Microadventures

Thanks to several friends for telling me about the inspirational Alastair Humphreys, and his microadventure ideas.

As you can see from his website, Alastair is an extreme explorer. He spent 4 years cycling around the world. He ran the London Marathon in less than 3 hours. He trekked the 1,000 mile Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula.

But his concept of microadventures is for people who have full-time jobs, commute to work, have a mortgage and don’t have the luxury of being able to undertake such extreme challenges.

To quote Alastair:

Adventure is all around us, at all times. Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.

Adventure is only a state of mind.

That is why I came up with the idea of microadventures. Simple expeditions and challenges which are close to home, affordable and easy to organise. Ideas designed to encourage ordinary people to get Out There and Do Stuff for themselves, even in these tightened financial times.

He’s right. When I was working full-time and commuting to London, weekday evenings were invariably spent having a bite to eat, perhaps guzzling a mind-numbing glass of wine, and watching some inane TV.

You work 9 to 5…but what about your 5 to 9? 

What indeed?

I do remember something Gill and I did a few years ago, when our noses were still pressed very hard to the grindstone. At the time it was just a bit of fun, but with hindsight – and thanks to Alastair – I’ll call it a microadventure now.

We got up very early, went to the top of local beauty spot Hydon’s Ball, where we wassailed with the local Morris Men to celebrate the pagan first day of May, as the sun rose on the Surrey Hills. I got on the 7:45 to Waterloo with a little extra spring in my commuting step. And a whiff of alcohol on my breath.

But if only I’d done more. Much more.

Perhaps I’ll go back to work so that I can really embrace the concept, and think up our own microadventures before it’s too late…..

Europe – IN or OUT?

I love Europe.

In the early 1960s, when I was just 5 or 6 and England still hadn’t won the World Cup, my pioneering parents bought a travelette (a collapsible caravan contraption). The neighbours in suburban West Wickham waved us off, and we drove all the way down to the Costa Brava, spending two weeks on the beach of a blissfully unspoiled and still quintessentially Spanish fishing village.

I honed my nascent German language skills – and snogged Bridget Heap from Clarendon House – in Koblenz, on exchanges with Detlef and his family in the 1970s.

More recently, Gill and I have whizzed all over France on Eurostar

We have a continuing addiction to all things Italian, and have just returned from skiing in bellissimo Champoluc.

In April, we’ll be going to Greece for the first time, visiting Thessaloniki to write an article for the lovely folks at Silver Travel Advisor, then moving on to historic Mount Olympus and Halkidiki.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

When we signed up for the Common European Market in 1973 – ratified in a 1975 referendum – could our worst fears have anticipated the reality of 2016?

  • an annual EU budget of close to €150 billion
  • more than 750 Members of the European Parliament
  • EU auditors reported that the bureaucrats had misspent €7 billion of the 2013 budgetThe auditors have refused to sign off the accounts for 20 years in a row
  • 2-speed economies of the greatly enlarged EU over protracted periods, and yet no single country being able to resort to interest rate changes to stimulate or slow down its own economy (thank goodness we stayed out of the single currency and retain the £)
  • a plethora of unwanted and stifling legislation handed down from Brussels
  • untrammelled immigration, from other EU countries and – through assimilation over time – well beyond Europe

I may sound like a Daily Telegraph reader, or – worse – a UKIP voter, but it feels like we have lost control, to differing degrees, of our sovereignty, our legislation and our borders.

And I don’t buy the IN camp’s scaremongering that our economy will collapse if we decide to exit. Yes, there will be obviously some significant adjustments required, and there may well be a reduction in GDP and a threat to some jobs. But that impact will hopefully be temporary, until we rediscover old allies, sign up new trade relationships with vibrant emerging markets, and embrace our renewed independence,

But we will regain control of our own British future for the long term.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I’m walking inexorably towards the OUT door. Possibly regardless of any outwardly face-saving deal Mr Cameron might try to bring back ahead of the referendum, to persuade us to stay IN, as I fear it won’t represent substantive change.

And if we vote to leave, it might just signal the beginning of the end of the grand federal Europe project.

Extreme Bucket List

One of the silly little Christmas prezzies I got Gill was a pack of cards.

But not a normal deck. These cards contain a list of 500 Totally Extreme Awesome Out There & Radical Things To Do. “The ultimate list of 500 EXTREME things that just have to be done at least once. WARNING! Not for the faint-hearted.”

The original idea behind this blog was to share the spirit of a vibrant post-work life with you. With that in mind, have a crack at some of these ideas from Gill’s special cards. Some of them really are radical, extreme and out there. Gill has already done some of them. I’ve done others. Some are impossible….whatever your age. Some are just stupid.

Here are a handful to inspire/scare/appal you:

12 – hike Corsica’s GR20, Europe’s mountain trek  (we’ve done a couple of very small bits, does that count? Doing the whole thing is a real challenge, but one that was always on our list. We’re not getting any younger though….)

497 – meditate every day for a year (Gill doesn’t slow down enough to meditate for 5 minutes, so a whole year would be a real stretch)

256 – take the bullet train in Japan  (I’ve done that one – on business in the 1990s – but Gill can keep it on her list)

372 – start your own business   (Gill started and ran South Minster Kitchens for 14 years)

398 – stand in a supermarket, pretending to do market research, preferably with an accent (I like this one: fun, easily achievable….and totally humiliating. Sainsburys in Godalming, you’ve been warned)

344 – mentor a youth (do Gill’s nephew Ben and nieces Jess & Lucy count? She’s always telling them what to do. Sorry, helping to steer them in the right direction)

44 – press to impress with extreme ironing – it really is a sport (unlikely…..Gill doesn’t even know where the iron lives. That’s my job)

480 – go to a train station and take the next train to its destination (love this one too. Also, go to an airport and take the next flight out…wherever it’s going)

479 – start a religion (an interesting challenge, but dangerous. The ones we’ve got already don’t seem to co-exist very peacefully)

211 – climb Kilimanjaro  (woohooo…we’ve both done that one already. A painful tick)

154 – learn kung fu at Wudang Shan – but you have to become a monk first (I told you some of them are just ridiculous)

55 – ride on the outside of a tram in San Francisco (great excuse to book a trip to the West Coast)

345 – go to a naturist camp (no offence Gill, but if we’re doing this challenge, let’s do its sooner rather than later)

85 – climb Mount Everest (that might have stayed on the list….until a few days ago)

79 – walk hot coals in northern Greece (now this is timely….we’re going to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki in April. I think Gill should take up the challenge. Well, they are her cards)

457 – throw a tomato at an electric fan (ha! While it’s going, presumably. And preferably in someone else’s house, Gill)

OK, you get the idea. Fun, crazy, ridiculous, impossible…but also strangely inspiring. And the clock is ticking…..

Good luck, and enjoy the card game with a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie review – Everest

I am officially old.

How so?

Because today was a first experience of the Odeon’s Silver Cinema deal. Great recent movies available only to the over-55s, and for the scarcely believable price of £3. Throw in a cup of coffee, a few biscuits and a free pair of dentures, and why would you want to spend a couple of hours on a hypothermic Thursday morning in January anywhere else?

I dragged Gill along too. Technically, she doesn’t qualify. She’s 53. Nearly 54 though, which is very nearly 55, right? OK, so she looks more like 43….but with a walking stick and a fake driving licence, we got in. And we climbed Kilimanjaro together, so I couldn’t leave her behind when we were going to Everest, could I?

The experience of summiting (yes, I know it’s not really a proper verb, but it just sounds so impressive) Kilimanjaro was brutal enough. But if I ever harboured thoughts of attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, this movie has dispelled them.

Everest is based on the true story of an ascent by different groups of climbers in 1996. But during the fateful summit attempt on 10th May, nature unleashed one of the most extreme snowstorms ever experienced on the mountain, with inevitable consequences for mere humans.

Everest (2015) Poster

The story is told like an old-fashioned disaster movie. The main strand focuses on Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), an experienced Kiwi leading his Adventure Consultants team and clients. In the climbing group, paying an eye-watering $65,000 each to play poker with death, are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), amongst others.

Scott Fischer (a very beardy and heavy-drinking Jake Gyllenhall) leads a more maverick team of his own, appropriately named Mountain Madness, but the two groups unite for the summit attempt.

Back at base camp, Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) plays the Adventure Consultants support role. She also provides a convenient communication and narrative link between the climbers and their humanising back-story partners.

In New Zealand, Rob’s wife Jan (Keira Knightley) is expecting their first child, and Peach (Robin Wright) is Beck’s feisty wife back in Texas.

But the real star of the movie is the mountain. Aerial shots make you gasp at the smallness of the climbers as they begin the final, fateful ascent. And, in the eye of the storm, Everest wreaks a terrible toll.

A couple of journalists survive, including Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). He wrote a controversial book himself about the climb – Into Thin Air – which I just have to read myself now for a contrary view.

In one of the camps shortly before the fateful summit attempt, he apologises for having to ask the inevitable question: why are you doing it?

Beck has already said he gets depressed at home in Texas, away from mountains.

Doug, a simple man who delivers the mail at home in the US, has failed before and says it’s because he can. Not to try again would just be wrong.

Yasuko, a Japanese climber in her late 40s, needs to climb Everest to complete the ultimate mountaineers’ quest: summiting the 7 highest peaks of the 7 continents.

This is an emotional film to watch, as all well-told disaster movies should be. It’s not without its faults, but it kept a bunch of Guildford geriatrics very quiet for a couple of hours, enthralled by the majesty of nature and the vulnerability of man.

I felt really old after the final credits had rolled.

 

 

 

Sushi Rehab – the debrief

So that was an interesting experiment. Eating nothing but sushi for a week, to try and lose some of the festive excess that had gathered around my midriff, like shipwrecked passengers clinging to an inflatable dinghy.

And the results are in…..

It’s official. Sushi is fattening. Or, at least, it’s not thinning.

I’ve lost a couple of kilograms, as hoped, and I’m back to my pre-December fighting weight of 70 kg. But my waistline has stubbornly – and annoyingly – has stayed at a  positively lardy 36″.

So what went wrong? And what was the point of all that Japanese warrior-like discipline?

I tried, I really did.

I was having sushi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I sampled ready-made options from Waitrose, Sainsburys and M&S (usually by the sandwich counter, if you’re interested). Each one came with those nice little bundles of pickled ginger, eye-watering wasabi, a little plastic container of soy sauce, and some wooden chopsticks.

(Hot tip, from my old Footwork International boss Yoshihiko Nagata: pour the soy sauce onto the wasabi and stir it all together for sushi dunking. Like mixing cement for the new patio).

I had salmon, prawn, duck and tuna, all wrapped in those sticky rice and seaweed bundles. I went off-piste once at home, with teriyaki chicken, but I was essentially faithful to the sushi ethos. Apart from adding extra soy sauce.

And apart from when I dragged Gill to Yo! Sushi! in Guildford, and we had some gyoza dumplings, more teriyaki and a couple of other really nice things from those mesmerising conveyor belts.

And I even forced an old colleague to have lunch at a Japanese restaurant when we met in London, when it would have been so easy to succumb to a posh burger, pie & chips, or an artery-hardening curry.

But, to be completely transparent, the week didn’t end well: we were staying at The Croydon Park Hotel for a night on a writing assignment for Silver Travel Advisor. There was no sushi in sight. But there was a 5 course all-you-can-eat buffet, with freshly carved roast beef and all the trimmings. And a vanilla cheesecake to die for. And apple crumble and custard. All washed down with a Bloody Mary. And some red wine.

OK, it’s a fair cop. I failed. But I do really like sushi, and we’ll continue to have some at home. Not every day, but now and then.

And my next plan to lose that unwanted 2″ round my middle-aged waist…..soups and salads. And a little more discipline.

 

 

 

 

Movie review – The Big Short

Another trip to the Guildford Odeon for a lucky-dip Screen Unseen movie. As Forrest Gump would say….you don’t always know what you’re gonna get.

After a couple of recent suboptimal experiences, The Big Short has renewed our Screen Unseen enthusiasm. Out on general release in the UK from this Friday, 22nd January, the film is a sparkling effort to tell the story of the 2008 financial crash in an understandable and entertaining way.

As Michael Lewis, the scourge of Wall Street since Liar’s Poker was published, and author of the original book The Big Short says: Who’d make a movie about credit-default swaps?

Who indeed would think that the movie-going public could be entertained by a complex tale of sub-prime mortgage loans, credit-default swaps and collateralised debt obligations. And, by the architect of the final descent into financial madness, synthetic CDOs.

Enter Adam McKay as director of The Big Short. Known as a comedian and a director of hugely successful comic movies, he has used off-the-wall cinematic techniques and ploys to highlight the frankly unbelievable and absurd unravelling of the banking system.

Adam McKay Picture

The stellar cast – Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Peter Epstein – play along as the Wall Street outsiders, non-conformist geniuses, idealists and chancers who bet against inherent Wall Street greed and corruption.

This is a seat-of-the-pants, can-this-really-be-happening, will-they-win-big-or-lose-everything story, told and acted in a totally compelling way.

Hard to believe it all really did happen.

 

Book review – The Versions of Us

What if……?

How often have you asked yourself that, at different stages in your life?

The Versions of Us

The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett, examines three very different outcomes from a single pivotal point in time. Two young Cambridge students cross paths in 1958. Or do they?

Jim is walking along a lane when a woman approaching him on a bicycle swerves to avoid a dog.

What happens next will determine the rest of their lives.

We follow three different versions of their future – together and apart – as their love story takes on different incarnations and twists and turns to the conclusion in the present day.

So far, so very Sliding Doors meets One Day.

Sliding Doors (1998) Poster

 

 

Yes, this novel is in that genre….a little bit chick-lit, a little bit rom-com. And The Versions of Us is surely destined to hit the big screen. Hopefully without Hugh Grant though….

But it’s also so much more. The writing is sensitive, beautifully descriptive and the characters are much more deeply drawn than I had feared at the outset of their journeys.

Each chapter is a Version of Us told at a similar stage in its evolution, before moving on to the next period. And within each Version, the writer often starts at an incident or time that requires retrospective explanation.

That sometimes makes it difficult to remember which Version you’re immersed in, but that’s part of the narrative fun. And possibly also the writer’s way of saying that life is complicated.

As evidenced by the long lives and very different outcomes of the Three Versions of Eva and Jim, all starting on that fateful day in 1958.

Now think back to a pivotal incident, or moment, in your own life when something you did, or didn’t, do could have made the world of difference.

What if……?

 

 

 

Sushi Rehab

This year’s festive season seemed to go on way longer than usual. Perhaps that’s because it did….

Starting with the magnificent Pine Cottage Supper Club on 11th December, it really only ended for us 2 days ago, on 11th January, after returning from a cheeky week skiing in Champoluc, Italy.

But there’s always a price to pay, right?

That month of almost continuous gluttony and debauchery was enjoyable, but physically damaging. And a week of pasta and pizza heaven, washed down with calorific Moretti beers and bucket loads of vino rosso, was the straw that broke this greedy camel’s back.

It’s a miracle that I’ve only added a few kilograms to my pre-piggery fighting weight, but it’s no surprise whatsoever that it’s all gravitated to my middle-aged midriff, as inevitably as a fat guest is drawn to an all-you-can-eat wedding buffet.

Desperate situations need desperate remedies.

Sushi.

(pic from Waitrose website).

Andy Murray swears by it. And if it helps get him fit and lean enough to win Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles, it might just work for me too. It even seems to be improving his sense of humour.

But let’s not go overboard. I’ll try it for a week. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, and see how much of my expanded waistline – now a shameful 36″ at its lardiest girth – I can make disappear.

I’m not expecting miracles. I don’t expect I’ll ever revisit the unchanging 32″ waist of my distant youth, but getting safely into all my middle-aged 34″ jeans without lardily rippling over the waistband should be an ambition.

I’ll report back when I’m done. In Japanese, and with a vastly improved backhand. But still with no sense of humour.

(small print terms & conditions: I’m also allowed fruit and coffee. Can’t survive without caffeine!).

Champoluc ski trip

Just back from a very enjoyable week skiing in virgin territory for us, Champoluc in the beautiful Aosta valley in Italy.

A group of local friends went there last year and enjoyed the village and the skiing. So when old Kentish friends Nigel & Julie Cripps mentioned at a recent reunion that they were heading there in early January, it somehow seemed like fate that we should join them. Whether they wanted us to, or not.

Nigel & Julie are old Champoluc hands, lauding its quietness, beauty, friendliness and good value.

And now we’re converts too.

The skiing domain – even when fully open – is not vast. comprising 45 lifts, 95 slopes and 4 valleys in the total Monte Rosa area. And after the warm snow-free start to the season, hardly any of that capacity was accessible over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fortunately for us, the white stuff began to fall early in 2016….and at the moment, it just keeps on coming. So we went from the sublime – skiing on decent snow in bright sunshine and good conditions on our first day – to the frankly ridiculous. On our last day, so much fresh powder had fallen overnight that we had to push our way through a snowdrift as we jumped off the chairlift from the base of Frachey.

In a continuing blizzard, on-piste was off-piste and goggles fogged up faster than Sepp Blatter’s memory.

In decent conditions between those extremes, we loved the long intermediate red runs – and occasionally more challenging black ones – spread out above the Champoluc, Frachey and Gressoney villages

It’s hard to find words that capture the simple pleasure of skiing on a quiet mountain in such a beautiful area. Whatever the conditions.

It’s easier to describe the gluttony we indulged in, every night during our hotel’s challenging 4 course dinners and, during the day, at some buonissimi mountain restaurants. Enjoy a freshly baked pizza and a couple of glasses of local vino rosso for lunch, at 2,700 metres, whilst a blizzard rages outside, and somehow your senses feel sharper than the edges of an Italian suit.

And back in Champoluc, the village is a charming enclave of local artisan shops, traditional houses and friendly people, sitting happily alongside the tourist bars, hotels and ski lifts. Long may that comfortable marriage remain…it would be a shame if over-development spoiled the essence of this gentle place.

Book review – Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Dear Mr Coe,

I have read and deeply enjoyed a few of your earlier books, What A Carve Up! (published in 1994), The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004).

Your plots and characters in those garlanded earlier works were an intoxicating mix of black humour, political satire and plain good writing.

I’ve just finished your latest novel, Number 11 (published November 2015). It’s a sharply observed book again but – and this is difficult to say – I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy it. Well, I suppose I did on some level. But certainly nowhere near as much as those earlier novels.

The plot feels – erm – disjointed? I know it eventually links together several plot strands, disparate characters and has recurring themes, but in the end it feels more like a short story collection than a fully rounded novel.

And you’ve dumped your fears for contemporary Britain on your readers’ shoulders, like a victim forcing others to share his pain.

We get that you lean to the left. A fair old way. But that you were very disappointed with Tony Blair.

You’re not the only person who was sad and confused when weapons inspector David Kelly – of dodgy Iraq dossier fame – died.

Yes, bankers have always earned obscene amounts of money.

You’re right, it can’t be morally ok for wealthy foreigners to buy up swathes of prime central London properties, just to let them lie fallow, as their value increases still further.

The list of your bêtes noires is almost endless, characters and plot twists used shamelessly to smack us over the faithful head with.

I know you’re playing with your readers’ minds with the recurring use of 11 throughout the book, but really, it’s all just a bit artificial in the end, isn’t it? A tad contrived? Especially the superfluous 11th floor of the basement of Sir Gilbert and Madiana’s mega-mansion in a posh London neighbourhood.

“Number Eleven? He (Tony Blake, the building project manager) laughed. That’s the one she told me about this morning. Number Eleven is new. She’s only just asked for it.”

“So – what’s it for?”

“Nothing. She can’t think of anything she wants it for.”

Rachel frowned. “So why are you digging it? Why does she want it?”

“She wants it,” said Mr Blake, “because she can have it. Because she can afford it. And because…I don’t know – because no one else has an eleventh floor in their basement? Or she’s just heard about somebody who has ten and she wants to go one better? Who knows? She’s mad. These people are all barking mad.”

We get it. Some people have everything. More people have nothing. Life isn’t fair. Wealth isn’t evenly distributed. Some people need to go to food banks. Others can dig 11 floors down for their new basement.

Maybe I’m wrong. I know you’re a successful, clever writer and I’m sure your reputation and the publisher will shift a few copies of Number 11 off the shelves. But please – for the sake of a loyal fan – can you just go back to doing what you do best, and what made your deserved reputation.

If I say that 11 times, would it help?

Yours, hopefully.

Andrew