Sunday, 23 September 2012

B road to Brighton

Last Sunday I cycled 54 miles, for charity from London to Brighton. It took me a long time – more than twice as long as my grandpa in 1939 who was on a single speed bike.

Grandpa's cycling medal - 50 miles in 2hrs 32mins

It all really began the night before, when my thighs were feeling chafed from too much fun; I was at my other grandfather’s house. No one had any moisturiser and it was 11.30 on a Saturday night. I would reiterate, my legs were really sore. So I traipsed downstairs, like a ninja, trying not to disturb my sleeping grandpa to apply my deceased grandma’s face cream to my thighs. I hope you will understand this as a funny story and not think I am a horrible human being.

The next day the alarm went off at 5.45, and after a bowl of Frosties and half a grapefruit we set off for Streatham Common in the car – as the sun rose over Sainsbury’s from whence we would depart, I was really starting to wonder whether this was a good idea. Thankfully it was at this point I met Melvin; encouraged by his smiley grin I set off.

Me and Melvin in Streatham at 7 in the morning! So chirpy!

Despite the pain in my knee which started pretty much immediately, the first 10 miles were actually alright. I cycled through Lambeth and noticed how quickly a city felt like country. As usual my obsession with London was reminding me of what a recent phenomenon the urbanisation of South London is. It was also very much a ride through my ancestry – starting with Purley and Croydon. I was peddling along quite happily, remembering that I needed to conserve energy, when I hit Chipstead – and the hills leaving London. Its not that the hills were high its just that they required energy and quite early on. I got peddling and soon reached the Dog and Duck – 20 miles. Feeling good I headed towards lunch – primarily uphill; and on one occasion nearly vomited from the effort of propulsion on those gradients.

Lunch at The Ark, 28 miles in and at just 10 am was delicious. They had put on a veritable feast and I enjoyed haloumi salads, ham, olives, tea and a massive piece of carrot cake. Back on the bike the next 6 miles were very conducive to digestion as they were all downhill – encompassing both my maternal and paternal history, through East Grinstead, past the Bluebell Railway, and through Guildford. From about the 30 mile mark the nemesis was visible; rising like the edge of a pudding bowl was Ditchley Beacon (830ft above sea level), it did not inspire great faith in my ability to finish. By this time I had added an achy lower back, painful ribs and an inability to breathe to my painful knee.

Lunch at The Ark

35-42 miles was killer. Despite taking numerous pauses for breath, imagine your alveoli have been put in a washing machine, I did keep pedalling. During one of my rest breaks a guy half got off half fell off his bike towards me yelling as he fell – turns out he only had cramp but we had a great conversation and its all part of the camaraderie. Later in the trip, when I was struggling he encouraged me too.

On the other side of the Beacon, which I admit I walked, the descent to Brighton was thrilling, the end so visible and the path so easy. The final miles along the pier victorious. The resting on the beach afterwards glorious and chip-filled. The whole trip a bit emotive.

Brighton - I made it!

I think I learn by doing and the first thing I learned was that I can overcome. It might take time, it might take me longer than other people, but I can complete things even when they are tough. I hope to take this life lesson into the rest of life - even when it looks like other people are taking short-cuts to where the fun is!

Secondly, I learned that success is defined in different ways. For some people their aim was to finish first, for other people it was to cycle the beacon, or to simply cycle as much as possible. For me my aim was to finish - which I did. As in life people will have different goals and different definitions of success. Your definition of success will define what sort of ride you have.

Thirdly, I learned about motivation. Being a charity cycle people had all sorts of different motivating factors for doing their cycle - some had lost family members, others had been affected by other kinds of loss of sense, of dear pets, of rights. At the top of the Beacon I saw one lady with 'for my little angel' and her deceased daughter on her t-shirt. I nearly cried. The whole thing was so emotive. What makes humans push to their last? Experience, the opinions of others, needing to prove themselves, boredom? I was also fascinated by how doing spin for 2 years has conditioned me and helped me reach the finish line. During a spin class one cycles to the RPM of the track in question not to one's energy levels. That is what pulled me through the 35-42; music with a fairly fast RPM; that and knowing that was the only way of getting back home, plus the threat of you lot being disappointed.

I imagine you're wondering how I'm getting on now - actually OK. It seems cycling sustainably, eating two portions of chips and hanging out with a good friend afterwards is a recipe for health and satisfaction. Thank you for your sponsorship and encouragement! See you soon!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Why bother with Plan B? (review illManors)

In May, when Ben Drew (Plan B)’s single illManors came out I compared him to Shakespeare. Now I’m back with a critical piece on his whole album of the same name; which has had a massive impact on my life.

As illuminated by the singles that he has released so far; illManors, Lost my Way and now Deepest Shame this album is very vocal. Drew is attempting to tell stories from his childhood and from the culture of Forest Gate in the late 90’s, ‘I’m a social commentator, socially commentating, what I say is verbatim’ (I am the Narrator); the stories which cover drugs, prostitution, assault, murder, newspapers and society, are based on real experiences of people from East London.

Due to the form and content of this album there is an interesting discussion to be had about a) what Drew is trying to do and b) whether it is any good.
a) Drew’s latest single release has involved Radio 1 playing Deepest Shame most days. The song tells the story of Michelle, sexually abused as a child who turns to drugs to numb the pain and then prostitution to fund the habit. By being played on the radio Drew is bringing the reality of generational poverty to all sorts of kitchens and living rooms!

The lines here between music as entertainment and music as protest are getting a little blurred. Drew said he wrote illManors as a response to the riots of last summer, as an attempt to be a voice for those unheard. He samples vocals from protest-punk poet John Cooper on his album (he performed at Music for Miners in 1984 and has a strong link to socially conscious music).

Drew makes several bold statements both to those he views as outsiders, ‘sorry mate, these ends are in a sorry state, you can’t relate’ (Falling Down) and to his own, ‘We aint no different from them, honestly. Luck is the only reason they weren’t born into poverty’ (Live Once). Yes, there is a degree of advocacy of the poor to the rich going on; see Kano’s rap in ‘Live Once’ but there is also an attempt at balance, illManors criticised both dependency on benefits and the Government’s economic policy, and a desire to educate – he gives a brief history of cockney and its uses in ‘Live Once’ and to challenge kids from the estates not to become self-fulfilling prophecies. I would argue that this authentic voice of Forest Gate is producing a voice from the street, for the street. There is far too much swearing to make government pay all that much attention; it is too easy to dismiss these words as those of an angry man who is out of control.

b) Is it any good? Yes, at conveying the violence and the struggles of the underclasses. But I would also like to suggest that Drew’s music is well crafted. Drew is unafraid of fusing high culture with rap; during ‘I am the Narrator’ he samples St Saën’s Carnival of the Animals, behind his rap he reclaims the high culture for everyday use. His narrative tale, Mr Drug Dealer, borrows extensively from the epic genre, taking each verse as an episode in Chris’ life – we follow Chris and the twists and turns almost as they play out in front of us. I saw significant parallels in form between Drew’s album and Perfect Strangers; both use the device of starting with a complete scenario and working backwards to explain how this circumstance came to be, like Drew’s lyrics, its clever. Clever literary devises of the lyricist, good use of sound from the poet and harmony from the musician; all from one man.

Several of my friends disagree with me that Drew’s work is art worth appreciating. I think there are a number of things that affect people’s appreciation of the work – language is a big one, style is another and definition of vulgarity also makes an impact. Essentially the question is, ‘Can a piece with violent content and explicit expression be artful, can it be beautiful?’ This question is actually one Drew addresses himself  ‘sorry mate…you can’t relate …you can’t appreciate how this artist paints’(Falling Down). I think there is objective quality in the art Drew creates; after all I did compare him to Shakespeare.

My encouragement to you would be listen to the record, with open ears and consider what you can learn about life, East London, and even yourself through it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Adventures in Europe III - Hamburg then home :)

I had been very excited about the trip to Hamburg as we had planned to take the ICE train; but it was cancelled as it pulled into our station, so we rode a slow inter-city train from Budapest to Hamburg. It was really hot and Dad mischievously pulled the emergency brake on the first class door-close mechanism ensuring we all got to share their air-con.

When we eventually arrived at our accommodation for the night we were disappointed. It had taken a long time to get there and our ‘twin chalet with garden entrance’ turned out to be a converted garage by the bins. Worse, the room had not been cleaned! Having had the train ride from hell, I was not OK with the situation. I marched to the reception and demanded the receptionist do something about it. He looked scared and needless to say we were upgraded. To be fair to them the room price was maybe a third of Industrie Palast but we had got used to a superior service. 

New room moved into we headed to Hamburg Harbour which was having some kind of noisy festival. Our oasis of calm was a little Portuguese riverside restaurant that offered food at 10pm on a Sunday night. Dad marvelled that any restaurants were open after 6 (this was not how it was in Austria in 1987!) and I enjoyed the most amazing John Dory and veg I’ve ever had!

(Hamburg Rathaus)

With the reassurance that Hamburg could do good food, even if it was Portuguese, we set of the next day hopeful. We headed straight for the Rathaus because I had recently learned my Granddad had been stationed there in the war, we took lots of nice photos and enjoyed the posh bits of Hamburg, all the big designers were there.

Dad and I found somewhere we felt much more comfortable, the St Nickolas Memorial Church. One of the highlights from my Lonely Planet Guide to Central Europe, the memorial is thoroughly reminiscent of Coventry. The church was totally flattened by the Allied forces during campaign Gomorrah and only the steeple remains. The church building area is slowly filling up with various memorials, I liked the one with the hands, and the emphasis is on world peace rather than German victims. As before there was a lift to board and Dad and I enjoyed another view of another German city from the air - this one looking completely unrecognisable from its pre-war city. This led Dad and I to several discussions on what constitutes ‘Just War’ and bravery. The museum at St Nickolas is also worth a visit for the photographic collection.

Hamburg from the air looks distinctly like a city that does not look back, it does not renovate, it innovates.

(St Nikolas Church)

After a nifty little lunch at the Crobag and an amusing incident where Dad was determined to ask for an ATM by showing his card to strangers, in full knowledge I knew how to ask in German, followed by several iced drinks we headed for the old harbour. Dad found a massive model railway, luckily for me it was the wrong gauge for him, and then I got an exciting missed call from an old friend, you know who you are and I’m really happy for you. Buoyed by the knowledge a good friend was very happy Dad and I boarded a boat on the lake at Hamburg. It was a glorious day and I’ll admit its a middle-aged past time but we enjoyed the German boat-tour, trying to guess the detail and occasionally checking with a Lithuanian girl who had the tour in English and was trying not to fall asleep.  The lake was pretty and I enjoyed watching sailors of different ages master their crafts.

(View from the boat, Hamburg Lake)

After this leisurely tour, some paddling, and some envy over a paddle-steamer on Dad’s part, we discovered a quite different boat-tour. Down at the harbour our rail-tickets were also valid for the boat taxis. These little boats zip about the harbour at speed throwing spray in the faces of anyone mad enough to stand on deck, like us, doing our best Reepicheep impressions. Although I was hungry and a bit sleepy by this stage, I did feel very alive and I got a great view of the futuristic Elbe Philharmonic Hall. On our return Dad reminded me of the poignancy of the area we had just jetted about, the U-boat harbour. Over dinner, at the Portuguese place we thought about our trip and all it had entailed, the things we had learned, the reasons we were grateful and the memories we’d keep forever.

(Elbe Philharmonic Hall from the Harbour)

By the Tuesday we returned home, from Hamburg to Southend, we were getting quite used to long periods of time on trains and the thought of the slow train from Osnabruck was actually alright. I listened to tunes and stopped Dad snoring too loudly, drank cheap off the trolley coffees and made the most of the spare seat spaces for napping. The trip across the channel takes literally half an hour, there isn’t really even time for the loo sign to come on, but I did manage a celebratory gin and tonic. Within an hour and a half of landing, my sister had already dragged me out to our Zumba class and things were definitely back to normal! But I really enjoyed Europe, especially speaking German, eating tasty things outdoors and lots of sunshine!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Adventures in Europe 2 - Berlin

Part II of III of my inter-railing adventure with my Dad.

Entering Berlin with a spring in my step I quickly found our hotel the wonderfully welcoming Industrie Palast right near Westkreuz Station. Housed in a recently converted warehouse the Palace is vibrant and high-tec, serving both hostel and hotel budgets and featuring lots of high ceilings. I dropped my stuff and headed off on adventure. 

I saw the East Side Gallery which uttered yet more truth and made me think of Marika Rose’s theory of Joy, ‘In the beginning there was freedom’, noted the shrapnel damage on the Berlin Library (and thought of Gabe Moshenska), rode the U6 and marvelled at how the Berliners could convince the playmobil to fix their trains, ate my first Currywurst in Charlottesburg and wrote some postcards with my back to the Berlin Wall, watching the setting sun. 
It was a good day and a great introduction to the Garden City.
(Berlin Underground Playmobil Pixies! & Berlin from the Oberbaum Bridge)

 Waiting for my now half deaf dear little daddy to return, on the other hand, was a bit nerve-wracking and I was glad for such distractions. Shortly after 11, having made passing references to Waiting for Godot to my sister and having just ordered a latte, dear little Daddy arrived.

After an in-house breakfast Dad and I hit Berlin in the blazing sunshine. We walked the round about way to Checkpoint Charlie having checked out some little harbours on the way. And once again ruminated on how Dad’s current affairs is my history lesson. After a little snack we walked past the site of Hitler’s bunker, passed the British Embassy, and along Unter den Linden, laughing at all the little boys having their photos taken near posh cars, by the same token dodging the Turkish ladies ‘raising money for the disabled’.

We stopped for lunch at the Hackescher Markt, where I sat in a funky 70’s hanging seat and ate my second currywurst of the trip, and persuaded Dad to do the ‘Berlin Beer Bear’ pose for a photo. We were surrounded by all kinds of artisan goods are available for the right price, which was slightly out our price range. 

After the market we headed back to Untern to eat icecream and then do the Reichstag Tour. The Reichstag Tour was recommended to me and is genuinely one of the best things in Berlin. You do have to book in advance, but its free to book online, and you will be subjected to an airline style security check. Once inside and carefully herded in your group of 20 you climb the height of the Reichstag in a futuristic silent lift. Armed with your in-ear headpiece you are then free to climb the elegantly designed Reichstag Dome. The audio-guide keeps movement round the dome regulated, the information was relevant and detailed to just the right level. Joan would be chuffed at all the ways they tried to make it eco-friendly and it offers great views of Berlin on a sunny day like ours was. Although you cannot escape history in Berlin, the Reichstag Tour celebrated significance in a way that was really thoughtful. Also its free!

(Reichstag Tour - note cloudless sky, awesome walkways, German flag)

After the tour I wanted to visit the Holocaust Memorial because I learned lots about it last year on my MA and was interested to see the way people interacted with the space. From what I saw I imagine the purists would be angry along similar lines to Diana’s park. I visited the Holocaust Museum at the park anxious to find out more about the history of the memorial.
 I didn’t find out anything. 
But the exhibition is very moving; as with everything in Berlin its on a mammoth scale, and makes the most of multiple media to make its point. I really didn’t like the dark reflective rooms. But they have done well to create room for reflection and also for people to come together for positive change.

(Brandenburg Gate on a summer's evening)

On Sunday we discovered more of Berlin, we had a go at Museum-Island, but having booked little in advance the queues just seemed too long. Appreciative of the pretty architecture instead we plumped for Berlin Dom. Being built in the early 20th century might put people off visiting the Dom but having an interest in German Cathedrals (from last year) it seemed like an obvious choice. There was an audio visual guide which seemed to be a programme built on Nintendo handsets – an interesting choice when I was thinking about PR at Aachen Cathedral. Dad discovered the iPad whilst seeing people taking photos on them. I remembered what it was I liked about both Luther and Christians. And we had yet another opportunity to get up high on the Cathedral Tour. This time there was nothing between us and the sky on yet another glorious Berlin summer day. I enjoyed seeing all the green spaces but my feet hurt and it was really hot so we quickly made for the cafe at the bottom, complete with ‘Heaven Cake’ which was heavenly!

Tune in on Wednesday for Part 3 - Hamburg then home!