London Grammer

There is comfort to be had in the depressing grey shades of Heathrow Airport, a reassuring tinge of concrete and pessimism. But what’s this? People here seem a little perkier than usual, a bit more easy-going. A touch nonchalant perhaps, purposefully blinding themselves as they near the edge of a self-inflicted precipice made worse by those purportedly born to rule. That heatwave they have gone on and on about must have made life bearable again.

LDN01That heatwave was turning into a thing of the past by the time I made it onto England’s shores, and things will be reassuringly back to normal soon. Its legacy will emerge through inflatable pools from Argos gathering cobwebs in sheds up and down the land, frozen Calippo slushes, and a chance for rose-tinted reminiscence of that famous summer before the storm (or sunny skies with fluffy white clouds and unicorns pooing golden trade deals) of Brexit. Plus blackberries, lots of blackberries.

LDN02Regardless of sunshine or headwinds there will always be tea and cake or in this case coffee and cake. You could be forgiven for thinking coffee might be overtaking tea in popularity in the UK given the rampant reproduction of godawful Costa Coffee shops every fifty metres, with their godawful massive mugs and godawful patrons thinking this thing they are drinking is the height of sophistication and really isn’t godawful. Give it a week and I’ll be with them. But today, an independent café in swanky South Kensington and coffee that was not at all deitybad.

Cake commenced a Sunday afternoon that was an absolute delight, sunny skies banishing the grey and encouraging an ambient amble with my friend Caroline through London’s parks and parades. With the warmth building again and many people still in holiday mode, the vibe was convivial and quite un-London like. Almost European, dare I say Nigel and Boris and Jacob et al.


There was biking and boating and picnicking through Hyde Park, selfies and group gatherings around the Palace and Whitehall, and the languid saunter of families and friends matching the slow march of the ever-brown Thames. That is, until all was disrupted by some kind of urban party boat, the Stormzy Steamer or something. But once that blitzed downstream to pick up Jezza, life was once again grand and London was the finest place in the world for a little bit.


LDN04One of the pleasures of returning to London goes beyond famous sights, cake, and hearing people speaking with like proper English accents innit. There are the familiarities of place and person, reconnecting with treasured friends, perusing past haunts and – especially fresh off the boat – attempting to retune into the current Britannic zeitgeist. Spending time with Caroline helped a great deal in this regard, and with many steps across London and the Zone 5 countryside, there was much to discover; a veritable bullseye of a weekend, tru dat.

From Zone 5 to Zone 4, and a return to Finchley and a return to a friend I have now known for more than half my life. We graduated twenty years ago goddammit and don’t look a day older. More like years and years. And there was charming Orla, my chess-playing pub lunch pal, who has always been enjoyable company across the parks of North London. I may have a sense of two homes, but they make this feel like coming home.


Lunch in leafy Highgate while wearing shorts was hard to beat. The heatwave – or at least a minor, cooler version of it – was back. And here, happy with a beer in a pub garden, I could see how easy the grey could fade into the background, and the light, the glorious, English light, could shine through.

Great Britain Green Bogey Society & Culture

Gold at heart

The Olympics! I haven’t mentioned the Olympics and how good it was to see most of it on TV in the UK. Complete with the kind of partisan coverage that I love exemplarily executed by the Beeb. Great Britain, Second, Who needs Europe anyway, rah rah rah, put out the bunting. My how we have grown to love bunting!

And so to the capital of gargantuan bunting, a city that at times was an emotional and physical drain on me but is now an absolute tonic to visit. I swear the underground seems to work better nowadays, everything seems a tad cleaner and a bit less grey, the spirit is more open, eclectic, progressive, and now – as a visitor – I can see that London truly is one of the world’s greatest cities.


Being the August bank holiday weekend I was flummoxed to find myself in shorts on a balcony in the outer suburbs of London with friends Caroline and Jill (note: above picture is not from that balcony!). With this warmth it could have been Bondi, apart from the lack of sand, good coffee, and film crews desperately waiting for the next hapless backpacker to get caught in a rip. But at least there was cake, no kids for a couple of days, and a generous array of pre-birthday celebration antics mysteriously planned. Wild times ahead!

lon01First up on a perfect day we scaled the heights of 20 Fenchurch Street. By elevator of course, up to the Sky Garden of the building popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie. No bungee jumping, no glass-bottom floor, no zip wire…just astounding views over London, shady ferns, comfy sofas and another predictably poor coffee.


Back down amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets we grabbed some suitably middle class lunch involving hummus before embarking on a mystery journey on the meandering tentacles of the District Line. One of the fun aspects of this journey was not being told anything about where we were going or what we were doing, apart from dire warnings that I might get wet. All a hilarious ruse to baffle an old man as potential options disappeared with each tube stop, finally dwindling to something in Richmond or Kew Gardens. And at Kew Gardens Station, we abruptly bolted for the exit.

lon05I am wondering if there is any finer place than Kew Gardens on such a beautiful late summer’s day. For not only are there acres of manicured lawn, generous pockets of woodland bursting green, and a profligate array of multihued flowerbeds, but you can also play guess the airline. In the cloudless sky, the parade of jets coming into land at Heathrow provides a distracting guessing game when one finds oneself eating ice cream under the shade of a tree. The funny thing was, we didn’t seem to be the only ones playing it.


lon06But back to earth. We must have walked a fair few miles around the gardens but at regular intervals there was an opportunity to dwell, a chance to linger. A gallery here, a cafe there, a grand house beyond the trees. Sculptures and water features and artworks to do with bees, in which human drones obediently infiltrate the hive out of nothing more than curiosity.


Then there are the glasshouses. Today it feels like there is no need for hot, tropical climates, but it’s fair to say that the weather is rarely this good. Orchids, palms, lily pads…climb some stairs and you can even go bananas. This would be a good winter refuge.


And finally, almost as cavernous is the gift shop. Which in gift shop terms is reasonably respectable, with tasteful botanic tea towel prints and encyclopaedic tomes relating to the history of the fennel seed. It would be a decent place to buy Christmas presents for those people you really have difficulty buying presents for. Adding to its appeal in all seasons, we concurred that buying an annual membership pass for Kew Gardens would be a worthwhile purchase if you didn’t live, say, 12,000 miles away.

One thing is for sure – people living in and around the gardens could no doubt afford it. And should they dare to venture out of their generous and elegantly proportioned homes they could entertain themselves besides the river. The Thames of course, dotted with a pub or two on the Chiswick side. An ale by the water, sat comfortably outside as the daylight faded, all supplemented by a dose of fish and chips. This has been a good, a great, a golden day.


Such a day set a high bar to live up to and the following proved a quirkier affair. Exploits of yesterday had induced a dash of weariness but we still successfully ate some food, walked in a park, shopped, laid on a picnic blanket, and got House of Love wedged into our brains.

First up was a trip to the palace – Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as those in the know call it. Views from here reflect back on where we were yesterday. You could see the Walkie-Talkie, but none of us could remember seeing Alexandra Palace when we were up there. I guess because there was so much of distraction in between from the other vantage.


In the parade of pre-birthday surprises I feared an onset of painful embarrassment upon the ice rink situated in the palace. But I needn’t have feared, because there was a much more suitable food festival nearby. Offering a few free samples, mostly of the alcoholic variety, it was enough to induce a craving for an organic grain fed pork sausage and onion ciabatta. As you do near Muswell Hill.

Alright, alright, everything’s gonna be alright because somehow we ended up at Walthamstow Central, East 17. Mystified as to why, there were claims of passing Bryan Harvey’s house, seeing the place where shell suited fashions were purchased, crossing the road that the group’s dog got run over on. Or something. But it turns out this part of the world is renowned for more than a former greyhound stadium and chavesque low brow Take That. William Morris did some things with design for wallpapers and turned into a raving socialist. And this was all recollected in his once grand house and gardens, way beyond the reach of the plebs.

lon10Another surprise in this area was the presence of something called Walthamstow Village. While no thatched cottage idyll in the South Hams of Devon, it possessed that quiet street, classic brickwork, church green feel of a London village, with some similarity to more celebrated haunts such as Highgate and Hampstead. Plus there was somewhere to buy ice cream, relief on another generously warm day.

And so as in so many a tale of mine it comes back to food. The final evening of this tour – exquisitely planned and executed – encapsulated a picnic within the virtual countryside of Trent Park. And for this the unfurling of a picnic blanket – a feature of so many of these get-togethers. Under planes a little too high to turn into a game, a mixed meze straight outta North London. This was pure gold at heart.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

London dummies

Just in case everything gets all a bit overly rustic and pastorally idyllic, there is always London. London: a city which once was my home and one which I thought I knew well. But its size and scale and – in places – rate of transformation mean that there is always something else waiting to be seen, something else to be done. Particularly when you can relive it all through the eyes of a novice.

lon01Nothing new with the Northern Line, apart from the far more glamorous and airy edifice of Tottenham Court Road station. Nothing new with the rain either, turning the walk around Covent Garden and Soho into an unremitting trudge. Ducking in for cover at Costa Coffee again (sigh) and splashing out on an I Love London umbrella again. Where is that pastoral idyll, again?

But London is not unfamiliar with precipitation and many thousands mill about with their I Love London umbrellas, freaking out at floating yodas, larking about with toys in Hamleys, packing into the galleries and museums and trying to learn something new. Many thousands also learn little in Madame Tussauds, other than how to pose with a plastic reincarnation of Johnny Depp.

lon02Not being naturally inclined to such a place, this was my first time in Madame Tussauds. I guess the dummies were good, I guess they were interesting, I guess I even started to pose with them myself towards the end – particularly when the Star Wars zone appeared just past One Direction and left at the Dagobar System. There was a silly but fun History of London ride and a silly but fun 4D movie. And, in that first day in London, we obviously got to meet the Queen who had obviously come out especially to greet us.

Such wanderings in wax also allowed the rain to finally clear and deliver a bright and breezy couple of hours to end the day in the real world. Cue barges on the Thames, red phone boxes on Embankment, the slow rotation of the Eye, and the bongs of the bell in that most famous of misnamed towers. A walk with squirrels and dogs in St James Park, up The Mall and to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen failed to greet us (still at Madame Tussauds I guess). And then a rush hour crush on the Victoria Line, the truest London experience.


If only you could apparate between Green Park and West Finchley was not what I was thinking at the time. I was mostly thinking how the hell are we going to get past these people and out of the doors at Euston? Still, apparition was on topic the next day, providing a convenient means to segue between a ride home on the underground and a Harry Potter walking tour. Again, not something I would naturally lean towards, but I have read the books, seen the movies, and now taken a slightly obsessive teenage fan to London.

lon04The walk required memory and imagination, but it did also offer a chance to see some of the sights: buzzing around the bustling lanes of London Bridge and Borough, crossing the Death-eaten Millennium Bridge, getting in the way of wanker bankers in Bank, and running into walls at Kings Cross. All guided, for this most English of creations, by an affable Aussie.

The underground continued to be magically fantastical – that is, not breaking down or being delayed or being on strike – throughout, and delivered us once again to Embankment the next day. Here was a chance to experience another most English creation: a long queue. A staff presence of one for buying tickets on the river ferries – not the most inspired during a sunny day in the school summer holidays. Boris may need to get his privileged upper class whiff-whaff hands on this one to sort it out.

lon06Still, when finally aboard, the ferry to Greenwich was perfectly agreeable, cruising steadily past the many sites lining the wide brown serpentine Thames. And Greenwich was decidedly pleasant, offering expansive views and a palpable sense of Britannia once ruling the waves. The additional wonder of this being a cradle of scientific achievement may have been lost on some (compared with, say, a waxwork of Robert Pattinson), but some of that may lie in my confused amateur teaching, based on half-formed memories of history lessons, QI episodes and Professor Brian Cox saying something on TV in that affable and wistful way of his.


lon07Confused teachings could have endured around the Tower of London, but even I was over it by then. Something about beheadings, protection of London from plagues of rats, queens eating beefburgers and radioactive ravens. Luckily, nearby Tower Bridge offered an ‘experience’, in which a video projection of cackling cockneys could tell you of the need for another crossing in Landan taaan and sour-faced Victorians go on to outline the ground-breaking design and construction. A more recent addition to the bridge would be the glass bottom walkways, offering a greater thrill for the increasingly daring in the twenty-first century.

For what it’s worth, I would definitely recommend the Tower Bridge experience, particularly as it is much cheaper than most other sights and you get a splendid view thrown in with it. Indeed, the late afternoon in the capital was looking splendid…all blue skies and white fluffs of cloud, glistening buildings, and a marginally less murky river. Friday vibes and mass commuter escapes, for that most English of bank holidays in August.


lon14Escape was also on the cards the next day, for us, from London, and back to those country idylls and village idiots. Urban density giving way to flashes of affluent countryside and trim Tory towns. A patchwork becoming increasingly rustic finally seeping across into Devon. From Oysters to Roysters in half a day.  London been and gone and now far away.

Great Britain Green Bogey Walking


The chill embrace of water was invasive. A pond stretching out in smooth monotone reflected only the dead black trees, clutching and distorting like lost souls grasping for salvation. In places a mist danced, swirls of vapour disappearing and re-emerging within the blink of an eye; drifting towards the pond’s banks and adding burden to the dense brambles and thickets of weed. Here, a lonely black crow occasionally paced, agitating water from the undergrowth and sending it downwards to disturb the silvery veneer. The grass sweeping up to where he stood was sopping, congested with dewdrops longing to be transformed into jewels by an absent sun.  And into this reservoir one more droplet formed, trickling down his scarred cheek and stolen by the air.

The mist on that day one year ago was somehow more startling. It hovered fleetingly down in the small gully at the back of his plot, barely distinguishable in the first light, twisting through the remaining tree ferns like some ghostly serpent of the dreamtime.  He was always up at this hour, surveying the daybreak from the back of his veranda, but not once could he recall mist down there at this time of year. He found the pre-dawn a beautiful, peaceful period, becalmed before the summer sun gathered in ferocity and the winds became energised. It was his time, a secret hour of solace before the industry of human activity discovered the world again and disrupted its placidity.

The first sounds, apart from those of the creaking deck upon which he paced, came from the birds. Usually a lone wattlebird set everything off, calling to its mate and waiting – sometimes forlornly – for a distant reply. Without a response its cry would intensify towards panic, only subdued when an echo rebounded from somewhere amongst the trees lining the road. As the black of night faded indigo and navy blue, the kookaburras stirred; first a guttural warm-up from the lead voice, like that of a car’s ignition struggling to get going on the first attempt. Upon finally starting this lone cackle would act as an alarm call for the others to burst into a cacophony. This seemed to peeve the sulphur-crested cockatoos, shrieking in retort to being rudely awaken. The shrill flits of galahs and rosellas followed, while the currawongs and magpies struggled to be heard in the melee. By time the first red rays of sun glowed upon the upper reaches of the big cabbage gum to his right, an uninterrupted wall of sound flowed through the air and the world was awake again.

A wall of sound greeted him now, walking up Highgate Hill, though little of it emanated from anything other than what man had done. Red double deckers played tag, rumbling up the hill from Archway and swapping places at alternate stops. Occasionally a black cab spirited its way towards the city and fluoro cyclists diced with death on a mad downhill descent. But mostly there were Range Rovers and Landcruisers and a variety of precision-made German-engineered supersized cars perfectly suitable for the rough terrain of north London. Inside, almost unequivocally, a well-groomed mother was returning from the school run, bedecked in a smart-fitting pastel blazer and adorned with large sunglasses.

Overhead, a few pigeons scattered in the skies, continually eclipsed by the roar of jets ascending from Heathrow, veering left as they rose on a repetitive north-easterly track. Many destined to escape the chill. It was perhaps only around four degrees – already incrementally warmer than overnight – but the cold was bitter enough to cause him to be jolted by the heat encased within Sam’s Cafe as he opened the door.

It was only ten in the morning when he had been hit like this last year. Protected by the settler’s schizophrenic garden of apple tree and acacia, fuchsia and grevillea, his blue weatherboard home escaped the worst excesses of summer. Unlatching the back door and opening out its fly screen onto the veranda, he was immediately confronted by a burst of heat; like that of an airplane door closed at Aberdeen and opened again at Alicante. Over the creek he could see his neighbour’s Friesians clustered under the shade of a eucalypt. Their complaining bellows had replaced the melodies of dawn long since passed, with only the intermittent clucking of his chooks competing for attention. As he made his way across to their pen to collect the morning’s yield, a waft of wind stirred in the cabbage gum. This was replicated a minute later by the trees upon the ridge, whipped up in greater fury for ten seconds before dying completely. Gathering up just two eggs – fewer than normal – his throat had dried and any relief from his own saliva was fleeting.

On days like this there was little he could do. Tending to the chooks, clearing the yard of clutter, and undertaking perfunctory checks on the water tank, roof and gutters was about the sum of it. There was nothing for it other than to close all the blinds, reach for the fridge, crack open a beer, and wait for the day to pass. The beer was the medicinal part. The contours of the glass, coated in icy beads of water, were balsam to his ruddy hands. In one fluid gesture he passed the bottle across his forehead, twisted off the cap to release a short, sweet spurt of gas, and brought the rim up to his lips for an indulgent gulp.

Soothed and mellowed, he reached up to the shelf and flicked on the radio, before settling down in a wooden chair that had seen better days. Set to the ABC – as it had been for umpteen years – a young bloke was talking about his experimentations in crop diversification. Several varieties of something called keynwah, he thought they had said. Apparently, he got some of this keynwah sent over from South America and one of its party was delivering promise here in Gippsland. There was good money in it, apparently, and as the talk meandered into yield per hectare, cost inputs and market pricing, he found his eyelids dropping and head becoming heavy, dragged down by a tonne of exotic wholegrain…

…a young Peter Hollingsworth was walking alongside the Thames once again. The brown river was languid, a juxtaposition to the barges and cruisers bustling up and downstream with purpose. It was sunny, though crisp, with a gusty easterly wind whipping under the railway bridges and backstreet arches of Bankside. Next he saw a pint of chocolaty brown ale in front of him, topped off with creamy white foam. It was called something like Black Boar, and was a fine sight to behold. But more striking, more achingly beautiful, more lustfully alluring was the vision of Emily Coniston, animated across the table in delivering a rebuttal to some dandy twerp who dared to suggest she should stick to becoming a housewife and mother. Making out her argument was tough – the crackle of the open fire incessant – but you could tell she was having the better of things, and looked all the finer for it.

The crackling intensified, and slowly the image blurred and vanished. The talk of keynwah had ceased and the radio had lost signal altogether. Slowly rising, Peter switched it off, and went back out to the veranda to check up on what the world was doing. By now, the midday sun was searing and he lingered sparingly in it. Everything was eerily still and quiet. The cows had gone, probably offered refuge in one of the big tin sheds up on the hill. Even the cicadas were subdued, no doubt wallowing amongst the more succulent clumps of grass and weed next to the boundary fence. The chooks were silent too, but faring okay as he ambled down to their pen with extra water. Inside the small shed attached to their run, he noticed four hens snoozing away in the shade, as if the heat was today’s excuse for a typically elongated siesta.

Turning back to the house was when he first noticed a narrow plume of smoke, rising vertically many kilometres distant, up somewhere in the ranges west of Buchan. This was nothing new, the whole country up there so rugged and devoid of human habitation that fires could burn away for months on end.  Twelve years previously he remembered it coming down from the mountains and torching a few sheds and accounting for six cattle and a cat in one of the scattered settlements in the valley. The fire had ravaged an area the size of Belgium, but its damage was mostly temporary, the bush regenerating, as it does, to take on its latest iteration. Even the old couple who lost their cat easily got a new one from the dozens offered by well-meaning do-gooders.

Heading to the back door he looked once more at the smoke, but did not see that of a bushfire simultaneously destroying and rejuvenating a tangled patch of far off high country; instead it was that rising from Battersea Power Station to his west, adding another smoky texture to the otherwise blanket grey sky. Emily was gliding on the ice, reaching out for his hand and guiding him with both a tenderness and passion that was as much about a journey into his heart as it was a helping hand to an Australian unaccustomed to such wintry escapades. His tentativeness and clumsiness eased, so much so that he could finally avert his gaze up from his feet and dwell longer in that carefree smile and the large, brown eyes brimming with life. Only when those eyes reached into his did he stutter once more, crashing to the ground accompanied by the sounds of unbridled, joyous laughter.

A small gust of wind rattled through the cabbage gum, and briefly diverted his attention back to the present. But his mind was now deeply focused on the past. It may have been nearing forty degrees in a rural homestead in the middle of not much at all, but Peter was now transfixed on one magical winter many years ago in a huge, sprawling city on the other side of the world. Retreating inside, he sought out one of those shoeboxes that contain life’s memories. It was buried in a bigger box under souvenir stubby holders and a dream catcher and several bits of key chain and magazines about photography and newspaper pullouts about walking trails and places in South America and recipes for Malaysian curries. Inside, the smell was of an old bookshop in Melbourne, as letters and postcards, photos and train tickets, spilled out onto the kitchen table.

The afternoon passed in a blur of words and images. Three cherished letters, two photo booth pictures, a program from the Old Vic, and a return train ticket from Waterloo to Winchester were the only physical representations Peter retained of his time with Emily Coniston. He read and re-read every sentence in the letters; the first was full of sparkle and suggestion, of hopes and dreams of a life to come. The second, composed a few years later, was more formal, though he detected an occasional playfulness in between lines of her impending marriage to Will Barlow. The third was more recent – sent upon the turn of the millennium – in which fondness for their collective past was painted in such a vividly romantic hue that it was impossible not to rue what might have been.

The train tickets did little justice in capturing the memories of that day. It was a sunny Sunday in early February. The train carriage had been stationed at Waterloo overnight and so, first thing, it was like entering a cold store full of legs of ham hanging from the ceiling. Things warmed a touch as the sun penetrated the carriage, and the white frost-capped roofs of the suburbs slowly began to drip as they passed by. In Winchester, the lawns in front of the cathedral were pocketed white and dewy green, the harsh frostiness lingering where the spire had shadowed the sun. Walking together alongside the old stone walls of the college, they joined arms, offering internal warmth more than sufficient to counter that of the ice layered across the waterway to their right. Warmer still, the hot chocolate shared in a cafe beside the bridge, and the contentedness of being in that place at that time with that person.

A sudden and strong gust rattled the house, causing the shoebox to drop to the floor much in the same way as past memories rapidly evaporated back to the present. For the first time that day, Peter felt a shiver, as if he had been briefly relocated through space and time into that railway carriage on the platform of Waterloo station. The wind whistled again, becoming more persistent and sustained. He could hear the leaves in the gum tree in perpetual motion, the sound as if it were that of a waterfall plunging over the rim of a sandstone cliff. The noises were troublesome, the shrieks and hollers of spirits risen up from the earth, come down from the mountains, and returning from the past.

Outside the situation transformed rapidly, but somehow – and it is hard for him to describe – the next hour passed to Peter in slow motion, in discrete and deliberative moments of time, stitched together like acts from Richard III; a past winter of content soothing what was now becoming a summer of alarm. Before too long, embers began appearing from the west, blazing leaves of eucalyptus oil floating on the sky and whirling downwards to rain on the front porch.  Like the snowflakes floating onto their faces atop Parliament Hill. Each one extinguished before it took hold, as if coming into contact with a rosy cheek reddened all the more with wine. Peter glided calm and assured, as if he had finally perfected the art of ice skating, only on the grass and thistle and weed of the Australian bush. His skates from R.M. Williams and his support, his companionship coming this time from the hosepipe gripped in his hands.

A couple of kilometres out, a wall of flame was now visible upon a ridgeline. Trees in the near distance were touched by the smallest ember and immediately ignited into a fiery vaporous mass. Cockatoos shrieked and fled, their usual brilliance dulled by the smoky air. A kangaroo, eyes panicked and bewildered, clattered into the fence by the road at full force. The cows up in the shed wailed in a desperate high-pitched tone that was marginally more terrifying than that of the wind, or the shriek of the Bakerloo line train coming into the curved platform at Paddington. In an inevitability that was only a matter of time, the cabbage gum caught and Peter found that he was being overwhelmed.

Emily was with him again, grasping the hand that had dropped the hose in panic, and leading him away. Cloaking him in the February of London, guiding him down to the ponds on the Heath. Pausing only to unlatch the chook’s pen, and hearing the birds follow in terror as they fled down the hill. Stripping off in a fit of bravado and alcohol-induced daring to plunge into the icy cold waters of the pond. Laying there in the shallow waters of the creek and being kissed once more, treasuring the feel of her cold, smooth skin upon his. Together in the freezing water as the flames licked overhead, as if in the dead heart of the fire in the pub. Passing through the inferno of hell in the recollection of a heaven. And shedding a tear of happiness into the creek that would eventually run into the sea and cross oceans and find its way back to that pond one year later.


12 Months Australia Great Britain

Trains, tubes, bikes, and a pony

Also known as ‘The Other Bits of England’ blog, in which I endeavour to catch up with special people not living in Devon and partake in the odd jolly jaunt with or, occasionally, without them. Faces and places familiar, with the occasional variation thrown in for good measure. A veritable criss-crossing of a country, conquering the bemusing cost savings to be had through split railway tickets and battling against the perennial issue of available luggage space. Virgin appear to have done something particularly mind-blowing in this regard, where overhead storage accepts nothing thicker than a laptop, resulting in a space largely devoid of content and most luggage littering any spare volume of carriage not taken up by cranky people. They do appear to serve a Rodda’s Cream Tea though, so all is forgiven.

Making these trips is a chance for my inner England to resurface (e.g. by grumbling quietly to oneself at the trains) and to get up to speed with the zeitgeist, mainly courtesy of eavesdropped conversations and leftover copies of the Metro. Scandal in the Great British Bake Off; returning X Factor judges; expensive football transfers; Scotland will they won’t they will they won’t cannae do it aye. And, more personalised, to witness changes to old haunts, to exchange news and share a drink once more with friends, to see if coffee has improved, and to tread the green, green grass of home.

ukB01London has a surprisingly decent amount of green, green grass, and I tread my fair share of it each year through the child-friendly parks which often intermingle throughout the northern suburbia around Finchley. Further in amongst the urban grime, parks and leafy squares crop up around random corners, such as Coram’s Fields just south of Kings Cross St Pancras. An undoubtedly charming green space should it be open…which it wasn’t today, due to some very worthy charity event being set up. And so, around another corner, a small bouncy castle appeared over a wall and the local community gardens family fun day was sensitively gatecrashed.

It felt a bit like something that may feature in Eastenders, though it was all much more enjoyable and pleasant, without numbskull deadbeats trying to shift some dodgy motors or a drummer waiting in the corner to signal the occurrence of a dramatic, decisive, cliff-hanging moment. It had a different feel to – say – the contented edamame-chomping family set sprawling across Friary Park in Barnet, a spot in which I recovered the next day from experiencing a decent flat white in North Finchley. They are slowly getting better in places. Slowly.

Back onto the train the next day, a Virgin train with its pitiless excuse for an overhead luggage rack, the green pockets of the capital were to be replaced with greener expanses of beautiful, classical, English landscapes. I am naturally a little biased towards Devon and Cornwall, but there are surely few places as idyllic as the Lake District in the far northwest of England. Rugged rounded ridges, sweeping glacial valleys, dry stone walls and postcard-pretty lakeside villages. The kind of place I end up every year and feel keen to stay longer some other time.


ukB02In truth, I only had a few hours in the heart of the Lake District (i.e. inside the national park). Other days were spent within a hilltop forest which possessed its own magical air. Whinfell Forest sits atop a large, sprawling hill and amongst the pines are scattered quiet avenues and quaint timber lodges. There are people wholesomely cycling around and children, lots of children, like Faeries apparating out of the heather. From nowhere a glass dome emerges, filled with restaurant chains and a complex of swimming pools and whirly flumes and tubes. This is a Center Parcs site, an undoubtedly corporatised cash-cow, which somehow retains plenty of charm and attractiveness.

ukB03The setting rules here you see, with ample space to accommodate plenty of lodges and a giant glass dome and thousands of Faeries and still have room for quiet forest tracks, gentle glades and red squirrel hang outs. The appeal for me was the setting and I enjoyed nothing more than riding my bike along the car-free tracks, the sun and breeze and smell of pine in the air. That and cherishing time with friends who are more special than most and continue to do amazing things.

Center Parcs does not feel too claustrophobic but I did wonder whether you could escape the perimeter fence. Would the road out be closed? Would a giant thunderstorm crop up to block the way? Would a security alert be concocted to stop you leaving? Was this, in fact, The Truman Show? I could not be so close to the lakes and not give it a try, so I snuck out, hopped on a bus to Penrith, waited forever for another bus and ended up trundling alongside Ullswater before getting off at Glenridding. I didn’t have much idea what was at Glenridding, but as a place name to stop at in the Lake District it sounded about right. And indeed, it possessed all necessary quaintness and opportunity for a short enough walk taking in two valleys and a small hill.

ukB04The walk, hastily discovered through some wifi in a Penrith coffee shop, took me gradually upwards for valley and lakeside views, reaching the small, reflective Lanty’s Tarn. From here it was over and down into Grisedale, where sheep dotted the lower meadows, kept in by the dry stone walls and the course of the river. The river tumbled steadily down back towards Ullswater itself, setting the course for the return to Glenridding.


ukB07Though fine and warm, it was a cloudy kind of day – what the BBC online weather forecast likes to call ‘white cloud’ as opposed to ‘grey cloud’ (it’s the worst cloud for landscape photos I find). The sun finally emerged into the afternoon only a little before my bus back was due, but this provided time enough for an ice cream and a quick scramble to see the lake for one last time in some sun. The bus came and I left thinking that one whole week here would do nicely thank you very much please.

Leaving the Lakes, the landmarks and landscapes become a little less poetic. For instance, I get to change trains at Wolverhampton. Wordsworth never wrote anything fancy about Wolverhampton. I doubt if he did for Basingstoke either, unsurprising given it never really existed back then. There could be some interesting poetry about Basingstoke (I wandered circuitously like a roundabout…) and he would generally approve of the countryside around the place. You do notice, though, how more built up the southeast is, particularly on a day spent for much of the time in nearby Surrey.

The M25 is nobody’s idea of fun, but it quickly took Dad and I to Box Hill. For those who remember such things, this is a small lump in the North Downs that Olympic cyclists managed to climb nine times (a few too many in my opinion). It remains a mecca for lycra lovers everywhere who enjoy nothing more than getting sweaty on a couple of hairpins. With MAMILs in profusion you would expect a decent coffee at the top, but that is not what you get. However, the area provides a diversity of hazy hilltop views, ancient forest, chalk downs and riverside meadows. On a circular walking route, down to the River Mole and over stepping stones, the climb back up to the top on foot makes you appreciate what the cyclists achieve.


ukB09Amongst the procession of affluent commuter towns and fancy golf courses, we also eventually found ourselves at Runnymede. This is a spot on the banks of the Thames that has international historical significance as the signing spot of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. Being about democracy and all the yanks have attempted to infiltrate this spot with monuments and gifts to the Queen and what not (which, of course, they are free and entitled to do without prejudice or persecution). However, the green meadows and ancient oak trees are oh so English; a scene tempered only slightly by the parade of jets coming in to land at Heathrow and delivering thousands of yanks onto these shores.

ukB09aBlissfully quieter but also possessing historical royal links and requisite green pleasantness was the New Forest, visited on my last full day of this trip in England. The sun came out and all was well with the world amongst the many shades of green, rescinding in places as September emerges. The cute village of Burley remains somewhere in the sepia toned 1950s, with bunting and shoppes and ice cream and ponies meandering down the streets looking all sweetness and light in an attempt to curry favour and steal your ice cream. I don’t blame them, it was good ice cream. There was also good picnic lunch in a forest and good afternoon cake in Ashurst. And if all this Englishness was getting a bit much, there was good tartiflette (French) in the evening. Finished (yes, there is more) with Pavlova (Kiwi) finished (yes, more) with the last spoonful of clotted cream (Heaven). What a way to go!

It wasn’t quite the end and ruining the culinary picture slightly was a very poor coffee (from one of those chains – yes, Caffe Nero I will name and shame you) the next morning in London. With a couple of hours to spare before flying out of the city, I returned to the south bank with my bags, a scene reminiscent of a few weeks before. And despite the burning bitterness in my mouth, the scene, sat on a bench in the warm sun, was uplifting. St Pauls to my right, while various funky new buildings rise up beyond, trying to outdo the piercing pinnacle of The Shard. The river flows along in front of me, taking the view down to Parliament and the London Eye. If I wanted an iconic British image to depart Britain on then this was perhaps the one to go with.


ukB11But there are many iconic, memorable images from a few weeks back home: herds of deer at Knebworth; the M25; Dartmoor cream teas; pasties in Cornwall and Plymouth Argyle; trampolines; sparkling Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe; tin mine relics on the North Cornwall coast; a train trundling through excessive leafiness to Looe; Kings Cross St Pancras; poetic Lakeland landscapes; magical forest bike rides; the Thames with a flight path soundtrack; New Forest ponies and cake, lots of cake. And many of these moments cherished more with family and friends who sometimes feel a little too far away. Departing from London City, out over the Thames estuary, over again where it all inauspiciously started – Safffffend – England, again, sadly disappeared from view.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Hola amigos!

spn02Wary that I may just drift into the comforts of life again in Plymouth and conscious of impending Halloween-related mania, I took a couple of weeks out of this (only slightly) working holiday. The first part involved meeting up and hanging out with friends once more, following which a trip overseas provided some peace and quiet and strangely rare solo time.

A whistle-stop visit to London offered another chance to reacquaint myself with old hang outs and deep connections. Now with young ones to entertain this principally involves visits to the parks of North London, typically on a rota system. It was pleasing to add a different park to the list, within the tranquil leafiness of Highgate Wood. The extra bonus here was that once slides and nets and steps and bars had been exhausted, a little lodge served up fine food to eat al fresco in the sunshine. Similarly, while by no means a new addition, Golders Hill Park delivered gelato to cool down on an astonishingly warm and sheltered park bench the next day.

spn01London is quite a different place when you visit and are not subjected to a long daily commute for tedious work and returning home for a late dinner mired in tiredness. Indeed, I was quite happy to take an hour long bus journey, absorbing the sites on the top deck of the number 13 bus from Golders Green: Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, Lords Cricket Ground, Regents Park, Baker Street, Oxford Street and, my stop, Piccadilly Circus. I was equally content to mill around to Covent Garden and Embankment and cross over to the South Bank for a little, killing time until a get-together in Clapham. I know for sure now that I am officially at a different stage in life to when I was living in London:  waiting for a friend in a pub reading a paper and struggling to block my ears to the awful music that was far too loud. Confirmation of this comes through reminiscing on the tube home with two friends from university who I met half of my lifetime ago.  But this is nothing to despair at.

spn03More old friendships, albeit only for about one third of my lifetime, were enjoyed during a few days in Lytham up in the good old northwest of England near Blackpool. The weather for the first couple of days was better than when I visited in August, allowing opportunity to amble the prom and still try and figure out why so many people come here for their holidays. By midweek it was more typically grey with some rain and a few fleeting rays of sun. This coincided with my birthday, which was further official confirmation that I am of an older generation. Still, in Lytham such is the populace of wrinklies that I generally still feel quite young, and can do impetuous youthful things like play GTA V and watch the end of Breaking Bad like everyone else in the world during this period in history.

spn07It was a grey, drizzly day leaving Lytham and I am very conscious that I will be in England when the calendar turns to November (or Jungfrau). With this in mind, and another way in which I can make myself feel young, I boarded a plane to Spain. Costa Blanca, Quesada, Dona Pepa Pig and a home from home from home sadly less visited. This was an opportunity to wear shorts again, to think a bit more like I was in Australia, albeit with worse coffee and inferior beaches and not as much untainted open space. It was also rather nice to have some time to myself – the first in quite a long time really.

I probably would have gone a bit stir-crazy if it wasn’t for the company of a mouse in the house and a hire car to get around. And so, a few excursions (without the mouse) took in mountain towns and humid clouds, coastal resorts and big rocks, and lovely fragrant forests and views.

spn04The first trip out took me to a few Spanish mountain towns, all with higgledy piggledy streets and churches and squares. At Biar, a medieval castle looks out from the highest point perched upon a lump of rock. A fee of one Euro allows you entrance to the tower where you can get the slowest ever English commentary and walk three flights of stairs to the top. Overlooking the charming little town and fields and hills of rustic terraces, it’s one of the nicer spots in this area.


Down the road from here, Bocairent did not feature prominently in any of the guide books I had to hand. Mind you, a lot of this material seems out-of-date as roads have changed names or gone missing altogether. Still, I vaguely recall reading something on an airplane in Australia about this place, so it was worth a stop out of curiosity if nothing else. I gather there are lots of little caves around and, while it took a little finding, the old town was very much in the classic Spanish hillside variety.


From here I missed my intended turn off the main road but this was one of those fortunate mistakes. The next five kilometres or so, towards Ontinyent, thread through a wonderful limestone gorge, a great road to drive on and a worthwhile stop at some pools of blue called El Pou Clar. They would have sparkled like sapphires in the sun only the sun was getting less and less frequent. In fact, the remainder of the day was blighted by low cloud and a touch of rain on the drive back to Quesada, via Alcoy and Agost.

spn08It was a much sunnier start on the second day out, which infuriatingly darkened some 100 kilometres further north around Calpe. Calpe appears to be a typical Costa resort, with a few high rise hotels, a promenade, clusters of apartments and alright kind of beaches. What sets it apart is a huge lump of rock which juts out into the sea at its northern end. It’s called the Penon De Ifach and it turns out you can climb the thing.

The climb is actually a lot easier than you might think looking at the precipitous lump from the bottom. There’s a bit of a tunnel to go through and some fairly consistent scrambling near the top, but apart from that I have to say it made a nice change to find somewhere in this part of Spain where you could actually go for a decent walk in natural surroundings. The very top though is undoubtedly Spanish, with rocks being daubed in graffiti and feral cats pestering and lending a not-so-lovely aroma to the scene. The views of course though are what make it so worthwhile, especially when the sun makes an appearance.


spn10Despite darkness clinging to the tops of the mountainous interior I left Calpe and headed inland along the Guadalest Valley for the afternoon. Guadalest itself, sheltered by the highest peaks of the Sierra Aitana, remained dry and warm and at times sunny. Certainly warm enough for an ice cream, the Crema Catalana being of particularly fine quality.

Beyond Guadalest the winding roads empty and there is a great deal of scenery lurking under the clouds. What I find infuriating about this though is that there is rarely a place to stop, a viewpoint, a path, a forest, a trail. A lot of the land looks untouched and empty, barren and wild. Who owns it and looks after it I do not know. It just seems to be there, an intangible expanse of rocky scrub and forest.

It was not until I was back closer to the coast near Villajoyosa that some of the scenery could be accessed, albeit a man-made manifestation at the Embalse de Amadorio. The water colour of these reservoirs is always something to behold. It seems they are of significant allure to locals too, who come here to get amorous and leave cans of energy drink, tissues and empty durex boxes scattered around the car park. Maybe I blame locals too quickly, given we’re not actually too far from Benidorm.


spn12Pleasingly my final significant trip out managed to bring me to some rare Spanish coastal wilderness and a decent trail leading to a fine viewpoint. It’s the kind of set up you begin to take for granted in Australia or, with its amazing coast path, the southwest of England. Over the hills from the strip of concrete that is La Manga and between here and the port of Cartagena, a small pocket of rugged coastline and fragrant forest testifies to what this area once was like. This is known as Monte de las Cenizas and one of the best things about it is that the park authorities have closed the gravel road up to this lookout. This means it is little visited, little defaced and there is a good three kilometre trail with only a gentle gradient to overcome. And at the end, a reward of distant coastal views and deep blue sea.

This was the little taster of a kind of Australia that I had hoped for in Spain. This, and the ability to be wearing shorts in October. For, thanks to British TV and the Internet I know that things are a-changing. Heatwaves and bushfires are already inflicting Australia (yet this may or may not be climate change, let’s just pretend it isn’t and then it will go away). And, more immediately, winds from the north east are seeping into Britain. Having resisted thus far, I may need to buy (or beg, borrow or steal) a coat. Or perhaps just dress up as a pumpkin.

Driving Europe Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Walking


One wonders if the Queen would care to be seen wandering the wonders of a London scene.

Dressed as a stranger, flirting with danger outside of the comforts of pastel green

Hats shoes bags and other such garnish like security detail, protecting as varnish,

Scanning over heads of the masses, assessing for assailants, assaults and clashes,

Keeping an eye out for wayward fascists and any such crisis

That might just be a travesty for Her Majesty.


The Queen may well dream to be unseen, leaving her gates and hitting The Mall.

Not Westfield White City, but a far more pretty thoroughfare of red white and blue.

Grand and clean and laced with green, she keeps off the grass of St James Park;

Just the same for the rich and the famous as for those playing games and

The mums with their prams, the bums with their drams and the poms with their Pimms, as

Bankers on blankets are trading on tablets all in the warmth of a bright June day.


At Whitehall a parade of taxis and buses, a crawling river of black and red,

Purposeful striding while nobody fusses over the tomb of the unknown dead.

A wreath bequeathed blood red at its foot, reflecting in glass of the PM’s jag

As it corners the street and scatters the press on its way to his Number 10 pad.

Protesters holler and scream and roar, axe the tax, stop the war, we don’t want this anymore;

Media play out what happened before, and what it will take to make this law.


So to Parliament down near Westminster Station, where such things are put to the nation

Where bells chime in New Year elation and funerals pass in mournful cremation.

To the abbey where princes wed, the good and great are remembered for dead, and, in a moment of hope and dread, one is crowned upon one’s head.

Right now though it’s quiet and still, save for footsteps echoing the hall

Of those from afar who have diligently come, to remember the passing of Pippa’s bum.


Outside the pigeons scatter like petals, as girls from Korea strike a pose

In front of Big Ben their visit captured, in front of landmarks that everyone knows.

The Queen may be seen in some of these snaps, traversing the road to Westminster Bridge,

Ahoy the river, the murky lifeblood, the heart and soul of this great city which

Unites and divides across north and south, from distant suburbs to mud river mouth,

Winding and binding and snaking and making

Sometimes giving and always taking.


The Queen would proceed onto South Bank, a people’s playground and a melee of sound,

Her eyes would eye the London eye, neck-tilting high, far off the ground.

Every next step she’ll get distracted, by modern day fools, musicians and clowns

Dressed as a dalek, break dancing to beat box, magnets drawing the global crowds.


Other people mill along rows of books, set out on tables under the bridge

Leafing through pages from sages for ages, engrossed in the words, unlikely to flinch

At skateboarding noises which echo off concrete, graffiti is daubed iconic as art;

Not to one’s taste but one must accept it, for one can’t be seen to be an old fart.


Going with the flow it’s on to the Globe, a place to be (or not) as it’s said,

Perhaps a play of William Shakespeare, though doesn’t the monarch always end dead?

Thus the wisdom of cabbies remembered, their sage knowledge helps one decide

To cross the river back to the north bank, safe from reminders of dark regicide.


One opened this bridge which swayed and wobbled, back when Harry was still a boy

But now its sleekness is stable and able to glide one across in absolute joy,

Like a white tractor beam from a domed spaceship, pulling one over to the north side;

Do not resist, do not desist, in fact I insist you come for the ride,

For against this dirt Victoriana, rises the most splendid sight of them all:

This is the sight of glorious London, this is the site of Saint Paul’s.


One can take or leave these gherkins and shards, glass and mirrors for cruel money japes,

For nothing eclipses the heart of the city than that grand dome and the glow it makes

Even on a day that’s made of murk, when brown meets grey and the weather’s a fright,

The shining beacon of St Paul’s continues to throw a ghostly white light

As if there may be a god somehow present, lighting the way for the souls of all men,

Or perchance a skilful creation, a temple to science, a product of Wren.


And while thinking about engineering, it’s time one was veering to the tube,

Haphazardly tunnelling, trickily funnelling, like a tight squeeze in need of some lube.

One doesn’t frequently do it this way, it’s common and dirty and full of the masses

But there’s something enticing about running like mice in a labyrinth world of deep and dark passage,

For ten minutes worth of bumping and shaking, making one take in the means and the purpose

Of people commuting, of getting around, of finding the air once more at the Circus


Here should one have need for a treat, join the slow trudge, on Oxford Street

For Topshop and Gap and a pub in between, soak up the wares of the big brand machine;

But look upwards, above the first level, away from the devil where one can revel

In the detail and the sculpted crescent of the present and wholly pleasant

Elegant facade of Regent Street.


Piccadilly beckons and then Trafalgar, great landmarks flow on this monopoly board,

Pigeons and Nelson and lights somewhat vulgar, another statue stands of some other fat lord.

Closer to home now, one senses an end, to the meander through this magnificent place,

It’s hard to describe the awe and the wonder, the sense of what’s special, the look on one’s face

As one goes unseen just like the Queen, treading around, breathing it all

All that one knows, is as the song goes, don’t stop me now, I’m having a ball.



A to Z Europe


Okay, this is not going to be the ultimate in self-absorbed egotism revealing the characteristics and complexities of just one soul among the seven billion on this planet. In fact, it’s not even going to be an analysis of the origins of the name Neil or its equivalents like Niall or Neenoo [1] or, as one Aunt persists in handwritten cards twice a year, Neal. Neither will I look at the many famous Neil’s of popular culture, like Mr Armstrong, Kinnock and the hippy from the Young Ones [2], or linger on the hilarious japes where people might just kneel down after you tell them your name. Instead, in this episode of Neil, I would like to consider the art of getting a picture of oneself, a tenuous link because I am called Neil and when I try to take a picture of myself I am taking a picture of Neil, geddit?

Of course, now I have come to realise that this action has come to be regarded as a ‘selfie’, which is likely to become a ‘selfs’ and then just a general mumble sounding something like ‘sufphs’ as the transformative degeneration of language continues. And I think, well why not, let the young people mess up our language; it’s only fair as we screw over the planet for them, in a period of inaction that will become known as ‘planballs abbottburger’ or something. As long as enough selfies capture the moment the rising sea submerges the Sydney Harbour Bridge everything will be OK.

Anyway, the pictures I want to write about are not really selfies in the take a snap of yourself with a shaving cut in the mirror or the pout from above with bum slightly sticking out sense [3]. They are the pictures you seek at landmarks, on holidays or in situ, usually to prove you are alive / around / doing something far more interesting than anyone else who happens to see it on Facebook. They are the pictures that break up the filmstrip capturing one hundred slightly alternate images of the Eiffel Tower, the poses scattered among five hundred mountain views of the north face of the Eiger. They are the profile pictures and the images that can go on a mother’s day card to say, “hey, look at me, here I am, you love me so much here is a picture of me!” In that respect, they are not much different from selfies.

Like most things in life, I’m generally ambivalent towards having pictures taken of my own image. I possess enough vanity to delete those in which my hair looks too grey, my teeth too crooked, and my breasts too flabby. This is a vetting process that becomes increasingly difficult as hair gets greyer, teeth rot and flab gathers. But still, a picture occasionally emerges in which I think I look quite alright…it may not make one of those stupid exclusive for hot people only dating sites, but it’ll pass and has a pretty background of hills or something. It’s wonderful what an amazingly beautiful backdrop can do to distract from an unflattering gut angle.

So, I don’t really go round seeking shots of myself all of the time. Mostly they are meeting a requirement of proving I am alive and well in a location taking lots of pictures of it. For some reason, the fact that you have one hundred and twenty six pictures of the Statue of Liberty is insufficient to prove you were there; only when you are in front of the camera, thrusting your torch arm in the air like a total pilchard, is the shoot complete and future memories can be safely set in archive.

Of course, a big part of the reason that only a very small proportion of the thousands of photos I have include Neil as a subject is that Neil is usually the artist (in an informal and non-commercial sense) and the scene is the subject. My photography is typically a subjective composition of an objective subject, with the objective being to subject the viewer to experience my subjective position from an objective standpoint. And how can you object to something as straightforward a subject as that? I like to capture the world around me from my perspective, and not so much the perspective of me around the world.

The other obvious limiting factor is that frequently I am taking pictures on my own and thus face the perennial challenge of achieving the successful selfie. A chunky DSLR is far less selfie friendly than a phone, a battle of physiology and technology and art. I find a chunky DSLR often leads to a chunky picture of me. Even a phone picture seems to bring out an extra chin, as if the strain of extending an arm and finding the button to press is all too much for the body and brain to deal with. The use of a timer can be an effective way round this, but this is subject to the hope that the camera will stay level on the rock you have balanced it on and then being able to safely scramble over a yawning gap and on to some crumbling rocks, flatten your hair, and smile in ten seconds. Plus my camera decides it will only allow a ten second time delay if you choose a burst of about 12 pictures, resulting in a comical set of identical but slightly different frames in which I get progressively bemused.


There is an unspoken etiquette, typically in such populous spots as lookouts and famous landmarks, in which people will mutually take a photo for one another. Often being alone and with a chunky DSLR I frequently get earmarked for this high pressure task. This shot could make or break their visit; either they will look back at the time they were gorgeously posed over a breathtaking valley or recoil in the moment they looked a right munter with eyes closed around some dark grainy landscape that resembles an abandoned nuclear test site. I quite like the pressure, the chance to fiddle with someone else’s camera briefly, and be a part of their trip for a few seconds. And I don’t mind the reciprocal offers that come back, though invariably my unspoken reaction is of a picture produced that is at best ‘alright’.

Part of the reason that the picture is only ‘alright’ is how Neil ends up looking in it. Not so much in terms of hair greyness or breast flabbiness, but more in the composition and pose. I, of course, would have taken it very differently, and imagined that the big mountain would be to the left and I would feature in the bottom right corner; whereas the result is a close up of me in the middle with an overflowing bin expertly captured in the foreground.

As for the pose, well, this is the biggest dilemma. Open toothy smile, closed smirk, moody sulk? Face on, side on, backside on looking out, down, up, inside out? And what to do with those hands?  In pockets, on hips, defensive balls position as if awaiting a free kick, relaxed down the side, laid back on a wall, aloft in celebration, pointing in the middle distance? My two default poses are arms dangling down looking somewhat artificial and uncomfortable or, particularly in dramatic terrain, spread out wide and accompanied with an open-gaped mouth as if I am about to wail out a big ‘TA DA!’

And so, by a process of elimination it turns out the best way to be able to monitor pose, determine composition and retain control over a picture of Neil is to make use of a mirror. Every accomplished selfie obsessed tweeter knows this. But unlike bathrooms and bedrooms, there is a relative dearth of mirrors at tourist sites and attractions around the world. Occasionally though it’s possible to find some random public artwork or street furniture in the right place at the right time. Like around St Paul’s Cathedral in London town, bedecked in a colourful fury of post-Olympian September sunshine. What more can you ask for than an iconic landmark soaring into blue skies as vivid red London buses swirl around its base intermingling with the green remains of summer. Suddenly the scattering of shiny balls lining the pavements nearby are less a random obstruction and more the ultimately funky selfie mirror. Real but distorted, much like London town itself.


The issue remains that it’s practically impossible to take a reflected picture like this without the camera getting in the way. Heaven forbid the disaster should the flash also decide to burst forth. I’ve tried moving it from my face and to the side, with haphazard results and a much more convoluted pose. Shooting from the hip is an option, but this looks even more bizarre, bordering on the sickly perverse. In the end, I decided I quite liked a) my face hidden and b) the dominance of the camera itself. For this is how you would typically see me, around St Paul’s, slacking off on a sunny September day. This is me in the moment, doing what I love, doing what so many are doing around me. This is Neenoo, Neal, Neil.

[1] This one comes from the land of my niece

[2] Gosh, there really aren’t that many luminaries with my name hey?

[3] Both of which a former Prime Minister of Australia likely performed


I’m Kevin and I’m here to help you shave:

Planballs Abbottburger?:


If you are really bovverred:

St Paul’s:

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture


If I was Alain de Botton I would have a superbly incisive sentence about journeys with which to begin this piece. Nothing like ‘a journey is the means by which one moves from A to B, whereby A is the current position and B the intended or end position’. [1] Of course, it could become more scholarly when we propose that A equals birth and B equals death, or less so when A is North Finchley and B is Golders Green. Both can apply, for as well as being like a box of chocolates, surely life is one big journey with lots of little trips, some of them circular, others there and back again, over hills, down dales, up side streets and along back alleys. And we are all passengers on the choo-choo train of happiness that is life.

Like everyone on this planet I have been on thousands of trips within my bigger life journey, many of them unremarkable, others slightly more interesting. It would be impossible to relate them all, almost as impossible as discussing 27 trillion topics at a rate of one topic a day (over a four day working week) for one hour [2]. But I’d like, in this potentially rambling expedition of words, to give you a flavour of the mundane and the spectacular that is involved with a journey.

When I think of mundane journeys my mind instantly arrives in London and a world of commuting. I was not unique in this regard, obvious when I was to look around at the number of people squished onto one carriage of a Northern Line underground train doing the same thing. I’m not sure so many people were travelling from Finchley Central to Hanger Lane via Tottenham Court Road, but odds are there was someone else enduring this madness. It was a long trip, there and back again taking around two and a half hours out of my day. The plus sides were the opportunities to read, complete the Sudoku in Metro, and stare in the middle distance trying to avoid eye contact with anyone whatsoever (as etiquette dictates).

Often by Archway I was bored and ready to get off, to breathe the, ahem, fresh air of inner North London. I had stared at the underground map and memorised the order of stations countless times already. I knew when the very proper automated voice was about to utter something informative like ‘the next station is Tottenham Court Road, change here for the Central Line’. And, when she did, I knew where to get off so I would have the shortest route to make the connecting Central Line train, and to position myself on the platform where I would stand the highest chance of getting a seat. On this train, things livened up again after Shepherd’s Bush, where the underground would go overground and you would learn whether you had made the right choice to leave the umbrella at home today. Or not. [3]

It is a journey that sounds rather boring and often it was. But that glosses over the sheer diversity every day: different people getting stuck in the doors in a last minute dash to board (and thus not to have the indignation of waiting 2 minutes for the next train); cancellations and shutdowns due to adverse weather [4]; automated announcements enlivened by a surprisingly witty retort from a bored driver who happens not to be on strike for a change; the occasional good (or bad) fortune that you might bump into someone you might know; and the quest of listening to music before an era of noise-cancelling headphones.

In truth, the tube is anarchy masquerading as mass transit and it becomes a riot at the stations. I love the labyrinthine network of tunnels where people stride purposefully in different directions (or bumble along and get in the way when you want to stride purposefully yourself). I love the adventure of seeking some mysterious portal and having to cut through an endless flow of suits and briefcases to plunge into it and down a spiral staircase to a cavernous tunnel where an archaic train might or might not turn up. I love watching people run frantically for the train, and like it even more when they miss it. I love it when people don’t stand clear of the doors to let people off, simply because I can tut in moralistic superiority. And I love the rumble of a train approaching, and the warm or cold air it thrusts before it like in some soot-laden Dickensian wind tunnel.

It sounds like I love the underground but it’s more a rollercoaster romance. At first, the novelty of using the tube and living the big city dream makes it seem fresh and exciting. After a while, it’s more of a routine, with good and bad days. Before too long, familiarity begins to breed contempt, accentuated by something unfortunate like the Central Line being closed for track work for months on end. Sick of this, you begin to dally with others…alternatives like the admittedly dreadful amalgamation of two buses navigating the North Circular and interchanging at Brent Cross. Bizarre combinations of bus, overland train, walk, bus just to mix things up. But you end up coming back and, with a little distance and history, appreciate the marvel of the underground that still somehow manages to work today.

If we are talking about transport systems that work there is an inevitability that the word Switzerland will come up. Through the power of language I can try and take you on a journey to Switzerland, using multiple forms of transport to get to one particular high point. It actually starts in Slovenia and its capital city Ljubljana, which boasts a fine old town surrounded by the best in 60s socialist tower block architecture. View both from the castle if you can, and go on a boat trip along the river if you fancy a sedate snooze.

A hire car out of here and a circumnavigation of ring roads takes me to the airport, a place that is small but nicely formed. Airports are fun places hey. I used to quite like airports when a holiday was involved, as it was the first chapter of a vacation, a place where anticipation could bubble and good moods spread. Maybe I’m more desensitised nowadays; a touch middle class blasé about it, scarred by 5:30am flights out of foggy Canberra and transit walks at god knows what hour through Bangkok en route to London. Going off on another sidetrack, am I the only irritating global jetsetter who struggles to distinguish between Bangkok and Singapore and Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur international airports? Perhaps it’s the jetlag haze but they are all so marvellously big and white with shiny glass and sweeping curves and tropical house plants and long, long travelators peppered with pharmacies and electronics shops.

Anyway, Ljubljana International Airport is not like that. But it does have a flight that leaves fairly early for Zurich. Here begins a procession of train journeys that operate to the minute and connect with each other in perfect unison, a process that has probably been described once or twice as being like clockwork. The timings even allow sufficient chance at the station to grab a giant, salt-spotted, shiny pretzel with melted Raclette cheese oozing into its folds and crevices. And then forever I was in love with Pretzel King.

With pretzel relief, an hour or so passes quickly along the pleasant green valleys and slightly industrious-looking towns on the way to Bern, where an eight minute transfer across the platform puts me on a train heading to Interlaken. Now the hills loom higher and rocky peaks approach in the distance, while the valley alongside narrows and begins to fill with deep turquoise lakes. Interlaken sits between a couple of these lakes (hence its name [5]), and awaiting here is a smaller and older proud red train that is somehow going to find a route through the land mass that rises to the south.

It does so of course along a valley, this particular one the Lauterbrunnen Valley. But a mere crevice in the massive massifs of Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and Schilthorn, its sheer walls provide countless opportunities for waterfalls to plummet fast and furious, even in September. The only way up these is to walk along the few accessible folds, or connect across the street to a cable car, which is still part of my one way ticket from departure to destination. With each metre in ascent, the cable car provides an increasing sense of the scale of the land, as the higher valleys and mountain plateaus open up, dotted with clusters of wooden chalets, spewing with bright green fields and dark coniferous forest. And all the time, huge peaks dominate their way up into a white meringue of snow and clouds.

Atop the cable car there is somehow another single track line that has been built along a plateau, and a one carriage train awaits. It starts to seem a bit bizarre dragging my luggage on wheels as day trippers and sightseers jostle for prime window positions. Where on earth am I going? The train seems to know, and it chugs its way intermittently through forest and meadow, revealing snatches of the three mountain sentinels capped by Jungfrau now to the east, terminating where I terminate, in the small mountain village of Muerren. Finally it seems Swiss public transport can take me no further, and the sound of my luggage wheels as they negotiate the narrow roads and concrete pavements inform the whole village of my arrival.

You venture all this way, on this wonderful journey, and it comes as a little surprise to be greeted by a cheerful British woman with a well-to-do clipped accent and general air of welcoming bonhomie [6] who is to put you up in a quaint loft room, provide you wifi, and feed you ample breakfasts over the next few mornings. She also offers tips for extending this particular journey on this particular day, so remarkable that it is to end with a flourish.

There is one final train ride, this time upon a smart funicular rising up several hundred metres to Allmendhubel, primarily just a nice spot for a small pension to provide food and drinks and gaze out at the panorama. Those several hundred metres upward are handy though, saving legwork for a wonderful, looping descent back to Muerren, dipping into and out of a couple of smaller valleys, as the omnipresent peaks impose closer and closer. Out of their large shadow in the warming afternoon sun bask the grassy green valleys, dotted with wildflowers, small wooden chalets and happy cows, offering a soundtrack of cowbells essential to any Swiss idyll. As I stop and stare and have the urge to throw my arms up in wonder and sing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, I remember that a bag of bacon Frazzles has accompanied me on this journey today. Puffed up with altitude, a gift from Britain via Ljubljana, they are munched to supreme satisfaction.


Trains, planes, automobiles. But some of the very best journeys can only be capped off by foot…and a bag of crisps.

[1] Such insight reminds me of Sir Ian McKellen’s secret to acting as outlined to Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) in an episode of Extras. See

[2] For details of such madness, see

[3] Moral of the story: NEVER leave the umbrella at home

[4] Any of: flooding rain, ice, snow, wind, too much sun, drizzle, fog

[5] Just goes to show, it’s not just the Australians who have a penchant for place names that state the bleeding obvious.

[6] The surprise not being a cheerful Brit, but just that it was a Brit.


London Underground:

Mind the Gap:


Swiss trains, the catchy multilingual SBB CFF FFS:

Muerren or Murren, it’s all the same:

If you’re frazzled:

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture Walking