Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking and Wilting

With all this dangerous and subversive thinking I've been doing on the bike, I've managed to formulate several trains of thought I later discovered to be established philosophical paradigms, often dating back to the Greeks. So my ego deflates at my unoriginality, but at least I'm in good company.

Apparently I'm a hedono-anarcho-primito-apocaloptimist if I string everything together, which broadly means I like the kind of freedom that kicks permission in the nuts, simple but elegant comforts, and plan to thoroughly enjoy watching society implode when the technological singularity grips in a few decades. Bye-bye Dickensian hierarchy, hello inherent egalitarianism. (I've probably misspelled these prefixes, and may indeed have made a couple up, but who really gives a shit about Latin outside academic ivory towers and Harry Potter fans?)

Now, some people might think this just another political rant, but I'm talking about a much larger perspective than socialism versus capitalism, here. Technology is catalyzing such a colossal change in western culture we're entering completely unexplored territory. (Socialism doesn't work, it is said, because a few members of society will always be capitalists (our societies are too large and unintegrated for the social repercussions of selfishness to be effective), while capitalism requires secrecy and cunty behaviour to operate: inevitable perpetual transparency will force both to go away.)

I think we're reverting to behaving the way we've most evolved to, and our drift back to the village is the first step towards this more communal living. Think about it: we've spent perhaps 400 generations as property-owning agriculturalists, but the previous hundreds of thousands of generations lived in small, social, largely self-sufficient groups. Which lifestyle do you think we're more comfortable with?

Technology increases access to information, and the powers that be typically derive their influence from controlling that access, so the two are constantly at odds. The powerful want to keep us regular folk arguing among ourselves, not questioning every move our extorted tax dollars make. Unfortunately for them, technology is growing exponentially from a global wellspring, and people all over the world can now communicate instantaneously, for free, despite myriad efforts to stem the flow. The fractious natures of the world's governments and their sponsoring corporations are their own stumbling blocks. This selfish, grasping, my precious mentality I've been going on about, works to their disadvantage. Which is sweet justice indeed.

See, when technology and biology finally and meaningfully merge (if the overwhelming consensus of futurists' predictions hold true), we'll be actually able to sense each other's thoughts, or moods at the very least. As dark as this promises to be, I imagine we'll rapidly familiarize with the novelty, and models of acceptable behaviour will revert to previous village-like integration, finally sloughing the crippling shadow of strict Victorian influence. And this time we won't have some rat-faced inbred lording over us playing peasant Whac-A-Mole.

I'm looking forward to the antisocial ideas of property, race and organized religion, that've been cluttering culture since we started planting crops, being soberly reassessed. I've often wondered at the universal ridiculousness of one bit of the biosphere claiming to own another, and inexorably come to the conclusion that property = violence. Without violence, property is meaningless, even when we dress the wolf in the sheep's clothing of legislation and a police force.

Of course, I would've discovered this far sooner if I read more philosophy books, but there aren't enough explosions, car chases, or lusty sluttish women to be found amongst the pedantry, as far as I'm concerned. And I've been too spoiled by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams to wade through dusty pages of rhetoric without the promise of at least a chuckle to lure me on.

'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.' - J.R. Tolkien

After three and a half weeks on the road, I decided it was time to go on the Big Piss.

I mapped some pubs and a route, and after securely locking my bike and trailer in camp, I headed off on foot for a hostelry engagingly titled The Tappit Hen, located in the shadow of Dunblane's grandiosely labelled 'cathedral', which is really just a sizeable church.

The liquid personalities were all less than £3 a pint, however, which dared me to try at least one of each and more of the ones I liked, and there were six.

A few happy hours later I swayed exuberantly out of the Hen and meandered to the Riverside, cheerily acknowledging every passersby with a lurid wink or conspiratorial gesture on the way. (My inexplicable favourite became the discrete index finger nose rub of The Sting fame. I'm not even sure what it means, but it's feels like we're sharing a secret, which is always fun.)

The Riverside was more of a fancy restaurant than a pub, and I felt rather out of place sitting at the bar while Dunblane's suitably attired waltzed in for dinner. I delved into a menu, alerted like a sniffer dog to the Gallic semen word aioli, downed my pint and lurched heroically over the bridge to the Village Inn. This was far more my scene.

I got talking to a few construction lads sitting at the bar. I can't say I miss the hardship of the decades I spent in such work, but I do miss the banter of men who measure their day in sweat, blood and bruises. There's a purity to physical professions that infuses their opinion with authority, a purity that can't be matched by those who get paid to sit in the air-conditioning, me now included. Making friends quickly, we downgraded to the slightly grubbier Dunblane Hotel over the road, and spent the rest of the evening solving global problems. I do vaguely remember quizzing everyone in the bar about their opinions on Scottish devolution, hopefully with my trousers on, which they wholeheartedly dismissed as a stupid idea. In fact, during my entire time in Scotland I didn't find a single supporter of the movement, which I didn't expect at all. Mind you, I didn't ask as many people as I perhaps should've.

Drunk hungry at kicking out time, the fish 'n' chip shop (that also bizarrely sold cigarettes) across the road was shut. However, one of the lads told me of an exceptional Indian restaurant up the hill, so I said my goodbyes and wobbled up the incline on legs no longer familiar with this level of inebriation.

I decided quite quickly that the India Gate Tandoori was far too nice for the likes of me and ordered to go, with a pint while I waited. Curry in a tent on a golf course? I mused, leaning heavily against the bar and feeling a Tom Jones song coming on, first time for everything.

Now, you know the popular marketing idea that people don't remember what you say, but how you made them feel? The same seems to be true with late night curries. I don't recall what I ordered, but back in the tent I experienced some kind of gastronomic rapture. Damn, it was good. I woke up the next morning wearing it like a balaclava, but damn, it was good.

Day 27
Today was all rain. Ambitions for the road dashed, I fired up season five of Mad Men. I did need some food, however, so after a couple of episodes I made a run for Tesco. On the way, a window cleaner, obviously far more capable than I after our night in the Dunblane Hotel, grinned at my dishevelled appearance and bid me a hearty good morning.

This little connection struck me immediately, despite my delicate condition. The humanity in it. I'd made friends in a foreign town, not out in the countryside, where such interactions are more expected. The ritual of the pub seems to subvert the 'stranger' barrier. I couldn't for the life of me remember his face or what we talked about the night before, but it gave me a little glow of community I didn't know I'd been missing. British pubs are good for that: they typically serve as the living room of the neighbourhood. Bars elsewhere seldom fulfill the same role.

My goal was sausages, and the result was more sausages. I bought so many sausages in my befuddling hangover I created an instant oligarchy of Scottish sausage barons and established Dunblane as the new Offal Capital of the World. Not content with clearing the supermarket shelves, I staggered under the massive weight of my meaty purchases to a local artisan butcher's shop, whose window pies had been rioting for my attention the previous couple of days. I ordered a warm chicken and ham, and while I disappointed at the use of a microwave the butcher introduced me to my first truly impenetrable Scottish accent.

It was a granite surge of consonants. I'm fairly used to Scottish accents having grown up in an English town with a high percentage of retirees from north of the border, so I managed to decipher the occasional 'big man', which I took to be a compliment, but the rest could easily have been coded attempts at homosexual grooming or suggestions for what meat products I might prefer addressing rectally. I nodded neutrally and said 'absolutely' and 'indeed' whenever a gap appeared in the staccato. I like to think the universe's hidden camera will ultimately cut to the lonely incoherent butcher grimly masturbating by an empty public toilet glory hole and percussively barking 'fukkin' cocktease!' in subtitles after an appropriately comedic pause.

Back in the tent I cooked up some links with peppers and onions and finished off season five of Mad Fucks. I loaded up the first few episodes of Deadwood for a change more than anything else, but again, like when it first came out, I couldn't get into it after the first couple.

The next day was a Saturday, and my electronics needed recharging after the last few days of laziness. I hiked to Dunblane library, but weekend hours eventually steered me towards a coffee shop. How expensive can it be? I reasoned, in my hangover's hangover. It was ten quid for two cups of tea, a croissant and a scone. So this is how the Scots were able to give up their plundering ways.

Disillusioned, I went back to the tent and started on season six of Mad Tits. I did do a quick run to the cigarette/chip shop at 8 pm, however, just to see if fish 'n' chips away from the northeast coast of Yorkshire continued to be lesser fare. They do, but they were cheap and filling, and that was good enough.

Day 29
I was going to set off this morning but the forecast rain dissuaded me. The window of time to find an appropriately secluded campsite in Callander would be too small, I reasoned, if the rain stopped at noon and I set off then. And I needed to buy some waterproof pants and gaiters, but nowhere in Dunblane, as far as Google was concerned, sold such things at a reasonable price.

I decided to leave the next morning, Monday, so I could stop by the library for recharging and still have time to see Doune Castle of Monty Python's Holy Grail and Game of Thrones' Winterfell fame.

Castle Doune
I pulled up to the junction leading off to the castle, and a burly road worker (by appearance, at least), blocked the way with a 'road closed' sign. I asked him if I could still get through with a bicycle, as most road works leave a channel for pedestrians. He said 'no', and refused to elaborate. Usually construction lads with such jobs are glad of a chance to chat, not this dude. Strange. After further tight-lipped answers, I figured they must be filming GoT today, and reconsidered the importance of television in general. In hindsight, I should've made up a bullshit story of travelling the world by bicycle visiting Python sites or some other such nonsense, and got him to engage the production company via walkie-talkie. Might've worked. I couldn't care a fig for the stars of the production, you understand, though I love the show, I just wanted to see the castle. I'm a big castle man, if you haven't figured this out yet.

On to Callander library for work and recharging, I scoped out a camping spot in the woods on the way. I arrived an hour or so before they closed for lunch. During the enforced break I walked to the main street and brunched on five custard doughnuts and a cup of tea, and memorable they were, too. Thereafter I visited an outdoors shop to buy some waterproof trousers, and baulked at the £22 price tag. So I bought some silicon spray instead, determining to spray my regular trousers and render them waterproof. Like that was ever going to work.

The library closed at five. Rain relocated me to the nearest pub, one Crags Hotel, and I spent the vast majority of my time bullshitting with the locals rather than getting any work done. Still, I managed to get pretty lubricated, and waiting for the rain to ease seemed to increase its intensity. By 11 pm, it was fuck it time.

The place I'd selected to camp was off the bicycle track coming in to Callander, elevated off the path (people tend to look down elevations rather than up) and hidden by a bank and some trees. However, I was drunk and got lost several times. It was only while trying to wrestle my rig through several inches of mud in a pitch black farmer's field a good mile from the nearest street light I realized I need to start being more systematic about my navigation. I propped the bike up, covered myself with the bike poncho, and fired up the GPS.

On a positive note, I did invent a few new swearing combos.

On a negative note, my dedicated sleeping bag drybag isn't. There is nothing worse than going to bed wet and cold. Scratch that: yes there is: waking up wet and cold, knowing you have to change into colder wet clothing. The next morning I grimaced and did it anyway, packed up, and hit the road hard to generate some warmth.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Suits, Robes, and Uniforms

The light of morning showed I'd pitched directly next to a copse of woods with a far superior site in the middle. Shame, because I wanted to lounge around for a day and work. I decided I was too lazy to break camp for the trivial reason of relocating only thirty feet, so I packed up and set off for South Queensferry instead, the southern terminus of the famous Forth Railway Bridge with a library open all afternoon from one until eight.

The onward cycle path ran through a palatial country estate of ancient woodland, manicured lawns, rocky coast, and the occasional posh person out walking the requisite black labrador.

It's strange how our stereotyping processes whir madly to life from the merest hint of plum in a cheery 'morning'.

The path turned to follow the coast, and brought the Forth Railway Bridge into sight, the first time in my life I'd ever seen it. I had to stop pedalling with the enormity of it all. It really hit home, at that point, how much of the island I'm from I hadn't seen, and this icon was only a couple of hundred miles from where I grew up.

Completed in 1890, the Firth of Forth Bridge was built under the watchful eye of the world after the collapse of the Tay Bridge during the winter gales of 1879, where 75 people perished when their train pitched into the estuary. Renowned for their excellence in engineering the empire over, this shook the Scots to spare no expense and build a bridge that would never fall down. The Forth Railway Bridge was the result: the cantilever design over the Forth river is one of the strongest and most expensive ever conceived, the latter quality being why there are so few like it. The unfortunate irony is 98 men died building the thing.

At the time, and for 27 years, 1,710 feet was the longest single cantilever span in the world (there are two of this length on the Forth Bridge). It is still second only to the 1,800 feet of the Quebec Bridge in Canada.

  • 54,000 tons of steel
  • 194,000 cubic yards of granite, stone, and concrete
  • 21,000 tons of cement
  • 7,000,000 rivets
 Now, we may build larger structures today, but in the 1880s they had no combustion power. So when you sit and look at this colossus as I did for a couple of hours, and factor in a dash of construction knowledge, it makes one feel comparatively useless and unmotivated. Luckily, these are traits with which I'm intimately familiar.

I scouted that night's campsite under the road bridge a mile or so westward and put some work in at the library. The meticulously attired Indian librarian opening the door treated me with overt contempt. Overt enough to annoy me, at least, and I'm pretty difficult to irritate. He queried my possession of a library card (this library fell under the Edinburgh umbrella so my membership from the day before was still good), then he said there was no WiFi, when my phone told me there was. I didn't cause a fuss because I needed to work here, but what an absolute twat. I didn't let on I was a writer, as our interaction was already soured by his shitty attitude and I didn't care to engage him further. I hoped he was going to be working the day after, so I could plan to come in muddy booted or after eating something particularly gaseous. That'd sort him out.

I left at eight o'dark, rolled by the supermarket to pick up some leafy vegetables (good for wind generation), camped down and had a stir fry again, but for some reason the improvised concoction didn't taste quite as spectacular as the night before, probably due to the inclusion of so much cabbage, eggs and beans. I only ate half and chucked the rest. I spent the remainder of the night finishing off the third season of Mad Men, and was truly impressed by the amount of shagging going on. It's well-produced porn with discreetly obscured genitalia, let's be honest.

The next day I was straight back to the library. The attendant this time was a woman, so I dutifully wiped the fresh mud off my boots outside before going in, and chose a spot far from foot traffic so my uncontrollable farting wouldn't bother anybody. What a waste of a biochemical stockpile. My distain for the dude yesterday doubled with each apocalyptic release.

I finished up at around 4.30 pm and crossed the Forth Road Bridge to look for a camping spot on the north bank. It must be over a mile long, and has some cracking views of the rail bridge.

I tried to make it through Dunfermline onto a trail where I could camp, but darkness caught me on the nearside outskirts. At a loss, I pootled around until I found a patch of woodland in a business park; not perfect but good enough. I planned to be up early for a dash to Stirling before the forecast rain arrived anyway, so it was as good as anywhere else.

Day 25
The route to Stirling followed another railway track converted into a bridleway, which I've found to be the quickest way to get somewhere on a bike without riding on the main roads. I rechecked the weather on my phone before I left, and it looked like I had a little more time than I thought, so I made up a flask of tea and some peanut butter and jam sandwiches for later.

I bombed along the track to Stirling, covering the twenty miles or so in only a couple of hours, and lost my two litre water bottle on the way. That's four I'd lost. I'd been tucking them into the front of the trailer wedged between my backpack and the pivot arm post, but for whatever reason they kept becoming dislodged, despite several differing attempts at tying them in place with a bungee. I had to rethink this, because dehydration was starting to get old. I decided on putting the new bottle in the same place but wrapped in a plastic bag and tying the handles to the top of the post so if it did slip from position it wouldn't be sacrificed to the thirsty road gods.

Image © Stirling Council

I sought out the Stirling Central Library and emailed a normally reliable client about a delinquent payment, and checked the Doppler weather radar. Rain was imminent, so I had to make a run for the hills to find a campsite. My plan was to never cycle in the rain unless I absolutely had to, and I had a few miles to go yet, so I didn't wait for a reply and got moving.

Potential camping sites on the way were thin in the ground, and the sky started to spit, but I eventually found a likely spot in the shadow of an uprooted tree by the golf course in Dunblane. I got set up just in time before the heavens opened, and settled down to tea, PB&J sarnies and Mad Mating season four.

Idle hands
When I ride these long and relatively boring stretches (old railway lines tend to have little in the way of views) I get to think a lot. Probably more than any other time in my life, actually. The freedom allows one's mind to roam like an illiterate Italian. Let's ignore, for the moment, whether such musing is good, indifferent, or a portent of gathering doom: currently, I'm toying with the notion of the world being nothing more than a giant LARP game, and I've become increasingly convinced this might actually be true. It may well be a scenario worth considering anyway, true or not, as it's a beautiful bypass of the conditioned social hierarchy our 'authorities' so carefully bludgeon into us, and one I seem to be slowly jettisoning.

My subversive reasoning is the people who purposely dress in the daftest costumes (clerics, police, military, politicians, business suits etc) are the ones who seem to disappear into their roles the most, and forget, or never even begin, to function like normal members of an integrated society: egalitarian, peaceful, stress-free, kind, and bemused by the ridiculousness of it all. Let's call it 'enlightenment', or the baseline human condition. They're the true neckbeards, the socially inept goofballs who don't possess the ability to function outside the construct of the game, never get laid properly, and carry their puffed delusions of authority like a favourite lightning bolt beanbag.

The more I thought about it, the more it amused me. And I started to feel sorry for them, and realized I was turning into a hippie.

Stay with me, people
Google hunter-gatherer societies: our natural and default state. They exhibit all the previously mentioned mutually beneficial tendencies far more readily than we of the current industrial habitat. Any graph you'll find plots immediate-return hunter-gatherer communities at by far the happiest. Agrarian societies are the most miserable, and our Western industrial-digital paradigm lies somewhere in between.

(Also consider 'necessity breeds invention' -- probably the most accurate maxim ever to describe progress -- Paleolithic technology didn't change much for many hundreds of thousands of years until some bright but lazy spark invented agriculture, which tells me 'necessity' was sorely lacking. The popular idea among archaeologists is populations probably grew to a point where agriculture eventually became necessary, hence its advent 10,000 years or so ago, but for many hundreds of thousands of years before then we were running around killing and eating organisms like we'd evolved to, happy as pigs in shit. Now we outsource such tasks, technology advances exponentially, stress is our biggest killer, and according to the Mayo Clinic, almost 70% of us are on prescribed antibiotics, opioids, and antidepressants.)

Check your character sheet
The catalyst of this LARP idea: I've recently had arguments with inflated local politicians, and soldiers freshly returned from furthering wealthy corporate interests in the Middle East, who insist the West should eradicate the entire Islamic wing of religion, almost a quarter of the world's population, because (and I'm paraphrasing only slightly here) they're Lawful Evil.

(For those who don't know what the hell I'm talking about: when E. Gary Gygax was writing the first rules to Dungeons & Dragons, he wanted to introduce a simple method to define a character's motivations, so he invented alignment. Initially, this consisted of three primary morality systems: Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful, each of which were later subdivided into Good, Neutral, and Evil, for a total of nine separate subcategories. Simplistic, but really quite clever. Choosing one gave the player an immediate framework to explore, and the Game Master an idea of how consistently the character was being played. The Lawful Evil alignment is typified by a deep belief in the structure of law, but will exploit that lawfulness to hurt people. Many extremists fall into this category, like the Westboro Baptist Church. For Lawful Neutral, think a by-the-numbers courtroom judge. The Lawful Good, on the other hand, temper their belief in law with altruism (Nelson Mandela springs to mind. Actually, he's probably more Neutral Good, or even Chaotic Good, because he fought against the laws of South Africa in his early years. Maybe he changed to Lawful Good over time?)

Anyway, the soldiers seemed to base their opinions on their experiences with the backward Afghan hillbillies they were fighting (who are obviously no more a representative demographic of Islam than our own outlying twitchy meth head rednecks are of Christianity), coupled with the propaganda I'm sure is foisted upon them to keep their motivation elevated during the conflict. Many pointed to genocidal urgings in the Quran during our arguments (which tells me they're likely parroting the same 'approved' leaflets), neatly sidestepping similar themes in the Bible, and claimed their 'uniforms' were not 'costumes' (tricky things, labels), and guns aren't substitutes for foam rubber LARP swords at all and how fucking dare I.

Intelligence is often described as the ability to abstract: usually characterized by the willingness to consider more than one opinion on the same subject. If this is lacking, especially for purposes of intellectual growth and amusement, one should probably refrain from engaging in conversation on anything more meaningful than, I dunno, NASCAR, on pain of me vigorously stabbing at one's carotid artery with a fistful of pub darts.

So how do we drag these lost LARPing fools back to reality? I alone can't explain the depth of their subservient folly to each individual cog in the establishment machine. That'd take millennia and I don't have a time warp spell memorized. What we need is some pervasive mass media approach, like a blog.


Friday, April 18, 2014

"If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things." - Miyamoto Musashi

I've always been impressed by people who could blow their nose without using a handkerchief.

Whenever I'd tried it myself I looked like I'd lost a guacamole fight with a slime monster. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to bring a hankie on tour, which necessitated an acute learning curve. I started out having to stop by the roadside to gingerly pinch each nostril shut in turn while bending double to avoid snotting my shoes and trousers. The noises I produced were not unlike a barnyard during the pig rut, punctuated by much wiping and lots of shits and oh, for fuck's sakes. I was wonderfully pathetic.

After a couple of months I was blowing my nose with the poise of a professional footballer. I didn't need to stop pedalling or even pinch, just a casual flick of the head and a silent snort sent a brace of mercurial missiles flashing into the periphery, scattering my DNA across the planet to further complicate the question of where I'm from.

(It's a joke of some lineage among my American friends that I don't adhere to any particular cultural group. I was born in Canada, raised in the UK, with a German father and an English mother. I went to university in Wales, and lived for 20 years in America. This confuses the hell out of your average Yank, who thinks everybody should be easily identifiable for shooting, bombing, stereotyping and/or imprisonment purposes.)

I'd become an expert judge of wind and trajectory, instantaneously triangulating with relative velocity. I could womp rat storm drains like a trainee Jedi, using my philosophical training to quell the urban Dark Side urge to decorate any dole enthusiast loitering too close to the kerb.

If I did need to nip a nostril on a particularly gushy day, I fired the right one under the left nipping arm, followed by the left one over the top after dropping the elbow and rolling the wrist, switching from right to left nostril with a thumb to middle finger move and a slight turn of the head, in a seamless Legolas-like combo that's frankly deserving of at least a video game franchise.

So I was quite pleased with my personal development.

East Linton
"A man on foot, or horseback, or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles." - Edward Abbey

One of the great pleasures of travelling this way is entering a small village completely unaware of its history, and leaving thoroughly entranced. It's these between places motorised transport denies us.

I'd never even heard of East Linton (population 1,800) in East Lothian: a small village with an impressive global legacy. It's home to the modest Preston Mill, dating back to 1599, still in operation, and open to the public, although I didn't go in because of the hefty entrance fee, and my wallet was still weeping in the shower after Bamburgh.

I'd had some fun with ancient mills already, too, but this place was where millwright and engineer Andrew Meikle grew up and worked, and the man was a legitimate lightning bolt. He invented spring sails for windmills in 1772: wooden slats that opened and closed to control the rotation no matter how strong the wind: which revolutionised the milling industry in a time when a mill was by far the most important building in any community. He also invented the threshing machine: since the beginning of agriculture, harvested grain had to be threshed from the stalks and husks by hand, usually with large flails. Meikle's invention automated this extremely labour intensive drudgery. In one perfect swoop, he reduced annual agricultural labour needs by 25%. Y'know, for the entire world.

Obviously, this didn't make him very popular with farm workers, who rioted in 1830 as threshing machine proliferation, along with the Enclosure Acts, began to seriously hamper their livelihoods. (At this time in history, the loss of livelihood usually meant the loss of life, not comfort, like it does today.) The Swing Riots, as they became known, were intended to destroy threshing machines and protect farm workers jobs; the only directly-linked death was one rioter, probably at the hands of a farmer or soldiers. The end results, however, were nine rioters hanged, and 450 sent to Australia. Serves them right, bloody technophobic ingrates.

Meikle's work inspired a young farmer's lad in the village, who would spend all his spare time at the millwright's workshop, fascinated by the wealth of complexity and innovation. John Rennie grew up, and after a spell at the University of Edinburgh, seemingly single-handedly designed and built every bridge, dock, and canal in the UK, (the breakwater at Plymouth Sound, London and Waterloo Bridges, London, East India, and West India Docks, to name but a ridiculously insignificant fraction) and all by the time he died at 60, to be laid to rest with great ceremony in St. Paul's Cathedral in 1821. He only outlived his mentor Meikle by ten years, who died at the venerable age of 92 and is buried in East Linton near his beloved mill.

(Quick note about lifespans here: the incredibly high historical infant mortality rate skewed the average lifespan statistic heavily downward. After countless thousands of hours reading history, archaeology and anthropology texts, mountains of studies and acres of research reviews, I discovered that, back when muck was a condiment, if folks made it out of infancy they often lived well into their seventies and occasionally beyond. Even in pre-agricultural societies (including the ones still around today) the average adult age at death was around 54. And this was in a very sharp and pointy world before sterilisation, safety rails, and interfering cunts with clipboards. So the idea we were teetering by the time we were 30 is rather naive.)

Hailes Castle
I ascended a valleyside on a very pleasant single lane road, paralleling the River Tyne (yep, there are two, this Scottish one's a little more modest) and rode along the tops. The sun came out to brighten the world and made me chuckle at the audacity of the views. There really is nowhere on Earth quite as fetching as the British Isles on a sunny day. It's in a class all its own, like cycling into the lid of a giant shortbread tin.

I came upon Hailes Castle; a proper castle: in ruins and with little evidence of Victorian tampering. There was no entrance fee, gift shop, or indeed another soul in sight, just a big ruin in the middle of nowhere and little ol' me. Now we're talking. I spent an hour wandering around, imagination clicking into overdrive, empathising with the sheer effort involved in the building of such a thing, and the battles fought over it. I had a whale of a time.

Haddington (population 9,000), the next town along, is one of those places that just stays with you. Drenched in the morning sun it's an absolute beauty. The bike path came in over the 17th century Nungate Bridge, surrounded by the parkland of the medieval St. Mary's Collegiate Church. I stopped for several minutes in the middle of the bridge just for a bask.

The longest church in Scotland is really of cathedral scale, which belies Haddington's current size. In the middle ages, however, Haddington was the fourth largest town in Scotland, and has seen some serious history, being burned down numerous times by Scottish and English armies alike.

I found the excellent library and spent the afternoon working, then left by way of the riverside bridleway, narrowly avoiding smacking the crap out of two older teenagers as I turned to follow the river. I can't even remember what they said, but their aggressive tone forced my ego to skid to a stop.

They had a couple of girls in tow, so they tried playing hard men and both postured up. I wordlessly ditched my backpack and was actually walking towards them removing my helmet before reality gripped, and they fled. I think the cold grin did them in.

Not sure what I would've done had I decided to chase them down with my re-emerging cardio. Something crippling that doesn't leave a mark, probably. They treated me to offensive gestures as they backpedalled, so I returned the favour, dipping into my exponentionally more appalling construction lexicon. They had no answer, so I considered it a moral if hollow victory as I climbed back on the bike.

Am I going to do this every time someone takes the piss? I decided right there and then not to. From now on I'll just give them a wave and a smile, or uncurl a middle finger. Peace, young padawan. No need to break someone's legs for being a smart mouth. You were similarly objectionable once.

Soothed by this newfound life structure, I stopped at a Co-op and bought a tin of Heinz Baked Beans with Hot Dogs for dinner because I hadn't had them since I was a kid and why the hell not. I also picked up a bottle of white wine and a half priced tin of Devon custard, a steal at 47p, and I like custard so much I'm quite happy to eat it like a big yogurt.

As darkness drew near I happened upon a little picnic spot by the track, slightly elevated above a small car park and screened from the trail by trees. I got my tent up and thoroughly enjoyed the beans and hot dogs with some bread and butter, which got me very nostalgic about my time in the boy scouts. I watched the movie Super 8 as I ate to compliment the experience.

I got my head down early, but was woken at 11 pm by the sound of souped up ricers congregating in the parking lot below. I'd forgotten it was Saturday night. I've never been one to complain about the noise of partying; lord knows an hypocrisy on that scale could fracture the firmament and annihilate the entire physical plane of existence. But they couldn't see me from where they were, so I lay awake and eavesdropped on what conversation I could filter from the dental equipment-like whine of their tiny motors. (If you're going to buy a car, kids, buy a goddamn CAR, for the love of all that's combustion powered.) They talked about diminutive pistons and micro gears and wee exhausts, some of the most boring shit I'd ever had the misfortune of overhearing. After a couple of surreal hours I was longing to open up a vein, but would've settled for a cloak of invisibility and a sack of root vegetables. Or even better, a Molotov Cocktail.

I'd just started contemplating the empty wine bottle, an oily bike chain rag and a half-litre of methylated spirits when they wisely buggered off. Finally alone, I slipped into sleep and woke to a dew-drenched morning. I packed up and quickly fixed an overnight flat, then hit the trail into Edinburgh, possibly my favourite city in Europe.
It was spitting rain as I rolled around the base of Arthur's Seat into my familiar Scottish stomping grounds. I'd been up to Edinburgh maybe eight or nine times in my early years before I moved to America, so I passed a few pubs I remembered falling out of, streets I'd streaked down, and parkland I'd pissed and passed out in. The nostalgia washed over me in rich golden waves. It's curious we have such affection for chaos. Or maybe it's just me.

Edinburgh is my favourite because it's probably the finest city to get drunk in on the planet: the civic buildings are magnificent, the Edwardian and Georgian architecture a real joy to meander through, and the pubs were built by men who knew precisely what they were doing: evenly spaced, and individually unique. No chain pub nonsense here, where one interior looks much like another. At least, not in my experience: I didn't actually go in any pubs, but made a beeline for the MacDonald library, the only one open on a Sunday (as far as I could determine with a spotty data connection). Riding through the crowded Sunday lunchtime streets reminded me of London. Edinburgh has changed. And there were hipsters everywhere, which I'd thought was a purely American thing.

(What's a hipster? A hipster is a youth clothing and behavioural trend, given to retro fashions and, as far as I can tell, the overt dismissal of anything approaching a work ethic. You're not going to find a hipster down a coal mine, for example, or pouring concrete, or tiling a roof. They seem to work and congregate in coffee and sandwich shops, claiming to be artisans and artists, apparently a product of affluence and the internet. Also, your average hipster tends to vehemently deny being one, like homosexuals in the fifties.)

e particular hipster working the reception in the MacDonald Library, South African if I can place an accent, looked at me as if I was stuck to the sole of his hemp loafer. I announced my wish to join for the day so I could use their WiFi. "Why not go to a coffee shop?" he volunteered contrarily.

I didn't reply "Because it's none of your fucking business, shithead. Punch the card and pipe down before I drag you out of here by that ridiculous steampunk moustache and smash it through your head on the kerb outside," because that would be alarming for the poor lad and I'd be straying from my new philosophy of peace. I'm sure he was simply attempting a little human interaction, he just wasn't very good at it. He worked in a library, after all, and he was a hipster.

The reason I didn't go to coffee shops much is because it's prohibitively expensive. I'll do so if there's no other option, but when a coffee costs as much as a day's food, it's difficult to justify the expense. Similarly with pubs, though a pint can last a good while longer than a coffee, even though I'd developed a taste for cold coffee while living in warmer climates.
The library shut at five. I made a run for the outskirts to find a place to camp, trying to beat both the rain and the dark and failing miserably on both counts, getting lost several times on the way. I cheered my predicament considerably with a visit to a Morrisons, where I bought bean sprouts, shallots and some soy sauce for a stir fry with Thai noodles and prawn crackers. Finally around seven I found a flat bit of grass and pitched, but the topsoil was at best an inch thick so I had to get inventive with the guy ropes and weight distribution inside, thank Christ I bought a free standing tent.

The next morning

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Work, Work, Work

' Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on their accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.' - Mark Twain.


I rolled into Berwick-upon-Tweed (population 13,000) and, as usual when entering a town after days in the country, had to stop myself from talking to people.

Berwick has the strange geography of actually being further north in England than a substantial portion of Scotland, which is truly unusual. Almost as unusual as the guy who stopped for a chat on the 17th century bridge. He was a backpacking RAF helicopter pilot, attached to a search and rescue squadron, which incidentally is the same line of bullshit I used to run on girls to get in their pants when I was in my late teens. I don't recall it ever working, but I do remember scamming along with a mate playing the RAF pilot I'd 'rescued'. On our first go, while well beyond the opening salvo with a couple of attractive prospects down the pub, their friend returned from the bathroom and said "Hi Stef."

We'd both gone to school with her, so that was the end of that. The perils of trying to pull gash in the small town one grew up in.

So I initially regarded this fella with deep suspicion. However, his bay window accent credentialled his story, and he was setting off on a multi-day hike to Alnwick, which is just the kind of boring crap people with real accomplishments do.

Berwick is an interesting place. It changed hands between England and Scotland so many times when we fought over such things, it achieved a uniquely independent status, almost as a separate state, so much so official proclamations used to refer to 'England, Scotland, and Berwick-Upon-Tweed'. One such document was the declaration of war against Russia in 1853, and signed so by Queen Victoria. At the treaty of Paris in 1856, mention of Berwick was unfortunately overlooked, so the town remained at war with Russia for the next century. It wasn't until 1966 when the London correspondent of the Russian newspaper Pravda paid a visit to officially put an end to hostilities. The mayor of Berwick at the time, a playful wag named Robert Knox, told the Russian to 'Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.'

Which is all kinds of awesome. This is the genial currency missing from current international politics. But then, real war does tend to sour the charm of political flippancy.

I had a look around the shops in the town centre, bought some meths for my stove from a decorating store, and found a central bench to sit on and people-watch for a bit. Dole enthusiasts and pensioners dominated the scene, as they typically do in the middle of a weekday when everyone else is at work. The former can be fun to watch, because the threat of violence typically simmers just below the surface. This is especially true of the tattooed womenfolk, who seem to think loitering behind a double-barreled pushchair while nursing a heady morning cocktail of smartphone, cigarette and their latest black eye the de rigueur accoutrements of social status.


I left Berwick by the way of Aldi's and Morrisons to get some food in (Morrisons was rapidly becoming my favourite supermarket in Britain. Best prices for quality nosh and they make lattice-topped pork pies with cheese and pickle baked in, which I'd quite merrily stab a dole baby for), and hit the border, one hilly section of the road actually being the border. I stopped to take a self-timed photograph by the WELCOME TO SCOTLAND sign, with the intent of making it look like I was urinating on it, but it didn't turn out well: I looked like I was fiddling with something way smaller than it actually is. Plus, it didn't say WELCOME TO SCOTLAND, it said WELCOME TO THE SCOTTISH BORDERS which disarms the irreverence dramatically. I resolved to do a better job when I found the proper sign, which I never did. (I was planning to do the same thing to any WELCOME TO signs I saw, so rest easy, Scottish folk.)

I hit my first mountain in Scotland, and it was a doozy. I didn't make it all the way up pedalling, but I took a healthy chunk out of the bastard and impressed myself with how fit I was getting. It took me two hours in total to get to the top, factoring in water breaks and occasional collapses of exhaustion. I later found it was only a 200 metre hill, around 650 feet, but I could've sworn it was bigger. I stopped at a cattle and sheep farm on the top where the farmer graciously refilled my water bottles. He was 70 years old, and had lived at the same farm since he was three, and told me the winters were often a bitch up here on his hill. I was forced to correct him with mountain.

I hurled myself at the descent and covered the two-and-a-half miles to Ayton in about seven minutes. Two hours up, seven minutes down. Now we're cooking. To celebrate my first major downhill I bought an eight pack of Carlsberg to wash down the ham salad sandwiches I made for dinner, but only drank three before passing out to the first episode of Fringe.

Day eighteen
I gave a good yank on a stubborn tent peg this morning and it flew out of the ground and off into the woods, never to be seen again. I also couldn't find my phone after packing. After much searching and retracing of steps it turned up as a lump in my sleeping bag compression sack. Little bastard.

I considered Fringe as I repacked, and wasn't sure if I liked it or not. Seems to be the X-Files with even more dubious science, and decided to be offended by the insult.

I spent the day in the busy fishing port of Eyemouth after using their post office to send home a few redundant pieces of kit: a pair of shorts (it was getting cooler), a rugby shirt, my unused collapsible water carrier, my large laptop (the battery life is so short it may as well be a brick), and the mosquito head net now the midges had fucked off. An elderly South African couple owned the branch, after moving here to be nearer their daughter living in Edinburgh. 'Close, but not too close,' was how they put it, knowing full well their offspring's propensity for offloading grandchildren.

I invested in some treacle toffees from the proper sweet shop across the street, replete with jars of candy lining the shelves, measured loose into a paper bag by hand. Ah, nostalgia. Then I spent the rest of the day in the The Tavern attempting to work but largely staring out of the window at the scenic rocky bay. At one point a stray dog got trapped on some rocks as the tide came in, which was far more interesting than whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. It took a good while to realize there was no owner coming to the rescue, and everyone else around was well into their pension years. Shit, looks like I'm getting wet, I thought, and started packing up my computers to go rescue the daft bloody dog. Just as I'd got everything nicely logged off, closed down, cables rolled, packed up, and halfway out the door, he took the plunge himself and swam ashore. Cursing canines the world over, I went back inside to set up again.

I left in the late afternoon and climbed out of Eyemouth's coastal dip, battled a howling headwind along the tops until I found a sheltered spot to pitch my tent in the valley made by the scandalously misnamed River Ale. A couple of friendly coppers stopped by for a chat to make sure I wasn't a serial killer, and left clutching business cards, promising to read my blog. Ahh, the old Abrutat charm.

I camped for a day to rest up, then struck out for Dunbar, the birthplace of famous Scottish explorer and American busybody John Muir.

I'd never read any of Muir's stuff, indeed, I'd never heard of the fella, but as the token transatlantic diplomat that I am, I felt I should, and barrelled through his house/museum on the way to the pub. Interesting guy, this Muir.

My pub of choice was the Castle Hotel, where I had an affordable lunch of delicious homemade steak and ale pie with real chips and peas that'd shame the staff of the namesake Castle Inn in Bamburgh to slow and hopefully painful suicide. The friendly landlord's name was Gordon Collin, who used to own a pub in my home town of Scarborough, and we counted a few of the same people among our friends. Small world, indeed.

I left the pub at 6pm, confident I'd find somewhere amenable to camp boosted by half a dozen pints of lager, and didn't. The sun was well set by the time I discovered a quiet field corner by the bike track, threw down my tent in a huff at the delay and woke the next morning with the promise of Edinburgh.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

All I Do is Eat and Shit

It seems to me the word 'adventure' is sorely misused.

Simple travelling could hardly be thought of as adventurous, despite the insistence of the more insular among us. Unless we're fording raging jungle rivers to the accompaniment of distant cannibal drums, or at the very least while shitfaced, I think we should refrain from such aggrandising language. The majority of Facebook photo albums I've seen with the word 'adventure' in the title seem to involve little more than its advocate gawping at the camera, holding a pint.

If this is what passes for adventure, I'm Doc fucking Savage. However, it is true that alcohol infuses enterprise with exploit. This is its purpose, after all. Thus, it could be said drunk people are society's foremost adventurers, because they face jeopardy in the most mundane of deeds: negotiating a kerb, for example, or unlocking their front door, or whipping up a snack without setting fire to the kitchen. Additionally, drunk decision-making is notoriously perilous, and adventure, by definition, should involve risk. Columbus, Cabot, Magellan and Cook were teetotallers all*; they were forced to ridiculous lengths to find similarly stout adversity, so they don't impress me any more than a drunk does, and shouldn't you. Now, if they'd been sailing into those tropical cyclones on their third bottles of sherry...

Many of the most exciting times in my life involved alcohol. For example, I've woken up in cities I didn't start out in with women I don't know, who've bizarrely introduced me to their children over breakfast. Or during one particularly memorable morning, a husband. He gave me a ride to work. And then there's the one about the brothelkeeper's daughters. But these are stories for a different day.

The biggest problem with inebriation is forgetting stuff, so a lot of adventures, or rather the hugely-entertaining lessons of injurious misadventures, often go to waste. However, the colossal advantage we have nowadays is camera phones. Now we can record events to remind ourselves in the mornings, and if we neglect to push the button, someone else invariably pushes theirs. Technology is bringing light to the dark corners of our memories, reminding us to embrace the things we'd rather forget. We're starting to weave much healthier 'warts and all' narratives. Attempting to dismiss a difficult episode from our consciousness is to forgo the benefit to our personalities. Hardship breeds character and perspective, no matter how it's induced.

Before you steeple your fingers in condescending concern: life, I firmly believe, is about the acquisition of anecdotes. When the battery on my mobile runs out, I've often sat back by the campfire to contemplate the things I've done and seen, and sweet Jesus, has it been fun. I chuckle myself to sleep like a loon. Now, there still exists those in society who frown on enjoyment and hold austerity dear. They espouse hard work but consider 'work' sitting at a desk. These people are dying off, thankfully, as automation and outsourcing shifts our western focus from industry to entertainment. After all, we only get one life, we may as well whoop it up.

It's no coincidence that religion preaches such drab virtues: work hard and create lots more workers. Keep quiet. Don't think. Do as we say. The powerful and parasitic love these teachings, which is obviously why they nurture them: they need workers to keep working, after all. And what better motivator than the threat of damning their eternal souls? It's the biggest scam in human history. One has to step back, as George Carlin said, in fucking awe. The enormous, outrageous gall of these people beggars belief. It's only over the last few years I've begun to realise the magnitude of the deception. I was a worker ant for a long time, but since turning professional with this writing malarkey four years ago I've had a lot more space to read, observe, and think; time-dependent luxuries rarely afforded us working class scum. This blinkered veil, thickened by decades, nay, generations of rudimentary, incessant, infectious social propaganda, is lifting.

And will, no doubt, reveal some real adventure.

* * *

I decamped and backtracked into Bamburgh for breakfast. A cracking little delicatessen called The Pantry caught my eye, so I went in for a cup of tea and delicious handmade turkey and coleslaw sandwich. This tiny place is much more than a sandwich shop, though: the shelves crowd with local artisanal produce, including the first beef jerky I'd seen in the UK. A couple of decades in Texas has made me a huge fan of the stuff, but I wasn't sure how well it would suit a fruit pastille-popping cyclist, and it'd be an expensive experiment. I repaired to a nearby park bench to eat, then went back in for another cuppa and a cheese and onion flan, famished after yesterday's gastro-intestinal hostilities. I wish I'd tried this place rather than the Castle Inn.

I chatted with Julie the owner for a while over yet another cup of tea and some local fudge, herself a budding writer. She'd been in Bamburgh thirty years and obviously loved the place, and was determined, she said, to write a memoir about it. She displayed the common reticence of the unpublished, however, which I consider a very British trait. I had it myself the first time I wrote something for public consumption. (It seems so long ago. Probably because it was.) I gave her as much encouragement as I could while attending closely to any possible churn or glop stomachward.

I bought half a pound of back bacon from R. Carter and Son's butcher's a few doors up (Est. 1887. I seem to have adopted the innocent Yank-like wonder for such prestigious longevity) and hit the road north.

Even after my hobbit-like first, second and third breakfasts I was feeling very drained and tired. So much so when it started raining around midday I fucked this shit, set up camp in a roadside forest, and was deep into the first season of Arrested Development when Bowel Hell II: Revenge of the Quiche held its first guerrilla screening. After a trouble free morning, I'd thought the bug gone, but it wasn't. It'd been lurking, bibbed-up, cutlery poised, waiting for a meal.

The next sixteen hours were spent howling liquid brown destruction into a hastily dug hole. I spent so much time squatting outside the tent I set up a tarp shelter to divert what little rain breached the natural forest canopy, primarily to keep my Nexus 7 dry so I could continue enjoying the dysfunctions of the Bluth family while crouched to my berserking toilet. Shitting into a bag in a tent is all unicorns and lollipops when it's only once every day or two, but this kind of persistent onslaught calls for infrastructure.

Day 14
Depleted to a point where the beast in my belly could but growl and belch malignant whiffs, I pushed on for Holy Island. I stopped for supplies at a service station on the A1 crossing point, but found it so ridiculously overpriced I didn't buy anything, and went to the nearby Lindisfarne Inn instead for lunch and to do a bit of work. I ordered two sides instead of a main: chips and onion rings. Hand made, generously portioned, perfectly cooked, and quite possibly the best onion rings I've ever had. What a refreshing, non-grasping, astute attempt to acquire, keep, and grow a reputation by delivering excellence rather than a Bamburgh Castle Inn wallet raping. I washed down the delicious repast with three pints of ice cold Carlsberg, and headed coastward to the Barn at the Beal campsite in glorious sunshine, burping happily.

I camped down next to a couple from Newcastle who'd driven up with their mountain bikes for the weekend. They'd brought not just a tent, but tables, chairs, a three ring gas stove, crockery, cutlery, you name it. That evening I felt very underequipped breaking out my backpacking Trangia to fry up some bacon, pan size necessitating a single rasher at a time. I silently resolved to buy a bigger set. (Judging by the uneventful elapsed time since lunch, the stomach bug seemed to have relented.)

The Barn at the Beal is probably the best campsite I stayed at the whole trip; in truth, it's more a destination than a campsite, which is more of an addendum to the facility. It's essentially a hugely popular bar/restaurant/coffee shop that acts like a nightclub/pub on Saturday nights, and it was Saturday. But I had to work, and the view from my tent across the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne was stirring enough to hold my attention. This was the home of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, and where the Viking age began in Britain, with Norsemen coming ashore to raid the isolated monastery on the island in 793 AD.

I took a break from work and rode the mile down to take a look at the famous causeway, which was hidden by the tide.

I checked the posted times and figured I could cross in the morning, and cycled back to the site, my front tyre picking up a huge thorn twig on the way. I literally had to stop and pry the bastard loose. And here's the curious bit: an hour or two after getting back to camp the tyre was flat. In the daylight next morning I pulled the wheel off to fix the flat, but couldn't find an obvious puncture. I went to the bathroom, filled up the sink, inflated the tube and rotated it through the water. Not a bubble. What the hell? I put it back on the bike, pumped it up, and it didn't go flat again until the next puncture about five weeks later. EXPLAIN THAT, SCIENCE!

Fucking Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Out-of-work Christian miracles just lounging around, picking on innocent passersby instead of looking for jobs among the poor and sick. It's a bloody disgrace!

Judging by the noise that night, the Barn at the Beal knows how to party down. I resisted the temptation to join them, knowing full well if I did, no work would get done tomorrow, and quite possibly the day after, and I had deadlines.


The next day I cycled the couple of miles over the causeway on a gloriously unloaded bike to Lindisfarne, and very nice it was too, though very touristy, even mid-October. I wanted to check out the church, but it was Sunday morning and religious people were gathering for a preachin', so I made myself scarce before they could capture me and turn me into their anal fuck gimp, or whatever it is they do in there.

I wandered through the priory to discover there was precious little left of the 8th century buildings. The existing ruins are the remains of the 11th century replacement. Shit. Still, they're impressive, and for someone who's spent the vast majority of his life in construction, intriguing.

I rode up to the castle but didn't go in, because I'm not fond of paying to be disappointed, then rode back to the campsite for bacon sandwiches and a mug of tea. It was a beautiful day, so I had the tent wide open for the view, and found if I laid down using my backpack as a pillow, with my knees propped up, feet wedged against the tub groundsheet wall to prevent them sliding away, I could rest my laptop against my thighs and write with Lindisfarne as a backdrop. Travelgasm number two.

Safety retreat if you get caught on the causeway when the tide comes in

And I seem to have invented a way to write lying down, which is quite easily the most momentous discovery in the history of literature. I'd just made the easiest job in the world even easier. See? This is the kind of innovative laziness I bring to the table.

Obviously, I didn't present any kind of threat whatsoever.

By midafternoon, I decided it was time for a break from the doing of nothing, and figured I'd head up to the coffee shop for something sticky and sweet. Plus I had that morning's shitbag in my tent's redundant second foyer to dispose of, so I'd chuck that in a bin on the way.

Unfortunately, as I rounded the corner of an obscuring hedge, I bumped into a whole herd of elderly hikers standing around their cars chatting, and me carrying a translucent bag of shit. I had my laptop in my other hand, so quickly put the offending article in the same hand in an unsuccessful effort to shield it from their view. I faltered a step, and considered turning back, but my inner monologue piped up BRAZEN IT OUT, MAN, BRAZEN IT OUT! THEY'LL THINK IT'S OLD FOOD OR SOMETHING, WELL IT IS, IN A SENSE. This forced me to stifle an involuntary laugh, which emerged as a loud staccato snort, and drew everybody's attention. This in turn, of course, gave me the giggles.

I viciously clamped them down. Straining purple with suppression, veins popping like a power-lifter, I strode stiffly to the rubbish bin, struggled for an awkward eon to get the lid off, and discovered it was full. But of course.

Time slowed to a smear as I weighed up my options. By now, they'd figured out I was carrying a bag of shit. This was the only bin between the campsite and the coffee shop. At a loss for alternatives, I gently placed the bag on top of the trash, and carefully replaced the lid so as not to burst the bag. 'Bloody dogs,' I said.

I was really in the mood for a scone with jam and cream, but they had already run out, which is testament to the popularity of the place. I went with a fudge slice and a pot of tea, and outstanding it was, too.

*I made this bit up.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Bamburgh Conspiracy

My friends and I have a game, a form of which I'm sure everyone else plays too, called Look at this Cunt.

(We're not targeting women, of course, quite the reverse. Working class men from the British Isles and its derivatives (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc, but strangely not the closest one, North America) typically use the word 'cunt' to describe other men, quite often with friendly affection, or at the very least, minimal malice. North American men seem to have forgotten this masculine ethic at some point, and get quite temperamental when so labelled. I think it's got something to do with all the hugging and constantly talking about each other's 'feelings', whatever those are.)

The Look at this Cunt game doesn't involve the actual presentation of female genitalia for inspection, of course; it's more about pointing out an atypical passerby: perhaps if he's wearing an unusual item of clothing, or staggering along in an advanced stage of inebriation. Maybe he has a nervous tick, or a limp. My current favourite is the Justin Bieber haircut, which to me looks like a toddler's licked a Walnut Whip and dropped it at the barber's.

Now, imagine, if you will, a man cycling through a British city centre towing a single wheeled trailer, dressed in clothing so loud it diverts shipping, topped by a helmet not unlike the bell end of a penis. This image opens Look at this Cunt season with finger food, fireworks and a free DVD.

So I figured, over this first week or two of the bike tour, my lifetime cunter/cuntee aggregate had swung heavily into the negative. This kind of imbalance is, obviously, not very zen at all. I needed to redress the cosmic equilibrium somehow, so I decided the best course of action would be to find people even stranger than me to have a good bloody gawp at.

I considered attending soccer matches for a while, because you've got to be pretty weird to enjoy that shit when there's perfectly legitimate sports like rugby and mixed martial arts available instead. Any 'sport' that requires its participants to avoid physical contact isn't real competition, let's be brutally honest here, it's calisthenics. Sport was conceived to supersede war, not knitting. And as for the fan segregation, well, that's definitely worth watching, if only for the immensely entertaining 'HOLD ME BACK, LADS!' dynamic.

But football games cost money to attend. Which brings us neatly to libraries.

Libraries positively brim with weirdos. I've never been the coolest guy in the building, but if the reading rooms in every town I'd visited so far were any indication, I'm Elvis fucking Presley. Children and pensioners are exempt from the comparison, of course, but the middle ground is filled with characters you wouldn't trust with either.

Libraries also have the dual advantage of being somewhere you can plug in to charge up and log on. There's vast discrepancies between local governments' attitudes towards these two things, however. Some bend over backwards to accommodate their library visitors' needs, while others hoard their electricity and internet access like they're their own private precious. These grasping, shrivelled, Gollum-like authorities put their employees in a very uncomfortable position when someone like me comes along, who isn't above questioning such reticence. After all, charging even my full suite of electronics and backup batteries works out at around a penny. I'd happily bung them the money to cover it. Even 2p. Often these employees would lie to me rather than simply explain their county council employers were so inarguably, stunningly, frustratingly stupid. I had one say the wiring in the building was so old plugging my laptop in would blow the lot. I don't know if I was more miffed by not being able to charge up or that I look so dumb I might buy such absolute horseshit.
I figured out through trial and error that my interaction with the person behind the library counter goes a long way to determine their subsequent helpfulness. If I was monosyllabic while I joined up for the day, there was often a poorly disguised suspicion of vagrancy. However, if I chattily revealed I was a writer, it was like The King himself had swaggered in wearing the cape outfit and a cocked eyebrow, sporting an expectant semi.

There'll be more on this later.

I left Dunstanburgh campsite at 3pm after writing 5,000 words of inane corporate drivel for a client who requires that sort of thing, and rode a meandering ten miles to Seahouses, a small holiday resort on the expansive Northumbrian coast. I passed a touring French couple coming the other way who'd been in the British Isles for three months, zigzagging north through Ireland and Scotland, now heading south through England.

I felt a real kinship with them, even though we only chatted for a few minutes. Not because of the cycling, but because of the travel. It's the shared pace of it, I think, and the attitude of going wherever and doing whatever you want. Proper freedom.

I bumped into another cyclist on the outskirts, a local heading to the shops, who joined me for the ride through the town, and advised me of the things to see and places to go. I stopped to use an ATM and nose around a bit, then hit the beachside road to Bamburgh with the idea of finding somewhere among the dunes to camp. 'No Camping' signs galvanized my determination, but I couldn't find anywhere appropriately accessible and secluded. I eventually gave up, puckering a bit as darkness began to descend with a few drops of rain, and decided to high tail it through Bamburgh and see if I could find somewhere suitable further inland.

It was dark by the time I did, and the rain was steadying. By the light of my headlamp I pushed down an overgrown farm track and found a flat bit as it cornered into a ploughed field. I quickly threw up the tent and got under cover, but fell prey to the beginnings of the deluge.

I packed up at first light and realized I could see the iconic castle from my campsite. Not too shabby.

I headed back into Bamburgh to find somewhere to work, preferably with a good mobile data signal. I found one, surprisingly enough, on a bench atop a sand dune overlooking the castle, and badged as one of the ten top lunch spots in the UK. It even had a little plaque. I dare say no one in the UK that day worked from a grander office.

I spent a few hours proofreading and polished the work from the last couple of days and sent it in, then whiled away the rest of the day looking around the village. I visited the church and the Grace Darling museum, did a little food shopping, then headed up to the castle to check on what time it opened the next day so I needn't limit my exploration. I discovered it was a tenner to get in. A fucking tenner?!

Grace Darling's grave 

Outraged, I stormed back down into the village for the Castle Inn and spent twenty quid on beer to calm myself down. My more liquid perspective determined this may be the only time I ever visit Bamburgh, and this is a castle I've been fascinated by my entire life. I decided to have dinner in the pub, too, and ordered a ten quid burger. (Is everything a tenner around here?) What should have been a pricey gourmet extravaganza turned out to be a commercial patty and oven chips, though the salad was acceptable. For a tenner, it should come with a back rub and a fucking blow job.

Feeling exploited and a little annoyed at myself for falling for a tourist trap trick, I concluded I should go to the castle tomorrow morning, and left the pub to camp in the same place as the previous night, falling asleep to the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.

The Bamburgh Conspiracy
First thing the next day I went to refill my water bottles from the sink in the public toilets, only to notice a sign I hadn't noticed the day before:


I'd thought the two litres I drank yesterday tasted a little off, but figured it was my imagination. My stomach plopped, just once, in agreement. Better get this castle seen before the squits kick in, I reasoned. I took a precautionary dump and dashed off on a whirlwind tour.


Bottle-shaped door to allow access for mounted soldiers.

The King of the North!

I managed to cruise all the major sights before sloppily machine-gunning a commode in the castle toilets for an hour. While so engaged, I fired up the GPS, plotted an optimal route, and during the first brief armistice in the bombardment, made a break for the nearest pub that wasn't the tenner-for-a-TV-dinner Castle Inn.

The Victoria Hotel is the other proper pub in the village; there is a third, The Mizen Head, but it's more of a fancy restaurant. I ordered a pot of tea and a reasonably priced egg salad sandwich, broke out the laptop, and made the first of a good dozen visits to the lavatory over the next five hours. To cut down the frequency and avoid bloodying my arsehole with repeated wiping, I held the gravy at bay as long as possible. I'd relent when my bowels began to cramp and groan like an old wooden ship. The bonus effect of these longer intervals was the population of the pub would turn over, so no one saw me make multiple trips except the bar staff, and they weren't really paying attention. I'm not sure why this concerned me.

I'm fairly sure the tap water in the public toilets had been messed with. Why would it not be connected to the mains when the building is bang in the middle of the village? It's likely the sign was placed there to encourage bottled water trade with local merchants, and the tap water smelled like disinfectant, which suggests an easy way to taint a water supply is by tossing a urinal soap cake into the water tank.

I'm not being cheap by avoiding bottled water, but when you average 4-5 litres on a regular day, never mind a hot or hard one, the cost becomes prohibitive, and you require regularly spaced shops. Thus my water filter. It will process chemically affected water, but I need to know to use it in the first place, and the counterintuitive sign placement had caught me out. You'll notice it's far above the eyeline, probably to prevent kids tearing it down.

Still, there was a sign, so it was ultimately my own fault.

Unconnected to my rectal regret, I was disappointed by the castle. Not that it isn't a fantastic structure: the problem is people still live there. Residents upgrade interiors over time, so the current decor bares little aspect of the original, and it's the original I'm interested in. In a lot of ways, I'd prefer a ruin, because my imagination can more readily fill in the blanks.

I want to experience how the medieval warlord lived, not the Victorian or Edwardian, though those periods can be similarly fascinating, y'know, if you're a stiff-necked ponce obsessed with restriction. The final straw was the exit through the recreated torture scene in the unconvincing dungeon that led into the (admittedly nicely-stocked) gift shop. (I think it may be a sign of advancing age that I stopped to browse the treacle fudge despite my digestive urgency.)

However, it taught me a valuable and shrewd lesson: don't pay to go in castles unless they're ruined.