Thursday, December 20, 2007

Knock 'Em Dead

Yesterday, I popped along briefly to The Magic Cave in Covent Garden, a magic stall owned and run by my fellow homosexualist magician, Lee Hathaway, and his business partner, Neil Henry. Lee told me a story that I just had to share.

Often in magic catalogues, an effect will be described as "This will fry them", or "This will floor them". Actually, one particular magic shop in London has a web site which claims many of their tricks will "flaw" the audience ("This will flaw them"). I suspect that's due to the odd way people in England can't pronounce the letter "r" correctly (unlike Scottish folks such as myself), and so they have confused "floor" with "flaw".

Another claim that is sometimes made is "This will kill them!". Or "This will knock 'em dead". Or some similar turn of phrase. Obviously, we don't mean that to be taken literally.

But here's the twist. Neil was performing last week for a bishop (or an arch-bishop, which is a bishop with a bow and arrow). He was doing an effect where the spectator holds a pack of cards, and while it is in their hands, it turns into a solid block of perspex. The moment when the magician asks the spectator to check in their hands, and they discover that the transformation has taken place is usually something of a highlight. It gets a good reaction. It kills them! On this occasion, alas, it did. The bishop looked, gasped, clutched at his heart, and had a stroke.

Well, okay, I don't know for sure whether the poor man actually did survive. I suspect he probably did, but what an awfully embarrassing situation to find oneself in as a performer - accidentally shocking the audience to death or close to it, rather than merely entertaining them.

I suspect Neil might not get a repeat booking at that particular establishment. Not through any fault of his own, but because from now on they'll probably stick to nothing racier than Daniel O'Donnell tribute bands.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Present

My Christmas present to myself this year is that I can remove from my little motorbike anything that looks like this 'ere picture.

This morning, I sat and passed my motorbike test. Yay!

Only a few days ago it was looking like it wasn't going to happen. Following a fall on Friday (caused by a dickhead pulling out right in front of me quite deliberately - and then driving off after causing an accident), when I got on the bike on Saturday for some training, I only lasted a couple of minutes before realising that my nerve had gone and I just couldn't do it. I threw in the towel. However, on the way home, I decided to go back the next day and try again, but on a smaller bike, with a view to doing the test on a small bike. I felt more comfortable on a 125cc machine, and I thought I might as well give it a go, take advantage of the training I had already paid for, and be in with a chance of passing the test. The down side would be that if I passed on a 125cc machine, I would have two years of being on a restricted licence, limiting the power of the bikes I'm allowed to ride.

Quite frankly, my experience over the last few weeks has taught me that I don't mind being limited on the power front. I'm not yet comfortable on bigger bikes, and I won't be comfortable on them until I've spent quite a bit more time just getting used to general, everyday things to do with riding.

So, on that footage, I did the training on Sunday, and then did an hour or so this morning before heading out of the test centre. You fail if you commit a single major fault, and I was worried that the u-turn would give me a fail. I got through it, though, just. You can also commit up to 14 minor faults and still pass. I committed 7, so it was an okay pass. My steering was a bit wobbly from time to time, and I missed a signal on double-turn (right immediately followed by left), but that was about it.

I am now officially a big, hairy biker. So I'd better cancel my monthly order of Veet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Recovery Discovery

Yesterday morning I was barely able to put any weight on my left foot as a result of my recent motorbike-related injury. This morning, and all of today, it has been easier and easier to get about on. So, I'm still all systems go for more training this weekend, followed by my test on Tuesday. I hope I'll pass it, and get to join the ranks of folks like Tickersoid, who passed his test a couple of weeks ago. And if you should happen to read this, Tickers, let me offer my most heartfelt congratulations. They might sour and turn to envy if I fail my own test, but for now ...


Monday, December 10, 2007

Take the sprain

I spent this weekend learning how to ride a motorbike. I'm doing Direct Access, so if I pass the test (a week tomorrow), I will be legally entitled to ride any motorcycle. Unfortunately, that is looking a little less likely this morning that it did yesterday morning. Or even mid-afternoon yesterday.

On Saturday, I arrived a little late at the place I was being trained. The satnav got me a bit lost, although it's possible that if I had trusted it when it started going a bit funny, things would have worked out alright in the end. I was being trained by a chap called Paul, and my fellow trainee was a chap called Dave. The weather was awful, but we had a good few hours out on the road on little 125cc machines. I even managed to do quite well with the u-turn, which had been a real struggle for me when I did the CBT.

On Sunday, Dave and I had a different trainer, a fellow called Lea. The weather wasn't nearly as bad, the training was really good, and after half on hour on the little bikes, he moved us up on to 500cc machines. God, those things are heavy!

All went well. After a couple of hours on the road, a break for lunch, and a bit more riding, we went to a playground to practice u-turns and slow-riding, prior to trying it out on the road. One of the bikes developed a problem with its clutch, so we were heading back to swap bikes before attempting the u-turn in the road. On that occasion, Dave was leading Lea was in the middle, and I was following. Alas, metres away from the entrance to the school where we had been practising, I lost control at a corner (almost certainly because of a patch of oil on the road, combined with a wee squeeze on the front breaks). The front wheel slipped forward and to the right, sending me toppling to the road, the bike forcing my ankle around at an awkward angle, and pinning my leg for a few very uncomfortable seconds.

Oh, the pain!

I took a few minutes to recover myself, and after a while, Lea returned to find out where I had disappeared to. I hobbled back in to the school where we had been practising u-turns, and decided to sit out the rest of the day (which was only about 45 minutes). Then I got back on the bike, rode back to where my car was parked, and drove home. The ankle wasn't too bad last night, but it became more uncomfortable overnight, so I asked my Lovely Husband™ to drive me in to the local A&E this morning before he went to work. (Bless his little cotton sox, he went back home tidied up the place, and went shopping for me whilst I was busy getting x-rays and waiting around a lot for people to push my wheelchair.)

Fortunately, the ankle isn't broken, and there isn't anything seriously wrong with the knee or the calf (both of which suffered a bit). I got some crutches, and I'm trying to put as much weight on the bad foot as I can, because it seems that the more I try to walk on it, the more I can.

I just hope it's okay for next weekend, otherwise I'll have paid all this money for the bike training, but won't be able to go. That would not be a good thing.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mission accomplished!

It took quite a bit of doing, but as of about 20:45 last night, my lovely, shiny new motorcycle is safely parked outside the flat.

I say it took quite a bit of doing - I meant it!

The weather yesterday was dreadful. After waiting a few hours for it to clear, filling the idle hours by getting boring but necessary administrative tasks out of the way, I decided I had to go for it or risk having the bike sit on a street in south London for another night and day.

I got to where it was parked around 14:30, stood at the side of the road and kitted myself up - the jacket, the balaclava, the helmet, the waterproof trousers, the boots, the gloves. Obviously, if I were a superhero and there had been a phone box nearby, this phase of the operation would have been over very quickly. As it was, it took me ... some time.

I wonder if the rise in mobile phone usage, and consequent decline in numbers of phone booths, has made life harder for superheroes. If any such people read this blog, do let me know.

So, a mere half hour after getting there, I jumped on and tried to start her up. Nothing. The engine was turning, but wouldn't start properly. Eventually (after another half-hour), I walked her into a side street, and tried pushing her and starting her at the same time. Still nothing. I tried using the choke. Still nothing.

I had resigned myself to walking the bike all the way home - a distance of at least 15 km, probably more. However, after the first km or so, I happened across a bike shop. My lucky day, I thought! I went in and asked if they could have a look at it. The owner came out and spent a long time telling me how he couldn't really do anything, and was really busy, I would be better checking it in for a service, blah blah. Eventually, he took pity on my and agreed to try jump-starting it. It started up very easily. He asked me for a fiver. I have him a tenner, and my gratitude.

However, although he had returned the bike to a working condition, he hadn't been able to magic up some confidence for me. That was a pity, because I needed some, having lost quite a lot over the preceding 24 hours. I walked the bike some more, with the engine idling.
All through Westminster. Past the houses of Parliament. Past Downing Street. Somewhere along Victoria Embankment, I tried to get on and ride it, but wasn't feeling very confident. I continued to walk it. Past St Paul's, through the city (by now it was rush hour).

Before I'd ridden a bike, I had no idea how heavy they are. I suspect most people don't realise this. Walking through the city, stopping and starting to allow for the behaviour of other pedestrians, was really exhausting! When the bike is moving, to have to stop quickly is a strain. To get it going again is an effort. Yet both were necessary to avoid bumping into people.

At Aldgate East, I stopped outside a corner shop that I used to frequent when I lived in Number One Prescott Street. By this time, I had walked at least 5 km, gone up and down a few little hills - which seem a lot bigger when you're pushing a motorbike, hadn't taken any food or drink for a few hours, and had sweated at least a litre into my clothing. I popped into the shop to get some Irn Bru to keep me going, and then decided that it might be wise to remove the waterproof trousers, since it wasn't actually raining any more. When I took them off, it became apparent that I'd been sweating so much that they were completely drenched - it was as if I've been swimming whilst wearing them.

And back on the road again. I was now walking through some very quiet streets, so I decided to try getting on the bike again. I struggled a bit. I'd been walking for so long that my legs were cramping when I tried to ride. But I got going, after a few false starts. And then I rode for about three streets. Then I got towards busy streets again, so I got off and started pushing. Again.

Twenty minutes or so later found me in a street near Stepney Green, within 50 metres of Charlie's Bar, the pub where I used to perform every week. And in which I have shared a drink with Tickersoid and Jungle Jane, no less. I got on the bike again. And got going. And my confidence returned. And I found I was riding with reasonable comfort, despite the missing foot peg.

Along Roman Road. Past Victoria Park. Up into Hackney (awful traffic). Through to Dalston. Right onto Lea Bridge Road. Whizzing along past the turn-offs for Walthamstow and Leytonstone. Past the Whipps Cross roundabout. And then I was home. Exhausted, but exhilarated, very much in one piece, and delighted that once I got going, it got a whole lot easier. And in that whole time, I only stalled twice, and that was in the awful traffic mess in Hackney.

Now I can pop out and have a go on the bike any time, can ride it near home without fear of facing a great big journey that I don't feel ready for, and can begin to experiment with useful things like getting to the gym by bike, or popping onto an A-road or two. It's the beginning of an exciting new chapter.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Not so easy rider

Beginners luck isn't always good.

After a recent exchange about motorbikes with Nick over at Unnatural Vision, I realised that what I had been planning with regard to my future existence as a big, butch biker was madness. Insanity.

My original intention was to complete some lessons (two this weekend, two the following weekend), pass the exam (hopefully), and then buy myself a big, powerful bike.

Reality check.

Five and half days of riding would leave me ill-prepared to handle a big bike. They are powerful. And dangerous. And one little slip of the hand and you find yourself halfway up a building. Or a tree.

I decided, therefore, that a much more sensible approach would be to buy a trainer bike, a modest 125cc job, such as I am currently entitled to ride, following my recent success with the CBT (for any SM aficionados who happen to be reading, this is Compulsory Basic Training, rather than cock and ball torture). Getting such a bike would mean that I would be able to get much more practice in before the test, because I'll be able to go out on my own during the week rather than only getting to ride when I'm being trained. After the test, I can take as long as I like before deciding that the time has come to get something a big more grunty between my legs. I won't go for a big bike until I'm happy that I am completely in control of it at all times. I'm thinking at least a year, possibly longer, because I might end up liking the little bike enough to stick with it.

So convinced was I that this was a good idea, I decided to have a look yesterday on that there interweb. And lo! I found a treasure - a seven month old SkyJet 125. (Alas, I don't have a picture of the self-same bike yet, but I found a snap of the same model in the same colour, so you get to see what it looks like.) It was going for a song, because the owner is emigrating. I high-tailed it over to take a look, stopping off at a cash machine to withdraw the appropriate amount of funds, and now I am the proud owner of this beautiful machine.

Alas, since I had only been on a bike for one day (when I did the CBT), I ended up feeling a bit lost when it came to actually riding it home. The guy selling it had started it, but once he'd gone, when I tried to move off, I stalled straight away. Could I get it started again? Not for love nor money. And here's where the bad beginner's luck kicked in. I got off to try and work out why it wasn't starting. I experimented with gears and the clutch and the throttle. And then it kicked into life, and took off. Out of my hands. Falling over as it did so. Taking me with it. Ouch! And upon righting everything again, I discovered that I had broken off the left foot peg.

Fortunately, the owner had popped out for something, and passed me on his way back in. He asked if everything was okay (since we had parted company ten minutes earlier). I explained that I was having some problems remembering all the stuff I did on CBT, and confessed about the broken peg. I felt quite guilty, because the guy had taken really good care of the bike, and here was me damaging it within minutes of getting my hands on it. He checked it out, started it up, and then walked it to a place where it could be parked overnight, so that I could come back and ride it home in daylight, when it will be a bit easier, and I'll feel a bit more comfortable doing it. So, today I'm going back to South London to pick it up.

I've been sent information about where to get a replacement left foot peg. The company that does them has promised next day delivery. Getting it home today will be something of a chore, but I won't have to wait long before I can ride it properly without having to keep my foot at a funny angle.

I had a couple of unfortunate incidents when I started driving, too, so I'm chalking this one up to experience. And at least I didn't sustain any injury, apart from wounded pride and a slightly bruised shin.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

This product is not available in the shops

High in Andes, in the remote region of Aixud, a small collection of farmers grow the beans that go into the world's finest chocolate. This has been their livelihood for the last two hundred years, and their produce has been bought up entirely by the world's finest chocolatiers, going to make the most exclusive and expensive chocolates in the world, enjoyed by only those small numbers of very wealthy people who can afford them. A secret known only to the super-rich. A privilege.

But now those farmers have decided that the time has come for the rest of the world to enjoy their delicious produce, and so they have created their own chocolate drink, and made it available in quality stores throughout the world.

So, next time someone asks, "Would you like a hot drink?" , you'll know what to say ...

Aixud Cocoa