Elephant In The Room

THE countdown to departure has reached single figures in terms of weeks and the American trip which acted as a buffer between “some way off” and “God, I’m nowhere near ready” has come and gone.

It is time to stop writing the to-do lists and actually start chalking off the items.

And it is time to address the elephant in the room. Not the ones which, barring something very wrong with the world, will cross our path at some points during the upcoming 10-month trip around Africa.

No, the elephant in the room which has been lurking in every conversation about the trip over the past few weeks – Ebola.

Lurking in the corners
Lurking in the corners

Reactions have varied from the mickey takers, through the genuinely concerned, the geographically confused (Papua New Guinea is neither affected nor on our route) and the fatalist.

“You won’t be going to any of these countries,” said the nurse, scanning to the list of places we were heading as we worked out the exact schedule for vaccinations.

My reply was something along the lines of “we’ll see… long time away yet”, a lack of any genuine debate or disagreement perhaps attributed to the fact she and her colleague were about to simultaneously stick a needle into each of my arms.

Discretion – and cowardice – is the better part of valour (have no real problems with needles as long as not looking at them, so having one from each side made looking away a bit difficult without shutting my eyes and, with a few more jabs still to come, that may not have created the intended impression).

But “we’ll see… long time away yet” has become a sort of standard reply, after explaining that yes, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia and pretty much all the countries hit by the current outbreak are on our route.

Partly to avoid too long an explanation and, largely, because it is just impossible to give a more accurate answer. It is a way off yet and who knows what will happen between now and our arrival in the affected region.

While not one to fret unduly about these things – if we have to change route, then hey, we are still seeing Africa, just a few different bits – and have shrugged off most questions, but that elephant has been lurking and can’t be ignored any longer. The time has come to start asking a few questions.

One of my fellow travellers gave in to the lurking pachyderm first and got in touch with Oasis Overland, the tour organisers, and got back the latest info which was then shared in the first of a series of e-mails which will guide us through the next few weeks (once all the information has been distilled onto those to-do lists, of course).

And while there is obvious reason for concern and a close eye on developments, with alternative routes kept on the back burner, the expert view is that there is no reason for us not to head through the affected region.

Dr Richard Dawood, medical advisor of the African Travel and Tourism Association, is clear about the impact of the disease on the area, but confident it will have minimal impact on our trip

“Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a very inadequate public health infrastructure that has so far been unable to control the present outbreak,” he said. “Until sufficient external help is provided, the number of cases there will grow and cases will undoubtedly spread to other countries via travel – though in most other countries further spread will be extremely unlikely since very close/body fluid contact is needed for further spread.

“At this stage, I cannot see any situation where clients would actually be at risk, though obviously the situation needs to be taken seriously and monitored closely.”

That view is backed up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who have taken the step of escalating the status of the outbreak, which should open the doors to additional help in fighting the problem.

Their advice reads: “The risk of a tourist or businessman/woman becoming infected with Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported.

“Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animal, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller. Tourists are in any event advised to avoid all such contacts.”

And that, for the moment, is that. Still not that far past “we’ll see… long time away yet”, but at least the elephant can wander out of the room and back into its natural habitat to prepare for a few photo opportunities when we get there.


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The Boy Done Wrong Again to Broken Household Appliance National Forest

A LATE change of travel plans put me in a sweltering New York for July 4, 2010, having opted to leave the dwindling number of my overland travel companions still in Boston.

Back in Boston, my former colleague, housemate and fellow traveller Nick was heading out on an Independence Day pub crawl in the company of a Birmingham City fan he had bumped into at our hostel sporting a vintage Whitesnake T-shirt.

My night ended looking after an emotional Aussie somewhere in Brooklyn in the early hours, way too late considering the time a hire car was due to be collected.

Nick’s night ended with him getting married.

Not immediately. This is not the tale of an Englishman abroad waking up to find he had stumbled drunkenly into an all-night wedding chapel with a girl he had just met.

But four years on, Nick and Sufia – the girl who had serenaded ‘Whitesnake’ the night before, recognised the same T-shirt 24 hours on and struck up a conversation with the English bloke at the bar – tied the knot this month.

The Big Moment
The Big Moment

After plenty of transatlantic comings and goings, red tape and a crash course in visa requirements, they became a married couple in Charleston, South Carolina, which turned up the heat, humidity and enjoyment to the maximum.

Charleston is one of those American cities built on its past with a well-preserved historic region.

Some of those cities seem to seal off such areas hermetically and appear to feel just being old (by US standards) makes them historic without worrying too much about whether anything happened to put them in the history books. Almost like staying in a US history theme park.

But Charleston genuinely does offer history and a striking downtown area, which also manages to come across as a living city – helped by a healthy student population – and provides plenty to see and do before and after dark, without constantly feeling ye olde touriste guide is going to pop up to tell you about somebody born on this spot that nobody outside the state has heard about.

It is also an ideal spot for a select group of transatlantic guests who gradually congregated as the wedding week went on, reaching peak numbers for the ceremony itself.

Headline News
Headline News

And so, for any locals paying attention, a growing number of Brits could be seen sweating their way around town under the blistering sun, making full use of the hotel lobby’s soothing air con and bottomless supply of fruit-infused water, puzzling over a mysterious quacking noise, leaving their bag in a taxi (safely returned), losing their wallet while shopping (not returned), falling asleep in a bar (two of those last three may have been the same person), testing out the best way to eat eggs in a range of breakfast spots (don’t ask for them dippy), convincing barmen to plug their phone’s music into the PA, confirming that all the bars closed at 2am and, for more than one of us, sleeping off the after effects of the rehearsal dinner as the main build-up to the wedding.

There may even have been some salsa dancing at some point, but that’s as blurry as many of the selfies which were taken.

Which all paved the way for the wedding itself, an early evening, outdoor affair in the grounds of the 19th Century William Aiken House, home to the ceremony and the initial celebrations as US and British cultures came together (one seems more comfortable in front of a camera and audience).

The evening moved on – until that seemingly magical 2am Charleston cut-off – at the adjoining American Theater, an old-style converted cinema which hosted a live band which provided the soundtrack to a memorable evening and the backing for the would-be singers to climb on stage, including the bride’s version of Don’t Stop Believing backed by her new husband on drums.

A lovely way to round off a wonderful week before, over the space of the next few days, goodbyes were said and we headed off, either home or to a brief bout of further travelling.

My second week took me down the coast (of which more in a later post) to Savannah, Georgia and, via a figure of eight, up to Wilmington, North Carolina before heading back to a flight home from Charleston via Newark and a rather fortuitous upgrade to business class (again, more to come).

The soundtrack to that second week contained the customary frustrations of US FM radio – no sooner have you found a station worth listening to than it fades out and you have to go searching for something else.

My iPod supplied a welcome break from all that but not with the A-Z challenge, which took a break for the fortnight after reaching 1,200 with Broken Household Appliance National Forest by Grandaddy.

SophtwareIt’s a great track, but it is one of those which somehow sounds so much better when listened to as part of the album which gave birth to it, in this case the excellent Sophtware Slump.

One of the tracks which popped up just before heading up was The Boy With The Thorn In His Side by The Smiths, which also appeared late one night amid a slightly indie 80s playlist which mixed with those mysterious quacking noises on a rooftop bar in Downtown Charleston. Great company, great music, great setting.

The Cure popped up multiple times (both on the rooftop and out on the road), as did Echo and the Bunnymen (rooftop only) and they both appeared on the A-Z with, respectively, Boys Don’t Cry and two airings of Bring On The Dancing Horses.

Belle & Sebastian kicked off this section and reappeared with their classic The Boy With The Arab Strap (now safely reclaimed from ubiquity from its spell as the theme for Teachers), while Paul Simon popped up both solo (The Boy In The Bubble) and alongside Art Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water also covered by Johnny Cash.

An excellent little run also included three versions of Bring The Noise by Public Enemy, two of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop, Breed by Nirvana, the guilty pleasure which is Brilliant Mind by Furniture and three outings for Brassneck by The Wedding Present.

Which seems fitting.


On Road Therapy

Article adapted from Travel Marmot for Gloucestershire Echo

FOUR years ago today, the curtain fell on my first major bout of travelling, six months heading from London to New York without flying and road tripping around the USA was over.

The intention, as the plane carried me back across the Atlantic to what had previously been reality, was clear – don’t settle too comfortably into life at home.

This travelling bug was not one to be tackled with staying at home therapy and should be treated with prolonged bouts of hitting the road.

It has taken four years, various changes of plans, one cancelled trip through Asia to Australia, a spell spent working in travel and a return to journalism, but that next big journey is now less than three months away.

Having crossed Europe, North America, chunks of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, it’s time for a new continent – Africa.

And it’s no flying visit. From November until August next year, Africa will be home in by far the most challenging, exciting and, to be honest, nerve-wracking journey of my life.

To be more accurate, home for the 10 months will be a huge yellow truck which will carry me and up to 25 other people around the huge continent from north to south, west to east and all the way back up again.

At least that’s the plan, with some extraordinary sights, experiences and optional activities along the way – already booked up for a trek so see mountain gorillas in Rwanda – but you need to be flexible on journeys like this, so what exactly lies ahead will be revealed over the course of 38 weeks.

It will be tough at times, there’s no getting away from that. Some long days on the truck in far from ideal conditions, the prospect of having to dig the truck out of sand or mud and 10 months living under canvas.

So being unfit, overweight, with a bad back, having waved farewell to 40 in the rear view mirror a few years ago and having not properly camped in decades, there is a simple question. Why?

There’s endless reasons not to – money, work, mortgage and, to be honest, common sense – but they are all outweighed by the simple fact it seems the right thing to do. And I want to do it.

Besides, who knows what lies just around the corner?

My father did his National Service as a medic in Singapore and Malaysia. He always said he would return there with my mum when they both retired. But they never got the chance before outside influences intervened and, having lost both of them far too early, that has stuck with me ever since.

So, the decision is made, notice has been handed in at work, my obligatory to-do lists have been drawn and redrawn and the first bits of kit have been bought.

And probably about day two in Morocco, I’ll realise those preparations have been woefully inadequate.

But, hey, that’s half the challenge.


Bonus Beats to The Boy Done Good

SOME are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them over a few beers in an Irish bar.

Well, not exactly greatness, more the role of manager for a band and the fact they are unknown to all but a select few readers of this blog – including band members themselves – suggests great seriously overplays my ability in the role.

The Mighty Badger was – and, geography, childhood issues and opportunity allowing, still is on fleeting occasions – a band producing some unique takes on well-known songs.

My first contact with them came shortly after moving to Cardiff as one of my first housemates – most notable for taping hour after hour of Jerry Springer to watch endlessly over the weekends and wearing a range of novelty animal slippers – would head off once a week to play guitar in a band.

My stay there was brief (there is only so much time you spend in your bedroom trying to drown out shouts of “Jerry, Jerry” from the main room TV), but a move across town and switch of jobs later, it came out that the new colleague leaning against the bar with me had been introduced when he popped round to visit my former flatmate.

A little more chatting and a few more beers revealed another of my new colleagues and a couple of the guys who had just joined our group of drinkers made up the band our Jerry Springer-loving guitarist had since left.

IMG_0037Over a considerable number of more beers across the following months, many of them in The City Arms, friendships were formed and my next move across Cardiff was into the drummer’s spare room.

As tended to be the case, one Saturday night found us in Dempsey’s, one of our revolving rota of different venues once we had moved on from our City Arms early evening meeting place.

And over the top of a table crowded with pint glasses came the question: “Why don’t you manage us?”

Quite what, apart from the contents of those now empty glasses, persuaded them my particular brand of no musical talent, complete ignorance of how these things worked and total lack of organisational skills made me the right person for the job, doubt even they could tell you.

But, for a while there, my role as fourth Badger (never officially been culled, but as the four of us now all live well apart, there’s not much call for that job to be revisited) involved a lot of ferrying and lugging gear around, arranging gigs (not enough of that), buying band drinks during gigs (way too much of that), persuading the landlord we were worth paying (and then handing most of if back over the bar) and sorting out the sound.

That last job was (drink buying apart) my key role at gigs and involved a crash course in twiddling knobs to see what worked (helped by a quick tutorial from one gig goer which basically resulted in me shifting amps a few inches and cranking the master knob up until the threat of bleeding ears became a reality).

Move around the gig listening in various spots, making occasional tweaks to the levels and somehow people assumed it wasn’t just guesswork – which it generally was, given that most of the tweaks involved turning everything up as loud as possible to counteract the drummer’s insistence on smacking everything at full whack.

Once the sound was vaguely passable – or everyone was drunk enough not to care – it was time to stand back, enjoy the gig and watch the reactions of those who had never borne witness to The Mighty Badger in full flow.

Nodding heads would be replaced by quizzical looks and swift conversations. Were they really listening to Lionel Richie’s Hello, the theme for Minder or Through The Barricades by Spandau Ballet played at full volume and flat out?

Generally, they were pretty well received once people realised exactly what was going on and we even branched out on a couple of tours – Nottingham, Skegness and Boston – alongside Truck (or Shit Truck as they preferred not to be called).

The essence of rock ‘n’ roll is surely sleeping in a car outside a venue in Skegness after watching a sizeable pre-gig crowd disappear along with the landlord to watch Stiff Little Fingers.

As I said, Badger sightings are fleeting nowadays, but they remain captured for posterity after a night in a studio to record the three-track Dirty Bristow EP. Sure some survive somewhere (we had boxes full of them), but we certainly shifted a fair few.

The tracks, Son of A Preacher Man apart, wouldn’t have been my choice from their repertoire and it doesn’t quite capture the live energy, but it also included Through The Barricades and Born To Run, which popped up in the latest short section through my iPod from NWA to Billy Bragg.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street BandWe also stumbled across Springsteen’s original – judge for yourself who does the “1-2-3-4” better – Born To A Family by The Go-Betweens and The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel, whose music first really entered my world watching a pair of buskers in the harbour at St Ives as a child.

Born In 69 by Rocket From The Crypt captures one of those moments in time from when it popped up on a C90, just as we turned up a picturesque valley road en route to a skiing holiday.

And Bottle Rocket by The Go! Team sparks memories of a friend’s trip to hospital after a mid-gig coming together with their bass player.

We’ll come back to that one, but let’s just say there was not much sympathy in the office when news of the incident came through.



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Blue Eyes to Bonny

THE first job anyone paid me for was in the newspaper industry, several years before somehow impressing enough rewriting press releases during a couple of weeks’ work experience to be taken on as a trainee reporter.

Well, someone’s got to deliver newspapers – or at least they did, back in the days when they were the only way to sit down and digest news.

Several years before starting to write for them, my newspaper round was inherited by someone else in the village about the age of 14 or 15.

Newspapers B&W (5)It couldn’t have been any older, spells at a DIY store/garden centre (briefly) and in the produce department at Sainsbury’s followed before A Levels, but it was old enough that getting up for a Sunday morning paper round was given the extra handicap of the twin effects of playing rugby and nights out on Saturdays.

Those Sunday mornings could be grim, starting at the bottom of the hill towards Gloucester Docks and heading steadily uphill – complete with a heavy bag bulging with papers and Sunday supplements – to our village.

They were made more manageable by one of my early personal stereos. The one mentioned in an earlier post that had a built-in radio. It was falling apart, had no cover and ate tapes at any given opportunity, but it had a radio. That was quite something back then.

The radio sticks in my mind as, for some reason, habit necessitated a switch from tape to radio about halfway through the round. Probably because a tape had been chewed or low batteries ruled out rewinding and no pencil was available.

For some time before and, increasingly with a hangover, for years to come, the soundtrack to a Sunday morning was the Archers’ omnibus, wafting up the stairs with the smells of cooking the roast as my mother not so subtly got the message across that it was time to shake off the effects of the night before, get up and take the dog for a walk.

But for those months out delivering papers in all weathers, the sound of Sunday mornings was Radio 1 and Peter Powell. Look, I was young, OK.

One of the features which developed on his show, which seemingly veered away (if ever so slightly) from the normal playlist chart fodder, was the Slipped Discs section. Focusing on singles which failed to crack the Top 40 but garnered a fair amount of affection (back in the days when you had to sell a fair number of singles to make the charts and when my knowledge of numbers 1-40 was pretty impressive), it took off and culminated in an end-of-year chart voted by listeners.

Very few of those songs, stick in the memory but The Pogues certainly had a couple of entries in the upper echelon – and they popped up, twice, in the latest section of my iPod with The Body Of An American, largely overlooked until its use in The Wire.

But beating all comers with two tracks at the top of the list was Prefab Sprout.

Steve McQueenThose songs – Faron Young and When Love Breaks Down – are still some way off on this journey, but this section included two other tracks from their simply wonderful Steve McQueen album, Blueberry Pies and Bonny.

Steve McQueen – or Two Wheels Good as it is known on the other side of the Atlantic due to a legal dispute – was another of the key albums of my teenage years and still gets wheeled out on a reasonably regular basis.

Rather like stumbling on old photographs or bumping in to old friends, it brings back a lot of good – and not so good – memories and has even been known to make me emotional.

And, above all, it is still a bloody great album stuffed with excellent songs – When Love Breaks Down still sounds as good now as it did 30 years – and is one of that elite selection that needs to be listened to from start to finish in order. No shuffling or skipping here.

One of my longest-standing musical arguments is that the second side of Ocean Rain is about as perfect a run of 20-odd minutes ever produced. The first side of Steve McQueen comes close and while it may wander off the quest for perfection midway through the second side, it is undoubted proof that Paddy McAloon is one of the great songwriting talents of his generation.

One of the most overlooked ones – partly, it seems, due to personal choice – but a unique voice that needs cherishing.

Bonny wrapped up this section, kicked off with Blue Eyes by Destroyer that had the distinction of being the 1000th track. Just another 10,507 to go – and growing.

The monster which is Blue Monday popped up three times – twice by New Order and once with a dodgy cover by some lot called Biosphere. Remember hearing it for the first time when performed live on Top of the Pops and wondering who this bloke was mumbling about “shallow bays” and struggling to keep a straight face.

Pixies also popped up three times with Bone Machine, while some bizarre alphabetising put The Jam’s A Bomb In Wardour Street into the heart of the Bs.

And there was also one of the more bizarre entries on my iPod – which came as a bit of a surprise – was Blue Moon by Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. Very odd and proof the method does not transfer to singing.

Bodies by Pale Seas came courtesy one of those pleasant surprises you get rarely when getting to a gig early enough to catch the support band, while there was a lovely little run of less heralded tracks with Blue.Pt ii by Waxahatchee and two tracks called Blue Ridge Mountain by Fleet Foxes and Hurray For The Riff Raff, who also popped up with The Body Electric.

A recent addition well worth exploring further…

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