According to consultancy firm PwC, Christmas spending in the UK totalled £43bn in 2013, with consumers spending £680 on goods in the last two months of the year.
The Christmas period is still the busiest for the UK’s retailers, with just under a quarter of annual spending being carried out in the last two months of the year.
This year I did my bit for the Christmas economy by buying my first ever Christmas fir tree. After seeing lots of signs offering trees for sale, we ended up at the ultimate niche pop-up which sold Christmas trees, stands and nothing else. But they were doing a roaring trade, driven by a single sign by the side of the road.
Sign says all it needs to
The site was professionally run, with the trees sorted by size and needle-drop variety (drop or non-drop). I assumed they would only accept cash, but they had a credit card machine tucked away in a cosy shed. With our 8 foot whopper selected, they soon had it wrapped up, and three burly men carefully inserted it point-first into our car (for easy extraction at home).
Whilst enjoying my ‘mindful commute’ on my Brompton (as recommended by the Evening Standard – How to have a mindful commute), I spotted a van with my new favourite trademark – Magicman.
I had a quick search on the UK IPO trademark database and was relieved to see it was registered to Magic Man Limited under class 37; Maintenance, repair and restoration and resurfacing of all (i) surfaces, cladding and facades (in each case both internal and external) including but not limited to ceramic tile, stone, stone resin, marble, granite, wood, laminate, uPVC, plastic including but not limited to thermosetting plastic, glass and powder-coated surfaces and (ii) fittings including but not limited to bathroom and kitchen worktops, sanitaryware, floors and doors; glass scratch removal; plumbing; general commercial and domestic repairs.
Surprisingly there is only one other use of Magic Man on the database. It is owned by Dieck & Co. Erfrischungsgetränke OHG, and is used for; Class 32 – Beers; mineral and aerated waters and other non-alcoholic drinks; energy drinks, fruit drinks and fruit juices; syrups and other preparations for making beverages. Class 33 – Alcoholic beverages (except beers); alcoholic mixed beverages and alcoholic energy drinks.
Even more of a surprise was only finding one reference to ‘magician’ on the database, which is now dead, but was owned by Branston’s Limited, and used between 1948 and 1997.
Magicman has plenty of examples on their website of their ‘magic touch’ to “repair, renew and restore”.
One of the ways I try to ameliorate the boredom of my five hours of daily commuting is to distract myself with entertaining TV shows.
I have always been a fan of Science Fiction, and still remember watching early Doctor Who episodes from behind the sofa in my youth, and revelling in the cult trash of Blake’s Seven in my teens.
So I was aware of Battlestar Gallactica, but was confused by very mixed reviews of the series. It turns out there were two separate versions of the series, with a rather weak original from 1978, followed by a far superior ‘reboot’ from 2004.
The premise of the series is a familiar one from the annals of Sci-Fi. Robots developed to serve humankind develop consciousness, rebel and go to war against their masters. The Battlestar Gallactica version of this story takes place far into the future, after we have left earth and colonised distant space.
It follows on from 40 years of peace after a bloody war against the Cylons. Needless to say the Cylons (dismissed as ‘toasters’) have not been idle. They have spent the time infiltrating the human defences, using replicants (referred to as ‘skin jobs’). When their offensive finally starts the consequences for the human population are devastating, with billions wiped out in a nuclear apocalypse across the 12 colonies.
A mere 50,000 manage to escape destruction in a rag-tag collections of space-ships under the protection of a rather long in the tooth battlestar (think rusting old aircraft carrier), under the leadership of retirement ready admiral Adama. Their desperate hope is to find a new home in the now mythical planet of earth, whilst avoiding any run-ins with the vastly superior fire-power of the Cylon fleet.
So far so straightforward, with the addition of lots of fighting to keep things from getting dull. However the writers manage to take the story to the next level by exploring the overlaps between human intelligence, and these newly created sentient beings. For instance the many of the humans have a belief in their ‘old gods’, but this is trumped by the Cylon’s much stronger faith in their one god. They firmly believe it is their destiny to discover and repopulate earth, instead of the humans.
In one episode the humans are shown to be capable of an ‘inhuman’ level of cruelty to a flesh and blood Cylon. An ongoing theme concerns the humans who fall in love with ‘skin-jobs’ and vice-versa. Each being perceived to have betrayed their community. One case even leads to the birth of a human-cylon hybrid child, over whom both sides contest ‘onwership’.
As you can see, the four series of the show has kept me entertained with rapt attention over the past few weeks. But that is not the theme of this blog post…
For many years I have been aware of – and irritated by – the way American television programs are so prudish. Having been used to hearing swearing on British television since a teenager, it always seemed odd to have hard-hitting US programs limit themselves to the occasional mild obscenity. The notable exception to this rule is the HBO subscription channel, who have produced such wonderful series such as Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Game of Thrones.
So, I was shocked to hear the F word uttered in the very first episode of Battlestar Gallactica. How were the makers of the show allowed to do this on American network channels?
But when I started listening more closely I realised the F word being used wasn’t ‘fuck’, but ‘frak’. Thanks to the hard work of some dedicated viewers it is possible to hear every frack voiced during the show on YouTube.
As you can hear, the word is used in all of its rich and varied contexts and meanings. Needless to say Wikipedia has a whole page on the use of frak and fraking in the series, and difference between the ‘frack’ used in the earlier version of the show.
At first this substitution seemed ridiculous. But after a while it began to seem natural and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the series. In fact it enhanced the ‘believability’ of the show. After all, people do swear a lot in life and death situations, and the military are famous for their sweariness.
So if you do get the chance to watch this epic series, which according to a friend was a “life-changing” experience, listen out for lots of fraking and try not be offended.
When I first started this blog back in 2006, my intention was to review a selection of significant product innovations and the impact they have had on our lives.
My post on the Paper Clip remains one of the most popular, but over the years I have rather neglected this topic.
But thanks to my daily ride aboard my Brompton folding bicycle, I found myself in need of one of the most simple products of all time – the humble bicycle clip.
This time the objective is not to hold pieces of paper together, but to prevent trousers getting caught in grubby oily cycle chains, ruining the sartorial elegance of the trouser owner.
Now, some simple hearted folk might say that socks were perfectly capable of fulfilling this important role, in addition to keeping feet warm. But having tested this approach thoroughly, I’m convinced there is a better way.
My first choice was the traditional steel sprung cycle clip available from ‘all good bicycle shops’. And I was happy with this method for a few weeks. But gradually I became annoyed at the way they often slipped down during riding, or how they pinched my growing calf-muscles. They are also quite fiddly to store between journeys. The temptation is to hook them over the handlebars. But this inevitably results in them rotating around and dropping to the ground with a clang, followed by scrabbling in the road to pick them up.
I turned to Google for a better solution, and found a coalescence of positive reviews around the leather trouser strap from Brooks England. This long established British firm are known for making the best leather replacement seats for bicycles. The product is almost as simple as its shiny rivals, and consists of a steel band, which in this case is covered in soft leather. The difference is the band rolls up into a neat little ball when not in use.
The cost compared to a steel clip was a challenge, but I decided the potential benefit was worth the investment. And I was proved right. As with all well designed products, daily use is either almost unnoticed or a small pleasure. The way my Brompton folds away is an example of the latter.
Not only does the band fulfil its primary purpose of holding my trouser leg firmly in place, despite the jarring of London’s badly potholed roads, it is simplicity itself to fit, and sits nice and securely on my handlebar when not in use. What more could one ask of a product?
During my daily commute from Eastbourne to St Pancras and all the way back, I have been doing some ‘commuter observing’. And I have noticed most ‘hard-core’ travellers have two specialised devices in their possession. The first is a computer screen of some kind, to help distract from the long train journey by delivering various forms of entertainment.
This can vary from reading ebooks on a Kindle or similar, to watching the latest instalment of Game of Thrones on an iPad or Andriod tablet. Occasionally I have even spotted commuters actually doing work on the train.
Now that I have settled on my somewhat garish clementine orange Yoga Pro ‘laptop’, it is time to move on to the second of these devices.
And that takes us from new technology to an invention nearly 200 years old – the velocipede, more recently known as the bicycle.
But for the serious commuter just any old bike won’t do. Or more specifically, won’t be allowed by the train operating companies. Having endured standing room only on trains for many years, I am sympathetic with banning of full-sized bicycles during the rush-hour times. Although, perhaps bringing back the guard’s van would be a way of accommodating conventional two-wheelers.
In the meantime, the only solution is a folding-bike, and this explains why they are such a common sight on my morning and evening journeys. With the rapid increase in cycling in London over the past few years has come an increasing choice of bikes, and folding-bikes in particular.
Using my information search skills I conducted thorough research into the subject, and came up with a shortlist of two manufacturers. Both had excellent reviews, and both cost just under £1,000. The first was of course the Brompton, which is by far-and-away the market leader. And a proud ‘made-in-Britain’ product exported around the world.
So being perverse I decided to go for the alternative brand. I found a shop near Eastbourne which stocked both makes, and explained my wishes to the salesman over the phone. He assured me that I would come out of the shop with a Brompton rather than the brand I wanted. And it turned out he was right. After a short discussion, the superiority its ingenious folding system and 25 percent smaller size when folded, won me over to the Brompton.
A combination of glitchy technology and lack of bikes has always been something of a problem. But since moving to Eastbourne, at least fifty percent of my attempts to hire a bike have failed. And doubling the annual subscription to £90 has only added insult to injury. The unreliability of the Barclay’s scheme added significantly to the stress of my morning journey. And as the secret to successful long distance commuting is to remove as many variables as possible, it had to be replaced with something more reliable.
Today is only day-one of my folding bike commute, so it is too early to say how effective this serious investment in improving my commuting experience will turn out to be.
Last November the father of autonumerology, Noel Woodall died at the age of 82. Noel is credited with creating the market for personalised car number plates in the UK, worth more than £2bn to the Treasury since 1989.
His interest in what grew into a multi-million pound business began in 1960 when he noticed a car driving past with the plate BB 4. He discovered it belonged to a local Blackpool Bookmaker. Thinking other people might also be interested in memorable number plates, he started the first cherished number plate business in the country.
As this was in a time before the Internet, Noel went on a research mission to his local public library, and was surprised not to find a single book on the subject. So, being the entrepreneurial type he put an advert in the RAF’s Air Mail magazine, asking for information about distinctive number plates. He received so much information in response, he decided to compile and publish it in a small book entitled Car Number Galaxy – Celebrities. It cost him £250 to produce, which was 6 months’ wages at that time.
He went on to publish more than 20 books, including Veterans, More Celebrities, Cartoons and a series called Car Numbers, written with Brian Heaton and described by its publishers as “one of the longest running, and most popular publications about vehicle registrations”.
As for me, I grew up with a strong prejudice against preening drivers who paraded around the streets with vanity plates adorning their shiny cars, like some kind of automotive bling jewellery. I couldn’t think of a more idiotic way to waste money than to ‘invest’ in an ‘IAM GR8’ plate.
So, I was glad to read that even people involved in the industry recognise its controversial nature. Piers England an auctioneer from the DVLA’s auction company admitted, “We call them marmite products – you either love them or hate them.” To quote one contributor to an online discussion “When I see a vanity plate, I think only one thing: ID 10T”.
List of the 10 most expensive plates sold by the DVLA
1 D – £352,000
51 NGH – £254,000
1 RH – £247,000
K1 NGS – £231,000
1 O – £210,000
1 A – £200,000
1 OO – £197,000
2 O – £142,000
6 B – £130,000
1 HRH – £113,000
So how then can I even start to justify my recent purchase of N11 1NFO for my humble Skoda Octavia? The answer is a combination of my failing memory and local car park rules. Until recently there was an opportunity to end a shopping trip in town with a good deed by handing over my parking ticket to a new arrival. The grateful recipient could then benefit from whatever time remained.
The local council became aware of this ‘good Samaritan’ behaviour and decided they were losing valuable income. The solution was to introduce shiny new ‘intelligent’ ticket machines which required your car registration number in addition to payment. This was printed on the ticket to prevent it being transferred to another car. So no more ‘random acts of kindness’ in the council owned car parks thank you very much.
As well as being frustrated by this meanness of spirit, this change led to a challenge for me. Sadly I have never managed to memorise any of the number plates of any of the various cars and motorbikes I have owned since passing my driving test back in 1976. So I would either have to park with my bumper in view of the ticket machine or keep a note of my number to hand. A third and unexpected solution was to buy a new plate with a memorable number.
After much internet research and even more soul-searching I was finally ready to go ahead and join this group I had enjoyed despising for so many years. The change in my thinking came about when I realised a personalised plate was just about the only way to express personality and even humour on a product that is standardised and factory produced. If you own a Ford Mondeo it looks just a like any other Ford Mondeo apart from a limited range of colours. Although I did see a chrome-plated car the other day which was so bright it actually hurt my eyes.
But just having an initial or two, combined with a number seemed to be a wasted opportunity. And I began to take notice of properly memorable numbers I came across in my travels. Whilst cycling through the East End of London on a ‘Boris bike’ I spotted SK1NT on the back of a brand new Rolls Royce. A nice example of four wheeled irony. I also saw a rather surprising DARR0N on an Audie A4 queuing to get out of Legoland.
My challenge was to see if I could find a memorable plate amongst those listed at the DVLA starting price of £250. Needless to say, there wasn’t anything close to ‘librarian’ at that price. I compromised on a combination of my initials and info (my chosen profession), with an additional redundant ‘I’ stuck in the middle.
The irony of this story is that by the time I had deliberated, purchased the number, had the plates made up, sent in the forms, and finally got out my screwdriver and physically replaced them, the council had changed their parking policy. Outraged shoppers had bombarded the local council with complaints and the local newspaper had picked up on the issue. After initially robustly defending their new ‘fairer’ policy, the politicians realised they were on a losing wicket and eventually caved in. So now when I go shopping I no longer need to enter my number plate into the ticket machine, undermining the original reason for personalising my car’s identity.
January 2015 Update:
I recently spotted a black cab outside work with the number CABBIE which was impressive. But I was even more surprised to see the same car featured in Paddington the movie, being driven by Matt Lucas.
Apologies for the rather hyperbolic headline above, but according to social media experts a catchy headline is the number one way of getting visitors to your blog. And as I have been rather neglecting In through the Outfield in recent months, I think it needs a bit of a boost.
Headlines are probably the single most important aspect of your post. You could write mind-blowing, world changing content but if you don’t write good headlines, no one’s going to click through and read them. Therefore they need to be attractive and intriguing enough to make readers check out your blog.
Here are some great tips to help create better headlines:
Go with numbers or numbered lists. There’s a reason why your Facebook feed is choking on articles like “11 sexist cats that look like Ryan Gosling”. Learn from sites like Buzzfeed and maybe one day your content can annoy the whole of the internet, too.
Use compelling, emotive adjectives. Whilst this isn’t your high school creative writing class, using more engaging words like: “amazing”, “beautiful”, “inspiring” etc will make your article sound much more interesting.
Make your headlines are intriguing, but not too vague. Upworthy do a great job of this, giving you just enough information to whet your appetite, whilst not giving away the payload.
Use keyword research. Make sure you know what the most searched terms are for what you’re writing about and make sure that they’re in your headline. If your target audience is searching for “How to write better headlines”, make sure that your blog post headline will show up on their search.
Right – now that we have got that important information out of the way, I can explain why I am back in the blogging saddle after my unplanned sabbatical. I am now commuting to work at the British Library from Eastbourne, which has extended my daily journey to over two hours each way. However this gives me plenty of time for reading, snoozing or even blogging, as I cruise through the beautiful Sussex countryside alongside the South Downs at the mercy of the Southern railway service.
The other factor enabling me to revive my blog is of course technology. I spent many weeks researching the best computer to support my newly extended commute. I looked at getting a bigger and smarter phone than my current almost perfect Motorola Razr I (small in size, long in battery life). The new breed of smart phones are amazing, but unless you have fingers much smaller and more nimble than my clunking great ones, typing anything more than a short note is too painful. And although the recent ones have pocket-stretching sized screens, they are still too small to work on a blog post or effectively surf the web. But the real killer blow, is when you actually use any of their amazing features for more than a few minutes, their battery life disappears to almost nothing.
Next came a choice of tablets, of Apple or Android flavours. They have long battery life, bigger screens and are nice a light and compact to carry around. However, they don’t have keyboards, and as a touch-typer since my teens I can’t stand typing on a screen. It’s a bit like having to ride a moped once you have experienced a proper motorbike – there is just no going back. Admittedly you can buy a keyboard attachments, but the keys are incredibly cramped and obviously an after-thought, rather than designed-in. Also I need to run Word and Powerpoint from time to time, which meant the Microsoft Surface came closest to my rather demanding requirements. However their poor battery life put paid to that.
That left laptops, or Ultrabooks, as the small, thin and powerful ones are now known. However, when not typing or editing presentations I liked the idea of some light entertainment to help pass the time on train. And I have watched fellow commuters struggling to get a good viewing position on their laptops to watch the latest instalment of Game of Thrones. More research led to the new breed of ‘hybrid’ machines, and the appropriately named Yoga series from Lenovo.
I finally settled on the Yoga Pro 2, with its 3,200×1,800-pixel touch screen, claimed nine hour battery life, backlit full size keyboard, and flexible screen.
I have already tested out what Lenovo call the Stand mode to view BBC shows downloaded from iPlayer. And it works really well, with the keyboard tucked behind out of the way. I’m not sure how often I would get to use the Tent mode, and I have to admit that it makes a pretty clunky tablet when folded flat. This isn’t helped by Windows 8, which still needs some work to compete with Android as a touch interface.
So there you have it, new technology combined with an something of an epically long commute (nothing compared to these hardy Scots) are the keys to getting this blog back on its feet again.
I find it fascinating how much our attitudes to subjects change over time. In this case the topic is the British Library’s collection of pornography. In the past a few individuals have become somewhat obsessed by the various holdings in our Private Case collection. This seems strange to me, in an era permeated by sexual content, from television shows like Big Brother, to teenagers sexting each other, and virtually unrestricted access to pornography through the internet.
Since first joining The British Library back in 2006, I have heard many myths and legends about the collection of pornographic material. It was, I was confidently assured, the second largest in the world, behind the rather surprising winner, the Vatican Library, and slightly ahead of the Library of Congress in Washington, home of the First Amendment.
As a ‘newbie’ in the library I received this information in good faith, and in the knowledge that the collection was safely locked-away our basements, where I was unlikely ever to stumble across them.
Naturally my first instinct was to look up this controversial publication on Explore The British Library, and within minutes I had located and ordered it.
I can’t claim to be an expert on Erotic Fiction , but I was surprised by just how dull and turgid these 160 short pages turned out to be. The contents mostly consists of excessively detailed reports of the author’s struggles to unearth the library’s ‘hidden gems’, his numerous letters to those in charge at that time, and many lists of the controversial titles and their provenance.
Perhaps any serious attempt to catalogue the more ‘exciting’ content of The British Library stacks was bound to end up being something of a snooze, but I have to say I was disappointed. However here are some of the highlights I thought worth noting:
Early on Fryer reports that;
“The BM collection of erotica is without doubt the most comprehensive in the world. The Kinsey Collection does not hold a candle to it. The celebrated Enfer Of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris probably runs it a close second; but the alleged riches, in this field, possessed by the Vatican, the Library of Congress, and the Bodleian in Oxford, turn out to be small fry indeed compared with Bloomsbury’s well-stocked private case.”
It seems that the confusion stems from their “courage and honesty” in listing publicly their collections, whereas, up until the 1960’s The British Library had not.
Later on, Fryer recounts an episode relating to a request for a ‘naughty’ book by Iwan Bloch. He is asked to meet with the Superintendent of books who explains that he has to satisfy himself, that Fryer’s purpose was serious, and that he was unlikely to steal, mark, or mutilate the book.
It was subsequently explained to Fryer, that the intention of this kind of interview is to protect the library’s books from the readers, “which experience has shown to be a necessary part of a librarian’s duty, rather than to protect readers from books, which is not thought to be a librarian’s business in this country.”
Fryer divides up the library’s collection of erotica into several categories including what he terms ‘sexological works’, which include books on “contraception, guides to erotic technique and coital positions, sociological surveys of teenage copulation in Cockfosters and homosexuality in Rutland.” I’m guessing this last part was Fryers attempt at humour.
A section of the book covers the history of the Private Case at the British Library and includes mention of Anthony Panizzi, of one of the key figures in its development. Rather surprisingly Panizzi was not British, but an Italian lawyer and revolutionary democrat, who had been sentenced to death by the government of Modena. He escaped to England in 1823 and joined the British Museum staff, working his way up to Keeper of printed books by 1837. During his tenure Panizzi grew the book collection from 200,000, to over a million by the time of his retirement in 1866. Many of these were catalogued by Panizzi himself., The creation of the famous round reading room was also his idea.
In keeping with his democratic principles Panizzi wanted the library to be open to all students of knowledge.
“He wanted the student to have the same means of indulging his curiosity on any topic, consulting all authorities, and ‘fathoming the most intricate enquiry’, as the richest man in the kingdom. ‘And I contend’, he added, ‘that Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.’”
This was quite a change from the views of his predecessor Henry Ellis, who opposed the idea of opening on public holidays because, “I think that the most mischievous part of the population is abroad and about at such a time.” Ellis claimed that if the library was not closed for the Easter holiday period, “the place… would really be unwholesome.”
Fryer managed to track down an article published in the English Review from December 1913, complaining about hidden books in the British Museum. In The Taboos of the British Museum Library, the authors claimed there were three general classes of books liable to be secreted by the library at that time:
1. Subversive of the throne
2. Subversive of religion
3. Of an improper or obscene character
In response to an author who’s latest book had been ‘dissapeared’, the Keeper of books wrote this rather unhelpful reply;
“Dear Sir, – In your letter of the 12th July, referring to books which are not entered in the catalogue, you ask me whether there are any printed instructions issued, and available for public use, by which the public may know of the existence of such books, and to the conditions under which they may be consulted. My reply to your question is that there are no printed instructions relating to such books.”
Fryer makes his views on these restrictions clear on the final page of the book;
“It is high time the museum authorities realized that the un-catalogued books in their care are not their private property, and that their refusal to let people know exactly what they have and have not got is unworthy of a great national library and totally inimical to scholarship.”
Since those repressive days of the 1960’s the library has indeed opened up the catalogue, and these curiosities can be found. But only ordered up from the basement by those who have a serious academic interest.
After my ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to the top of Kilimanjaro with my son, friends asked what my next adventure would be. My reply was ‘I have no plans’.
However, the annual SLA conference in San Diego at the beginning of June provided an opportunity to revisit an adventure from my youth. Aged 18, during my gap year between school and university, I flew to the Philadelphia, bought a Suzuki GS750 motorbike and rode over ten thousand miles around the United States and Canada. Although it was certainly a big journey, the confidence that youth brings, meant I was not in awe of the scale of the undertaking. Each morning I just got on the bike and headed on towards the next suitable camp-site for the night with my ‘one-man’ tent. It was all about the journey and encounters made on the way, rather than any particular destination.
Suzuki GS750 circa 1976
Thirty five years on I decided to make sure I had the ‘right’ bike for the trip. Which meant hiring a Harley Davidson Road King for the two long days of riding from San Diego to Las Vegas and back. In my younger biker days, Harleys or Hogs as they are affectionately known to their fans, were something of a joke in the UK. They were infamous for their unreliable low power ‘agricultural’ engines, their inability to lean around even the mildest of bend without something hitting the road, or even more worrying, the ability to stop when required.
But driving through Death Valley in the heat of the day, on the Suzuki 750 all those years ago, gave me a new appreciation of the benefits of a solid slow cruiser that would run all day at 60mph with the engine ticking over a lazy pace.
I snuck away from the final session of the excellent 2013 SLA conference, and headed up to the offices of Eagle Rider located in Old Town San Diego. It was at this point the scale of the undertaking began to dawn on me. On first sight the bike was even bigger than I was expecting. Sparkling in the bright sun from its many chromed surfaces, it was simply enormous. Weighing in at 385kg and packing a 1700cc V-twin air-cooled engine it looked too heavy to hold upright, let alone ride the 450 miles to Vegas. Before the trip I had joked to friends how different this bike would be compared to my pocket rocket Kawasaki KR-1S safely tucked away in my garden shed at home.
The Road King was literally three times heavier, and seven times bigger in the engine department.
… and large
And the harsh reality of this monster Harley was unnerving to say the least. This wasn’t helped by finding out that the local riders’ idea of a crash helmet barely covered the top of my head. After a somewhat cursory introduction by Andy from Eagle Rider, who does this many times a day, I was ready to hit the road.
Literally hitting the road and ending up in hospital was precisely what I sat there worrying about for a few minutes. Until Andy popped his head out of the office and asked if I was ok. My response was a falsely confident wave and a reluctant prod with my thumb on the starter button. The engine cranked into life and settled into a chug-chug burble. I stomped it into first gear and wobbled out of the parking lot into the San Diego evening rush hour.
Half an hour later I was back at my hotel dripping with sweat and cursing this unrideable dinosaur of a bike. As I struggled to park without dropping it in the street, Laura (my conference mentee) appeared from nowhere and said hello. I spent the next five minutes lambasting the bike’s failings as well as my inability to ride it properly. Her considered response was that it ‘looked cool’.
After an unsettled night and a ‘last’ breakfast with my fellow conference attending Brits, it was time to set off. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see the look of trepidation in my eyes.
The first major challenge was filling up the tank with ‘gas’. The option to pay with cash didn’t work so I tried using my credit card. That didn’t work either, as I didn’t have the required US zip code. I popped into the kiosk to ask for help and learned that you have to pay cash in advance. After filing up, the cashier pointed the way to Interstate 8 East to take me out of town to begin my trip.
The first half-hour of riding was spent working out in my head how I would explain to my friends why I had taken the bike the straight back to Eagle Rider. The next half-hour had me contemplating a half-day riding round the beautiful windy roads of the exotically named Volcan Mountains Wilderness Preserve. Certainly the sights of birds of prey circulating above, plus what I think was a Coyote with a fresh kill in its mouth, distracted me from the challenge of getting the bike round the next tight bend in the road.
By the next half-hour I was starting to consider the possibility a slightly longer journey. And after a break for a desperately needed drink at the Miner’s Diner in tiny Julian CA, I finally decided to keep going and see how far I could get before dark. The unexpected gift of a large piece of scrumptious home-made apple pie (shades of Twin Peaks) certainly helped cheer my mood.
Fortunately, thanks to a suggestion at the conference by fellow librarian biker Jill Strand, I was now in possession of a Butler Motorcycle map of Southern California. This showed all the best (windiest and traffic free) roads in the area, and I used it to plot a scenic route towards Las Vegas. Early on I learned two important things about Californian roads. One, they are very poorly signposted, with an assumption you have satellite navigation, or are a local and know where you are going. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop and ask for directions. Two, when the warning sign on the approach to a corner says 10mph it means 10mph (for me on the Road King anyway). The first couple of times I used my UK tactic of adding 10mph going into the corner, and nearly didn’t make it around the bend at all. After a couple more heart-stopping moments I followed the signs advice religiously.
The scenery on the way up through Warner Springs and on to Hemet was stunningly beautiful. Alternating from wild scrubland to horse ranch prairies with exotic names such as Sycamore Canyon Stables and Paradise Valley Ranch. The next challenge was finding my way through Hemet and on to the San Bernardino National Forest. After many miles of almost deserted highways, the road gradually became urbanised and busy with traffic. Once again there were no signs other than for the individual streets I was crossing. At a set of traffic lights I asked a likely looking pick-up truck driver for help. He said ‘just keep going straight forward’, so I did. Five miles later the buildings and traffic began to lessen, and then I was back out on my own again in the wild country.
This time the road climbed up into the quaint Cherry Valley and back down into Yucaipa. It was time for more fuel before heading up into the mountains again in search of Big Bear Lake. Despite being a city of over 50,000 people, it took me ages to find a working gas station. Finally I found a shiny new one with the owner on-hand inspecting his pride and joy. Unfortunately for me I was a week too early, and I left the forecourt with his repeated refrain ringing in my ears, ‘come back next week, when we are open’.
After locating what seemed to be the only functioning gas station in town, I asked for directions again with my trusty map to hand. Sadly the woman on the till only knew the way to the nearest interstate and nothing more. I could see where the mountains were beyond the edge of town, so headed in that direction. After a confident start the dual carriageway turned into a single highway, and then rather abruptly it ended somewhat like the photo below.
I struggled to turn the bike around and once again I searched for a likely looking local to ask for directions. This time I struck gold and was given clear instructions which worked. However, I experienced the same slightly odd phenomenon of the road gradually becoming less urban, and then quite suddenly I was out on my own again.
This time the road wound its way steeply up towards Onyx Peak at nearly 9,000 feet high. The air cooled noticeably and there was a delicious scent of mountain pine. The regular signs warning of rock-falls helped me concentrate on the road ahead though. It was around this time I became aware of the particular style of acknowledgement from other Harley riders. Back the UK about half the bike coming the other way will give a nod or a cursory wave. But in the US it is more a stretched out arm with a couple of fingers pointed. All done in the most casual style to ensure ‘coolness’ is maintained. Needless to say there is a video explaining it all in detail on YouTube.
As I wound my way down the mountain to Big Bear Lake, I wondered if the name was still pertinent. I it probably was, so decided not to stop and investigate the size of the furry inhabitants.
Next stop was the gas station in Big Bear, which had no gas, (I could see a pattern starting to emerge). But it did have ‘rest rooms’ and desperately needed water to combat the dehydrating heat. Another tip of ‘just keep on this road’ took me out of town and up into spectacular views east towards the desert and somewhere over the horizon Las Vegas itself.
Some more 10mph corners led down to dusty scrubland plains dotted with occasional houses. Cars were now down to less than one a mile, so I hoped the bike wouldn’t leave me stranded here, or that I would veer onto the sandy edge of the road and crash. With the sun setting in the west I cranked up the big lumpy engine and headed north towards Barstow and Interstate 15.
I reasoned I would be able to cope riding in the dark on the brightly lit motorway. This turned out to be a bit optimistic as the road wasn’t lit. But the sheer volume of traffic including great big Peterbilt and Kenworth eighteen-wheelers showed the way ahead. Once I hit the interstate I managed to work out how to get the cruise control working, and at last was able to give my right-hand some much needed rest. As by this time my fingers were starting to go numb from the engine vibrations. Much like at home in the UK, the 70mph speed limit meant 80mph in practice. And although the bike would definitely have gone faster with a quoted top speed of 110mph, I didn’t feel safe over 75 or so. This meant I was battered by a constant flow of big rigs cruising past with blasts of turbulence in their wake. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, powerful gusts of wind coming across from the desert were buffeting me. So I was in constant fear of getting blown off the bike. The bike itself remained unruffled and brushed off every eddy and gust with barely a reaction. Finally the great weight and plodding engine started to make sense.
I needed one more fill-up to make it to Vegas, so stopped in Baker just short of the Nevada border. Even in the dark I could see there wasn’t much to the town apart from gas stations and fast food joints. A recommendation from the petrol pump attendant sent me down to the Mad Greek which was much like the ubiquitous American burger joint, but with a Greek twist. I ordered a large coffee and ate a self-destructing burger while admiring their odd list of famous Greeks (plus honorary Greeks such as Winston Churchill), whilst contemplating my remaining 100 miles.
Powered by the coffee and with cruise control set to 70mph, I made it on to Primm, a very poor substitute for Las Vegas (smaller and tackier) just over the state border. As I piled on the miles I began to detect a glow in the distant sky, which I hoped would be the lights of my destination. Soon I could see a beam of light pointing skyward from what turned out to be the Luxor hotel. Gradually the familiar sights of Las Vegas came into view and I turned off the interstate for a cruise up and down the famous Vegas strip.
Having been down to the Stratosphere Tower and back I decided to chance my arm on getting a cheap room at the source of the beam of light which had guided me in to town. It was midnight by now, but the streets were still busy with traffic and drunken pedestrians, with a surprising number of them UK Northerners. A little gentle negotiating with the friendly receptionist from Chicago resulted in a $40 room (plus taxes of course), plus the $20 drinks voucher for spending in the hotel bars. A desperately needed shower and change had me back out on the streets by 1am, once I had used up my drinks voucher on a Mai Tai cocktail. Things were a bit quieter now with families with really quite young children in tow making their way back to their rooms.
Some of these children looked as young as eight and needless to say looked as tired as I felt. I manage to make it half-way along the strip, gawping at the bold architectural statements lining the road, each one more outrageous than the next. Despite the bright neon lights and in some cases pyrotechnics competing for my attention, it was the balletic splendour of the Bellagio Fountains that made the biggest impression. Sadly the Harley Davidson café was closed so I wasn’t able to ask about the incongruous Harley hedges growing outside. I couldn’t resist stopping to chat to a group of friendly Vegas bikers lined up next the road. We briefly compared notes on the various Harley models now that I was an ‘expert’ on the Road King after one day of riding.
Just a few yards from home I bumped into a man holding a sign (a common sight in America) offering ten minutes of reflexology for ten dollars. As a fan of its restorative qualities I couldn’t resist, and was led to a dark and sweaty room populated by a pack of drunken northerner Brits spending their last dollars on this treat. I resisted my therapists attempts to extend my treatment in exchange for another $10, and headed back to the Luxor for some desperately needed sleep.
I was now starting to worry about meeting my 5pm deadline for returning the bike the following day, so left the curtains open to let the sun help wake me up. I neglected to check what time the sun rises Nevada in June so was woken at 6am by the bright morning light. I couldn’t get back to sleep properly so packed away and prepared to set off back to San Diego. First stop was the gas station across from the hotel, where I noticed a group of Volvo cars all with laptops on the front seat. As a Volvo owner myself I quizzed one of the drivers and discovered they were company men from Sweden testing out secret new features on the cars. I wondered what they thought of life on the desert roads around Las Vegas.
I decided the only safe way to get back in time was to stick to interstate 15 all the way across towards Los Angeles and then down to San Diego. A stop for fuel back in Baker in the heat of the early morning had me tempted by the Alien Beef Jerky store, but I had no additional room on board the bike.
Next stop was Victorville where I refuelled my body with a large coffee and small burger from local favourite fast food chain the In-N-Out Burger. A California based alternative take on the ubiquitous burger restaurant where the burgers are cooked to order, and the staff are paid more than the state minimum.
I was starting to get fed up of the persistent heat, humidity and increasing volumes of traffic on the interstate, and decided to head for what I hoped would be a cooler route along the Pacific coast. The bikers map showed a gold standard road winding over the Santa Anna Mountains to the ocean and Interstate 5 the Pacific Highway. I managed to find the turn-off despite a severe lack of signage, but soon got lost in the back streets of Perris. Once again I asked a likely looking local in a pick-up truck ‘which way to the Pacific?’ His response was (cue the hillbilly accent), ‘the Pacific? … I don’t know!’ Considering it was just twenty or thirty miles away through the hills, I was not impressed. I tried again with a younger version, and this time was pointed in the right direction with the warning that it was ‘dangerous up there in the hills’. Apart from the risk of not making it around one of the tight bends, I couldn’t see what he was worried about. But it seems many of the locals never stray far from the main highways.
However, it was slow going on this beautifully scenic and windy route up through Caspers Regional Park, and I began to worry again about missing my deadline. After more minimalist road signage, I managed to find the Pacific Highway and headed south in heavy traffic. Fortunately I was right about the temperate and revelled in the cool ocean breeze. It took thirty miles before I encountered a sign telling me how far I had left to San Diego. It was 53 miles and I had an hour and half to make it. I began to relax and allowed myself a quick stop at Aliso Creek viewpoint, which also happened to be a naval helicopter training site. So I spent five minutes being buzzed by Huey helicopters and having my photo taken.
With just ten miles to go, I rode into the worst traffic jam I had encountered on the entire trip. The cars were trickling along at five miles an hour, and soon my stress levels were up, as I wondered if the staff would stay on and wait for me after 5pm. Just as I was starting to panic, the sign for San Diego Old Town appeared and I left the motorway jam behind me. Luckily I recognised the tram depot from my taxi ride out the previous day, so was able to quickly home in on the Eagle Rider depot where Andy was waiting for me. I looked at the clock and discovered I had arrived back with just ten minutes to spare. I think Andy was almost as surprised as me that the bike had come through unscathed. Sadly I I couldn’t say the same about my numb wrist and badly aching bum.
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