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2. Getting to Plovdiv

16 Nov

We eventually found the right potholed route to Plovdiv via Kostenets and Pazardzhik. It’s about 100 miles and we weaved between route 8 and the A1 motorway. We were looking for a cycle route to combine safety, practicality and speed. While Clive drove, I made shaky notes on road numbers, quality of surface, gradients and suitable stopping-points. A good deal of banter punctuated our earnestness. We will be taking a motorhome as support-vehicle/hotel/shelter/maintenance truck. Much discussion as to how the motorhome would fare on dodgy roads. Cyclists can weave in and out of craters.

Our first stop was at a roadside bar/restaurant outside Kostenets. There were two shabby women and a shabby man having lunch outside. The terrace was an extension of the car park. We smiled and walked into the most basic of eateries. The peasant woman behind the bar, with scarf and housecoat, smiled and spoke Bulgarian. Clive responded with the usual Brit-reply. Speak English? A slight and hesitant shake of her head told us that, not only did she not speak English but she had no inkling of what Clive had said. The beer taps were before us. First things first. Clive raised two fingers and we both gestured large by opening our hands and arms out. Smiles all round as full comprehension was registered.

The menu was a Cyrillic nightmare. Pointing to the hieroglyphics did us no good as our landlady’s charade-skills were well below Clive’s. After a short while we gave up, convincing ourselves that we weren’t hungry anyway. Luckily giant bags of crisps were on display and so we simply pointed.

Outside the man scoffing his lunch had enough broken English to tell us that we were crazy. He confirmed that we were in the right road but pretty soon lost interest in the struggle for communication. We rejoined our car with crisp and beer belches forming the soundtrack of our departure.

The A1 and A4 motorways which take you to the border are smart dual carriageway style roads and the most obvious sign of EU investment. The hard shoulders are wide and peasant traffic and bicycles are allowed. We saw little of this type of transport but have noted the possibility of safe cycling on Bulgarian motorways. The gradients even out and the traffic is light for the most part.

Coming into Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, Google maps swung into more effective action. By now early evening, the place was busy. Plovdiv has a population of over 300,000 and you can double that if outlying areas are included.The Bulgaria Star Hotel, a relic of communist architecture, gave us a warm and charmingly broken-English reception. We had parked our car illegally but were blissfully unaware of the fact. All we knew was that we were in  central Plovdiv and the evening was ours to enjoy.

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Snow..

28 Feb

I like what snow does to people. As I type I can hear children and their mums and the odd dad squealing with delight outside. Duffled, bobbled and booted they are sliding and sledging and snowballing down the road.

Their sounds are muffled by the six inches of white stuff. The sun is glaring off it and surprises the eye with the sharp intensity of light. My neighbours have taken the day off; school’s out for a while and there’s a delightful truancy in the air.

The lovely blizzards which have hit my corner of Kent and much of the east of the UK make us pause. Our routine is gloriously disrupted. I meet people in the local supermarket who would not normally be about in the middle of a working Wednesday. Happy tales of iced-up windows, impossibility of getting to work and child-minding sprinkle the giggling conversations. The world that is too much with us takes a backseat for a few precious hours. Time to stop and think and breathe.

Turn on radio and TV and the machine guns rattle. Florida student mayhem (arm the teachers!), Syria, Brexit politics, Charity workers. Madness is restored. I turn the media off quickly. I feel like Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m safer here in snowy Hawkhurst than complying with the Nurse Ratcheds of the world out there.

It’s 3pm. Time for Escape to the Country, a nice little show on the BBC about people wanting a better life somewhere rural. Wordsworth knew a thing or two about this. Today’s snow has been a timely reminder.

Happy 80th Birthday Sir Bobby. My hero!

11 Oct

I knew from a very young age that the great Bobby Charlton and I shared something special: our birthday. Mid-1950s I developed an infant-school passion for Manchester United and in particular two players: Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The Munich air crash of February 1958 found this little seven year old lad devastated at the loss of so many young, talented lives. The colossus that was Big Dunc had perished and I clung to the hope that Bobby would play on and that Manchester United would rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. And so they did.

On my tenth birthday my mother brought in the traditional breakfast-in-bed tray, filled with cards to open. A rush before school as I recall. Half now and half later, she had said; but there’s a special one which you should open first. Imagining that it was my parents’ offering, I carelessly tore at the envelope. Steady, she said, you might want to keep this one. Curious, I slowed down and a boysy soccer birthday card was revealed and a handwritten letter fell out.

Dear Paul,

Your mother wrote to me recently telling me that you and I share a birthday and you are a great supporter of Manchester United. Well done! Have a very good birthday as I hope I shall.

With all good wishes,

Bobby Charlton

My excitement knew no bounds. The card and letter sit proudly in my scrapbook 56years on. Now Sir Bobby, my hero, is 80.

I have many sporting and other heroes but Bobby eclipses them all. As I write, a few days before the day, Theresa Maybe’s colleagues are busily deciding whether to stab her in the front or the back. Doubtless there are Cassiuses with lean and hungry looks, envious of the female Caesar. There may be an honorable Brutus in there; intending the best but sticking the knife in anyway. Certainly there will be more than one Mark Antony, playing an insidious longer game for power. It’s all rather unseemly and great but tawdry fodder for the obsessive Laura Kuenssberg and her Westminster media bubblegummers.

Today the media frenzy is feeding on the odious Harvey Weinstein. The BBC have placed this sleazy story above the rumble in Barcelona. Power corrupts, absolute power …etc

How elevating is it, then, to think of the unimpeachable Bobby. His extraordinary record-breaking career was characterised by peerless skill, power, grace, achievement and, crucially, humility. Every championship he and his teams could win in global football, he – and they – did.

Bobby played with a crazy gang of charismatic characters for club and country.  The flawed genius that was George Best; the electric Denis Law; the fiery Nobby Stiles. Then there were the giants of 60s soccer: Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Greaves, Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore. It was a time of heroes. The 1966 World Cup win was followed by Manchester United’s epic European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968. Sir Matt Busby, Bill Foulkes and Bobby, survivors of the crash ten years earlier, had beaten their demons and lifted the trophy that had long been a cherished dream.

This was all fairy-tale stuff for me growing up. Bobby was larger than life – all power, speed and grace – and yet his  combover, his understatement and shyness, his integrity all built a picture of a man humble in his greatness. He was cautioned once in his international career, in the infamous ’66 World Cup game against Argentina. His response to being tackled brutally was ‘…to get a little bit excited.’ England won, of course but perhaps Maradona’s hand of God evened up the score a few years later – in a way that Sir Bobby would never have countenanced.

Today Sir Bobby is 80. I have enjoyed sport all my life and the past 60 years Bobby has been a guiding light, my hero. I could not have wished for better. Thank you Sir and have a wonderful day.

The real truth….made in Chelsea.

17 Apr

I found myself, yesterday, in a sports pub, not far from Stamford Bridge. The clock ticked round to kick-off time. The big game, Man. Utd v Chelsea. Atmosphere, convivial – despite a clutch of red supporters on San Miguel. The locals were on Stella.

I was alone, at the bar, enjoying eavesdropping. There were some tough ladies bantering leeringly with hairy-armed, tattooed men. The balls on the two pool tables were clacking away and young turks brandishing their cues were impolite in asking me to shift for their potting. I noted that they didn’t brave the impertinence of a request to the thicker-set Stella men. They wouldn’t have taken kindly to moving at all.

The players were coming out at Old Trafford. I counted six screens. The regulars had commandeered seats and stools with good sound and vision of at least two. Don’t watch the projection mate, definition’s shit and the speaker’s fucked. I dared not take the advice so warmly offered and found myself a bar stool next to a tight group of four or five burly men engaged in animated conversation. Kim Jong-un’s a fuckin’ nutter/ So’s fuckin’ Trump/ Let’s face it, the world’s run by fuckin’ nutters/ Putin’s the worst and there’s the Turkish guy who’s power-mad/ What about the Chinese?/ Makes Brexit look small beer/ I voted Brexit, bloody good job/ Don’t make no fuckin’ difference what anyone voted, bastards at the top get more and we get less/Players are coming out/ C’mon Chelsea…

More Stella was ordered before kick-off and as Chelsea began in the lacklustre fashion that was to continue for the rest of the match, the United supporters in front of the big screen were quite content that the HD wasn’t in good order and they couldn’t hear the commentary. They happily spilt their San Miguels with wild cheers as Rashford opened the scoring; the boys near me fulminated. I fuckin’ hate Man Utd, summed it up.

By half time the writing was on the wall and the Chelsea boys seemed strangely resigned to defeat. The toilet was crowded with lager being expelled to make room for more. The bar remained convivial. A woman had joined my group. Four Stellas and a large Chardonnay for the lady..Her analysis of the match was accurate and incisive: They want it more and Hazzard can’t cope with a bloke up his arse the whole time..Pretty much what I thought, actually.

When Herrera scored United’s second, the game was all but done. The lady finished her Chardonnay. I’m off to get the kids’ tea. Can’t piss it up all afternoon. If we’re goin’ down Brighton tomorrow there’s a few things need doin’. So don’t hang about. She was staring at one of the more menacing individuals who smiled and offered: Yeh, See you soon, babe..

Indeed as the match ended, he drained his beer and said his farewells. He had to be home, jobs to do, an outing tomorrow and work on Tuesday. I wondered how a  Trump or Putin or Kim Yong-un or Assad or Erdogan would have responded to a sports-pub ultimatum issued by such a woman. A woman who doesn’t back down.

Silence is Golden..

14 Oct

This was a 60s hit for the Tremeloes. The chorus: Silence is golden/but my eyes still see tells the tale of my blog-absence these past few weeks. What has occurred – and is still occurring – on both sides of the Atlantic, beggars belief. I’m sick to the stomach of it all. And now Theresa Maybe is flexing her awkward muscles and we sit in wide-eyed dumbfoundedness as the horror-shows play out.

This week I have been celebrating Sir Bobby Charlton’s 79th birthday. He is lucky to share the same day – 11th October – as me. I am a mere 14years younger but he could work magic with his feet; I can just about walk straight. More importantly, he behaved impeccably in the heat of battle…do you get where I’m going?

I had to shut out the Trump/Hard-Brexit noise. I turned to Facebook for some silent succour. Well what with it being my birthday and all…

A Golden Treasury emerged. I have a truckload of FB friends, many of whom I never see or speak with. Accumulations, you might say, over the years. There are those I taught over nigh on 40 years at the black/whiteboard/sports pitch/boarding house(s). They are far flung and have made what they could of their lives on their own merits. I remember their youth and talent and enthusiasms and hope that they retain much of that zest. If their FB stories are anything to go by, they do. I love seeing their families grow and discovering their latest exploits. What a social voyeur!

I have family FB friends, ex-colleagues, the sporting fraternity of a lifetime, close buddies and not-so close buddies, And more. When my birthday comes around, I love hearing from them all because each and every one stirs a memory – and with that memory, a smile.

This week, after the car-crash that was the Trump/Clinton debate and the Tory Conference, I retreated to the silence of Facebook and the comfort of friends near and far; some last seen yesterday, some many years since. I salute you all, you nourish me from a distance. And, just for now, the silence is golden.

Proper Charlies ……..

4 Aug

My son’s name is Charlie. A few years ago his passport expired and he missed meeting up with me on holiday. He took the consequences on the chin – along with suitable admonishments and savage subtle banter. ‘You d***head’ was my favourite. Lizzie Armistead’s going AWOL when three testers came calling is beyond careless, beyond banter. Her excuses shame her further: ‘…he didn’t do enough to find me.’ she said of her third avoidance.  She shouldn’t be at the Olympics.

Steve Woolfe is a potential UKIP leadership challenger. Not any more. He filed his nomination papers 17 minutes late. An important phone call got in the way, apparently. Another d***head. Now he’s crying foul. I do know some people who would put life on hold for an episode of the Archers but for the leadership of a party, I might prioritise: 1. Give papers to secretary, 2. Go to hotel room for cuppa and iPlayer.

I have been considering nominating my barber Louie for a knighthood. I understand that anyone who has done my hair or been on my side or given me money can get one. So my Mum should have featured by now and I can’t understand why she hasn’t. As she’s dead I remain hopeful of a posthumous award. I suppose all those worthy recipients of years gone by might carp at my indulgent, self-seeking, narcissistic, myopic, pretentious, cronyism but I don’t really give a s**t.

My recent protégé Kevin Roberts, Saatchi and Saatchi’s CEO, has resigned after his ludicrous, appalling remarks about women in the advertising business. He said to that important organ, the Business Insider Website, “Women say ‘Actually guys, I’m way happier than you,'” explaining that some women’s ambition is circular not vertical. Shock, horror, the female right-on mafia went for his jugular! Much like Charles Saatchi had done with Nigella. Gardening leave first followed by honourable hari-kari. He has fallen on his sword, saying “Fail fast, fix fast, learn fast.”

Would that a few other Charlies could follow Kevin’s lead. And he didn’t do much wrong in the first place.

Music to my Ears..

28 Apr

Two star-crossed lovers in a novel I read recently shared their ‘moments of beauty’ each day while their flame of passion burned. It was their way of rescuing something fine and untainted from the carnage of the dead and broken. They drove blood-drenched ambulances from the battlefields of Northern France during WWI. Cows canoodling in the sunshine, unaware of man’s inhumanity; a child’s song coming from a farmhouse; a hot bath; silence.

I woke this morning to more news about the Hillsborough verdict fallout. A woman said that the rest of the country was against them. That wasn’t true. The Sun maybe; the South Yorkshire police hierarchy maybe. Perhaps a siege-mentality was needed to keep the great fight going all these years. I admire the fortitude and bravery of the families and the wider Liverpudlian community. But they didn’t walk alone.

I was intrigued by the news that we are going to scrap what Cuba owes us and, what’s more, give them £350million for unspecified ‘good works’ to boost their economy. Hmm. Methinks the Yanks have been pressing our buttons. I’ll ask my economist friends what all this is about.

Further scans of the news brought no moments of beauty. Much news is shabby stuff. Edginess, controversy, scandal, disaster and death prevail. A Muslim MP is anti-Semitic. A cycling guru calls disabled bikers ‘gimps’. Greedy entrepreneurs raid BHS pension pots. I needed some beauty. I turned on radio 2.

Now my relationship with music compares, I am sure, with plenty of my generation of 50s children. Buying singles of the Beatles and Dusty Springfield were rare pocket-money treats. Pop music was in short supply and the BBC struggled to find airspace. Radio Luxembourg filed the black hole and I gobbled up whatever was on offer for the first three decades of my life. And then I stopped. Life, work, children, TV…I’m not quite sure what really got in the way but my encyclopaediac knowledge finished around 1978. I can identify my children’s music (80s/90s) – but only the stuff that blared from their bedrooms. Naturally I couldn’t make out the words but the creeping realisation that much of it was very good sat uneasily with my stance that the 60s couldn’t be bettered. And so I am sad that too much great music has flowed under my bridge and I have let it go downstream without a thought. I do have my old-man modern favourites (Coldplay, Keane, Killers…you know the type) but I’m a CD in the car man and tend to watch Newsnight rather than relax in the arms of Ed Sheeran. You know what I mean.

Ken Bruce played Sounds of Silence by Disturbed, the record of the week. I was transfixed, transported. It’s a beautifully chilling cover of the great Simon and Garfunkel classic. I sat very quietly. Uplifted. Disturbed. I listened on and Peter Skellern was singing You’re a Lady; I’m a Man. Nostalgia. I went to the radio 2 website to check on the BBC Folk awards and found myself watching Rufus Wainwright ‘s tribute to Sandy Denny – a gentle, mesmerising performance of Who Knows Where the Time Goes. He looked like a young, gently rolling Joe Cocker – and, along with the audience, I was spellbound.

Who knows where the time goes? Indeed. Music and Beauty. Made my day.

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