Monday, 18 November 2013

Hypothermia and Hydrotherapy - Wales 1992


A Night in the Black Mountains


September 1992

 
Hypothermia is quite scary when you go down with it.

I had heard of it in the past, of course, like everyone has. But who’d have thought it possible for your blood to get so cold that, upon taking a hot drink, you actually feel warm blood going inch-by-inch down your arms and into your hands and making your fingertips tingle? For my legs, when it happened, it was in the great big arteries that I felt it most (what are they called, the big ones going down from your groin, where you bleed to death in seconds if you are stabbed there?)

I was on a ridge of hills. Not really mountains, nothing spectacular, rather like walking Northwards along the spine of a great whale. Except there's no dorsal fin. I was on Offa’s Dyke Path, which follows the English-Welsh border from coast to coast (from Chepstow to Prestatyn). Offa was King of Mercia (middle England) from 757 to 796AD, and he set up this frontier more for the purposes of taxing trade with Wales rather than for military defence a la Hadrian.

This was my first camping trip since… blimey… since I were a lad, bah gum. I had been hiking on my own for a couple of days, my mate Gary Clarke having dropped out on the third morning, buggered off back home on the train. Walking along all on my lonesome,  I had become pretty damned chilly in my inadequate clothes, a constant right-to-left wind blowing my body heat away as the afternoon wore on.

At barely five o’clock - very conservative - I decided to bed down. Let’s get out of this damned wind. Over to the left the land sloped down and gorse bushes were growing. Let's shelter from the bloody wind. As I picked my way through the gorse, I thought This is not the time to break an ankle. It’d be hard to crawl back to the spine of the whale for help. Now, where to pitch the tent? Spaces big enough for a tent were hard to find; when at last I found one, a horse had dumped his load smack in the middle of it.

Having shovelled it away, I felt suddenly drained. Too drained to put the tent up. Too tired to make a cuppa; too tired to lift the rucksack off my back. Warning, Will Robinson, warning! Only after lying down in the lee of the bushes could I summon up the strength to take the rucksack off; to get my stove out and light it. The white slab of hexamine - similar to a firelighter - wouldn’t light. Emergency, emergency!

My mate Mick Bassett had coached me a little back in Telford and, God bless ‘im. He had given me outdated packs of Arctic Rations containing, amongst many things, magic matches. These packs are British Army issue (Mick was big in the local cadets); they are light to carry, but stuffed full of calories. In each cubic box is… how to put this…. a veritable cornucopia of squaddie grub… the accumulated wisdom of decades of army nutritional expertise… and a packet of wonder-matches that can even be struck underwater.

Despite the strong wind, the match lit. The stove lit. And I boiled up a cup of Bovril. As I drank it - nectar! - it warmed the cockles of my heart, and warmed other bits as well.
 
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My eider-down sleeping bag had been very expensive when Mum had bought it for me… er… a quarter of a century before. As I later found out, these little feathers degrade over the years; they crumble to dust, especially when compressed like this one for a quarter of a century. (I believe that the cost of properly storing the army's eiderdown sleeping bags at Telford's BOD depot is astronomical.) Between me and the cold grass were two lousy layers of cloth and a ground sheet. Man, I froze my *’##$£ off that night. The wind blew in gusts which made a slamming sound on the side of the tent. Sometimes they would have a sequence that resembled somebody trying to attract my attention. Bang…… bang-bang…… bang-bang-bang-bang-are-you-deaf-or-what?

To add to my discomfort was a water shortage. It’s a basic error, I know, but this survival stuff doesn't come automatically, and I had accumulated only a smattering of experience back in my teens with the cadets. On an "Arduous Training" course in Snowdonia the teachers had pretty much told us what to do. Critically, there was no discussion on decisionmaking, arguably the single biggest feature of survival craft. Hoping to find water up here on the Black Mountains, I didn’t carry much up with me. But there were no streams at altitude and my food was nearly all dehydrated stuff. "Add water"... yeah, that's easy for you to say. Around midnight I began to worry that, with such a direct link between my tiny water supply and the hot calories I could ingest, a serious crisis was looming. Things are getting a bit hairy when you have to make a choice between a) Brushing your teeth with it b) making a hot drink with it and c) holding it in reserve. (In the end I chose “c”.)

Sitting there shivering, I devised an emergency plan. The nearest water if I kept going straight forward was at Hay on Wye, which sat at the bottom of a great long downward slope when finally, several miles ahead, the whale’s back ended. If in the morning the hypothermia returned I would have to leg it westwards, bail out down the slope, falling off the whale’s back on the left. There were no signs of friendly Welsh farmhouses on the map or by their lights. I would have to pick my bail-out point with great accuracy to intersect a stream shown on the map. I carefully worked out the compass bearing of mountains to left and right to identify the bail-out point. Of course, it might turn into nothing more than a sunny stroll in the morning, but the hypothermia might strike again. That would be embarrassing.

As it turned out, it was indeed a stroll. But this dodgy experience was a useful stepping-stone to the high level of ‘capability’ I have since developed.

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I was so sad to have lost Gary. He was good company, a home-made philosopher. He was also poor and overweight. He had borrowed a cheap rucksack from somebody. Ominously its harness broke on Day 1, on Chepstow train station’s platform. We had walked all of ten yards…

I hadn’t thought of querying Gary’s fitness. Younger than me, I might have challenged him to walk up and down the Wrekin with me but it never occurred to me. Poor old Gary struggled from the outset. As the day-and-a-half of our adventures together progressed, I took more and more weight from him until I was burdened like a mule, carrying maybe 30kg to his ten, taking ten for the team so to speak.

Our first night out was in a stretch of ‘ancient woodland’: woodland that has never been felled or farmed. The most amazing gnarled trees grew there. It was so untidy. Tidiness is a man-imposed thing. My misconception that a tree should, in its ideal form, have a cylindrical trunk and spherical top was shown to be bunkum. Real trees are a mess. In real forests they are all fighting each other. We saw a pair of trees locked in a centuries-old death struggle, each leaving bare scars on his opponent. With time lapse photography what uppercuts, what jabs might we witness?

Against the rules, we camped out in the ancient wood. We made a fire, but left no trace the next morning. As we sat and chatted, owls were gently hooting every minute or two. We debated just what was the purpose of this: mating calls? Keeping in touch? Ah, maybe it's territorial marking: the hoot means, “this is my patch, and I’m at home”. So as an experiment, I gave out my own hoot. The place went barmy, with four or five neighbours screaming “Ta-whit, ta-woo; ta-whit, ta-woo; who the hell are youuuu?!” Gary was bursting his sides.

Ancient woodlands are places of indescribable beauty, places of chaos and irregular geometry which speak of the deep mathematics of multi-species evolution untouched by human hand. In contrast, the obscene ranks of fir trees being planted by subsidy-scrounging agro-business is a million miles away from being natural. It's as stupid as squandering public funds for music on ringtones rather than symphony orchestras. The few square miles of ancient woodland which remain in Britain must be defended. They are riches which our descendants deserve to inherit.

After our second night, in a musty Norman castle run as a youth hostel, in a place called St. Briavels, Gary announced he couldn’t go on, and legged it back home. Later on, after the Black Mountains, the steep upward slope of Hergest Ridge (of Mike Oldfield fame) was to be conquered. A very hard slog. To drive myself on, I used the self-help technique of resorting to anger, unfairly blaming Gary for all my woes. An improvised song came to mind:

           If you go up in the hills today, you’re in for a big surprise,

If you go up in the hills today, you’ll hardly believe your eyes.

‘Cos Gary Clarke’s nowhere to be seen,

He just ****ed off like he’d never been.

Today’s the day that Gary Clarke props the bar up

Before and after the Black Mountains, I had met a woman doing the same walk. She was hideous; from the way her eyes lit up later on upon meeting another woman I think she was a thingummybob. I devised a song in her honour:

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me,

            God knows what she’ll do if she catches me,

            Inky pinky parlez vous.

Before the Black Mountains I had crossed the Wye at Monmouth, and after walking much too far (28km) in one day I reached a suitable stopping point for the night: White Castle, a National Trust property. Arriving after dark, I snuck into the place and set up camp on a magnificent lawn just beyond its drawbridge. There was (heaven!) a standpipe, and I exulted in the stream of riches which issued forth, washing myself from head to toe. I suddenly needed to go to the toilet, but couldn’t find anywhere suitable to relieve myself: I could hardly leave a mess on the magnificent lawn – there would be children playing here tomorrow. Now where, I asked myself, would they have gone when the place was inhabited? In the moat, naturally! The sides of the moat were steeply angled, and it would be dangerous to slide down the cobblestoned sides, maybe getting soaked and stranded. The only answer was to drop my trousers, hitch myself up onto the wooden-slatted railing, and protrude my bare bum over the edge. I hooked my ankles behind the vertical slats in the approved manner. And then cramp struck. I was paralysed, perched on the railing. I wondered if the caretaker would arrive next morning to find a wildcat camper interlaced to the drawbridge with a bare blue arse.

Late at night I hear voices and see torchlight on the walls. I've been rumbled. Best to surrender now. I approached the two women saying in a loud voice, "OK! You got me! I know I shouldn't be here so I'll just gather my stuff and move on." Once the two women had recovered from the shock of a deranged wildcat camper emerging from the darkness they explained that they were just having a look around and I could do what the hell I liked as far as they were concerned.

The half-way stage of Offa’s Dyke Path is Knighton, right on the Shropshire border. I decided that I had had enough hardship for this trip. I put one foot over the Shropshire border, then retreated to the train station. With some time to kill, I popped into a shop. A strange feeling of euphoria overcame me, and I wondered why I was suddenly feeling so good. And then it struck me… there was heating in the shop. That strange feeling was...warmth! I had not felt external heat for several days, and the visceral pleasure of again being warm was the reason for this unexpected happiness.

Upon getting back home I found that this wilderness experience had changed me in two unexpected ways: in writing and in bathing.

In order to write something in the business desk-diary I had to take into my hand a strange stick-like implement which left a trace of dark fluid on paper - ink I think they call it. Of course I am exaggerating, but I swear that the everyday task of jotting something down with a pen is everyday only because we do it every day. It's a thin veneer of habit, I submit. Unlike oral communication which goes back millions of years, I submit that handwriting is not deeply embedded by our evolution; is a cultural activity which can be unlearned.

Sitting in the bath at our Telford bungalow I was entranced by the streams of clear liquid treasure coming out of the taps, one cold and the other - woo-hoo! - pre-heated, would you believe?! And this stuff - hundreds of litres of it! - was pure, drinking-quality water. We use this treasure without giving it a thought!

Again, lest a reader (a thick one) go away under the misapprehension that I had genuinely forgotten that Severn Trent Water plc existed, my point here is that this habit of taking unlimited water from a tap is a very recent one in man's history. One of the philosophical benefits of temporarily depriving oneself of luxury is a greater appreciation of it upon one's return. One of them - I think Epicureanism - has wrongly been associated with advocating gluttony when in fact it advocates annual periods of abstention. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder is just one part of that healthy process of counting our blessings, especially those.... (oh, you know what I was about to write.... you clever people deserve an apology from the thick ones who insist that we explain why a bathfull of hot water is such a wonder!) 

They say that a little suffering is good for the soul. But I have since come to realise that any fool can be uncomfortable; the trick on a backpacking adventure is to achieve Unique Experience (tm) whilst taking good care of oneself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baggy Trousers and Meanders - Turkey 1994


An Infidel among the Muslims

 

Turkey 1994-ish.

 

Like a lost sheep, standing gormless and friendless in the smoky, shabby airport concourse at Izmir, I wondered why the hell I had been so bold.

 

I had no currency, no transport, and only a vague idea of my intended first-night hotel. Eventually, after the bout of self-pity, I figured out that the post office was the local substitute for bureaux de change, and obtained a vast fistful of currency for my few tenners. I tried telephoning the hotel in Kusadasi I knew to be run by an Englishwoman, but fell foul of an obscure numbering system, getting at best bemused foreign-sounding voices at the other end. I should have planned how to get to my first-night hotel in Kusadasi.

 

Hang the expense, I extravagated, I’ll use a taxi. The driver tried to stay professional but, when a fellow driver asked him where he was off to, he couldn’t resist a gleeful little twinkle: Kusadasi, as if it had made his week.

 

So, this was what backpackers do! Admittedly, I had a backpack, but I felt rather a middle-aged imposter. At the hotel I was surrounded by fit, confident young people on a low budget. They had no airs and graces. They had an air of contentment, as if rubbing shoulders with exotic aliens was natural.

 

In these early days, I hadn’t quite grasped the hell-for-leather nature of backpacking; the shit-or-bust decisiveness of it. I would stroll out of the foyer, down a dusty road between nondescript concrete buildings, drink too many bottles of excellent Efes Pilsener lager, eat a more-than-decent meal in an attractive restaurant, lonely as hell, and again wonder what the hell I was doing there.

 

A day-trip to the magnificent archeological site of Ephesus began to buck up my ideas. Instead of just shuffling along with the squadrons of tourists, I went off at a deliberate tangent and discovered the hills above Ephesus. At last I gained a sense of tranquility. The terrain was, to my parochial English eyes, spectacular in its aridity. I began to visualise the movements of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Ephesus before the great city was abandoned. As the sun sank lower, and the slanting light took on a more orange hue, I imagined a squadron of Persian mercenaries coming over the breast of one of the hills, all gaunt helmets, all knees and kilts, bristling with spears and shields.

 

 

-------

 

Part of my motivation for touring round Turkey was to get a feel for places which would feature in my novel, The Godmaker: I was following in the footsteps of Saint Paul the Conman. In trying to launch his new religion, he fell foul of people who had a vested interest in the old religions he intended to displace, in particular the religion of Artemis. This fertility goddess had been worshipped in Asia Minor for thousands of years. She was Earth Mother, Mother Nature, and when they found out what Paul was up to, the siversmiths of Ephesus beat him up and ran him out of town, fearing that the market would drop out of the market for silver figurines of Artemis. Other places he ferequented were Iconium (today Konya) Tarsus where he was born, and Antioch (today Antakya), the third biggest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Athens.

 

Ephesus was a major port in biblical times, but the heavy annual rains bring down tons of silt. The river is called Menender: as the silt creates mudflats, the river is obliged to meander on its way to the sea. Roman enginers had attempted to create dredging methods, but eventually gave it up as an impossible task, after which the port became unviable and the city died. Today it is well inland. Its archealogical glories have only recently begun to be revealed again. Pink Floyd once played in the magnificent amphiteatre where the silversmiths held a get-Paul meeting, then flooded out to beat him up. Toilets have been excavated – an excellent piece of engineering with running water on three sides of a square, and oblong stone slabs over the channels cut with twenty botty-sized circles - no individual cubicles needed in those days.

 

In nearby Seljuk, I found magnificent statues of Artemis carved with dozens of small breasts and with all manner of wildlife. She would be taken through town on a chariot at her annual festival, allegedly drawn by a team of lions. I am sure that the statue would have been made of silver. The Temple of Artemis at Seljik was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, once celebrated as much as the pyramids. Today, only one squalid irregular column remains. The bloody Christians systematically destroyed the place to ensure that their new religion would fully overprint its predecessor.

 

East of Ephesus is the celebrated site of Pamukkale, where a whole hillside is encrusted with white mineral deposits from the volcanic hot springs there. It has been superbly managed, layered with gullies to create an effect like a gigantic stepped wedding cake. I got chatting to some workers picking cotton in a field, and asked what cotton was called in Turkish. It is pamuk. Getting my dictionary out, I wondered if kale was a word. Yes – it means castle and so Pamukkale­ is the Cotton Castle. Yess!

 

Behind Pamukkale are the ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Hierapolis. Nearby is a cave called Plutonium. Iron grilles protect its entrance because it is dangerous. Poisonous volcanic gases emerge here, and the bodies of small animals which have trespassed beyond the grille are sometimes found asphyxiated. One can well imagine ancient people venturing in there never to emerge, and people saying that the disappeared ones had fallen into the clutches of Pluto, god of the underworld.

 

Heading towards Konya, some westerners on the bus advised me to lose the shorts before walking around this very Islamic city. Upon arriving there I found Konya magnificent. Its centre featured a muslim university and green parkland. Surrounding quarters were a rabbit warren of tiny workshops, a hive of small-scale manufacturing activity where the blue fire of arc welding sat alongside bakers’ shops. The Turks haven’t yet reached the Western state of large-scale manufacture, and the consequent low productivity directly causes the relative poverty: for every production worker in a western saucepan factory there are three in Turkey bashing ‘em out with hand tools.

 

The traffic was infernal and pitiless to pedestrians, with a perpetual fug of diesel fumes. One unfortunate handicapped man with no legs was making his way across town with a large leather pouffe attached to his underside. With massive arm-power, he was hopping along with his palms on the filthy tarmac, his nose level with exhaust pipes.

 

In a delightful garden next to the Muslim University with its minarets pointing at the sky like rockets, I joined in the craic with a bunch of schoolkids keen to practise their English on me. I explained a bit about rugby to them and began passing imaginary rugby balls to them. After looking puzzled, they joined in the invisible game. At one point in the conversation the brightest one enquired what was my religion. I tried to give an honest but evasive answer and said, “Well, technically I am a Christian”. He picked up on the word technically and asked me to explain. “Well, I was christened, but I don’t believe in God.” His eyes opened like saucers, and he slowly said, “Don’t…. believe… in God? But…. but who made the trees? Who made the… the sky?? Who made you???” What could I say? Do I embark on a long explanation of the Big Bang Theory and Darwinism? If I shoot my mouth off too much, will they all sprint through the archway into the university and then come back out pointing me out to a bunch of scimitar-wielding mujahedeen in Ali Baba slippers who would proceed to chop me up into Infidel Slices? No, it was time to backpedal fast. “Look, I’m ever so sorry… you must think me very stupid to talk like this.” The lad realxed and grinned: “No, that’s OK. The Koran teaches us to be tolerant with strangers with wrong ideas.” Phew. Patronising little sod.

 

A stocky hard-faced policeman came over to investigate the gaggle of people. He was the spitting image of the villanous Turkish jailer in Midnight Express who would beat up the American student prisoner. Konya being hundreds of miles inland, I looked up a phrase from the Lonely Planet Phrase Book: Effendi, can you please tell me the way to the beach? He looked puzzled, then bellowed, “Plaja? Plaja?” (la plage). Only when I cracked my face did he give a great guffaw and shake his head at me disapprovingly.

 

My french came in useful on several occasions. They have words like chemin de fer and dush. High up in the Taurus Mountains I spent the night in a ruined Byzantine monastery. When the coach had dropped me off at a tiny village, Mut, I had refused the welcome of a bunch of lads (Muttons? Mutts?) who came out of a little bar, and yomped past them up the winding trail in bright moonlight, observing a pair of toads mating by moonlight. Half way there I saw a big cave on my left: now… that might be a suitable place to sleep! But as I approached, I heard a cough, which alarmed me a little. I carried on up the trail until the cave was below me. I called out, Merhaba (hello). No reply. I yelled “mer-fucking-haba you ignorant lot” and continued on my way. Earlier, in the coach, people had been tapping me on the shoulder to point things out to me, the coach grinding its way through the gears as we gained altitude. We saw a camel caravan bringing merchandise along one of the old trading routes, presumably a little-used mountain pass too narrow for the juggernauts. Maybe such people were in the cave, sneezing. My fellow passengers had asked me what I thought of their country. I replied, Turkiye guzel – beautiful Turkey - which made them preen. They told me the river, whose course we were skirting, was called Goksu – Gok=heaven; su=water, the Heavenly Water River. Aaaah! I shared out my Bombay Mix. (I had bought a dozen packets from the Red Lion especially for the purpose of ice-breaking with the locals, telling the Turks that in my country we have this for breakfast every morning. One guy gasped and said avci! – hot! Among my gewgaws I had a little battery-driven fan, and amused the kiddies on the coach by pretending it was an escaping helicopter, and then pretending to cut my fingers off in the blades, which of course they wanted to do as well, their mothers looking on watchfully.

 

The monastery contained two-metre wide excavations cut into the living rockface: one for each brother’s coffin. The monastery would have thrived before the Turks (from Turkmenistan) overwhelmed Christian-Greek Asia Minor in the 12th century. The whole rockface was honeycombed with these tombs. In a massive act of later vandalism, twenty such holes had been bashed into a single cavern. At first glance, this cavern would be a suitably exotic place to overnight, but the sound of heavy lorries grinding up the pass below was amplified by its shape, so was again an unsuitable camp. Along the hillside I found a stone sarcophagus with its lid ajar. Now, that would be a memorable bed for the night, I thought, but shining my torch into it I saw lots of bones. I shook my head at people dumping their picnic remains in it, and only afterwards twigged that they must be human remains.

 

I camped out on a nice flat spot, and would open my eyes from time to time to see the moon in a new position, like the hand of a giant clock. In the morning I was awakened by the tinkling of sheeps’ bells. A shepherd was driving them along a contour below me, and didn’t spot me in my bright blue rucksack. I figured that the cough in the cave was a sheep, not a person. The shepherd would have enclosed his flock with thornbushes.

 

Before packing up and moving on, an attack of diahorroea struck. It lasted for several hours, by which time the hillside looked like an explosion at the Andrex factory. Since the place was clearly abandoned, I didn’t feel bad about littering the place so. I realised that until my guts got better I would be unable to go down and catch a new coach. Mid-morning, I was startled when a man appeared in front of me. Using my best body language and my Turkish dictionary, I enquired if he was a shepherd. No, he said, he was gardyan – French for a caretaker. He said: bilyet (ticket). I paid him the two-pence entrance fee, and wondered at the economics of his following me up from the village for such a paltry sum. Noticing my loo-roll fiesta all over the stone blocks, he shook his head in sad disapproval, embarrassing me.

 

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Tarsus was a horrible ugly place, so I decided to stay on the coach and go on to Antakya (Antioch) at the top-right-hand corner of the Med. Upon arriving, I noticed that the people here were very different. They had none of the open friendliness of the Turks, but peered at me distantly. I realised that this place was arabic – part of Syria until taken by the Turks in a land-grab some decades before. The surly men all wore baggy trousers. The tourist office was most unhelpful. The river was polluted with green froth.

 

On walking up a little sidestreet, a bunch of lads sitting outside a cafĂ© clocked me and fell silent as I approached, rucksack on my back, wearing my shorts. Five metres past them, I turned on my heel and yelled “Worra you looking at??? Yeah, you!” I strolled back to them and said, “is it these? Is it these fine English legs?” They were flustered and discomfited, wondering how to react. “You think I look stupid in these shorts? Worrabout you in your baggy trousers?” I took a pinch of one guy’s trousers, waggled them, and said, “What do you call these, then?” He meekly replied, “Shalvar”. I whipped out my dictionary. Shalvar translates as baggy trousers. I hooted. “Baggy trousers? Ha ha ha! Just like the song! You know the Madness song, don’t you?”, and proceeded to sing all the words I could remember: “Lots of girls and lots of boys, lots of smells and lots of noise, baggy trousers do-doo do-doop.” I then hefted my rucksack and waved them goodbye. They were in a catatonic trance.

 

From this far-point, I had an interminable coach ride back West to Izmir. The distance seemed to be doubled by the discomfort of sitting next to a man with the world’s most spectacularly smelly armpits. Given that our sense of smell is actually detecting different molecules – a tangerine molecule being of a different shape to a smoky bacon molecule – I reckon that a microscopic examination of this guy’s stink would reveal grotesque gothic shapes.

 

Half way back we stopped off at a well-appointed services in the middle of the endless steppe. My food was served by a woman behind a counter. I smiled politely at her and got in return an offended scowl. It suddenly clicked that I had seen hardly any women in this country. Where were they all? Pretty obviously hidden away indoors. How strange, at least to my western eyes. 

Before embarking on the long-distance stuff, I spent a few days at the nice little hub-town of Seljuk. Hangin’ out with nothing much to do in the town centre, I sit down next to a man with a shoeshine stand. We begin chatting, and after a while he calls a tea-seller over and buys us a round. These boys dart around the streets holding circular brass trays suspended on a trio of chains, never spilling a drop from a dozen tulip-glasses if tea. He then asks if I am hungry. Well, yes I am. OK, he'll nip off and get us some food. No no, I say, I will buy us some food. "How about this, then", he says. "You give me some money, I go off to buy the food, you keep an eye on my shoeshine stand." I get my wallet out. He riffles through it, selects a few banknotes and shoots off. I wonder if I've been had.

But there's fun to be had here. I can be a shoeshine man. This stepped wooden box, with its polished brass lids, contains a number of brushes and different shades of beeswax polish. I start my act, "Shoo-shayn! Evvrybaddy! Shoo-shoo-shayniepoos! I a-shayn-a yorr-a shoos for youse!" The toursist are mostly Brits, who walk that bit faster when being hawked at. I took especial pleasure in offering my services to people in trainers.

My blokey comes back with an armful of grub: sandwiches and a square of the wonderful bakhlava, a sticky amalgam of almonds and sesame seeds drenched in honey. He gives me my change and I realise that this little banquet has cost far less than I would have paid for just one sandwich.

One of my fellow hawkers (I'm in the union, you see) was shouting out trying to drumup business for his little restaurant: "Very nice food. You come eat here." A young couple come into sight, the girl with the face of a dolly and a shapely figure, wearing hotpants. As they pass us the food hawker's tone drops to a lower pitch, and he calls: "Very nice. Very tasty......" The boyfriend's head swivels slowly round, like the turret of a battlecruiser, his eyes fixing the hawker. If looks could kill....









 

Boozers and Beavers in the Baltics 1997


The Night of the Bear

 

We’re in Latvia. It’s 1997, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Empire.

 

My trip was through the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although Latvia was the poorest of these Baltic countries, the people were friendly, hospitable, courteous.

 

In Estonia I had stayed at a farm run by an enterprising man called Viedrig (Viedrig the Viking, I called him) who owned woodland around his farm. With his own hands he had cut down trees, sawn them into planks, and constructed a timber-beamed extension to the farmhouse with the most artistic staircases and landings and bedrooms. The whole place reeked of essential oils of pine, including my room. He had built a sauna onto the place, fired (of course) by a wood stove, which generated an excruciatingly high temperature. I leaked from every pore, and reflected how much better this was than in the electrically-powered versions I had tried in England.

 

Viedrig the Viking

I came to these countries with a bag of preconceptions. They would (I thought) certainly be happier since the fall of communism; people like Viedrig were obviously better off, and raking it in. Viedrig disabused me of my haughty ideas. When I asked him whether democracy was better than communism, he replied that the previous socialism had been better than the capitalism that had taken its place. It was as if he had taken my words, twirled them in the air like a skilful wrestler, and slammed them down on the canvas, exposing them as the vacuous notions of an English know-it-all. For communism (in which powerful boss-men oppressed the innocent populace) he substituted socialism (in which we look after each other, from each according to his ability; to each according to his need); for democracy (government of the people by the people for the people) he substituted capitalism (where the rich push their greedy snouts into the trough and deny the poor a look-in).

 

He explained to me that his people had been in this land for three thousand years. There had been a mass migration of Turks from Turkmenistan, long before they had invaded Greek Asia Minor and renamed it Turkey – the names of Finns and Estonians (such as Hakkinen and Rankonen) so reminiscent of Turkish place-names such as Pamukkale. He told me that Stalin had exiled his family to Siberia earlier in the century (Stalin would play with whole populations as lightly as playing agame of chess) but he was not bitter, or anti-Russian.

 

Later on in my trip, an East German expanded on the theme of socialism/communism. In the old days, he said, everybody was equally poor, so there was no jealousy. People would look out for each other; help each other out. These days it was every man for himself, and some greedy bastards were getting extremely rich at the expense of everybody else.

 

These nuggets of information were invaluable to me. Travel should broaden the mind, especially a narrow one like my own. The more I travel, the more I realise that the traveller has an annoying tendency to shoe-horn his guests into his own set of values (or rather, to try to do this). Like a rich person visiting a poor area, he is prone to impossible crassness (“why doncha just buy some?”). Or like the poor, benighted pop star who wrote a song to help the famine relief effort in Etiopia: “do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” To really benefit from the exchange, the visitor should gain some appreciation of the others’ starting-point. Theirs is not his. Therein lies the benefit.

 

But I digress.

 

We’re in Latvia. Between Cesis and Sigulda. Between these two towns lies the Gauja (Gow-yah) National Park. It is immense. Do not be deceived by the word “park”. Here are there no park benches; no public conveniences. This is forest. When I say “we” I mean “I”.

 

The two towns are of course joined by a road. And, by a quite different route, a river has the same start and end points. The plan is to walk from Cesis to Sigulda along the riverbank, just like walking from Dudley to Wolverhampton along the canal towpath. On the outskirts of town is a road bridge. At this point the River Gauja departs on its separate journey to Sigulda. I just step over the cast iron railings, skid down the slope, and I’m at the water’s edge. What could be simpler? Just follow the river on my left.





Here we go into the wild blue yonder!

The first mile or two is easy. There's a track alongside the river, and I mock myself for the banality of this great adventure. But the signs of civilization then disappear, and I am in almost virgin territory. It stops being an easy stroll. Every footpath peters out because - duh - these are game trails, not paths trod by humans. As I follow the river mile after mile I come to realise that, bend after bends, it is alternately flat and then steep. Where flat on my side, it was boggy. I look a hundred yards over the far side: it's steep there. Where steep on my side, it was hell on the ankles, and the undergrowth so thick it had to be pushed through. At some places I would have to beat a track away from the river to avoid these twin scourges, bog then steepness, and then spend hours trying to find the river again – no river, no signpost towards Sigulda. After five miles or so, a massive sweeping bend to the left appeared (I was on the right hand bank, the river to my left). Rather than necociate the flat swampland on my side of the river, I decided to cut the corner by wading across. I wrapped my camera in plastic bags, and then again in my poncho, and put the bundle deep in my rucksack. Taking off my shoes and socks, I rolled up the legs of my jeans and began the crossing. After the first third of the river's width, calf deep, I wondered why I had hesitated to consider any risk. Risk? There’s more risk in a paddling pool! In the second third, my jeans started to get wet, even though I rolled them higher. And at the last third (nearly there! Just keep going!) I saw the riverbed slope down to maybe two metres, maybe four. Oh, no! The final ten metres are too deep to wade, and trying to swim would be madness: risky and ruinous to my equipment. Why didn’t I realise that at a river bend, the bulk of the water takes the inside track? It began to rain as I beat my soggy and chilled way back, and had to set up the poncho and climb into my sleeping bag to recover my body heat. How pathetic! In bed in the middle of the afternoon!
 

 

As evening approached, I chose an ideal place to bed down on the bank of the Gauja. Breaking wood for a camp fire, I set up camp. My food was plentiful, and I improvised a barbecue for my chicken legs. The sun went down and I sat there as contented as a king.

 

Over the far bank, a moon arose over the trees. I set up my poncho, stapled to the earth on the landward side and propped up on a pair of vertical sticks on the river-side, held down by elastic bunjee ropes. Snug in my sleeping bag, my fire smouldering comfortingly nearby, I went off to sleep. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. From time to time I would open an eye and observe the moon progressing across the southern sky like the hand of a giant clock.

 



Lighting the campfire

At maybe two in the morning I was awakened by a loud splash, I was camped maybe two metres from the river’s edge and a metre above water level. I asked myself if I had really heard such a sound, or dreamed it. I replayed it in my mind: it had the gulping quality of a heavy boulder hitting the surface of the water at high speed, followed by a splash. Gloonk – splosh.

 

It happened again. Gloonk – splosh. Now, this was worrying. I had no idea what could be causing the sound, but it was big. I flitted through the possible hypotheses:

 

            -A joke being played on me by local yobbos – let’s throw a rock in the river and put the shits up this unsuspecting tourist. Only, the nearest habitation was miles away, and the forest was so quiet that when a slight breeze approached I could hear the slight creaking of branches approaching. Any approach of people would be very obvious.

            -A seal that had swum up the Gauja from the Baltic, and was splashing around? Not very likely.

            -A dolphin? Ditto.

            -Beaver? No, they are only north American.

 

The only explanation that I could think of was a bear. Gulp. Just before coming here, I had seen a Michael Palin TV programme, Full Circle, in which he had witnessed an Alaskan bear sitting in a shallow river and whacking passing fish with his paw. Now, that would make a gloonk-sploosh sound. Gulp.

 

I was barefoot in my sleeping bag. If I had to flee for my skin across the forest, I wouldn’t make a hundred yards before collapsing. I slithered out as silently as possible, my knees knocking with fear, and put on my shoes. At least now, if something came charging towards me across the shallow river and up the bank, I was mobile.

 

The gloonk-sploosh happened again. I plucked up the courage to switch on my torch. To my relief, no green eyes reflected back at me. The surface of the Gauja was so flat that my beam reflected off the surface and could be seen on the trees on the far bank. This would reveal an object the size of a football, let alone an object the size of a bear. No bear. I was safe.

 

Among my supplies I had two dozen party poppers. In discussing this trip with the lads down the pub, we had discussed how to deal with the wild animals listed by Lonely Planet.

 

“Take a gun with you, Brent”, said Chris.

 

“Well, dumb-arse, firstly I don’t possess a gun, and secondly, if I did, I wouldn’t dream of taking it on a fucking plane.”

 

“How about party poppers?” said Damian, just being flippant.

 

“Now, you aren’t as stupid as you look, Damian”, I said. “They make a right old bang, and might just frighten off a wild boar, a bear or a wolf.





As I calmed down from my imaginings of a bear lolloping across the river to make a snack of me, I wondered what effect the party poppers would have had if used in anger. I fired one off. Boooooom! In the silent forest, it sounded like a sodding hand grenade going off! A wonderfully effective frightener!

 

                - # -

 

In the morning, I carried on along the right-hand bank. At a certain point I found a tree whose lower bark had been stripped away in a ring, and the timber nibbled into. Deer? Deer sharpening their teeth? I am so ignorant that it's funny.



 

A bit further on, my way was barred by a stagnant creek. The water, coming from right to left, towards the river, was stagnant. Skirting it leftwards I found a fallen tree-trunk straddling the creek. Aha! A perfect bridge! I broke off some branches to use as crutches, and began my wobbly way along the tree trunk. Half way along, my foot went through the rotten timber, and I was rewarded with a shoeful of water. Doh!

 

After a change of socks, I hacked further leftwards along this tributary, down towards the Gauja. The stagnant creek ended abruptly at….. a beaver’s dam! Ah, so!!!

 



So that’s what was splashing around in the river last night! Beaver! Swimming along the riverbed, looking up for any fish silhouetted by the full moon, spotting one, accelerating upwards, taking the fish, exiting the water afrom sheer upward velocity and… returning earthwards…. Going gloonk-sploosh! Around the dam, the place was littered with felled tree trunks. The earlier nibbled tree was also explained. Deer, for Chrissakes!

 

On the second day, thoroughly fed up with getting bogged down in riverbank undergrowth, I beat a path away from the river and lose it altogether. For all I know, the river has invisibly bent away from me at a right-angle. I have no map worthy of the name. Plodding through the forest, I come upon an unpaved logging track, and yomp along it at a satisfactory pace. Not a vehicle, not a person comes into view. This is the first time since I was a new-born baby that I have not seen a human face for over a day. I begin to go slightly barmy, imagining I can see faces in the bushes, and fighting off the loneliness by dredging up all the pop songs from memory and hooting them at the top of my voice through the trees standing unimpressed either side of me like mute sentries.

 

And then I come upon a fenced-in field. In the field is a horse. His coat is sleek and glossy; his shape athletic, built for speed. I know nothing about racehorses, but this was one.

 

He comes up to the fence, cranes his neck over, and observes me closely. Passing visitors must be quite a rarity for him.

 

He gives one of those horsey snorts, blowing through his big blubbery lips as horses do. It's as if he is trying to communicate with me. So I snort theatrically back at him. He maintains eye contact, and nods his head up and down, bowing his great neck ponderously down to left and right three or four times. Again, I mimick him, deliberately winding him up. He looks a bit annoyed at this, and lets out a full-voiced “neigh”. I jolly well neigh back at him with all my might.

 

Unable to contain himself any longer, my horse takes off to his left, alongside the barrier, and then curves round to his left in a great loop around the field which slopes up from the fence. His shiny skin shows off the fine muscles beneath. Upon completing this frantic circuit, he slams on the brakes and almost skidds to a halt in the same place as before, forelegs slightly akimbo. It's as if he is challenging me: well, what are you gonna do now, Smartarse?!

 

In response, I take off in a miniature version of his circuit and, rucksack on back, I trot around the track keeping eye contact with him until flipping my head round to again meet his furious gaze.

 

And then… I hear the sound of human laughter. Away to my right, up the slope, arms folded in stern reproof, stand the farmer and his wife. Oh, dear. I have just made a public tart of myself. Summoning up my most fluent body-language, I traipse up the hill towards them flapping my arms about, and hitting my forehead with the ball of my hand, and shaking my head with a big stupid contrite embarrassed grin on my gob, whilst intoning, in fluent English, “Oh, no, what must you be thinking of me? I didn’t know I had an audience!”

 

After having a good laugh at my expense, they tried to answer my enquiries on the distance to Sigulda. Chink (five) kilometer? Otto (eight) kilometer? They waffled a lot of complicated explanations, but none of them were a straight answer. In the end, the farmer grabbed my rucksack and bundled it into the back of his dirty old Lada. The old nanny came out of the house to see what all the ruckus was about.

 

A few miles down the road, he pulled up at a river crossing where stood a single house. This was a ferry. Tethered at either bank was a heavy duty steel hawser. It ran through a crude pulley system on a floating flat platform riding on pontoons. The house belonged to the ferryman, whose role it was in life to wait for foot passengers or cars or lorries, and then man-haul the thing across the river with sheer musclepower. So, this was the reason they couldn’t just give me a distance! I tried to pay the farmer for his kindness, but he pooh-poohed the idea. For just such eventualities, I had a few dozen sweets (Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs) and fished him one out. He accepted it, but tried to decline a second. “For your wife,” I said, making the universal gesture of a pair of breasts. “Ah, Da! Da!”, he responded, taking the second sweet. I fished out a third sweet, which he again declined until I made the universal gesture of a pair of drooping breasts at navel-level…. “For your mother!” He took it with a guffaw.


 

There were a few more scary moments on this memorable trip. In Lithuania, I reached the famous Hill of Crosses just before nightfall, and after strolling around this bizarre monument to crazy religion with literally tens of thousands of crosses from three metres high to three centimetres, the little ones festooning the big ones like creepers in a creepy swamp, I decided to bed down next to the hill. But it was mosquito country. As I pitched camp, a mossie, then ten mossies, then a hundred angry little bleeders began to attack. I had never seen more than three at a time in my life. Quickly grasping the fact that this position was untenable, I bundled my affairs together and legged it across the fields. Looking back (I am not exaggerating here) the swarm was following me in an elongated plume, as if in some Disney cartoon.

 

The capital of Lithuania is Vilnius. Napoleon went through it on the way to Moscow and, nicely whupped, back westwards again with his tail between his legs. At the beginning of WWII, Hitler’s boys made the same mistake, but Adolf stayed nice and warm back home in Berlin. In the run-up to the meeting of the German and Russian armies, the Russians had prepared a great circular trench on a hilltop, intending to store tank fuel in it. As the Blitzkrieg advanced, the Russians withdrew, leaving the bare ring-trenches. The conquering Germans demanded that the people of Vilnius hand over their Jews for execution. The non-Jewish population, instead of reluctantly acceding to these monstrous demands, joined in wholehartedly, and helped scourge their former neighbours up the hill, doubtless later returning to Vilnius rub their hands in front of their new houses. The Jews were frogmarched up to the circular trenches, ordered to lay head-to-foot, and then machine-gunned where they lay. The emotional toll on the obedient murderous German soldiers in events such as this (“I voss only following orders”) caused the authorities to later devise methods which were less distasteful, more efficient, more industrial. In Vilnius’s Jewish Museum are displayed hand-written eyewitness accounts of this stuff. It’s close to unbearable. One of the staff made eye-contact with me. I read in her expression, “Yeah, it’s tough to read all this, but don’t go looking for my sympathy, pal. You’ll move on. It’s tougher to have had it happen to one’s own people.”

 

On another hillside in Vilnius I camped out. I had planned to stay in a hotel. Lonely Planet said that it had rooms at “only” £30, whilst everywhere else was at least twice that. The taxi driver gave me a funny look when, at the train station, I gave him the address. After he took my money, dumped me out and sped off, I found out why: Closed for Renovation. (Translation: Closed to transform this £30 hotel into a £100 hotel, suckers.)

 

So… where to sleep? Lonely Planet showed a park. That’ll do. But the park, even after dark, was full of lights and benches and people drinking cans of beer. Can’t bed down here. Down the track, over a little bridge, lots of foliage, no lights now, up a slope with wooden beams set into the hillside to make steps, I find an octagonal concrete tower, a beacon, smelling of urine. I set up my poncho nearby, the air getting a bit of a nip, and go off to sleep. Nobody know’s I’m here, and nobody’s going to disturb me.

 

About two in the morning, I am awakened by footsteps clonking the wooden beams. Somebody, or maybe more than one person, is coming up to join me. I hear a heavy breathing approaching the back of my poncho. It’s one old guy, no companion. He doesn’t see me – my poncho is dark green and invisible. I have my torch ready, and also party poppers. He is talking to himself – gubbedy gubbedy gubbedy, which means, “What the hell am I doing on this cold hilltop with a bottle of vodka instead of tucked up in a warm bed with a family aound me.” (My Lithuanian is that good, honest.) If I hear his tone of voice change…. Gubbedy- wha? – gabba gabbo doo?!!!... I shall fire off a party popper, shine the torch in his eyes, and we’ll see just who craps himself, not me. But instead, he staggers into the tower, the accoustics changing, gulps down some vodka, talks to himself for a few minutes, then departs.

 

The third and final scary event in the Baltics (I don’t count the many people who strangely dragged one foot behind them, inexplicable until one of them sprayed vomit around him – ah, it’s a vodka thing!) was in Latvia. My bus was going North, following the coast road, the sea to our left. Lonely Planet referred to a suitable hotel on the coast, and the bus dropped me off there. Unexpectedly, this was just a straight road in the middle of a dark forest. No hotel, no town, no sea, just trees. I yomped North a bit and came upon a tiny garden shed nestling under the dark trees. It served as a bar, just big enough for the barwoman and three of four drinkers. I ask for a beer. She leers at me and makes a negative wagging movement with fingertip… no-no-no you don’t! This is a bit unusual for a booze-seller, and I’m baffled. I ask where the hotel is, and instead of pointing thataway-two-kilometres, there is a long incomprehensible explanation. In the nick of time, a car draws up outside, and a scruffy unshaven bloke enters. He says, with Alexei Sayle comic commie accent: “Khen I khelp-a-you?” “Ah, yes, two things: why can’t I buy a beer, and where’s this hotel?” After a brief gabbedy-gabbedy, he explains that beer is bad for me (Jaysus, this is mad) and that the hotel is now a children’s home. Ah… so that’s it.

 

He offers to drive me to another hotel – great! We go out to his car, and he drives off with the steering wheel in one hand and swigs from his bottle of beer with the other. Alus = beer, hence “ale”. We got that word from the Vikings, and the b-word from the Romans. I’m sure the Vikings didn’t drink and drive.

 

He makes polite conversation.

“Ey em so unhappy! I hev not sleep for three days.”

“Oh? Why haven’t you slept for three days?”

“The policemen they look for me.”

(Oh, fuck.) “Why are the police looking for you?”

“In front of my lights (he gesticulates towards the headlights with his bottle hand)… a boy, a girl.”

(Oh, fuck.) “Did you hurt the boy, the girl?”, I enquire with a tremor.

“Det’s my bizness,” he replies. I now see his scruffy-sweaty-unshaven look through new eyes. The words “desperado” and “fugitive” come to mind.

 

We stop at a red light. A signpost indicates a hotel to the right. Phew, we’re there. But when the light goes green, he accelerates hard, as if he is making a statement of his power over me? I’m getting scared. For the first time I understand why women being abducted prior to a rape prefer to keep quiet than challenge the abductor… maybe it’ll be all right if I say nothing. But that’s no good. On a cord around my neck I have compass, whistle, and Swiss Army Knife. I remove the knife, discreetly open the blade and, without showing it, feel confident enough to challenge him in a loud voice:

“Where you take me?”

“Hotel!”

“No! I saw sign. Hotel back there!”

“No,” he contradicts me, “hotel here….” and he swings the wheel round onto a sidestreet on the left. There is indeed a hotel on the right, with a narrow flagstoned pedestrian path flanked by little bushes. He whirls the steering wheel again, bumps up on the pavement, then accelerates towards the hotel’s glass doors, brushing the little shrubs on each side. I brace myself for the smashing Keith Moon moment, but he slams on the anchors in time, the bonnet dipping down a couple of feet from the doors.

 

We get out, he carries my rucksack into the reception, speaks to the receptionist, offers to escort me to my room. I politely decline, and when I’m safely inside, wedge a chair under the door handle with shaking hands. Scary stuff.

 

Next morning, full of the joys of autumn, I find another drinking shed. There are two old street sweepers knocking back the vodka four hours before midday. Again, they won’t let me indulge. One of the street sweepers insists that I go to his house. I decline. He grabs my rucksack and dashes off with it, crossing the road. Do I rugby-tackle him, or go along with it all? No choice. His big rambling wooden house is surrounded by fruit trees. These people have been through some very hard times, and maybe such fruitfulness has warded off famine in the past. He sits me down and proudly displays his Soviet music centre, as big as a coal bunker and sounding like crap. He shows me his photo collection, all ties and suits. I wonder what his toilet is like, and pretend that I need to go. It is a vertical hole, drilled down into the earth like a well, with a wooden seat over the top. On a shelf are boxes of white powder intended to keep the smell down. The stink is indescribable. But despite the fact that my compatriot Thomas Crapper had invented a far superior water closet a century and a half before, I didn’t feel superior to this smashing old guy who coped as best he could, and had made it to old age.

I shall add to this account and tell the story of young Jaanis Sondars whose schoolteacher Mrs. Rabushko wrote to me and said that his encounter with a lost Englishman had made him buck up his ideas at school. I must write back to her to find out if Jaanis is today the multilingual business hotshot I thought he might become.



 

Alligators and Spaceships - Florida 1998


Me an’ my girl - well, one of them - in Florida. October 1998.


Stephanie, at 14 years old, had one of those daft adolescent obsessions: she was collecting everything and anything dolphin-shaped. Her bedroom was crammed with such crap.

So, when we fixed on Florida as an exciting and exotic holiday destination, the notion of swimming with real-life dolphins arose. She swam like a fish herself, anyway; on a “swimathon” in Telford, she had gone on for mile after mile of slow, stately, streamlined lengths of the pool. Her shape is curvaceous and athletic, a shape inherited from her great grandmother Lilian Russell, a swimming champion before the Great War.



 
As a parent, it is most satisfying to make the dreams of one’s offspring come true. Stephanie absorbed all the instruction given by the Dolphin Centre staff, listening intently to the do’s and don’ts of relating to these intelligent mammals with an almost spiritual aura. They would be watching her through one beadly little observant eye as she looped around the pool. When it was all over, she was quiet and subdued – the tranquility of somebody on Cloud Nine.


 
(Could we just clear up an earlier statement – swam like a fish herself. I am well aware that dolphins are not fish. I have a recording of a four-year-old Stephanie talking to me over a picture-book. At one point, discussing the phenotypes of the animal kingdom she exclaims in a chirpy, musical, French-accented voice, “dass not a way-ull! Dass a big feesh!”)

 
Not a big feesh, and that's final!

Florida being, in the British mind, synonymous with theme parks – especially Disney-sodding-land – I was determined to make the experience more meaningful than going on a series of rides. Even the best theme park ride is little more than a short term thrill; you can hardly tell people about it back home; it is to adventure what fizzy pop is to real nutrition – all of the appearance and none of the reality. But this was Steph’s trip as much as mine, so we agreed that we would alternate between Dad-days and a Steph-days. But I would not set foot inside Disneyland; would not even pronounce the D-word. When I see grown men dressed up in cartoon outfits, transmitting cartoon body language, I have an urge to snatch the great mask off their heads, look them in the eye and scream, “You were not born to this demeaning work. You could be something noble such as a coal miner. There, you are free! Flee! Take wing my litle one!” Or sommat like that, anyway.

So on Dad-days, we had some adventure. Original experience not prescribed by any overcautious engineer with a degree in delivering British Standard Thrill Units to brain-dead and passive punters.

On one such Dad Day, we passed a shooting gallery. “D’you fancy it?” I asked Steph. We parked up, and entered through the glass doors, feeling a little self conscious. Would the place be full of aggressive gun-nuts? Stephanie was up for it in principle, and I confirmed with the warmongers inside that 14 was not too young to have a blast. “Oh, we have people as young as ten come here and shoot,” said the beefy moustachoied manager. So I asked Steph if she would like to have a blast. She declined.

They asked me what I would like to shoot with. Inside the glass cabinets was an obscene array of gunmetal-grey lethal hardware. Let us not forget that these weapons are made to kill living creatures, including human beings. Faced with such choice, such abundance, such a macho testosterene-filled sack of toys, I went in the opposite direction to the prevailing ethos and asked for the simplest gun they had.

“Oh, then how about a revolver? A twenny-two.” (Translation: How about a simple hand-gun as opposed to a feckin machine pistol that sprays bullets out like a hosepipe. How about a revolver, a thing with six bullets in a revolving chamber rather than a square magazine that slots into the handle and fires a dozen bullets in quick succession. How about a 22-calibre bullet (a tiny one) rather than a great big thing that would sit heavily in the palm of your hand?)

So I take my little handgun, my ear defenders, and my squalid little box of fifty bullets. I go forward into the shooting gallery. It is set up for six shooters (not six-shooters as in Billy the Kid, but six enthusiasts like me). The shooter stands in a sort of stall, like a horse in a race, with up to five like-minded people either side. Over to my right, Stephanie is watching through a plate-glass window. In front of me, maybe twenty yards away, is a cardboard target. I decide to stand lags apart with both hands on the pistol, which I believe I have heard referred to as the "Weaver Stance", and begin to fire at the target. It kicks lightly in my hands. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. I open the chamber as shown, spill out the empty shells into a bucket and (taking care to keep the weapon pointed downrange as instructed) and insert another six bullets. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Such fun!

As I am doing my modest thing, a person steps into the stall on my left. This is one serious dude. His gun is three times the size of mine. I think it is a Colt 45. When he fires his first shot, the noise hurts my ears, even through the ear defenders. He is theatrical. He fires with only one hand. BANG! He goes down one one knee, and blasts a shot off. BANG! I do not turn to look at him. I don’t want any trouble. This guy is Dead Eye Dick, or Dirty Harry, or Slim Pickens, or just another silly boy with a toy. Afterwards, Steph would say to me, “Daddy, your gun only sent out a bit of smoke, but that man’s gun had a great flame coming out of his.”

And then I hear an angry raised voice speaking to Dead Eye Dick. It is the Range Warden. “I told ya not to do that, ya goddam idiot! I told ya! Get the hell outta here!”

When I have finished popping away at my targets, and am safely away from the action, I ask the Range Warden what he had so exercised him. He angrily tells me that the man on my left had had a problem with his gun. It had stopped firing, and as a way of investigating had turned the gun towards himself and peered down the barrel.

 I ask the Range Warden if, in this land of crazy gunmen, he often had deranged local people doing dangerous things. “No!" he snarls in a gravelly voice, "He wassunt an American. He was an Englishman like you!” Oops!  

-------

On another Daddy-Day, we drive across the width of the tongue of land that is Florida to Cape Canaveral. As a lad, the exploits of the Americans and their heroic astronauts filled me with admiration. I followed the Mercury programme with its solo astronauts, the Gemini programme with its pairs of astronauts, and the Apollo programme with its trios. After leaving the Earth’s orbit, and doing practise circles of the moon, they landed on it in 1969. For the next few years they went back, ever more ambitious, even driving around the dusty surface on “moon buggies” until dropping the whole thing.

Today, in 1998, there will be a Space Shuttle launch. The crew will consist of the usual fit scientists and military men in their thirties, but also the oldest man ever to go into space. John Glenn, or rather Senator John Glenn as he now is, was the first American to orbit the Earth in a Mercury capsule. (We should not forget that other Americans went into space before him, on so-called sub-orbital flights, strapped onto unreliable rockets designed to do little more than lob a nuke onto the Russkies. We are also not likely to forget that the Russkies beat them to orbit, with Yuri Gagarin circling around above their heads whilst America’s rockets exploded spectacularly on the launch pad time after time.)

And today, septuagenarian John Glenn was going up again, forty-plus years after he made history.

In the coastal towns around the Cape (renamed Cape Kennedy for a couple of decades until the notion of naming such features after recent dignitaries was declared unworthy) they had not seen such a turnout for many years. Amazingly, Space Shuttle launches had become routine! People had almost lost interest in the four-monthly launches of these wonderful machines. The crowd of sightseers has over the years been steadily dwindling, and the John Glenn mission was an exception, a pleasant reminder to the locals of past glories. They try to charge us to park in the sidestreets of their coastal villages. One young woman holds a placard inviting us to turn back to Jesus.

Looking out eastwards across the Atlantic, we await the launch with electric anticipation. At tee-minus-ten, the launch is suspended: some dickhead in a Cessna light aircraft is circling the launch pad too closely. We waited impatiently while they did what they had to do (maybe chasing him off with military jets). We could visualise the astronauts in their space suits, lying on their backs, breathing in the oxygen, tenser than us mere spectators. And then, thrillingly, the count recommences.

Through somebody’s car radio we hear the dramatic countdown. For me, the passage of time has never been so dramatic, so palpable, so irreversible. As the seconds drops from the thirties and twenties to the lower digits, an almighty yellow-white flame appears in the distance, and the crackling sound of superheated air reaches our ears, and the mighty spaceship muscles its way up, above the restraining gravity of Planet Earth, and gains speed poised on its sparkling burst of fire, and crackles off into the sky, into the distance, towards the horizon, leaving behind it a plume of passive smoke.

I could hardly contain myself. Emotions washed through me. I was struck by the contrast between the excruciating pain of the pre-launch delay and the bollocks-out action of the real launch. These Amercans  I thought,  they either don’t go for it or they go for it full-on! Next to me, my callow adolescent daughter was disdainfully wondering why these old guys get so carried away by such mundane things as a spaceship launch. Can’t he be like normal people, I imagine she was wondering, and get excited on a roller coaster?

In the course of sampling the different cuisines on offer, I had been shocked by the paucity of American cuisine. Wherever we went, it was lower than canteen food. Part way through our trip, we discovered Cuban cuisine, and Italian restaurants, and others. But there is no such ama-mull as authentic Yankee grub. The low point came in the …. wait for it…. International House of Pancakes, where a stack of floury slabs was placed in front of me. Maybe four thousand calories on my plate. A squalid jar of mock-maple syrup to pour upon it. After a quarter of this calorie-fest I was bloated, and had to stop, embarrassed at wasting enough food for three people, imagining my mother mentioning all the starving children in India.

On one occasion, in a Chinese restaurant, I was so impressed by the spectacular grub that I took a photo of my plate. When the eating was good, I would make “yummmm” sounds, like some theatrical luvvie. “Ohhhhh, yeeees!” Stephanie put me down with teenage skill: “Why can’t you just enjoy your food like normal people without making all this noise?!”

On Steph Days we did the theme parks. There were some spectacular rides and water slides that will last in my memory until… er… 1999.

And as part of Dad’s Days, we hit the famous Everglades. Situated at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, the Everglades slope downhill at a microscopically small rate. I mean the gradient is so slight it's literally as flat as a bowling green. The figure is something like an inch a mile. This has resulted in endless grassland, or maybe reedland, where the mosquito is king, and where the local indians were a hardy bunch indeed. I think they were called the Pepsi Cola tribe before the white men heroically wiped them out. Nineteenth century technology was more than a match for the snivelling stone-age barbarians that had occupied the continent for only a millennium or two.

We hired a canoe. To begin with I took the front position. We were hopeless. We could not go in a straight line along the twenty-metre-wide channel, literally hitting one side or the other. Whatever musclepower I expended we just could not advance in a straight line. We figured out that the rear oarsman had more control and so swapped places. Now we had it! Smooth and coordinated, we got up some good speed, and got out of the channel into a lake which was a bit choppy so we retreated back into our channel.



A guy came past in a powerboat, throttling right down out of courtesy, and said, "You guys seem to be working smoothly as a team", which was true. Our minds were frantically calculating moments of inertia around the centre of percussion, and drag limitation via minimal y-axis oscillation. Some, understandably, might say smoothly.

We noticed a little landing platform and parked up for a walk on a dry pathway among the mangroves. And then the mosquitos started on us. Our little stroll became a run and then a mad dash to try to outpace the bastards. I was trying to swat them from my face and legs and calves all at the same time, hopping and flailing and running and jumping. This was too much for Steph. She 'corpsed' - the sight of her crazy old man doing this deranged dance gave her a fit of the giggles and she couldn't run for laughing. The mossies made her pay for that, devouring her whilst standing stationary and shrieking with laughter. We later counted the bites on her legs: there were around a hundred.

Retreating back to the boat, and safety, we noticed a crocodile in the water, just eyes and snout showing, and an alligator basking on the bank. "Let's get a photo, Steph!" We approached a bit closer. "Still too far, Steph. A bit closer please!" Wicked swine that I am, I wanted to see a look of fear on her face before clicking the shutter.


 
Years later she confessed to hamming it up, feigning terror in order to make the fool behind her click his stupid camera.

On that Florida trip we had the most diverse fortnight imaginable. We met up with my sisters and Steph's little cousins; we drove through the tail end of Hurricane Mitch; heard our food being crunched in the darkness by cockroaches in fetid motel rooms; and survived to tell the tale!