Life cycle

I HAVE OWNED ONLY ONE bicycle. My parents gave it to me as a gift when I was about twelve. My late mother, who was somewhat over-protective of my sister and me, restricted my use of the cycle to our not over large garden in northwest London. Cycling around in this confined face was hardly much fun. The bike fell into disuse.

BIKE 2

In the early 1970s, I met a friend in Luxembourg a few days before he was to be interviewed for a job in the administration of the European Parliament. We spent a night in a youth hostel in Echternach. On the following day, we hired cycles to do some exploring. We cycled over hill and dale, mostly uphill it seemed, through attractive forests until we reached the small town of Vianden about 18 miles away to the north. The bicycle, which I had hired, had a gear change lever attached to its handlebar. I kept fiddling with this as we rode through the summer heat, but it seemed to make no difference to how the vehicle moved.  

When we arrived in Vianden, we headed back on our return journey via a different route. We followed minor roads close to the River Sure, which forms the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany (in those days it was West Germany). There were many small bridges crossing the river and connecting the neighbouring countries. At each bridge, we moved from one country to the other, flitting through short tracts of, say, Germany before the next in Luxembourg. This was long before the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, but we were never stopped by border officials on either side of the river. That was lucky because both of us had (maybe unwisely) left our passports with our baggage.

When we got back to Echternach, we were both extremely thirsty and I was exhausted. We found a refreshment place with outdoor seats and tables and ordered chilled beers. I sat down and then promptly stood up again. Having sat on the saddle for so long, my backside had become bruised. It was at least three days after our excursion that sitting became comfortable again. It was only when we returned the cycles to the hire place that I noted that the gear adjuster lever was not connected to anything apart from the handlebar; the bike had no gear mechanism.

A few years later, in the early 1980s, I decided to go to the north of Holland, which was a part of the country I had never visited before. My plan was to cross the sea from Sheerness to Vlissingen on the luxurious Olau Line ferry, and then to travel from nearby Middelburg to various places in the north of Holland. At each place, I had decided to make use of the cycle hire service that was offered at Dutch railway stations. 

My first cycle excursion was around the peninsula on which Middelburg is located. On this first adventure with Dutch Railway cycles, I discovered three important things. First, the bicycles had no gears. This is not in itself a problem because Holland is not a hilly place. Next, the braking system is not operated by leavers on the handlebars. To slow or halt the cycle, the rider must reverse pedal. Thirdly, Holland can be a windy place. Cycling into the wind is as difficult as cycling up a hill. Well, the first outing was a useful learning experience.

Another thing that I learned but did not make use of was the fact that in those days most Dutch people woke up earlier than me. This meant that when I reached the cycle hire offices at railway stations, there were few cycles left for me to select. Most of those available were far too large for me. I was able to ride them, but unable to reach the ground with my feet when I was perched on the saddle. The only way I could cope was to cycle up to a lamp post or telegraph pole, and steady myself by putting one of my hands against it.

I stayed in Leeuwarden in the far north of Holland, a place that I had long wanted to see – why, I cannot recall any longer. I rented a bike to visit the picturesque coastal town of Harlingen. I returned in the early evening and had a brief rest at my hotel. At about 7.30 pm, I decided to look for somewhere to eat. Almost everywhere had stopped serving dinner because people dine early in Leeuwarden. After eating a pizza in a non-descript place, the evening was still young, but the city seemed deserted. Where was everyone, I wondered. Surely, they had not all retired to bed so early. I strolled the empty streets for a while and found a pub that was open. I entered. It was full, but far from lively. People were either chatting quietly or sitting in chairs reading books or newspapers. The pub felt like a rather crowded cosy sitting room.

One highlight of that visit to Holland was cycling along the Afsluitdyk, a man-made causeway constructed between 1927 and 1932. It is over 20 miles long and separates the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer, now an inland lake but once a huge inlet of the sea. The ride, like most others I made in Holland, was windy.

Since my Dutch cycling adventures, I cannot remember pedalling a cycle again until 1993, when I was ‘courting’ my wife. On one occasion when I visited her health club, she encouraged me to try an exercise bike. She sat on the machine next to mine and an athletic fellow sat on one on the other side of mine. My wife pedalled away energetically with the book she was reading balanced on the handlebar. My male neighbour pedalled as furiously as he might have done had he been chased by a cheetah or a jaguar. Meanwhile, yours truly was unable to get the pedals to move at all. Clearly, I had either reached a stage in my life cycle when my strength was ebbing or a previous user of my machine had set the pedal resistance at a very high level (and I had no idea that it was  adjustable).

Along the canal

THE PADDINGTON ARM of the Grand Union Canal connects Paddington Basin to Bull’s Bridge at Hayes. It was opened in 1801 and was an important transport route before the growth of railway usage in England. Today, it is used mainly for leisure. People enjoy walking, running, and cycling along its well-maintained towpaths. Others keep long canal boats, known as ‘narrow boats, on the water. Some live in these vessels, others use them to move slowly through Britain’s antique but still usable canal network.

 

BLOG CANAL

 

During my teens, I used to explore London with three good friends and an excellent guidebook to London’s quirkier sights, “Nairn’s London” written by Ian Nairn. We walked along the banks of the River Thames, which were undeveloped and somewhat sinister in the late 1960s. In those days, there were stretches of riverside that had barely altered since the era of Charles Dickens.  Nowadays, there are few if any stretches of the Thames in London, which have not been made ‘visitor friendly’.

One day, the four of us decided to walk along the Grand Union Canal, starting our exploration at Camden Lock, now a crowded, popular tourist area. We followed the Regents Canal to the point where it enters the Maida Vale Tunnel, and then re-joined it where it emerged. From Little Venice, we continued westward along the Paddington Arm. For most of the way, we saw nobody else on the towpath. As we headed further west, the canal began running through a dreary semi-industrial neighbourhood. Just before we reached the road bridge that carries Ladbroke Grove over the canal, we saw a gang of young men in leather jackets, who looked at us menacingly. They were busy throwing a motorcycle into the canal. We did not like the look of them and decided that we had seen enough of the canal.

Years later, we joined other friends on a boat trip that began at Camden Lock and continued along the canal to Greenford, a suburb in the far west of London. The trip was very picturesque as far as Ladbroke Grove, but the remaining long stretch was less exciting. West of Ladbroke Grove, the canal winds past industrial buildings and the gardens at the back of residential houses. Later, we accompanied the same friends on a boat trip that took us east from Camden Lock. This was a far more interesting ride as its route includes many fascinating built-up urban areas of east London, which have a richer history than the suburbs of west London. It included a visit to the Olympic Games park that was being constructed at the time.

Today, my wife and I re-visited the Paddington Arm, walking the short stretch between the Harrow Road bridge and the point where, long ago, my friends and I saw the young men throwing a motorbike into the water. We did not see anything like that but had to contend with the almost continuous stream of cyclists sharing the towpath. Most of them were courteous, but a few inconsiderate wildly pedalling folk seemed to think that they were taking part in the Tour de France. Given that it was a Sunday afternoon, it was not too busy to make walking along the towpath anything but enjoyable.

My sporting life

THE ONLY SPORTS PRIZE I have ever won was at a sports day held by my primary school in Golders Green sometime before 1960. I was in a relay race. Our team members were awarded a green badge. I have no idea whether we were first or just in one of the three fastest teams. Since that glorious day, my sporting ‘achievements’ have been anything but glorious.

 

boys in white shirt and white pants playing baseball

 

Once, while playing football at the Hall School, which I attended from 1960 to ’65, I did manage to score a goal. The ball was coming my way, I put out my foot, and the ball bounced off it, into a poorly guarded goal. The only problem was that I had scored an own goal. My fellow team-mates were not amused.

I entered my senior school, Highgate School, in 1965, four hundred years after its establishment by Sir Roger de Cholmeley in the final months of his life. On the second day of my first term, I had to take part in a game of football watched by senior boys and teachers, who wanted to assess the playing skills of the boys new to the school. It was a very rough experience. The other players struck me as being very aggressive.  Twenty-four hours later, two senior boys, both much taller than me and dressed in the black blazers that only prefect wore, approached me. Very apologetically, they informed me that I was not good enough to play in our house football teams. They asked me to choose another sport instead of football. The choices included Eton Fives, which I had never come across before, and cross-country running. I chose the latter because I had heard of running.

It turned out that I had made a good choice. On most sports afternoons (Wednesdays and Saturdays), cross-country running was unsupervised. I used to change into my school running gear and wander over to the school tuck shop (a confectionery store) to buy some sweets. Then, I used to cross Hampstead Lane and enter the grounds of Kenwood, where we were supposed to run. After a respectably long enough leisurely ramble through the park, eating my sweets and maybe talking with someone else who was ‘going for a run’, I returned to the changing room, and got ready to go home. Showering was unnecessary because I never worked up a sweat nor roamed through muddy parts of the park.

Once a year, our housemaster (pastoral carer), Mr Bowles, took his boys for a run. This was a more strenuous event than my usual outings. We followed him off the paths and into the wilder parts of the park. Once, he stopped and turned to me, saying:

“Yamey, how is it that there is no mud on you?”

I replied:

“Mr Bowles, I don’t know. Anyway, I thought that the point of this was to get exercise, not to get muddy.”

He took this surprisingly well. Although he was the only teacher in the school not to have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, he had more common sense that the rest of the staff put together.

Summer terms gave rise to another problem: cricket. This sport terrified me. I was constantly worried that I would be hit and badly injured by a hard cricket ball flying at speed. Also, I was useless at catching balls, hard or soft. So, when the school began recruiting pupils to be umpires, I volunteered. For a few days, I attended umpiring classes. Each of the new umpires was given a small pocket-sized blue covered book of the rules of cricket. None of it made any sense to me, but one thing stuck firmly in my mind: the umpire’s decision is final.

Fully ‘qualified’, I began my umpiring career. One of the umpire’s duties is to count the number of balls that have elapsed in each over of six balls. I had been advised that a good method of doing this was to place six coins in one hand and then after each ball ahs been bowled, to transfer a coin from one hand to the other. The only problem was that often during an over I forgot in which direction the coins should have been passed. Was it from left to right or vice-versa? Usually, the scorers pointed out when I had miscounted.   Often, the players questioned my decisions. My response was to withdraw the rule book slowly from my pocket and ask the petulant players:

“Have you read the very latest rules?”

This usually worked. On one occasion, the bowling team shouted “howzat” jubilantly. Without any idea why they did that, I declared that the batsman was ‘out’. This caused an uproar, but I knew that the umpire’s decision is always final, and I stuck to it.  Many of my decisions, I must now confess, were based on trying to get the game finished so that I could go home early enough. Had I been more scrupulous and better informed and more interested in cricket, the games that I umpired would have stretched on well after 5pm, which would have messed up my daily routine. At this point, it is only fair that I offer my apologies to anyone who felt aggrieved as a result of my umpiring activities.

Mr Bowles realised that sports was unlikely to do me any good at all. In the last two years of school, he allowed me to visit exhibitions in central London instead of getting in everyone’s way on the playing fields of Highgate. For example, during this period, I visited the exhibition about the Bauhaus three times at the Royal Academy.

When I was about 13 years old, an uncle, who was a keen bodybuilder, gave me a set of weights and a metal bar on to which these heavy metal discs fitted. It was a kind, well-meaning gesture. However, it was not a gift that appealed to me. It lay idle in my bedroom until a friend, who was keen on rowing, asked to borrow them. I lent them to him and was not perturbed that they were never returned.

At University College London, there was no requirement for me to do any kind of sport. So, I did not. While I was doing my PhD, I became good friends with my supervisor Robert and his wife Margaret. For thirty years after finishing my doctorate, I used to visit them at their home near Slough. They had a tennis court in their extensive grounds. Margaret was a fine tennis player, usually winning the finals of the tennis tournament played at the annual Physiology Department sports day held at Shenfield in Hertfordshire.

Whenever I visited Robert and Margaret, I was ‘roped in’ to playing doubles with Robert and Margaret and one other, usually their Irish son-in-law. I was reasonably good at serving and returning, but only if the ball flew towards where I happened to be standing. Margaret told me that I might have become quite a good player if I had bothered to run around the court when I saw where the ball was heading.

One weekend afternoon in early May 1984, while I was on the court with Margaret and Robert, I felt something slip inside one of my knees. As we walked back to the house for afternoon tea, I felt that I could not straighten my leg properly. I did not mention this to anyone for a good reason. It happened a few days before I was about to fly to Yugoslavia to begin a two-week tour of neighbouring Albania. I had been wanting to visit Albania for many years, ever since I was about 15 years old. I did not want to risk seeking medical advice just in case I was told not to travel. I decided that whatever the condition of my leg, I would travel to Albania. I believed that should my leg continue to trouble me, I could seek medical help in the country that had intrigued me for years.

After arriving in Albania and a few alcoholic drinks at various meals, my leg ceased to trouble me. One member of our group fell ill when we were visiting a hunting lodge in rural Albania. This lodge near Lezhë had been built in the 1930s for Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. As if by magic, when the lady on our tour began feeling poorly, a doctor and two nurses dressed in white uniforms suddenly appeared to assist her. I imagine that our tour bus was followed closely by a medical team.

I mentioned the story of my leg because, contrary to all I have been told, I have noticed that sporting activities are not entirely beneficial. During the 35 years that I practised dentistry, I had several patients a week, who entered my surgery limping. Almost all of them had injured their knees or other body parts while attempting to ‘keep fit’.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am a slovenly ‘couch potato’, whose main form of exercise is breathing. I climb up and down the 50 steps leading to our flat and walk two to three miles a day on average. I walk mainly for enjoyment. If walking helps to keep me fit, that is a bonus.

So now, patient reader, you have been apprised of the secrets of my sporting life.

PS: you will be amused to learn that for a long time I thought that a ‘six-pack’ was a package of six cans of beer or lager. Now that I am better informed, I have looked in the mirror but fail to see any sign of my six pack; it remains hidden.

Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

One step, then another

Walking in the park_640

 

One foot then another

The world passes by

How I enjoy walking

 

You can walk almost anywhere except on water when it is not frozen. And, the joy of this form of physical activity is that no special equipment is needed.

During the first few decades of my life, I used to walk long distances routinely. I would never wait for a bus, but would walk from stop to stop until the bus and I met in the same place. Then, I might have boarded it unless I was close to my destination. Today, I am lazier, and will wait for the bus.

Walking (without staring at a mobile telephone) is a wonderful way of seeing new things. You might walk the same route repeatedly but if you keep your eyes and mind open, you are bound to spot things that you never noticed before. 

In recent years, I have begun writing books, articles, and, now, blogs. I often find that leaving my work desk, switching off the PC, and then taking a walk is perfect for sorting out my ideas. As I walk along, thoughts circulate in my mind and these result in improvements in whatever I am writing. 

Apart from any medical benefits, using Shank’s Pony (moving along with one’s own two feet – walking) gives me great pleasure.

Running

 

On my first day at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, I was asked to choose which sports I would like to participate in. As the only one on the list that I had heard of was football (soccer), I chose that. On the following day, I had to join the other new boys in a trial game. I was horrified by how rough everyone was during this match.

The day after the match, two senior boys came to speak to me. They regretfully announced that I was not considered good enough to play football at Highgate. That did not surprise me, but what did was how solemnly they announced the news to me. The two school officials told me that I could select another sporting activity. I chose ‘cross-country running’, a sport that I had never heard of. I was told that I had chosen well. And, so I had.

Cross-country running was almost completely unsupervised. We were trusted to get changed into running clothes and then to trot around a route through the grounds of nearby Kenwood House. Being unsupervised, I saw no reason to run or to get tired. 

My system on games’ days was to get changed, visit the school ‘tuck shop’, buy some snacks or confectionary, and then to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful grounds of Kenwood.

Once a term, we were accompanied by our house-master on a run. He tended to lead us through rough ground and marshy areas. On one occasion, he stopped me and said:

“You don’t look muddy, Yamey”

I replied:

“Well, Mr Bowles, I thought that the object of the run was to get exercise rather than to collect mud.”

Much to Mr Bowles’ credit, he accepted my explanation, which was not the whole truth. Actually, I wanted to avoid getting dirty so that I would not need to waste time having a shower at the end of the afternoon,   which would have delayed my departure for home.

Keeping fit

Evening jogger_240

 

While I was engaged to my wife, she suggested that I join her at her health club and try some of its facilities.

The first time I went, I decided to go swimming. After swimming two lengths very slowly, I managed to climb out of the pool, exhausted and breathless.

For the next visit, my wife-to-be suggested that I try a session in the sauna. She thought it would do me good and would  not be particularly exhausting. I removed most of my clothes and sat alone in the poorly-lit sauna room. After a few minutes I began feeling cold, and started shivering. Fed up with this miserable experience, I left the sauna, and got dressed. The sauna had not been switched on!

Undismayed by this, I decided to give the sauna another try a week later.  This time it was switched on, and steaming hot. Because my first visit had been so boring, I decided to take a magazine into the sauna to read to pass the time. I took my place on a bench alongside some very muscular men and opened my copy of a glossy BBC clasical music magazine. Within minutes, the glue holding my magazine together melted. Numerous pages covered with fascinating information about classical music floated gently downward on to the floor of the sauna, Sheepishly, I recovered some of them, and then hurried out of the sauna.

“Why not try the exercise cycles next time? ” my wife asked. “Good idea,” I replied reluctantly. So, a week later, I sat in the saddle of an exercise bike. My wife was seated on a neighbouring cycle pedalling away while reading a book resting on the handle bars. The third cycle in the room was being pedalled furiously by a man lstening to his Sony Walkman through a pair of headphones. Meanwhile, I was just trying to move my cycle’s pedal … completely unsucessfully. After a few minutes, I abandoned the cycle, and after that I have never bothered with health clubs again. 

“That’s a pity,” you might think.

But, maybe not, as I will explain.

When I was practising as a dentist, quite a few patients, often young men, used to limp when they walked into my surgery. Almost everyone of them had injured knees or tendons whilst playing football or running, or trying to keep ‘fit’. When I saw them, I thought how lucky I was that I did not become addicted to ‘keeping fit’.