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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.


Get yourself a new pair of glasses ref! Well if you think that you can do better, here’s the whistle.

15 Nov

It’s an old joke, the soccer referee offering the whistle to a complaining prima donna. The ref makes the offer in the pretty sure knowledge that a. The carping player is incompetent and b. He certainly isn’t neutral.

As today’s news of resignations unfolds, Jacob Rees-Fogg has gathered his cabal together to stir up a witches’ brew of discontent. He’s not alone. In his slipstream are Jezza Corbyn, that nasty woman from the DUP, the wicked witch of the Scots and any number of self-interested individuals and factions for whom the nation is less important that political power and ambition.

How the Corbynmeister must be loving it; so too the Brexiteer toffs. Double, double toil and trouble. Strange for me to feel sorry for Mother Theresa but I do. While all around her complain in the luxurious knowledge that they wouldn’t have got close to a deal themselves, the nation is exhausted with all the hubris and complaint and manipulation. Had Mother Theresa given the whistle to any of the grubby rag bag of her political friends and foes, we would have witnessed Armageddon. Well we’re looking at it now.

Perhaps the honourable thing for all remainers would have been to resign in the first place. Theresa would have been able to bugger off to Snowdonia and watch twats like Rees-Fogg and Boris the Spider take the nation down an Eton-fashioned abyss. Or, better, why didn’t she fight for a new referendum, if she truly believed in the EU?

The lack of a third, credible, centralist party has done us untold damage. The binary nature of politics – indeed much of our political thinking and strategy – is by its very nature, divisive. It’s the same in the US. Democrat or Republican, Clinton or Trump, heaven or hell? In my local pub there are shades of opinion. Jack, who can appear a little reactionary can surprise with liberal thoughts and concede points. Jill is quiet and considers issues carefully; invariably she talks sense and appears to have no axe to grind. They just want to get on with their hard-working lives. Jack is a roofer and Jill a librarian. Their lives are so far removed from Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff or Stormont – and they feel the distance. One voted Remain, the other for Brexit. Both admit to not quite knowing enough about the issues involved and being swayed by misinformation and scaremongering.

And so we are where we are. It’s 3pm and I’m hoping for better news at 6 o’clock or 9 o’clock or next year ..or sometime never. As the pound plummets again, so do my spirits. I’m meeting some buddies at the local at 5. Doubtless we’ll raise a glass to Theresa. Misguided, perhaps, but, just possibly she is one of the few who has set party and individual ambition aside and is trying hard for the UK. Her whistle is sounding so shrill that only dogs can hear it. One of the prima donna dogs is ready to grab it.

Disinterest…passivity..indifference. Beware! Big Brother relies on inertia.

23 Oct

Disinterest can imply impartiality; not being influenced by personal involvement. It can imply indifference, a ‘can’t be arsed’ passivity which, when big decisions are being made near and far, becomes a dangerous state of inertia.

In my little Kentish village someone wants to punch a road through the golf course so that heavy goods vehicles can get from A to B more quickly… and they also want to build 400hundred new homes. The locals are punch-drunk with planning application upon planning application from profiteering property companies and greedy landowners. The villagers are losing heart because raging against the machine seems to get nowhere. The ‘local plan’ which was widely consulted upon seems to be a similar piece of paper to the one that Chamberlain brandished after his cosy meeting with Herr Hitler.

The Parish Council are shell-shocked from the many developments which have already pockmarked this beleaguered village. The local council with spurious targets to meet don’t appear, quite frankly my dear, to give a damn.

Today I noticed that the number of objections on was significantly down on those of previous planning applications. Clearly the buggeritthey’lldoitanyway attitude has kicked in. Protest-fatigue, like Brexit fatigue is, however, a dangerous thing.

Greed and profit lie at the heart of many local developments. I favour reasonable development for the good of the community – that which encourages improved economic activity, supplies affordable (my God what does that mean?) housing and housing association/council accommodation and is sensibly in proportion to the community already there. I detect little nimbyism round here but plenty of battle fatigue.

There was little of this about at the extraordinary march in London last Saturday and yet there remained the feeling that the 700,000 were weak combatants; an army fighting opponents whose troops are on a different battleground. The ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers that were worn with cheeky pride are a slogan for our times. But the machine ignores our name-calling and we have no sticks and stones.

The media coverage in the run up to this extraordinary show of popular sentiment was muted, embarrassed and rather undemocratic. The response during and afterwards was underwhelming. I’m talking BBC here; the organ of the nation.

The evening news gave similar amounts of time to Farage in a pub with twenty mates in Harrogate and a UKIP demo of about six people in London, complaining about the 700,000 who were marching past them. That’s BBC balance for you.

I didn’t see any Ukippers as I was in the midst of the mighty throng of young and old, all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds and ethnicities – and from all over the UK. Chris Mason, the Auntie political hack of the raised eyebrow and boyish intensity, was wandering about seeking to massage this peaceful explosion of public opinion into an edgy confrontation- hence the discovery of a UKIP flag and an argument between a middle-aged Remainer fighting for her children and grandchildren and a purple Farage follower with Little Englander stamped on his forehead.

Robert Peston, freed from his toadying role at the BEEB tweeted his wonder at the show of people-power. He didn’t go overboard but in the spirit of proportionality chose to give no time or space to Nigel making his plans in Harrogate.

Sunday’s papers were underwhelming in their coverage. The Times was more concerned with the internecine dramas of the Tory party. The headline ‘PM enters Killing Zone’ tells us all we need to know about selling newspapers. Creating news is more important than reporting it. Ask Laura Kuenssberg.

If we stop raging against the machine the machines will swarm all over us. Machines don’t have a sense of proportion, only profit. They are indifferent to truth. They worship self-interest and short term gain. They are not concerned with the really big and profound things of life. If we, the great British public, allow our battle-fatigue to spiral downwards to indifference, we will be stuffed.


Southgate’s slipstream…

13 Jul

On the rare occasion that I find myself cycling in a group, I try that Bradley Wiggins thing. Not the dubious medication-in-a-bag scam; the tuck in behind the leader ploy and cruise in his slipstream trick. With the cheers of defeat echoing through our beleaguered nation might we not consider harnessing  some of Southgate’s energy.?

Jokingly I have suggested Gareth for PM. It’s not really so far-fetched is it? A recent bout of insomnia led me to listen to several TED talks in the wee small hours. If you hit on some really boring ones your sleeplessness will fade quite quickly. On this occasion I found myself engaged by some chap speculating on the random selection of politicians from a cross-section of society, ie no gravy-train, vestedly-interested, career-politician muppets but a spread of the electorate given a chance to guide and challenge the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall to make sensible choices for us all. We couldn’t do much worse than recent evidence suggests, could we?

Gareth seems to have got us all ‘on message’. His honesty, directness, humility and decisiveness have been admirable. No pushover but a natural diplomat. Plenty of steel but compassion and warmth under his waistcoat. As we have pedalled along in his slipstream the Trumpmeister has hoved into greater view.

Firstly he gives NATO what-for with his pay up or shut up inarticulacy, then on to febrile Britain where he tells Mother Theresa that Boris the Spider would do a better job than her. He was reading directly from his Farage script. He may be making plans with Nigel for a takeover of the bullies at Westminster.

Sir Gareth is far from a bully but there are so many of them in the international playground. Having had some experience of how boys and girls can bully – some insidious and  covert, others brash, gross and brutal – there are many parallels to be drawn from playground to parliaments. Many of our World leaders or eminent (sic) politicians are bullies with agendas which serve themselves and not those whom they purport to represent. The Trumpet Major, some say, would have done so much better than Mother Theresa because he would have bullied the EU into groveling submission. He’s sorted Kim Jong Un, he’s telling the Chinese how to conduct trade and he’s jumped into bed with Macron. What a player!

But bullies get found out. Sometimes teachers don’t realise what is going on right away. The kids in the playground can be seduced into siding with bullies for self-protection. In the end everyone sees – and remembers- the awful truth of the unpleasantness. Sometimes bullies continue into adult life and we can all recognize them in the workplace. Yes, sometimes they are successful in certain terms. But life’s too short to kowtow for too long. I’m amazed that Piers Morgan is still ruffling feathers on primetime TV, not because what he says is idiotic (he occasionally talks sense) but the way he says it brooks no opposition. My way or the highway. The Alan Sugar code of living.

When the behavior that we take note of is predicated on the notion that the world is a better place with guys and gals like them telling us all how it is; kicking ass; sticking it to opponents; single digiting those who disagree, then we are back in the playground where the bully reigns supreme and the rest of the kids keep out of their way and let them wreak havoc.

I’m in Southgate’s slipstream at the moment. We’re kicking a ball about in the park. Jumpers for goalposts. Gareth  captaining my team and we’re playing properly, no need for a ref because we trust eachother. There’s a nasty bloke called Donald who wants to play but he always spoils the game with cynical fouls and bullying of the smaller kids. Ah, I see Gareth has gone across to sort him out. If only…

Puff on this Grandad…

25 Apr

Josh Glancy, writing in the Sunday times this week, said of Ronan Farrow the boy-genius reporter and son of the unholy alliance between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen: ” He is typically millennial: woke, phone obsessed, social-media savvy, arch and sexually ambiguous.” Of these six descriptions my grandfather would only have recognised ‘arch’. I myself struggled with ‘woke’ but now my urban dictionary has put me right.

The night before reading this my weekend confusion had been initiated by the banality of the Queen’s birthday bash at the Albert Hall. Shaggy and Sting were grandstanding incoherently; Craig David sang something inappropriate about shagging; Alfie Boe screamed frantically into his microphone and Tom Jones croaked his way through It’s Not Unusual in a particularly arthritic way.

The Queen, with Camilla and Charlie boy alongside, barely broke into anything but a sneer. When she did smile it was of the private joke variety, “Don’t tell me, I bet it’s Kylie Minogue next.” And so it was.

I couldn’t think of a more confusing and unappealing night for our 92year old monarch. Zoe Ball seems to have risen via the Peter Principle to a job that she can’t do – i.e. host a major event. The whole thing was rescued by the BBC Concert Orchestra and the magnificent Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their humble, brilliant harmonies – particularly on that wonderful lament Homeless – were captivating. They even rescued Sir Tom as he sang The Green, Green Grass of Home, the uplifting ditty of a man about to be executed.

The shots of Queenie going back in time were an effective distraction. She didn’t want to be reminded, however, that she once was in the thrall of George Formby. The sight and sound of Harry Hill, Frank Skinner and Ed. the Gangnam Balls strumming ukuleles and belting out When I’m Cleaning Windows set the seal on a night of bemusement. Bizarre.

And so we moved on this week to Amber Rudd desperately trying to mop up the Windrush  mess in her kitchen while the dishwasher continues to leak. The only response of any opposition these days is to froth at the mouth and bellow ‘Resign’. Amber is in mid-grovel as I type. She’s on to a lose-lose but I hope the Windrushers end up with a win-win..or at least turn their lose into a win.

Jezza meanwhile had a meeting with Jewish leaders where he seems to have convinced them that his party is more anti-Semitic than was the case before the meeting. How does that happen?

And then Liverpool go and score 5 goals against Roma.

Now I see Macron holding hands with the Donald. Confusing or what?

My Grandad would say, “Now let me light my pipe and let’s think about it.”


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.

Things fall apart…

5 Feb

I was enjoying the birthday party of a female friend recently when a naked stallion of a waiter offered me a canapé. His appendage was swinging beneath a skimpy apron. Most of the women present were taking detours to check out his buttocks and pecs. This burlesque seemed to amuse – and in my case bemuse – the party goers without shrieks of outrage bouncing off the walls. Recent stuff leapt to mind : The Presidents’ Club; #Me Too, in black dresses; Payback time at the BBC; Jenny Murray in overdrive on Women’s Hour; F1 dolly-girls losing their jobs.

Strange times. ‘Seems’, madam. Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’. Hamlet’s response to his newly remarried mother suggests that he knows the truth of the tangled web of human motivation but, as his tale plays out it is his confusion, the wrecking of order, which deranges him.

We tread on eggshells these days, a false word here or there draws disapproving looks – and worse. The abuse and shaming of headteacher Neena Lall and the sacking of West Ham’s director of recruitment, Tony Henry are examples of how our little corner of the world is closing in on us. All our sayings and doings must be cleansed and sanitized by the right-on police from the sex-politics-race-religion gestapo which seeks to root out and stone any voice which counters its one-eyed, sanctimonious and febrile self-righteousness.


Much as I like to snort with derision at Colonel Blimp-Rees-Mogg, the jostling and condemnation which he suffered last week is part of a growing trend to silence those whose views don’t fit with a militant concensus. Brexit and Trump and the instabilities across the world have given way to an intolerance of which only a fraction is worthy. It’s right to want equality for men and women, it’s right to support religious tolerance – but the way in which the good fight is fought is as important as the cause.

That means understanding and tolerating context, history, old and young, culture, national identities, ethnicity, sex, race…the lot. The mildest of views are condemned on social media. Truth has become something to fear in some cases – or at least shy away from. If I say that the Welsh are more passionate about rugby than the English, I am likely to get away with it. If I pass comment  on different ethnic, cultural, sexually oriented or religious groups, my views can be deemed illegitimate and I will be attacked, abused and might lose my job. Eggshells indeed.

Hamlet’s confusion at seeing his mother leap into bed with his father’s murderer, scrambles his mind. His grasp of reality and the values of decency and love and honour with which he grew are blown apart. His world has become virtual where nothing is what it seems. Something catastrophic has to happen for order to be restored. A blood-letting.

The title of this little essay is Things Fall Apart, taken from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem, The Second Coming. Yeats speculates on what sort of world Jesus Christ would find if he chose to visit us for a second time. Written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the opening stanza seems prescient. In the post-truth age are we able to sort out the real from the unreal?

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


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