the nerdy statistician in me by keeping records and ticking-off the miles as they pass.

I'm not doing this for any good cause. I don't want to be sponsored (although I might do the odd event in the year). I'm not even certain I'll end up finishing it. But it just seemed to me to be worth an attempt.

Don't worry, though. This blog will not turn itself over to bike-related discussions. I'm exercising so I can live, not the other way around. But, if anything, it gives me a reason to update it.

And for the record, the current statistics are: 15.4/1,000.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Mind the gap

Well. This is a little embarrassing.

Over the last few years, there have been gaps in postings. Sometimes you may have gone a couple of weeks without seeing anything new here. Occasionally you may have seen a month or so go by.

I say "you" in the plural, although that's probably a little ambitious these days. I can count the readership of this blog on the fingers of one thumb.

But the last time I put anything up here was August last year. And 2014 itself was hardly a prolific year for postings, was it, dear reader?

I'm aware that on a regular basis I come back to this blog after such a gap and say things like: "This time it's different"; "I'm going to knuckle down and update this regularly"; "I'm determined not to let this slip again".

Which is all utter nonsense, isn't it? Because by and large, there's always another stonking great big gap lurking around the corner.

So then. 2014. I acted in a couple of plays. I took up cycling and found that I actually quite enjoyed it. I went to Morocco again. I lost two and a half stone in weight (about 35 pounds if you're one of my non-readers from 'Murica).

And yet I did practically no writing. Shocking. Especially given that I had some good source material. In 2010, when I was neither acting, cycling, losing weight nor visiting the mysterious continent, I wrote 109 posts. Last year I did seven. SEVEN!

I'm not going to make any promises, because we've seen where that gets us in the past. Let's just see how 2015 pans out, shall we?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Pedalling nonsense

It occurs to me that I never really gave an update after my last post, in which I made a frankly shameless attempt to beg for your money for a cycling event.

I mean, I ask you for your cash, tell you I'm off to ride a bike around the West Midlands (well, around a really quite small bit of it) and then...nothing.

For all you know, dear reader, I could have been lying in a ditch somewhere for the last few weeks. I could have been set upon by a band of rabid stoats who are holding me hostage until their demands are met*.

It could happen.

Well, it didn't. I'm here today to tell you that I completed the 18 mile circuit and didn't die. I only had to get off and push once, and that's solely because I mucked up the changing of the gears when a sudden hill appeared. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Look. I even have photographic proof:

I was shepherded around the course by two friends, Leanne and Rich, who are much more competent cyclists than me. They wear lycra and have ridiculously light road bikes. I mean, look at them. They're thin and fit. An alien landing on Earth and looking at the three of us wouldn't even think we were all the same species, for God's sake.  They even thought to take off their helmets for this photo. That's the sign of a proper cyclist.

They kept close to me as I bimbled around the circuit, being overtaken by everyone. I think we were passed by an eight-year-old on a Raleigh Chipper at one point. They are serious cyclists and would normally have been off, like wheeled greyhounds, but they stuck to me and made sure I wasn't left alone to die in a pitiful steaming mess by the side of the road.

But here's the thing. I've been cycling now for a few months. I only get to go out maybe twice a week at the moment. And I haven't really logged hundreds of miles yet. But I actually quite enjoy it. Perhaps I've found a form of exercise I can get along with? Walking is too boring - it takes a long time for the scenery to change. If I took up jogging it's a toss-up as to what would fail first, my heart or my knees. But I've found I can get on with cycling.

No-one's forcing me to do 100 miles up a mountain at 25mph. I can go at my own pace, and I seem to be getting used to it. When I first did 10 miles I was indistinguishable from a corpse by the time I finished. But now I'm easily pushing on past that and adding more miles every time.

Here's the real test. It was tipping down with rain this weekend so I didn't get a chance to ride. And I've missed it.

Whoa. This is scary. Whisper it quietly, but I even found myself looking at some road bikes online the other day.

I used to look at middle-aged-men-in-lycra in a slightly bemused way before this started. But I think I'm beginning to see the point. Mind you, winter's coming. A couple of weeks of ice and I'll be saying "Bike? What bike?"

But at least while the sun's out I might be able to make a bit of a difference to the waistline.

*(Independence for Stoatland. All weasels to be kept in harnesses. Severe punishment meted out to anyone who can't tell the difference).

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A never-ending cycle of madness

So a few months ago I got a bicycle.

I know. It's a terrible cliche. Large bloke gets bike. Large bloke covers himself in Lycra. Large bloke gives it all up as a bad idea within six weeks. Large bloke puts bike on eBay.

But the fact of the matter is that I don't want to weigh 18 stone any longer. I tried going for walks, but the scenery didn't change quickly enough. I didn't want to join a gym, because, well, that just seemed ridiculous. So cycling it was.

I was quite sensible about the whole endeavour. I didn't get one of those racing bikes that weigh the same as a crisp packet. I got a sensible bike, with flat handlebars, so I didn't have to crouch down like a racer. The saddle is still like sitting on a razor blade, but I'm told you get used to that over time.

I am surrounded by people who cycle at a vastly different level. They come into work on a Monday morning and talk about the 80km they did at the weekend. They have bikes that seem to be made of approximately 12 carbon atoms that cost something equivalent to a Central American country's nation debt. They chatter about things like cadence and chainsets. 

Meanwhile, I talk meekly about the pitiful miles I have done, sweating up the hills and extravagantly crapping myself on the way down again. I don't mention the times I have to get off and push, my heart pounding like Santana's rhythm section while stars float in front of my eyes.

But I've gone and done it now, haven't I? Tomorrow morning I'm actually doing an organised cycle. The plan is that I'll do 30 kilometres (about 18.5 miles to you and me) which is a few miles more than I've ever done before. Real cyclists will be sniggering up their Lycra-clad sleeves already, but it's a bit of a big deal to me.

I'm doing this for the British Heart Foundation. I lost my dad to heart disease nearly six years ago, so it's a sacrifice I don't mind making. It's a worthwhile cause so any discomfort on my part (and distress caused to spectators as they watch this blubbery mess cycling around Solihull) is just a means to an end.

If you have a few spare quid, the link is

I must be out of my mind.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

This Man Attacked His Face With A Sharp Instrument - What Happened Next Will Astound You

I have, for the last six months or so, been a member of a select group of men.

When I have passed by, ladies have looked at me and felt the full power of my previously-absent manliness. People have looked upon me as a font of wisdom. I have been considered a sage of our times.

I have been in the same club as Brian Blessed, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare. And Conchita Wurst too, but there's not terribly much I can do about that.

Yes, since late last year I have been hairy of face. I have been able to pause and stroke my chin in a thoughtful way when asked a tricky question. Other bearded men and I have been able to acknowledge each other in the street with that raised eyebrow that says: "Hello, brother of mine."

I have been able to spend an extra five minutes every morning in bed. It's been ace.

But all good things must come to an end. I'm sorry, ladies. I grew the beard last year for theatrical purposes. And it is for the same reason that it's coming off. My next play is not set in the fuzzy 70s, but in the smooth-chinned 50s. It was written by Noel Coward. I even wear a dressing gown at one point. Rough-and-ready just won't cut it.

So I thought I'd treat you, dear reader, to a visual story of my journey. Because every man, no matter how grown-up he is, uses the removal of a beard to try out a few different looks. Here we go.

Step 1 - our start point. Full 'Extra in an Elizabethan Feast Scene' mode. It's quite magnificent, isn't it? Right, fire up the Braun.

Step 2 - the Van Dyck. As worn by cavaliers, laughing or otherwise, for 300 years or so. See also 'Bassist in a nu-metal band.'

It was at this point that I realised I was going to have to forego the 'Lemmy', as I'd already got rid of my jowl-hair. Oh, dear reader, imagine my disappointment. But this is an occupational hazard. You can't go backwards. Never mind. Onwards and upwards.

Step3 - the Zappa. I think the Soul Patch is a look which never really went away. Mine has had a little bit of every drink and morsel of food I've consumed over the last few months. Farewell, little patch, I think I'll miss you the most.

 Step 4 - the Adult Performer. "Hello, Missus, I've come to repair your boiler......"
Step 5 - the Traffic Policeman. "Can you tell me how fast you were going, sir?"

Now then. I thought long and hard about the next phase of the transformation. Obviously this next character is a divisive figure, whose actions affected millions of people in the last century. This moustache is one that is inextricably linked to one individual. But, fellas, we've all wondered what we'd look like if we adopted this man's look, haven't we?

Here we go.

Step 6 - the Charlie Chaplin.

OK, OK. I know. You were expecting someone else. It's Ron Mael from Sparks. I can't see why this look didn't catch on.

Step 7 - my face is really, really cold.

That was a really odd 20 minutes.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

How to win friends and keep your customers

Over recent years it's become blindingly apparent that I spend an ever-increasing fraction of my income having zeroes and ones piped into my house. In other words, I'm paying a heck of a lot money for broadband.

Every now and then I have a rush of blood to the head and think about moving my ISP somewhere else. But then I have a cup of tea and a biscuit and the urge dwindles.

It's not that I'm rich enough to stand the loss. I am not. I am, as is well known, monumentally lazy (the post counts alone on here should tell you that) but also somewhat resistant to change. My internet connection sort of works, after a fashion, so why would I want to risk it with someone else? Added to that, my ISP also provides me with cable TV and a landline so quite frankly it just seems to be a bit of a faff.

So when Virginmedia (for it is they) sent me a letter last night, practically begging me to ring them to see what they could do for me as an existing customer, it seemed like the answer to my prayers. Perhaps I could get a better deal and not have to uproot everything.

So I gathered up some information. I looked at what I was getting for my monthly payment. I looked at the competition to see what I could get elsewhere. Then I dialled the number on the letter from Virginmedia.

"Our operators are busy and the wait time is 30 minutes," said the message. I looked at the phone in my hand like a drunk does at the bottle of whisky in those comedy movies when he's seen something unlikely.

I am not a marketing person. No, really. But even I think it's a bit daft to lead on your existing customers, motivate them to think about what they've got and what they could have, and then leave them hanging.

I contacted Virginmedia on Twitter to tell them that is was a bit daft. Fair enough, they responded, asking me to fill out an online form. Which had a field on it for a password I have never used. I couldn't get past it - it was a mandatory field - so I couldn't contact them that way either. 

Virginmedia's Twitter team did seem genuinely as if they wanted to help (it's probably a nice difference from dealing with irate teenagers complaining that they can't shoot their friends on online gaming as fast as they'd like) but they wouldn't let me DM my details to them.

"Oh no," they said. "That's not secure. Send us an email instead."

So according to this technology company, sending a plain unencrypted email, which will bounce around several unknown and random email servers before reaching its destination, is the way forward.

I have seen the future, dear reader. And I think it involves letters and the Royal Mail.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Random acts of kindness

It has been a funny sort of week. Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. But they say that any week you can walk away from must, by definition, be a good one.

Oh, hang on. That's aeroplane landings isn't it? Never mind.

On Monday we came back from an overnight stay. We'd had a good time but She Who Must Be Obeyed was not in the best of spirits. In fairness, she was probably in a better condition than the mouse that Eric, our cat, had left on the kitchen floor. Actually, it was the lower half of a mouse - we never did find the top - but that wasn't the salient point.

After I had cleaned up the kitchen so it looked a little less like the set for a rodent snuff movie, I turned my attention back to SWMBO. She was sitting on the sofa, a pained expression on her face, rocking slowly backwards and forwards. She didn't feel too well. To emphasise the point, she said, "I don't feel too well."

She suffers from an intestinal condition which much of the time stays fairly benign, but occasionally flares up. Thinking it was just another case, she dosed up on codeine and went for a snooze. However, as afternoon turned into evening it was clear that all was not well. It was 10pm on a Bank Holiday Monday and things didn't look too positive.

We drove gingerly to the out-of-hours surgery, SWMBO now mining a whole new vein of swearing. After waiting in a room full of other people's coughs, we saw a triage nurse. And this is when I stopped worrying.

It's sometimes a little tricky to get into the health system in this country. But my experience on Monday showed to me that, once you're in the system, you're generally surrounded by people who want to help.

A doctor checked her over and immediately referred us to the main hospital next-door. As we limped along a corridor, a member of staff - with her coat on, making her way home - stopped to ask if we needed a wheelchair.

On the ward, we encountered a fierce-looking Ward Sister. But while she entered our details and dealt with several other people, we saw her stop a young female patient who was leaving.

"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I've been discharged. I'm going home."
"On your own, at this time of night? Don't be silly. There's no bus. I'll call you a taxi."
"But I've got no money."
"Then we'll pay for it. It's gone midnight, dear."

SWMBO pulled her regular party trick of fainting during a blood test. The nurses took this in their stride, unflappable, ever-cheerful. "Just sit down here, there's no rush."

She was placed on a ward and we waited. I noticed the staff - not just nurses, but other medical staff, domestics, doctors - going about their business. Efficiently, quietly (it was gone 1.00am by this time), but with utter care for their patients.

Eventually a young doctor came and examined SWMBO. "Yes, you did the right thing coming in. This isn't your normal flare-up and I'm afraid we'll have to keep you in. Let's get you a drip going."

At about 4.00am I left her in a hospital bed. The Ward Sister saw my evident confusion, stopping me at the exit to write down the ward's phone numbers and visiting hours.

"She hasn't got anything with her," I said. "I'll need to bring a change of clothes in the morning."
"Don't worry about it," she winked. "We'll provide her with what she needs. And we won't stop you if you come back outside of the visiting hours."

In the next two days, while they stabilised her condition, ran several scans and generally patched her up before releasing her, I had plenty of opportunity to witness the care first hand. I thought it would be worthwhile - after all, at the age of 44 I've probably got more of this to look forward to as bits of me stop working.

It was first class. But more than that, it was delivered at a human scale. From the surgical attention, all the way down to the cheerful woman pushing her tea trolley around the wards, everyone was there with one purpose. And it wasn't about the bottom line.

At no point did I get an invoice. No-one is asking me to fill in insurance forms. This is the UK's National Health Service and I cannot imagine living in a country without it. I know it's not always perfect. Sometimes it doesn't work as it should.

But it's a system that puts people first. And we muck about with that at our peril.


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