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The Thames Path, Day 2

Of all the slightly odd and new experiences I had during my saunter, none comes close to my alarm call after my first night under canvas. I employ no poetic license – I was woken by the stereo of a woodpecker pecking and a barn owl hooting.

It’s a truism that the day after an unfit individual exercises, said idiot will ache a little. Whilst listening to the news that Nick Clegg is the new Cheryl Cole and that big metal birds were to give way entirely to the feathered variety for the next couple of days at least, I broke camp shuffling and groaning as I bent. The first instance of talking to myself was at 6.12am that Friday morning. My words were, “I’ll be alright, just as soon as I get going.” I am 37 in August.

I was half-right. I did upgrade from pigeon steps to stiff strides and in the early morning I saw the barn owl. I should mention that whilst my dawn chorus was stunning in the first instance, it was followed shortly after by the inelegance of swans. When not at rest on the water, swans firstly take off in an ungainly 3 beat of their webbed feet cracking the surface tension and wing tips slapping, before somehow getting airborne and then wheezing like bust bagpipes on every down stroke of their inefficient wings. How they have become with synonymous with grace because of their time on the water alone does a disservice to other fowl, perhaps not as pretty, but infinitely more attractive in the air. I like a Canada goose, personally. A final musing on swans – outside of towns, they are the only water bird to approach people for food. We need to predate them once more, to restore the fear they should feel for all humans, not just the Queen. I guess this makes me a republican of sorts, albeit via rarely held ideals.

My legs loosened and I pushed on in the bright sunshine, the sky unscarred by vapour trails. Feeble jokes were exchanged with other walkers (them: “Moving house?!” in reference to my pack; me: “Not long to London now, is it?” a line which succeeds in the tricky task of being both weak and boastful), and I lay down to enjoy the day by the river. I passed out for an hour. The joyful simplicity was broken on getting back up, as I flashed forward once more to my 83 year old arthritic self.

The path veered from the river, and I found myself going through fields and fields of sheep. I can handle sheep, although those orange flies that feast on their droppings disturb me. In the second or third field, I overtook a couple out on a ramble (amateurs!) and set about putting distance between us as motivation to keep going. I stopped briefly by a ewe that didn’t trot away from me as they usually do. Sadly, afterbirth hung from the back of her and she stood locked, staring at her stillborn lamb. I checked several gates after this gruesome discovery to look for a farmer without luck.

The Thames Path is, for the most part, well signed, although the discs are small and can be missed. Inevitably I got lost for a second time. I headed back to the river once I’d realised my mistake (or the mistake of Oxon Council), clambering over barbed wire fences and thankfully snagging only my trousers. I felt sure I’d hook up my scrotum on one, but I got away with it. I saw my first industry on the river, a crayfisherman hauling his traps and re-baiting them.

I still wasn’t on track though, and reaching the path again required more fence-hopping and trudging over private land. Exhausted, I stopped for a quick bite in The Swan, Eynsham.  A good landlord, excellent food, the polar opposite to the experience of the previous evening. Getting going was again a trial, and by the time I’d reached Godstow Lock, I gratefully accepted a lift from a stag group, spread over two 68’ foot narrowboats. Whilst I appreciated the beer, I couldn’t get on with the misogyny and alarming racism, so disembarked at the next lock. By now, on the outskirts of Oxford, I was worrying about my bed for the night. I sent a text to a friend who lives there, but after no reply turned my phone off to save battery.

Getting through Oxford was pleasant. The river passes some amazing architecture and in the early evening boating crews exert themselves, whilst no doubt reciting Latin and solving Fermat’s last theorem. Young and with their brilliant lives ahead of them. I was having a dark day.

Regardless, I continued. My head was clouded with thoughts of where to pitch for the night, and in West Oxford my reverie was broken by five young teenagers with a Staffie, one of whom got in my face, pushed his tongue into his bottom lip, and slapping the protrusion declared me “SPECIAL!!”. The way I was walking, he had a fair point, and it actually lightened my mood. The town gave way to fields, fields with cows and their young, but I grew a pair, you’ll be pleased to hear. On and on, lost in thought. Another couple of miles, and I found a spot by the river that created a natural barricade against night time bovine intrusion. I pitched, turned on the radio and twisted a rollie into shape. I clicked my phone into life and had a message from Bella, my Oxford resident yogi friend.

We spoke and arranged for her and Manu, her equally bendy man, to come and pick me up. I greatly looked forward to a night on an airbed. It took until past dusk, and the flashing of my torch, for us to find one another. Although separated by the river, there was a bridge nearby which I finally located. The picture below was taken the next morning. The horror.

No matter, they had wheels and collected me. After the initial shock that I somehow had the biomechanics more usually associated with a long term resident of Sunny Glades Nursing Home, they sat me down and over a glass of wine and doorstop cheese sarnies, we had a long overdue catch-up.

That airbed was spectacular.

This is the Foundation I supported by doing this walk. Please be generous.

The Thames Path, Day 1

Privately, I fantasised about having a liaison, but didn’t expect to fall in love. I hoped for clear skies, but was blessed with faultless azure heavens, polished by ash. I certainly expected to talk to myself once or twice, but not like a demented marine.

In mid-December 2009, I was made redundant from my sales job. Whilst not unexpected, it left me in a state of flux, and I resolved to make some tentative enquiries prior to Christmas, with the intention of hitting the employment campaign trail hard in the New Year. Naively perhaps, I felt sure that there was an information sales job out there for me. “Felt sure” could be read as “utterly dreaded”. So I returned to the bosom of my family and friends in Gloucestershire, and sat about in pubs, barfly that I am. As usual, there was the conversational mix of bragging and piss take, football and New Year’s plans. The issue of my lack of employment came up more than once, and in a conversation with Steve, a friend who’d flown in from Sri Lanka for the season, I idly proposed that I may walk back to London. Then the snow came, and I returned to the big city to continue my search for The Gainful, swerving the walk.

A few weeks later, I was back in the Shire for Easter, spending time at the smallholding where my good friend Miles lives in rural idyll. A goat shares a field with some sheep, ducks and chickens present eggs and a solitary sow awaits her big day – she’s going to drop piglets, not a visit to the abattoir. Her two friends have gone that way. The weather, you may recall, was glorious as Easter weekend so often is. I’d reached a point where moving back to the country was a real possibility, but felt I needed just a few more days to think about it. A seed that I’d planted but neglected to water for some months, germinated and after I’d mentioned this Thames Path walk twice more in the setting of ale houses, I had to do it. Rather like saying “Candyman” three times.

So it was that I spent the next week or so sort of planning. I looked at the Thames Path website, but not fully enough to realise they suggest doing no more than 13 miles a day, and to take time off en route. I walked around London a little – 6 miles, 12 miles and 13 miles. I overpacked my rucksack, including both my mobile and my radio, two things I’d originally decided to leave behind. I decided I’d be as well to do this for charity, and selected Naked Heart Foundation, set up the Just Giving page and pestered in cyberspace. Can you tell how half-arsed I went at this? Time would show me.

The big day arrived, and my mother dropped me off in Cricklade on the 15th April. I chose this Wiltshire town as it looked a wide enough part of the river from Google Earth. Stopping in the Tourist Information, I discovered the location of the path, and with a wave and a chuckle, strode out with pack and tent strapped to my back. On reaching the river, I set off in the direction I felt must be correct. My feeling was confirmed once I’d established that I should be following the direction of the flow. Now you should realise quite how ridiculous this little wander was.

It was much as you’d expect – rolling fields, swans (more about them later), bridges and the very occasional other walker. At one stage I had to get all Ray Mears and build a branch crossing over a ditch, which I re-traversed within a minute. I discovered I was actually in someone’s garden and I’d strayed from the path for the first, and certainly not the last, time. Before I reached Lechlade, where the river widens to the extent it can handle boats, there was an unpleasant diversion along the A361. When the path rediscovered the fields and river, my path was blocked.

You hear things about these beasts, and I was sure they’d be spooked by my tent. I re-routed around this field, and got my first sight of some narrow boats. I love these vessels, and one day I am certain to live in one – just need a job, of course.

Once I’d rested up in Lechlade, I pushed on through the flora and fowl, iridescent mallards proud in the spring and made it to my first boozer, The Swan at Radcot. They were enamoured with their new television, busy breaking the first rule of TV in pubs. They were in a position to be forgiven though – all planes in the UK and Europe were grounded because of Iceland. Not been a good couple of years for them, has it? However, the beer was good, the staff friendly – it took me 2 pints before I could face more walking. We looked at an old framed map, and my suggestion that I could make Oxford by the end of the following day provoked laughter that followed me back to the path. At this stage I was over 16 miles for the day, and felt like I could extend myself by another 2, maybe 3. I ended up doing about 4 or 5 more. I had a half in The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (dreadful posh place – had the sort of welcome one would expect if you walked into a stranger’s house on Christmas Day and pissed on their kid’s presents) and then did another mile or so, before I pitched on the side of the path. I listened to the three party leaders bore Alastair Stewart into high-pitched frustration and fell asleep.

A Pint With Gavin James Bower

It would be easy and lazy to review Dazed & Aroused, by Gavin James Bower, as an easily written, lazy pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. And whilst the similarities are evident, and the author himself has spoken at great length about the influence the book has had on his novel, very few reviews of Orwell’s 1984 began by referencing the fact that it was a direct take on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It simply isn’t an issue.

But let’s not get caught up in the name checking of the greats. Bower’s book is an accomplished, wry take on the world of modelling. For a debut novel, written in the first person, the simple assumption to make would be that this is more memoir than fiction. Not so, says Bower when we meet in a West End pub to discuss this book and his next, Made In Britain.

“Consciously, at the time of writing it, it wasn’t me. I took a lot of examples as an observer, of the photo shoots and scenarios that I found myself in and creating characters from there.” After two more sentences, and a draw on his pint of stout, Bower continues, “The disposition of Alex and how he views the world is very much a part of me…”

This isn’t as contradictory as it at first sounds. Bower modelled for “18 months, on and off” and never knew the success that Alex enjoys in Dazed. (“I was never a rich or successful model”). I use the term ‘enjoys’ advisedly. The arrogance and ennui that is so much of his character, the unquestioning acceptance of having a successful look always leaves the reader feeling that the best restaurants are not quite enough, and even partying hard after fashion week is an empty experience. Bower impresses on the point, “In all seriousness, Alex is an extension of me in many ways – a parody.” When discussing the limited amount of drug taking in the book, Bower is “making it up”, a charming reinforcement of the fact of the fiction here.

As we sit outside the pub, the day starts to close and the chilly spring evening takes hold. Royal Mail vans return to their nearby base, sirens wail and rubbish bins are seen to. Over Bower’s shoulder I can see a man pleading for a cigarette from one of the patrons that has ventured outside in the hope of an unmolested smoke. I am relieved when the beggar walks past, happily puffing away. This scene is startlingly similar to a repeating theme in Dazed;

“London is always about juxtapositions, always about that horrible clash – checking your Blackberry and emails on the way to work, whilst stepping over a beggar in a sleeping bag.” I mention that it felt close to being overdone. “Maybe remarking on that is not that clever to point out, but it is there.” Alex gets that there is the poverty there, he sees it, but “he refuses point blank to engage.”

And there it is. Graffiti, clothes, even the silent models are more interesting to Alex than people.

Bower started writing at university in 2002, which led to journalism jobs for Dazed & Confused amongst others. In 2007, suddenly unemployed, he set to paper the story that had been gathering momentum in his mind since his move to London, two years previously. He’s modest about the success of Dazed, and optimistic about writing the screenplay for it, and the forthcoming publication of Made In Britain, his second novel.

Made In Britain is the story of three 16 year olds set in Every Town. Charlie, Russell and Hayley are dealing with their issues, reacting to the world about them. Was it difficult writing about kids of this age? “I don’t know why I’m writing about 16 year olds, maybe it’s a fucking big mistake,” he laughs. There’s disarming honesty to this phrase, but clearly a confidence too. A sneak peak of Made In Britain is available here. Have a look around the rest of the blog; Bower is no Bret Easton Ellis, what he is, is a writer finding his own voice, in his own time.

The World in a Pint

It’s a cosmopolitan town, This Here London. Let me explain.

I spied a book on Eleanor’s shelf today, as I replaced the Murakami tome I had finished last night. I was drawn to it because the author’s name is “Kurkov” which appealed to my Russophile nature. I drew it from its shelf and found myself with a book that stunned me. “Death and the Penguin” about a Ukrainian author who lives with his zoo-rescued penguin in a flat in Kiev. Whilst I don’t subscribe to religion of any type, I do firmly believe I was a penguin in a previous life, and my time in Kiev defines a part of me. And God knows I am trying to be an author.

The discovery of this book was all the excuse I needed at 4 in the afternoon of a Friday, and I closed down, tidied up, and printed off. CV in hand I hauled arse to The Chamberlayne pub down the road, who had advised me to bring in my unsuited resume earlier in the week. A new book, a pint or two, and the excuse of job hunting. All good.

So, I ordered a pint of Staropramen and handed over the sheaf of papers (which include references from Rodda and my brother in regards to bar work) to the barman. I sat and read the book, immersed as a penguin in the Dnipro, and as unlikely.

I met an author, @benjohncock, on Wednesday evening, at an event he and a good friend of mine had organised via twitter. And then on Thursday I visited the pub asking for work. The bloke I spoke to in the pub looked like Ben, and the two are merged in my mind. As if trying to elucidate the differences between two beers, 24 hours after drinking them. Anyway, this evening I felt like I knew the barman, but of course I didn’t.

As I started my second pint, a woman with a foreign accent spun behind the bar, knocking a pint flying on her way. She gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. She set about replacing the spilt beer, but insolently. And sexily. I knew before she spoke that she was French. She chattered awhile and my ear tuned in. This is in no small part to the re-arrival of Florine in my life, but more of her another time.

Sitting at the end of the bar as I was, those that stood near me were there only briefly. At one stage a man ordered a pint of Stella and then spoke with Ben-that-isn’t-Ben in a Slavic language, and I just had to know if they were speaking Russian. With everything before, it would have been a coincidence of note. Ben-that-isn’t-Ben furnished me with the fact that it was in fact Serbo-Croat.

And then something happened. I was taken in a reverie, no doubt dreaming up some shit to write about (possibly even this) and I found I was looking directly into the eyes of the French barmaid. This is no epiphany of love; I’m not about to Valentine you with first sight insanity. I merely thought about the French language. Formulated badly constructed phrases, delved my GCSE knowledge for tenses and gender. I tried to think in French – if for no other reason, it will help with my emails to Florine.

And then a Frenchman stood next to me. At first he ordered a pint of Stella (this is a decent pub with a selection of far better lagers), and made some calls. In French and in English and I got carried away, thinking of him conducting affairs and marriages in two languages. For some reason, I took out my notebook and wrote this (fearful eavesdropper that I am);

“He’s stood right next to me, the Frenchman. He describes the pub as La Chamberlayne in an exaggerated French way. I’ve already presumed he wants to meet his wife here for dinner. Or maybe his mistress. All I can think of in my defence should my nosiness (eariness?) be rightfully challenged is, “Je m’excuse, mais je comprends que j’ecoute.”

We can agree that the poverty of my French is outstripped only by the paucity of any social skills.


Em invited me out to the flicks tonight, her treat. Off to some place in Notting Hill, The Coronet. £3.50 each, so not much to feel guilty about. INVICTUS – Clint Eastwood (never bettered his work with Clyde) directs, Matt Damon (yes, yes, do the voice) and Morgan “There was something about Andy Dufrane” Freeman star. Aparthied, yada, yada. I respect the struggle, but Em & I get on well and had stuff to discuss. We pulled up a street away from the cinema in her drophead Audi S4 (yes, I did ask if it was her’s), and had a quick glass of wine. Film starts at 7.30, so at 7.32 I say we’re late. Turns out, we were very late, place was busting at the seams, so we went to The Gold, had two more glasses and caught up. Em was my first love. Important to talk and not watch, I reckon. Mind you, Clint & Clyde never talked….

The Joy of Unemployment

Don’t get me wrong – there are more days than not when I am so utterly fucked-off and down-trodden with not working (who’d have thought?) that I feel like 100 year old film, the light at the end of the tunnel just a pin hole exposed to me for less than 5 seconds. I apply for work, I read the ‘papers online, I invent cheap & strange dishes, I edit and I write. In short, I keep myself busy, as one is always advised to. I work in the kitchen, and I’ve become anal about not seeing the sitting room until past 6pm, although the stationing of my new printer in that room means I need to be more flexible. Things are such that I delivered my CV and references to the Irish bar around the corner today – whilst my previous experience is not listed, I’m hoping the references from the two pubs I’ve worked in will swing it; I’ve got a feeling chatter about National Hunt racing might go down well in there.

Anyway, The Joy. I decided to visit my friend Louise today. I went to school with her husband, Chris, and we’re great mates. I lived with Chris, Louise and the then 7 month old Luca for a couple of months last summer, and that little sod got under my skin. Spending that much time with a child of that age is nothing but a priviledge and I count Luca as a mate.

So, it’s just a ramble about a “nice day”. We caught up over coffee and Jaffa Cakes so good I remarked that “These aren’t just any Jaffa Cakes….”. Sure enough, they were M&S Jaffa Cakes. Luca and I discussed his new footballs (regulation and fun size, already displaying an affection to use his father’s favoured left peg) and of course, my trilby. I’m sure he’s crazy for any “ha” as he calls them, but I like to think mine is his favourite. It survives all the torture visited upon it by the unscrupulous “Chumpy”, springing back into its shape.

Anyway, we took off into the park and visited the Princess Di kiddie’s play area, where you can see Luca doing his Commodore Grandfather proud in the boat. Louise was insistent that some A list slebs got in there from time to time, but it’s not the kind of thing that interests me. We strolled off towards the duck pond (along with approximations for “hat”, “flowers” and “horses”, “ducks” is a word in Luca’s vocabulary), but half way there (and I can say this, because on the list of way over 6 billion people that don’t read this blog, Chris is in the high 5,000,000,000’s) Louise suggested we retire to the juicer for a quick pint.

A simple, nice day. And special in its way. I jumped on the public transport home, and ambled the last 100 yards past the very posh cafe, home. Jade Jagger walked out across my path. But, like I say, that’s not something that interests me.