Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Charm & Sleaze of London's Soho

Each To His Own
I often take my bike on the train from Canterbury to London. Most of the time I find myself drawn to the same areas. My bike and I enjoy nothing more than cruising the seedy backstreets. 
Some travellers will always feel an aversion to certain environments. Best they stay away then. Personally I hate very commercial areas - places with gift shops, out of place shopping malls, tea shops selling tacky gifts, smack in the middle of areas of outstanding natural beauty etc. I notice lots of TripAdvisor reviews by people who hate seediness, sleaze and low-life areas of cities. Yet the latter is a big cultural draw for some visitors, and I am with them.

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Sleaze is hard to avoid in cities. All cities have a low-life, sleazy zone. Some cities are all sleaze, some would say. Often in the past such quarters were populated by immigrants, especially Chinese. Most still are. Usually they encompassed the red-light industry and with it a fair amount of gambling and crime. Desperate people find themselves here, living on the margins. Yet in a world full of artifice and 'Disnification', I find such locations to be the warm beating heart of 'real life'. Locate this area of any city and you will find it to be where the gritty writers, musicians and artists hang out. Here you can find people enjoying the 24hr buzz and excitement, who are willing and wanting to show and share their true selves. It's where music is made, new trends develop and genius is born. Yes, yes I know, it's also where diseases are spread and people are killed – get over yourself. 

Down Among The Low-life In London's Soho
Undeniably, in England amongst all of the sleaze available, one of the major hotbeds of such culture is to be found in London's Soho. This place smoulders with intrigue, passion, illegality and barely hidden attitude. It's been smouldering for a long time. There were opium dens here run by industrious Chinese immigrants long before Carnaby Street played host to Mods and Rockers. And where there are drugs there are sex and crime. Even the Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown hint of an exoticism beyond what is displayed on the shelves. Back in the early 1980's I remember going with a Chinese friend into the basement of one of these supermarkets. Amongst the sacks of Napa Cabbage and Star Fruit it housed a dimly lit illegal gambling den. Men in dirty white vests betting their entire month's wages or their restaurant' takings in a game of cards or Mahjong. Later I asked another friend in London (a cop) about it. Almost casually he said; "We allow the Chinese in the Gerrard Street area to police themselves. So long as they keep it local and under control, we find it's actually safer for everyone outside."

The Police keep an eye on Soho but often exercise a soft touch. Image courtesy of

Over time Soho has blended at its edges into other areas, such as Covent Garden. This is a less sleazy area but is now very trendy. It benefits from being adjacent to Soho and tourists easily find themselves there after walking up from Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. Especially those put off by the hustling and the overt risk of robbery in the central Leicester Square area. But if frock and shoe shopping or tourist cafes are not your bag, I suggest you take some time to seek out some genuine charm in the seedy backstreets of Soho. Here you will find real London culture. Low-life culture, some might call it, but for me the low-life atmosphere is all part of the draw.

Alternative Brides - image courtesy of

Eating Out In Soho
Outside of the sleazy atmosphere and the colourful characters on every street corner, Soho has other charms. It is a great area for foodies. The cafes and small restaurants along Store Street, St Anne's Place, Wardour Street and Berwick Street became popular in the so called swinging sixties but popular culture had discovered them long before that. Some have not been redecorated since the sixties! You can find good food here served in laid back, often confined environments. 
Those looking for Chinese food will find most of the busier places in Chinatown, around Gerrard Street and Lisle Street, Gerrard Place and Newport Place, plus the tiny 'China Village' passage of Newport Court. In Gerrard Street particularly, you will find top-end restaurants frequented by celebrities alongside busy Chinese supermarkets where the locals and the restauranteurs shop. Be careful, not all of these restaurants are good. Some are squarely aimed at tourists and non-Chinese. Lee Ho Fook and the tiny 'Poons' were always reliable but both have sadly closed. Quality goes up and down, especially as restaurant owners win and lose fortunes in big gambling adventures, so it's best to check review sites. I tend to check the Chinese Community Network magazine . 
In the narrow confines of Newport Court you will find seedy Chinese Dumpling shops / cafes where you can hardly believe you are not in Asia. The fact that few menus are in English here and one can't expect politeness, is usually a sign for me that I am in the right place.

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Backstreet Charm
For those seeking the backstreet charm I have mentioned above, there is a hint of it to be found in Newport Court and in the cheap Chinese / Japanese cafes around Newport Place at the top, but it's a little to close to the bustling tourist centre of Leicester Square so I suggest heading north to the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue, over to Wardour Street, into the Berwick Street market area via the steps just after the famous Windmill Theatre (based on Paris' Moulin Rouge). Here one can find genuine character and a fair amount of tasteful sleaze (a bit of tasteless sleaze too). Wander around these back streets, behind the theatres, up Archer Street and along the charming Brewer Street and you will find the real heart of the old West End. There are so many great places to discover and mostly fairly cheap. Shops selling old vinyl records, vintage shops run by vintage old people selling catering kitchen equipment or briefcases, perched comfortably alongside others selling whips, chains and black plastic dresses. There are also some great vintage pubs. Best not to flash your wealth or naivety around here, by the way. Once in the back streets, well-heeled visitors are considered fair game.

BM Records (25 D'Arblay Street) image courtesy of

The Dog & Duck in Bateman's Street is rarely as quiet as this. Image courtesy of

A Literary Walking Tour
I have a particular penchant for visiting cities with a novel or a book of short stories in my pocket. Stories based in that area. Some of my favourites for bringing with me to this quarter are Fergus Linnane's 'London The Wicked City', Barry Miles' 'London Calling', Nigel Richardson's 'Dog Days In Soho' and, especially atmospheric, 'The Pimlico Tapes,' by A.K. Anders. Such topical books prove far more interesting and more rewarding, I would suggest, than following a traditional guidebook to discover an area.


A few other practical recommendations: 
For a traditional trolley service Dim Sum (the last in London), I suggest you go to New World Chinese Restaurant in Newport Place. For real Chinese dumplings, go to Baozi Inn, in Newport Court. It is tiny. If you are on the large size you might not be able to sit down. For a night out on the fringes of Soho, see if you can get into Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, at 47 Frith Street or one of the stand-up comedy venues, like The Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus. Better still I would suggest you wander around and look for yourself. Do that for half an hour after dark and you can be assured that something interesting will happen.

Monday, 10 February 2014

To Plan Or Take A Chance?

Chaos vs Order
In the extreme, that is what we are talking about. Planning in advance can make sure that a trip runs smoothly, reliably and without problems. No turning up in towns and finding there is not a hotel room to be had anywhere. No finding out later that you missed an amazing museum, art gallery or restaurant because you didn't check out the guidebooks in advance. No being invited for a game of golf and realising you have no golf shoes with you. How far does one go? How much planning is useful and when does it become a burden?

Pic Courtesy of

When it comes to preparing for a trip – especially an overland trip – too much planning can make for a somewhat less thrilling experience. Think about it. Most of us will remember how some of our most pleasurable trips away have been where unexpected things happened or decisions were made on the spur of the moment. The time you went to Vienna and were unexpectedly given free tickets to the opera but had no smart clothes with you, but were saved by a lovely couple you talked to at your hotel who had just been to a wedding and the husband loaned you his evening suit. You have remained firm friends ever since. I have had many experiences like this where I felt maybe fate had lent a hand and made something special happen for me. But how far does one go with this theory?

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Imagine going off on a week's holiday to Paris with no booking and only the clothes you are standing up in, relying on the fact that something will come up. Perhaps someone at a hostel you manage to find, will show you a Parisian fleamarket where you might come across some superb theatrical outfits. Wearing these around the cafes and bars of Montmartre you might then be courted by a fascinating Bohemian crowd who take you to outrageous parties and drag you off to a chateau for the weekend for a masked ball. The best week of your life! It could happen. Yet what if you took no money and no passport? Yes it could be the springboard for a thrilling adventure. Hiding under the tarpaulin of a truck trailer and evading customs. Hitchhiking to Paris and meeting fun-loving people who invite you to stay with them at their houseboat on the Seine or in their squat in an old regency mansion in the Champs Elysees. Again it could happen, but the lack of the passport could be a major cause of stress. Surely that would be one diversion too far?

Le Pompon - pic courtesy of

Le Fanfaron Comptoir - pic courtesy of

The truth, most seasoned overland travellers discover in practice, is a balance of the two. Too much planning and your trip becomes tediously predictable. Too little and you end up cursing yourself for missing out on great opportunities – "If only I'd brought my swimming trunks," or "Why didn't I think to bring my driving license so we could have hired a car?"

Long Road Hard Lessons
Back in 2008-9 my son and I cycled 10,000 miles from Ireland to Tokyo. It was Sam's idea to do this when he was only ten. He was 18 when we set off so I'd had plenty of time to plan for it. I really enjoyed the planning part. I love setting off into the unknown but thinking it through first, working out distances and ideal places to stop on the way. It's almost as much fun for me as doing it. I really get pleasure out of working out what clothing and equipment I need to take; determining which clothes will fulfil a variety of purposes; keeping weight to a minimum; considering climate and what can or cannot be obtained along the way. I did all of these things and made frequent adjustments to these plans as my research uncovered new information. At the end of the trip, friends, the press, TV interviewers (we were on BBC Breakfast TV twice after our return) and other cyclists kept asking us, "what disasters occurred along the way - what went wrong?"  When we told them, "not much really," they looked disappointed. Sometimes even bored. I began to wish I had been less military-minded in my planning and that more had been left to chance. If Sam had done the trip with one of his school-friends, I told myself, plenty would have gone wrong. The results would have satisfied those who questioned us far more. But as someone else pointed out, the result of that could have been a tragic accident. Which is true.

Iran just after Turkish Border - We forgot to get enough cash before Iran and foreigners can't draw any inside Iran. This lack of planning meant we needed to be careful and camp more. We had to be more inventive. Memorable!

The Zen Art Of Balance
The answer is, as I have said, that one needs to keep a balance. Some things – like a passport, some money and perhaps a few phone numbers, are fairly essential. If you are going by bike then a puncture kit or spare tube and a multi-tool is probably a high priority. Beyond that, it can make life far more interesting if you leave things to chance. Have a vague idea of the direction you are going in or a probable destination perhaps, but leave the rest to be decided along the way. You will find it can be far more rewarding in the end, even if a few near disasters happen to send you off in an unexpected direction as you progress.
Remember, a problem – even a disaster – is an opportunity :-)

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Monday, 3 February 2014

Cycling In The Rain

"A wet man does not fear the rain"

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So said Confucius - along with many other clever things. This post is a bit of do as I say, not as I do really, since I am a complete wuss about cycling in winter these days. It happened around the age of 54. After cycling 10,000miles across the world I felt I had earned the right to take it a bit easy on the cycling front. I don't enjoy getting cold much so I tend to cycle far less in winter. Rain during the warmer months I don't mind, however. Once you are wet through you can't get any wetter and so long as it's not freezing out that's tolerable. It's a bit like getting into cold water – it feels cold if you dip your toe in but jump in and you'll be fine in under a minute (I'm a surfer and in Europe that means getting in the water in winter as the waves are often better then).

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Modern Equipment
There's a lot of rain about in Europe at present. When I was a younger man we used to wear capes for cycling in heavy rain. They came right down over your knees and could cover your hands on the bars. You wouldn't want to try cycling fast with one of these or you'd take off. The capes also often get caught in the wheels. Most bikes were so heavy then, however, that cycling fast in rain with wet gear was unlikely anyway. Some people still insist on using them, but then Asians cycle holding umbrellas! The worst thing about cycling capes and all other forms of anoraks in the olden days, was that they didn't breath. The slightest amount of exertion would cause extreme condensation. In half an hour you were almost as wet underneath it as if you hadn't bothered with a waterproof at all. But that all changed with Goretex and other breathable clothing that are now relatively affordable. I say relatively affordable but we are still talking about £100 plus for a breathable waterproof cycle jacket. However, even without breathable outer layers, there is an alternative.

This sort of setup will only work up to around 2mph!
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Modern cycle clothing is more than just a fetish
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Just Get Wet
Yes, don't bother trying to avoid it - just learn to live with getting wet. Outside the chillier winter months, this is not as bad as it sounds. Even in winter I would never wear waterproof trousers, so why bother with a waterproof top unless it's to keep your wallet dry (that's what your waterproof backpack / bum-bag is for). The fact is that these days you will notice that more and more cyclists are wearing lycra. Okay for many newbies this is a fashion statement. Just like motorcycling I have known people take up riding just so they can get into the gear. Surfing and wetsuits are the same. Let's face it we are talking fetish here! But it does not take a cyclist long to realise that there is a purpose to this lightweight stretchy stuff beyond feeling sexy (I say 'feeling' rather than 'looking', because nobody in their right mind thinks men or women look good in a pair of shorts with a pad in the bum that looks like you're wearing a nappy underneath). Firstly lycra avoids chaffing. Chaffing is unpleasant and ensures you will not want to cycle the next day. Secondly, they are lightweight and don't get in the way. Thirdly if you get drenched it only takes about half an hour even in overcast weather for them to dry. Finally, when you get home or to your B&B, you can wash a pair of padded lycra cycle shorts in the basin or shower, hang them up and they'll be dry by morning. That's a Godsend. So given all that, what's the problem with letting your lycra cycle jersey (that's a zip-up shirt with pockets at the back) get wet in the rain too? None whatsoever, so long as it's not cold. This is why most cyclists carry at least a superlight windproof shell. Even if it isn't waterproof it can be put on after your wet to stop you from catching a chill. One of these will fit in your pocket (if you have one), into a bum-bag or in a seatpost bag (that's what I do).

Pic courtesy of

Superlight Means More Pleasure Less Hassle
There is no doubt about it, carrying gear when you're cycling is a pain. Especially if you have a nice light bike and like to dart about or cover distance quickly. When preparing for our 10,000mile Ireland to Japan cycle trip, my son Sam and I did a few shorter rides (around 3 to 5 days). The idea was to see how far we could comfortably ride in a day (we agreed around 62miles / 100kms) and to see how much stuff we needed to carry. Every trip we did we realised we had more stuff than we needed. In the end we took about the right amount which fitted into two rear panniers and a bar-bag each plus a small tent. We could have managed with less. What we noticed during the big trip, was that on days where we cycled without all the gear (on days off) it was an absolute delight to be without it. This made me realise why it was that the very experienced long-distance cyclists who we met in places like Laos (some of these people ride thousands of miles abroad every year) seemed to be carrying very little. Yes they were staying in guesthouses and had flown to Bangkok or somewhere similar, but they were still doing vast milages. They had learned by painful experience, they told us. If you use modern fabrics and wash stuff every evening you can get away with hardly any clothes. A multi-tool, a first-aid kit, a phone, a tiny washbag, a pair of lightweight long trousers and shirt for evenings, a spare tube, a sun hat and a silk sleeping bag liner in a small cycle daypack is almost all some of them had apart from a passport and credit card. In my book, 'Ultralight' is really just a spare tube, gossamer-thin outer shell jacket, multitool, credit card, toothbrush and passport.

Straight off the plane and ready to go
courtesy of

With this amount you can go anywhere (& no broken spokes - weight = breaks)
Image courtesy of

This pic was on a blog under a heading "Ultralight Cycling"
It doesn't even come close to "Light" let alone Ultralight.
The saddle angle is a bowel disorder waiting to happen. Mental!
Image courtesy of

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