Jet Pack Jousting

January 8, 2011

There never seemed much point in having a car when we lived in London. What with the traffic, the lack of parking, the congestion charge and the rampant car theft, getting rid of it and jumping on our bikes seemed like the obvious choice. We rarely missed it either. We enjoyed navigating London by bike and actually found it far more accessible by two wheels rather than four. The canals and rivers that run beneath London provided a network seldom seen by people on conventional transport. Journeys that would take hours by car would take a fraction of the time by bike. And, you never had to worry about parking, congestion or even sobriety. Hot dark tube rides and sardine packed buses were eradicated  from our lives and our knowledge of the city expanded with every ride.

Unfortunately, as with most utopian undertakings, everything wasn’t quite as ideal as it had first appeared. There were in fact, some rather large holes in our plans. With the bicycles as our primary form of transport, carrying anything larger than a six pack was impossible. If it didn’t fit in a backpack or a pannier, it simply didn’t go. There were so many things we needed that were just too big to carry on a bike. We couldn’t live our lives surrounded by extremely small or foldable objects, so we had to think creatively and innovate.

One (of many) oversized essential item was a trash can for our kitchen. I knew I could get one at a reasonable price from B&Q, which was about four miles away across Hackney Marshes down the Lea Bridge Road. The only problem, how to get a 40 liter steel chrome bin home on the bike! I figured, in this spirit of innovation, I could strap it to my backpack using bungees and then ride it home on my back, kind of like an oversized jet pack.

Surprisingly, this circus act approach actually worked out quite well. The trash can strapped to my backpack securely and the bags buckles and straps secured it to me. Apart from looking like Evil Knievel on a bike, I was good to go. In hindsight, this was my point of miscalculation, the tipping point if you like. As everything was coming together so well, I decided to add to my load. It was only a wardrobe rail. We needed it to optimize our limited storage space and buying it now would save another journey. It weighed nothing and it would slip down the back of my pack. It protruded slightly above my head as I rode but, as it looked like a radio receiver, it seemed to add to the whole rocket man image thing.

I rode out of the car park and proceeded gingerly onto the main road. Everything was going well. As I stopped at the lights a white van pulled up beside me. The driver was pointing at me while laughing hysterically. He wound his window down and, between bouts of laughter, asked “What the f*&k are you doing mate?” I thought for a second before replying. ‘My wife asked me to take the trash out’, so here I am, taking the trash out’. The lights changed and I pedaled on leaving the van driver laughing behind me.

I had gone barely twenty yards when, out of the blue, something very hard and very heavy hit me in the back of the head. The blow sent me careering across the cycle lane and straight into a fence. I hit the fence then the ground hard. Fortunately, I was saved from serious injury by my jet pack absorbing some of my fall. I staggered to my feet looking around to see who or what had hit me. There was nothing near me, no vehicle no person, no animal. Nothing. There was, however, a bike traffic light five yards behind me hanging forlornly from a post swinging from side to side upside down. It’s innards smoked and sparked and a pile of glass lay beneath it.

It took me while to figure out what had happened. But, as I stood staring at the smoking traffic signal, It hit me, again! My wardrobe rail, which protruded slightly above my head as I rode, had skewered the light as I went underneath it. It had pierced the light as cleanly as a jousting pole and had forced the whole light fitting into the back of my head.

The same white van driver I had joked with moments earlier was now parked by my side. He was laughing so hard he could barely talk. “You all right mate”, he enquired between fits of laughter. He pointed at the sparking signal. “Only it looks like your lights ave gone out”…….

I rang my wife. ‘Meet me at the pub’, I barked as soon as she answered. ‘I need a drink’. Startled, she asked what was wrong. ‘What’s wrong’ I spluttered. ‘the trash can rocket pack took out the traffic light and the van drivers wet himself.’ She was silent for a moment before asking, “are you sure you need a drink?”

I strode into the beer garden still clutching the bent wardrobe rail in my hand. I scanned the noisy scene looking for the reassuring sight of my wife. As I stood there, bent steel bar in hand, the garden went quiet. Everyone stared. No one moved and no one spoke. My wife appeared by my side. “What are you doing! You look like a f*&king psychopath!” “What”, I said, as I wiped the sweat from my brow. “A psychopath?”, I mumbled staring down aimlessly at my hand.  It was bright red. My head was bleeding. Not badly, but, added to my vacant stare and my clutching a bent steel bar, it was enough to make me look like a nutter who was about to go postal. “Maybe we need to buy a car” I muttered.

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John Bird

September 19, 2008

This is an abbreviated version of an article I wrote a few years back. Reading it back, I’d forgotten how impressed I was with John Bird. He is a real legend. Although, I will blank out the fact that he ran for Mayor of London against Ken Livingstone.

 

John Bird, is the co-founder and driving force behind The Big Issue, an award winning entertainment and current affairs magazine. The Big Issue is a groundbreaking publication, written by professional journalists, but sold on the street exclusively by the homeless. John Bird, is a maverick rogue who has made his career outside of the mainstream, championing the cause of the less fortunate through his unique and radical approach.

I caught up with him in Putney Bridge, an area he has lived in for most of his adult life. I attempted to find out how someone who, in his own words, “had problems with aggression, violence, drinking and theft”, was awarded an MBE by the queen. Had John Bird become part of the mainstream?

“I actually come from the working classes. I come from the underclass, from the real f*****g culture-less underclass. You come to my family and you see those kinds of people. People who have been on benefits since the thirteenth century. There was nothing in my life that was cultural. There wasn’t anything soft. There wasn’t anything loving. It was vicious nasty and bitter. I had a lot of problems with violence, my aggression. I’d drink to much and get into fights, get arrested, be a thief and that kind of thing” .

It doesn’t take a lot to get John talking. The honesty and transparency he brings to the conversation is disarming. He talks frankly about anything without prompting in a quick-fire, animated manner.  He is easy to warm to and is obviously appreciated by his fellow Londoners, who recently named him winner of their BBC Living Legends listeners poll. His no nonsense approach, although uncompromisingly acerbic, wins respect. 

He continues a pace. “So, I met a girl and I wanted to get into her knickers. She was a Marxist. So, I had to get involved with the Marxist movement. The problem was, they were all middle class and had no way of relating to me, and I had no way of relating to them”.

This struggle with the middle classes is a recurring theme in John’s life.  He may now sport a Savile Row suit and drink latte, but the brooding working class rage still lingers behind the eyes and I feel he may not quite be done.

The problem was, those people wanted to brow beat”. He jabs the air repeatedly. What Marxism and Trade Unionism [have in common is] they all have social democracy, but they want to represent. They don’t want to get down amongst the shit and the scum and get people out of there. I’m the only person in homelessness that I’ve met who comes from the problem, but has become part of the solution”.

John Bird may now own a media empire, but he still counts the homeless amongst his friends. He is a true everyman, untouched by fame or success. The man before me was truly everything I imagined a working class hero to be.

Add Campaign Decapitated

August 8, 2008

We have all had those moments when we realize the game has changed way after play has begun. In advertising there is certainly nothing astounding about a client moving the goal posts, changing the direction of a campaign on a whim or suspending the whole thing completely, sometimes mid meeting. But I have to say, I have never come across a campaign which has hit the buffers as hard and as late as this one.

Greyhound has just scrapped an ad campaign they had already rolled out after this story broke late last week: 

A traveler aboard a Greyhound bus repeatedly stabbed and then decapitated his seat mate, pausing during the savage attack in central Canada to display the head to passengers who had fled in horror, witnesses and officials said Thursday.

The add campaign, which extolled the virtues of bus travel had to be hastily terminated as the tag line read: “There’s a reason you’ve never heard of ‘bus rage.'” 

Greyhound spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh said “Greyhound knows how important it is to get these removed and we are doing everything possible.  This is something that we immediately asked to be done last week, realizing that these could be offensive.”

Talk about having to go back to the drawing board! Maybe their new tag line should be Greyhound, Head and Shoulders above the rest? Here is the never to be seen again add:

 

North American bus company Greyhound Lines said it had pulled ...

Dog Swept Up, Killed By NYC Street Sweeper

June 18, 2008

You really shouldn’t laugh, but, on reading this story I couldn’t help but raise a giggle. It would appear a certain N.Y. sanitation worker has an even more hard line attitude towards small dogs than myself! The worker in question has taken his job of sweeping the streets to the extreme. In fact, he has gone totally Travis Bickle on New York’s miniature canine population sweeping one of them up in his mechanical brushes!  I can just see him eyeing the kerb, muttering, ” here l come to sweep all this scum off the streets. “You Lookin at me, puppy”…….

My Latest Short Story

June 13, 2008

Missing Pieces.

The sounds and smells of the kitchen were all around him, comforting, familiar, home. He sat lazily staring at his wifes legs as she danced around him, flitting from counter to cooker, delivering pots and pans as she went. He gazed with idle appreciation as she threw a large copper bottomed pot onto the stove with one hand, while simultaneously, lighting the burner with the other. She exhibited a grace and elegance that was at odds with her heavy handed strength. He had watched her a thousand times, studied her every move, and he would watch her a thousand times more. To Hugh she was a goddess, a very domestic goddess. He settled into his seat, raised his glass and let the familiar dance unfold. It was far from ballet, he thought to himself, but it was beautiful none the less. 

 

  He stared at her strong lean frame. Her dress hung low as she worked revealing the promise of her bosom. He smiled. Was it odd to be aroused by his wife’s domesticity, he wondered. He cupped the glass of wine with his hands and felt the gentle chill caress his fingers. Slumping low into his chair, he watched as his wife continued to toil. Any moment now, he thought, Emily would remind him how much she loved that pot. She would tell him how it used to be her Grandmothers. She would say how she could remember, like it was yesterday,  her grandmother teaching her how to make jam, rhubarb jam in that very pot. He, would listen attentively, smile and wait for the moment to pass.

 

Emily sat down across the table from him. Her unruly corkscrewed hair fell across her face as she slumped heavily into the kitchen chair. “Darling, pour me a glass of wine”, she said softly, smiling gently before adding more assertively, “ a large one please”. He smiled at the thought of him, him, ever skimping on a drink. He took the largest glass from the cabinet, the open bottle from the table and began to pour. He allowed the wine to glug noisily from the bottle. It licked the glass, unruly, like a dam burst into a crystal lake. Emily watched intently, ready to pounce should he stop pouring before she saw fit. “Never a slip twixt cup and lip”, he said smugly as he pushed the glass slowly across the table towards her.

 

Emily’s body relaxed as she felt the glass within her grasp. She held the base and lazily dragged her finger around the rim, teasing out the faintest of whistles. Staring intently at the rich claret liquid slowly becalmed within her glass, her eyes narrowed. “You know, a young boy gave up his seat for me on the train today”, she said, looking directly at Hugh across the table. She searched his face for a response. He stared back blankly, exhibiting a blissful disregard for her pain. She raised the glass to her lips and gulped heavily.  “For Christ’s sake, she said, barely swallowing, I’m not bloody pregnant!” Her face contorted as she spoke. She shifted uneasily in her chair. “God, I feel old,” she added forlornly. “Do you think he thought I was old?” Hugh reached out across the table to take her hand. But, just as he stretched, the rice pan burst into life. It bubbled and hissed as it danced enlivened by the relentless, overbearing heat. It’s contents spewed as the gas flame licked and teased relentlessly from below. Emily leapt up, leaving his hand hanging over the herb bowl in the center of the table. “Bloody Hell,” she cried as the pan lid rattled and the liquid cascaded down onto the clean white stove. Emily flicked the gas off, turned the tap on and threw the steaming pan into the sink in one effortless move. She stood staring despondently at the mess before turning on her heels and slumping back into her chair. Hugh had not moved a muscle. His hand still hovered above the herb bowl as he stared admiringly at his wife’s elegant domestic grace. “Christ I hate cooking”, she said before reaching for her glass and gulping hard. 

 

Hugh picked lazily at the sage lying in the herb bowl. Taking a sprig in his palm he rubbed it gently between his thumb and forefinger before lifting it idly to his nose. The pungent aroma filled his nostrils and, for the briefest of moments, the familiar smell took his subconcious to another moment, another time. 

 

The kitchen was the same, save for a different coat of paint and a shabby looking but familiar lampshade. Everything appeared to be where it should be. Emily was at the stove cooking and Hugh was at the table drinking wine. A bottle sat in front of him and the herb bowl remained in the center of the table. The kitchen appeared the same, but something was markedly different. The air resonated with a different sound, a different beat. Gone was the distant thud of labored domesticity. In it’s place an awkward random rhythm that sounded like life, happy, unconcerned, unbridled life. 

 

 Across the table, a young girl strapped into her high chair,  happily bangs her Bob the Builder plate with her Little Mermaid spoon. Her face, smothered with food, is contorted, her nose wrinkled as she concentrates on smashing her own pattern onto her bowl. Her eyes flash with intensity as she focuses fully upon the task in hand. Looking up and noticing Hugh’s interest, she spreads her arms, clenches her tiny fists and grins a  broad toothless baby grin. She giggles, before in a flash her focus changes. Noticing the herb bowl is within her reach, she leans forward as far as her straps will allow. Hugh jumps forward and grabs the bowl. She is left puzzled, but now she is brandishing an unruly sprig of herbs in her tiny fist. Sensing a mood change that could slide either way, Hugh instinctively redirects her attention. He takes her hand and rubs the Thyme gently against her fingers. “That’s Thyme”, he says pushing it up towards her nose. Her face contorts, her nose wrinkles and she lets out a rasping raspberry in clear disapproval of the smell. “Phhhaaaaaa,” She says. He laughs and she, pleased by her fathers reaction, begins to giggle.

 

Hugh stared across the table and into the quiet, empty middle distance, his face brushed by a feint fragile smile. “I miss Lucy so, so much,” he said to nobody in particular. Emily placed her glass down on the table and reached out to him. She took his trembling hand in hers and squeezed gently. “I know you do darling, I know you do. We all miss her”. They sat for while, in quiet silence before Hugh instinctively reached for his glass. He caressed it, rocked it, gently, to and fro in his hand. His eyes fixed hard upon the liquid as it kissed then clung to the glass. “Don’t drink to much darling” Emily whispered, squeezing his hand gently as she spoke. He stared past her. It was the only thing left for them to cradle, he thought, before raising the glass to his lips.