The open road

toadMost of the passengers are already aboard when the driver arrives to silently count heads. This he does several times: up and down the aisle, seemingly confused although he says nothing before leaving the coach and disappearing. At five o clock he re-embarks with news of a diversion. ‘Well, they’ve said we’ve got to go to Ammersmif now. Ammersmif! Apparently there’s a party waiting at Ammersmif. If yoove got a bag on the seat yood better move it cos there’s not going to be any room for bags when we get to Ammersmif.’ The driver starts his engine and we rumble out of Victoria and resume reading our free copies of the Evening Standard.

‘My name’s Pauwl’, shouts Paul. ‘If you want anyfing yoo can shout Pauwl or geezer or oi. Now I’m doing the safety stuff. I’ll have to do it again when we get to Ammersmif for the next party but we aint there yet so I’m doing it now. At the back of the coach is an emergency exit. That’s the back door. At the front is anover one and that’s the front door. Opposite the back door is a box. That’s the toilet. In the roof are some over exits. Those are the windows. There are seat belts. Yoor sposed to wear em. Yoo want to know anyfing else shout Pauwl. Right, next stop Ammersmif. Ok?’

‘Ok’, we all agree in unison. The young man in the seat across the aisle from me is giving someone instructions on the phone. They seem to involve Ammersmif where we arrive in no time at all. The young man gets off the coach to have a word with Pauwl. He wants him to wait for his friend who is on the way to the coach stop.

‘He’s nearly here’, says the young man. The Ammersmif party have already boarded and Pauwl is anxious to get a move on.

‘Where is e then’ he demands? ‘Yoor mate, where is e?’ Pauwl goes round the front of the coach, steps into a stream of traffic and looks back down the road. ‘Is e that geezer running down the central reservation?’

The geezer running down the central reservation is indeed the missing passenger. ‘Good effort mate’, says Pauwl as we set off again. ‘Right’, shouts Pauwl, ‘next stop Wingwood, awright?’

‘Yes’, we all agree in unison. We know what’s coming next.

‘Right, for the benefit of the party wot got on at Ammersmif, I’m doing the safety announcement. I’ve done it once but now it’s got to be done again because we ad to stop at Ammersmif. At the back of the coach is an emergency exit. It’s called the back door…’

We leave London by some tedious route. The traffic is vile but eventually, like Mr Toad, we find ourselves on the more or less open road. An unpleasant smell pervades our area towards the front of the coach. We look around to see who might be the cause but there are no obvious suspects. The horrid smell is getting worse. It seems impossible that it can be emanating from a single person. I leave my seat and stumble forward to inform the driver.

‘Driver’, I say. No response. ‘Pauwl’, I shout and Pauwl swerves across two lanes narrowly avoiding becoming the cause of a major traffic incident. ‘There’s a nasty smell’. I begin.

‘Yoo wot’, he replies in a state of some confusion.

‘Your coach stinks’, I shout, whereupon, to my surprise, everyone else aboard shouts ‘yes, your coach stinks’. Everyone’s always waiting for someone to make the first move.

‘Is it the toilet’, shouts Pauwl? ‘Is it blocked?’

‘I don’t know and I’m not going to look’, I inform him.

‘Can yoo open the windows in the roof’, he asks? ‘Or shall I stop only we need to get to Wingwood?’

‘No, don’t stop’, we all shout together; ‘we want to get to Wingwood.’  I don’t like the sound of opening the windows in the roof. Weren’t they the emergency exits? A man in the front seat comes to my aid and together we open the roof window. Having been alerted to the fact that others were suffering from the nasty smell, I shout down to the back of the coach: ‘can you smell it down there?’

‘Yes’, they all agree and the man from the front seat traverses the length of the aisle to release the rear roof window. We continue.

‘Is it any better now’, shouts Pauwl? ‘I mean, I don’t know oos been driving this coach all day. I only took it on at Victoria and nobody told me about the toilets. Do yoo want me to stop or shall I look in them at Wingwood?’

‘It’s much better’, we all agree.

‘Next stop Wingwood then. Awright?’

‘Awright’, we respond in unison.

London calling

tubeUnderground, the dragon’s blinding eyes appear around the bend, wider and wider as the beast exits the tunnel with a frightening screech and intense roaring at such velocity to make it impossible to believe it will ever stop……………..which it does SUDDENLY


And we rocked on to Electric Avenue not knowing that it really existed and was where all life passes amongst stalls flowing with exotic dresses and robes and accessories for the voluminous hair which can be purchased in the hair shop next door to those that compete to see which can provide the strangest looking fish and the freshest meat in the world and who can pile the highest pyramid of colourful fruits and vegetables accompanied by the loudest reggae music for those wearing the most outrageous costumes and the biggest hats to protect the widest hairstyles and the longest dreadlocks whilst dancing the oddest dance on the corner of other worlds


I go to the loo in the Morpeth Arms at Millbank and, despite having yet to take the first alcohol of this day, find myself all at sea. Inside, the wooden floorboards become decking planks as I sway with the movement of the boat. I exit the loo, looking over my shoulder at the trick I might have missed. Back in the bar, I enquire whether the place is haunted and am pointed in the direction of a large television screen on the wall. It shows a picture of an empty stone cellar below my feet where, back in the day, chained convicts were housed whilst awaiting deportation to Australia. Today and every day the cellar is locked for safety. It houses a permanent live webcam to record the comings and goings of waterlogged ghosts.

mutual friend

The shudder was gone, and his gaze, which had come back to the boat for a moment, travelled away again. Wheresoever the strong tide met with an impediment, his gaze paused for an instant. At every mooring-chain and rope, at every stationery boat or barge that split the current into a broad-arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy water, at the floating logs of timber lashed together lying off certain wharves, his shining eyes darted a hungry look. After a darkening hour or so, suddenly the rudder-lines tightened in his hold, and he steered hard towards the Surrey shore. (Dickens: Our Mutual Friend)

We take a gentle journey from Millbank to Embankment. A speeding police boat overtakes us on its way to some unknown watery crime and once the waves and stomachs have settled, we overtake Symphony – a boat replete with suited and booted business types on a leisurely cocktail cruise. They are all men with the exception of one female at the rear who Leonie says is probably the stripper. Changing vessels at Embankment, we head off, once past Traitors’ Gate, at a speed to equal the underground dragons:


WHOOSH past Butlers’ Wharf and all the other east end wharves that probably now house butlers in their expensive apartments with riverside views, salubrious shops and bijou brasseries; and WHOOSH past the never-again Dickension Limehouse now boasting a marvellous marina; and WHOOSH past the business, banking and communications centre of Canary Wharf; and WHOOSH past the places so exclusive that – only those who reside within know their names.


Until, there on the right, the palatial maritime buildings of Greenwich are heralded by the masts of the Cutty Sark rising from its glass display cabinet like a life-sized ship in a bottle.

On the over-ground train to Kingston, our cosmopolitan carriage is full of noisy international students on a day trip to see our heritage: they are visiting Primark.


And Leonie proudly takes mother to see the sights of what is now her city. There on her new doorstep are the Houses of Parliament whilst just round the corner is the Supreme Court where, fortuitously, today is a free entry open-day.


On to the grandeur of the Foreign and Commonwealth offices, a wave at Horseguards’ Parade, a ridiculously priced bottle of water in St James Park and a wander up to Buck House where news of the infant has already been removed being, as it is, old news.

Phil and Rene

DSCF4616Inspired, perhaps, by Harold Fry, Phil and Rene are walking to London from the depths of Northamptonshire. They’re taking the path that follows the Grand Union Canal for 92 miles. This pair recently celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary so, like their marriage, they’re taking the trip slowly and in stages to make it last.


Accompanied by three sea bass, a bag of seaweed and two bottles of the red stuff, I went up to see Phil and Rene the other day. They always have plenty of their own red stuff but, living in middle-earth, not much in the way of fresh fish; unless you count Waitrose, which I don’t. During our fishy dinner, I was asked to join them the following day on the next stretch of their unlikely pilgrimage from Stoke Bruerne to Grafton Regis. This was a great privilege, being the first time that they’d allowed a fellow traveller to join them; a dangerous strategy, I fear, given what happened to Harold Fry when other folk hitched a ride on the bandwagon.

Phil and Rene are prepared for the terrain: flask filled with coffee – check; walking boots in the car – check; walking sticks on hand – check; route well-planned – check; pub located at end of stage – CHECK! And off we go.


I forgot to mention the number of cars involved. We take two cars to the end point of the stage. We leave one car there and all drive back to the beginning of the stage. We do the walk, get in the waiting car, drive back to the other car and everyone drives home. Simples.

They didn’t check the weather but it was ok: no downpours even though they said it was always sunny when they travelled alone. And there were people to talk with and lovely English countryside to enjoy.


Phil and Rene were lulled into a false sense of security. A veritable horde descended the following day. Wikipedia gives a definition of horde as ‘a socio-political and military structure in nomad cultures such as the Mongols…sometimes from the Caucasus Mountains’. This lot comprised extended family from Dorset. So not much difference then.  And Phil and Rene made the mistake of inviting them on the next stage of the walk that would commence at Grafton Regis.

The socio-political structure from the south had not arrived bearing gifts, it being a Friday which is always a good excuse for forgetting the preceding week and anything they should’ve remembered. Further, they ate no intellectually stimulating fish, but still managed to down sufficient quantities of the red stuff to ensure that eight people felt adequately qualified to offer their opinions on how best to accomplish the task ahead. At the same time as each other.DSCF4652

The first suggestions involved the use of four cars. This was, naturally, deemed ridiculous and the plan was whittled down to three. One bright spark maintained that if we could work out the solution to the conundrum of the man, the chicken, the fox and the corn crossing the river, we would know what to do next. DSCF4653

What we did next was drink some more of the red stuff. Next, it was agreed to take only two cars and split into two splinter groups which would start the walk from opposite ends of the trail. We would pass each other at the half way point, exchange a wave and car keys and drive home in the wrong car. We drank some more of the red stuff. There were other suggestions entailing some people doing the walk and then turning round and walking back again. Others argued that it would be better to walk one way and wait for another group to reappear. Others fell off their chairs. As it happened, we divided into two groups each of whom went for a walk in completely different places from the other and none of whom ever saw a canal. A number of photographs had to be taken to prove everyone was present.

We left on the Sunday. ‘So long, and Thanks for all the fish’, shouted Phil and Rene, unaware of their plagiarism. They were too busy clearing up and planning never to ask for company again.

“There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.”   Douglas Adams (1984)  So long, and Thanks for all the fish. 

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French affairs 2012 (what I did on my holiday)

vernissage 011

French kissing in the USA as the song went. But, hang on une minute, I’m in Provence, so French kissing in France then. With a French man. And they don’t come much more French than the rugged Jean-Pierre a la quad bike. Scarily French.

Rewind. I’ve been here a week and I’m off to the airport again, this time to collect a rental car. And frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn and I’m more than a tad nervous. Due to a mix-up, caused by my inability to speak French efficiently sur la telephone, I appear to have a date. At the airport. At exactly the same time that I’m collecting the car with a steering wheel on the wrong side.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood. I certainly hope so as I like to have time and space to become familiar with a new car without the distraction of someone I may want to see again. Someone who, by the way, doesn’t speak any English.

The coast is clear but as soon as the car rental lady and I exchange Bonjours and psyche ourselves up for the forthcoming transaction, I’m conscious of a presence behind me. As Diana said, apparently believing it to be nothing but rumour, there were three of us in that arrangement. I turn. My God, I’d forgotten how attractive he is. Better not let it show. Although, to be fair, he’s not disguising the fact that I’m being inspected from head to toe. Frenchmen don’t do ‘subtle’.

I can’t tell whether he likes what he sees. I’ve spent hours preparing myself. For him I mean, not the car rental lady. Due to the intense heat, a long, flowing frock and a Cadbury’s Flake was out of the question so I’ve tried to reach a casual compromise: shorts and a tee shirt. One with sleeves of a length sufficient to hide the bingo wings. I’ve rebuilt my face with make-up and a nice pink lipstick and, at the risk of attracting even more bloody mosquito bites, I’ve dabbed a trace of J’adore behind the old ear-lobes.

We kiss – three times in the Provencal manner then he lunges for the lips. I let that one pass as Madame is losing interest in me and eyeing up the next contestant. Jean-Pierre suggests that I do the business and wanders off; but not without trailing a large French hand down most of my body. I knew I should have abandoned my literary pretensions and read Fifty Shades of Grey this summer along with every other woman I know. I might have been more prepared. This is the first date I’ve been on in years and I never anticipated it taking place in an airport lounge. Especially when neither of the parties concerned is either arriving or departing on an aeroplane.

We meet again in the even less romantic airport café for something to drink. Jean-Pierre couldn’t get much closer and every now and then dives forward in another show of affection. Talk about cultural differences. When was the last time an Englishman did all this touchy-feely stuff in public? And I want to be clear here: Jean-Pierre and I are not resuming a past relationship; we were brief acquaintances on a couple of occasions last year. I propose we go outside to find the rental car.

Outside is worse. It’s 41C and he wants to do tongues. I haven’t done tongues in the last decade and never in this sort of heat. I’m English for God’s sake. I’m in France to celebrate my 60th birthday. I’ve just had news of my pension. And I still haven’t located the rental car, let alone ascertained where reverse gear is, which is always my main concern. No good asking this guy – he’s in overdrive. Reverse isn’t a word in his vocabulary.

At my suggestion, we go to my lodgings in Cabannes where Karil can act as chaperone over the artichokes and where those two commence a long conversation about melons. Occasionally, there is a squeezed knee and a pinched cheek. A pinched cheek? What’s that about? Karil disappears into the kitchen. ‘I want to embrace you’, he says. ‘Why?’ I respond. It’s too hot. I’ve lost all sense of normality. I’d forgotten quite how inept I am at this sort of thing. Whatever this sort of thing might be. I keep looking at him out of the corner of my eye. He’s very handsome. But stop pinching my cheek!

He disappears and I learn a lesson: don’t phone a Frenchman and say ‘I’m here’. Maybe we’ll meet again. Maybe not. Que sera and all that jazz. ©