Night ride, no light

Talk about an epic ride. On and on into the inky Cumbrian night, the temperature falling and the sky ablaze with stars. A night ride along Ullswater, with clues only in sound, and sensation, to here: where is here?

Penrith. A one-word joke from Withnail & I. And on this silent Thursday night, the start of a journey by bike to the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. It isn’t far. It is dark, and beyond the A66/M6 roundabout the street lights fade away and there nothing but the road and the bright, small circles of light cast by my lights.

After hours, including a delay, on a high-speed train the silence, the difference in speed and the shock of sudden effort make the way a mental and physical wake-up. It’s also cold – a few degrees above freezing. I start to panic slightly. Then a calm voice advises me to take my time and get it done. I look up to a sky of thousands of stars, blinking through the warm breath coming out of my mouth, and start talking to myself about the wonder of the heavens.

After a while – minutes, hours, weeks even, Ullswater appears, and is my constant companion for the next section of the route. The water and the road look the same. I wind my way over one and keep an eye on the space and shape of the other, still in the darkness. Villages come and go. An hour passes, then some more, then I see some familiar headlights. My father’s car. He has grown concerned when I have not arrived at the designated hour and come out to see if he can spot me. Two miles from my destination. I ride the rest of the way imagining the warm fire, the slightly smoky smell of the hut, the initial greetings of strangers overnighting there too. All arrive in the bright light and within seconds the spell is broken. The stars continue to shine outside, on the lean-to where my bike rests.

And then by daylight, what had been here all along.

IMG_5710IMG_5708IMG_5712IMG_5709

Swimming in San Francisco Bay

‘The Bay Area’, ‘The Golden Gate Bridge’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’. These familiar terms root San Francisco with the water that it sits by, but what of the water itself? On numerous visits I’ve failed to put two and two together and get into the bay for a swim. On my last visit I saw some hardy souls in the water while strolling past a place called Aquatic Bay. On this visit I was determined to do so myself.

The gig is at a pair of water sports clubs located by the bay, one of which is the venerable South End Rowing Club.

img_5491

‘We are a difficult club to enter: we are only open 24/7/365.’ I’d been told by the friendly chap answering an email I sent asking if I could come in. So, at 7.30 one chilly January morning I rocked up, trunks, towel and swimming hat tucked under my arm.

I rang the bell as directed and waited. Then I waited some more, then I figured if I waited long enough someone would rock up and let me in. I was in luck. A gentleman called Jeff arrived, clearly a regular, and took me under his wing.

Inside was the unmistakably convivial atmosphere of a nutters club. As a member of several of these I felt quickly at home. Everyone was chattering excitedly about the temperature, which was at something of an annual low of 48f (8c). In a bid to establish my credentials as someone to be admitted, not gently discouraged, I mentioned my own swimming in London, where the water lies in wait at a dark and angry 2c. This was interpreted by some of the chaps as what Americans would call trash talk. On seeing how far South End members regularly swim compared with my own swift winter dunkings – let’s call them efficient uses of time for a busy life – I think the score was an honorable draw.

Jeff walked me through the clubhouse and out to the small strip of beach, with two old wooden jetties on either side, and noted the presence of an extremely accomplished open water swimmer. We were introduced. She had swum the English Channel and many of the other great long-distance swims of the world and was quite happy to stand knee-deep in the bay and pass the time of day. As inspiring as the conversation was, getting a blast of morning breeze was not exactly driving my enthusiasm to start swimming. I excused myself and flopped under the grey-blue water, aiming for the buoys other swimmers were lapping after exiting the jetty area.

There was a lot to see in the bay – other swimmers either swimming lengths of the buoys or aiming for the harbour opening, which involved passing some vintage boats on one side. I’m used to the cold confines of the Men’s Pond, tiny in comparison to Aquatic Bay’s wide open spaces, and I stayed in for longer than I would at home. It was enough to induce a shiver, especially when I jumped under the hot shower which was waiting at the end. A hot shower, what’s that all about? Jeff, it should be noted, kindly escorted me back to dry land then went off for his proper swim. I hope to return the favor in London sometime.

I later got an email which suggested I had done ok: ‘You set a good example: one cap, no goggles and no sniveling!’ It must be that British stiff upper lip following me round the world.

When changed, another member, who had replied to my email in the first place and was serendipitously present (or perhaps just always present, either way, thanks Joe) took me for a coffee at the fabulous old school Trieste Espresso in North Beach. This wonderful place, where everyone knew the names of each other’s dogs, happily exists in the kind of America I love – friendly, outgoing, warm and thoughtful. And this is the America that lives at South End Rowing Club. Next time, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, more swimming, more everything?

California Zephyr

img_2947

Walking though the deserted, snow-lined streets of Denver with a spring in my step, Union Station looms into view. One of the great terminals of the American railroad system, the beaux-arts interior has been recently funked-up and now sits squarely at the heart of the city and, in many ways, the Amtrak network and America itself. Pigtrain Coffee is doing brisk business with incoming Cowtown commuters, who do not linger as long as I do over the fridge magnets and t-shirts.

Here the California Zephyr pauses for breath on it’s 60-hour odyssey across the country. After leaving Chicago and crossing the plains to the east, the eight car behemoth pulls in here each morning and picks up waifs and strays like me. I am, without exaggeration, expecting one of the great journeys of my life today and pretty much bouncing on the spot as the enormous wagons reverse into the station. As it turns out the journey, though eventually truncated, thunders superlatives.

We’re invited to form two queues, one for sleeper passengers and the rest for coach car cheapskates like me. I’ve paid $114 for the 30 hour trip to the Pacific Ocean, which gets me a roomy seat with plenty of legroom upstairs on a double-decked coach. On a cold January Friday the train seems to be about half full, but many passengers are heading into the Rockies, packing skis in the tender coach. After some tinkering of what is clearly old rolling stock we’re off, only to pause by the Platte River as a gigantic freight train loaded with a mile of containers passes in front of us.

So much later, and so much has passed, and how much more still to go.

From Denver we accelerated into the mountains, foothillish at first, then spectacular beyond words through Glenwood Canyon. Initially there is a rush for the Observation Car, tempered by some well-phrased chiding by the car attendant lady, who also pops up with historical details and anecdotes, which due to the decrepit PA make gloriously little sense. She either realizes this or runs out of stories. Lunch is served early, and I am sat as a lone traveller with two others, both of whom are on rail odysseys that make my trip seem like a gad into the West End on the tube.

It is after this, after everyone gets out at Glenwood Springs that the trip settles into a strange and lonely pilgrimage into the American West. With little company and the snow driving horizontally, the train feels heroic as it smashes along the ice-covered tracks, horn honking at bald eagles lurking in the ever-present Colorado River. A lone man, miles from anywhere, walks purposefully between the tracks and the river. Who is he?

Quiet times staring out of big windows fill hours, with texts from home reminding me of the real world. Today it seems I can have both. I feel lucky. The hardest decision I had to make today was whether to go to Dave’s Depot at Grand Junction, Colorado, the only retail outlet on the entire 2400 mile route from Chicago to San Francisco. I go in but there’s nothing to buy. I was over-zealous in pre-departure snack buying. Sorry Dave. Another train coming tomorrow.

img_3074

Grand Junction seems to barely exist, high in the Rockies but distant from them. It’s fine station building is boarded up. The town itself seems to be quietly falling asleep. Perhaps seeking to make up for this, Union Pacific railroad has stationed hundreds of diesel locomotives here, lined up one after another. It’s hard to fathom them all getting used when two can pull freight trains miles long, but they look shiny and ready to go. The absence of British-style platforms adds to the feeling of their size. We stare up from rail-level, and the locos seem to stare impassively like Easter Island moai, rather than the chirpy smiles of our own engines, viewed face-to-face.

Today is Donald Trump’s inauguration. As usual I can find nobody who seems to have voted for him. Kind people express concerns about what he’ll do, and what effect he will have on America. They don’t see the country as robust. To them, it is fragile, perhaps because their own lives have so little protection in work, health, anything. And yet they’re warm, and interested, and caring for each other in thoughtful conversation. Warm and cold, America. Perhaps only kind people take trains.

Before dark we drive through a red-stone canyon that runs for miles, studded with rocky outcrops and smooth-lined caves. It is completely breathtaking, up there with the very best train rides I have ever done. A man opposite me almost silently plucks at a banjo making an uncannily-timed and perfect soundtrack. Who is he, and where has he come from, framing the moment with delicate riffs.

Though sunset is a little tragedy on its own, the hush that descends on the train after dinner turns another page in the day. The Serbian chaps in front of me, Balkan in their directness and their stern expressions, continue to chat with great jollity.

In the darkness I can see snow-covered fields, small homesteads, trees sunken in snow. Salt Lake City, with temples and domes, comes and goes. It is freezing here and I do not linger on the platform.

At night the coach where I’m sitting is warmed by human bodies and silent. I sleep in odd contorted positions, some less uncomfortable than others. At no point apart from now has it crossed my mind that I could have paid more for a bed in a sleeper, or that I could have skipped the whole thing by flying so it can’t have been all that bad. Tennessee is two timezones back. Soon it will be light. Just as well because Winnemucca, Nevada is locked in an icebox. From there we speed across the Nevada desert, snow-covered with rolling hills on one side as dawn breaks on Saturday. Over breakfast I do meet some Trump voters, Baptist Christians who seem to regret their actions.

No sleep until the Pacific Ocean.

And then the thread snaps. In a second, the journey stops. On arrival at Reno at half past eight we are told the train will wait until 2pm to clear the mountains, and ‘that we should enjoy all Reno has to offer’. After strolling the Truckee River path, having a coffee and visiting the Nevada Museum of Art I have done that. On returning to the train I notice that it has started to smell of BO, and someone mentions a 4pm departure, and an air of quiet denial appears to be in order. The trains sits in a trench beneath Reno, engine humming but forgotten. An itchy finger reaches for the flight timetables, and a Southwest hop over the same mountains that are blocking us pops up. I only dither for an instant, then grab my bag and go. The airport is another world – everything modern, all on time, fast and frantic, but we get through, and I arrive only two hours behind schedule.

img_9853

The California Zephyr, in its ambition and effort, says much about America as it once was and may still be, and in its foibles and frustrations nods to fragility and uncertainty about what has been solid and unshakeable. Or perhaps all that’s what it seems to me, and it is simply one of the world’s most beautiful train rides.

Wrexham

Wrexham. The word means only one thing to those of us who were there.

F.A. Cup third round, 4 January 1992.

Wrexham 2 (Thomas 82, Watkin 84)
Arsenal 1 (Smith 43)
Racecourse Ground, Wrexham
Attendance: 13,343

Unpacking memories of attending this game 25 years makes me feel not only old, but like I grew up in another age altogether. In January 1992 Arsenal were League Champions, having cantered to the title in 1990-91. Liverpool may have imploded after Kenny Dalglish’s resignation but we won it in some style, losing only one game in the process. Like the 1991-92 champions (Leeds United. Leeds United!) that season has been lost to the post-Premier League revisionist zeal that for some reason the media are happy to buy into. Bastard media. George Knows.

Wrexham had finished 1990-91 last in the entire Football League. They were spared relegation only by the expansion of the league that season.

And they won. To say this result delighted everyone that wasn’t an Arsenal supporter is something of an understatement. It was, and remains, the perfect FA Cup story. And it has Arsenal losing which always helps the media pick one out of many. They all hate us.

The aftermath begun immediately. Danny Baker, hosting radio phone-in 6-0-6, started his show celebrating the result, along what had been an awkward (as in ‘well, this is awkward’) draw for West Ham at non-league Farnborough Town, as proof that Zigger-Zagger – no, he really said this, more than once – the God of Football is real, and was meting out retribution to clubs who were punishing their own fans with unpopular bond schemes intended to finance the rebuilding of their grounds. The valediction was justified – the bond schemes were hugely unpopular – but he didn’t half go on about it. Or perhaps he didn’t and it just seems that way now, since the drive home which Dad & I knew would lead to at some point having mockery heaped on us by someone just drifted on forever. Memories of a Luton Town-supporting local neighbour leaving celebratory posters outside our house after their victory in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final led us to expect that kind of thing. Bastard Luton.

Beyond the scoreline, the journey. From London to Wrexham, north Wales, via a strange route I have been unable to trace exactly since, that seemed to pass through Monmouth. Going via that town makes so little coherent sense that we probably really did go that way. On the way there, of course, this was a jolly outing to a brave minnow who would roll over for the mighty Arsenal. We ate a burger outside the dilapidated stadium that tasted so bad I can still see, smell and taste it. It had ‘cheese’ on it. Our standing ticket admitted us to a paddock terrace in the away end that continued to step down significantly below pitch level. It had presumably been like that quite uncorrected for decades. The floodlights barely penetrated the murk, which in one way is just as well. This is why photos and footage of the game make it look like it’s being played in a dimly-lit stable. All very apt given we were at the Racecourse Ground. Despite this, we had a perfect view of all three goals. Our one was quite a tidy move. Never gets shown on TV.

On leaving the ground we found our way back to the car, parked in the field we had left it in. The field had not liked being used as a car park. Between us leaving and returning it suffered an inglorious breakdown and was now just mud. The wheels spun hopefully but inconclusively and I got out to push. As I shoved, the wheels spun further and coated me in rich Clwyd ooze. This might have been the highlight of the day: the car was released, and we had something to laugh about on the way home. That something was me. The journey back after a stinker of a game is usually more fun than you might think, with gallows humour and a siege mentality saving the day. It’s when you get home, to the shame of all football supporters who have been away from loved ones all day, that the funk really sets in.

I was 15 in January 1992 so was still at school, so must have been fairly mercilessly mocked for this result. If so, I do not recall that trauma in the way I do schoolboy ragging after, for example, losing 6-2 at home to Manchester United the previous season. Perhaps the absence of Wrexham fans in London, N2 meant there was less comment, but I doubt it. I have probably blacked out what cannot have been a pleasant occasion. Keeping the faith as I am helpless but to do the rest of the 1991-92 season, once we escaped a winless January was unforgettable for my Arsenal-mad teenage self. Sheffield Wednesday got beaten 7-1, Liverpool 4-0 and on the last day of the old North Bank Southampton were dispatched 5-1 with Ian Wright claiming the Golden Boot.

I still get a kick out of having been at games like Wrexham. I’ve supported a winning team all my life that have won leagues and cups and played in Europe. What do I know about supporting Wrexham? Plucky Wrexham as they’ll be known forever. Bastard Wrexham. And if you look closely as Mickey Thomas (the Welsh one, not our one) smacks in that free kick as Match of the Day show it for the 2000th time just before Ryan Giggs gets his disgusting hairy chest out in a montage of ‘best-ever’ FA Cup moments, you can see me, trying to digest that burger as the footballing equivalent of a bucket of excrement is tipped over the away end.

William Blake

After Christmas and before New Year, London hides away in a lull. The tubes and roads are quiet, shops and services for the busy city in partial hibernation. It is the ideal day for a raid on a less-explored corner. We pile downtown to Old Street and walk to the Geffrye Museum, with plenty of other people who have had the same idea, then walk back down Kingsland Road in search of lunch. After that, but before heading home I suggest a detour to Bunhill Fields, and on the way explain to the boys that it’s named after the pile of bones that lies beneath, a burial ground for Londoners who for centuries would not do what they’re told.

 The big wow here is William and Catherine Blake’s memorial stone, not marking the exact spot of their burial but close enough, next to another, larger marker for Daniel Defoe and across the courtyard from John Bunyan. Plenty of others pass this way in search of the greatest ever English artists, who mastered art and prose. Offerings of twigs and stones sit atop Blake’s stone. We add ours, then walk away talking about Jerusalem and The Tyger – I find I can recite and explain all of the former and some of the latter two.

IMG_5557.JPG

Later that night George asks me to sing Jerusalem, which I do. ‘That poem is a series of questions to which the answer is no.’ says Harry. I think it is not a bad thing for Blake to still be asking questions 200 years after his death.

Three swims

An enforced absence from swimming on the Heath coincided with a startling and prolonged plunge in temperature. While riding down Highgate West Hill day after day for a fortnight, often in chilly-lovely dawn sunshine I fretted about the effect this would have on the temperature of the water. It would be getting colder, and I would not be in it, so that when I got back into it I’d find it tough going.

So once the stitches were out the first thing I did was drive down to the pond and dive in. I knew it would hurt. It hurt. The water, which according to notices had gone down five degrees, bit hard. I must have looked like I was floundering, for the lifeguards came out for a closer look, then decided I’d make it back to the jetty in one piece even if my bodily extremities would be forever compromised. But it was done, and winter was back on, and I was free to keep going.

Four days later I returned, keen to reprise Friday mornings in the water. The run from Highgate tube up the hill to the village and then back again is sharp, and warms you just enough. This time the sun was just climbing over the trees leading down to the dog pond. The shock was less, but the raw feeling the same, and the odd sensation of being marooned in the far corner that strikes on cold days lingered. But getting out this time felt like the mental rebirth i had been looking for at the start of the week.

The following day I was back again, and feeling very much in the swing of things. The door, with MEN ONLY written on it, once again had the aura of a portal to another world, a gateway past which normal rules don’t apply. The conversation sounded like the 1950s, all quiet murmurs about literature and politics, all have-you-heard and don’t-you-think. And then in the water I was wonderfully alone, the sun higher and brighter, setting my path bright yellow, and offering fractions of warmth.

And this felt right and terrific, because from here I ran along to the cafe, to meet Imogen and Winnie, and we talked with smiles and red faces and felt fantastic, because we were here and Saturday’s should be here, and because it’s not mad if you do it because you love it and for that time you can see and hear and shout more than anyone who doesn’t.

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.