Scenes from the road in the UK – 1

London. This is my first overseas trip beyond Asia and my first chance to meet face to face with some of our sister organisations from other countries. We land as the sun is rising in a clear sky. I take the shuttle bus to my hotel on the South Bank and along the way get to experience so many quintessentially London sights – unarmed bobbies in traditional helmets patrolling in pairs, Marble Arch, Parliament, men in bowler hats striding with furled umbrellas, school students with blazers and straw boater hats and the cavalcade goes on.

It turns out my room won’t be available until late afternoon so I go for a walk in search of lunch, preferably with a pub attached. I find just such a pub, with a beer garden overlooking the Thames and breast the bar. I ask the barman for a beer and, hearing my Australian accent, he presumes I’d like a Fosters. I tell him I haven’t travelled half-way around the world to drink our world-famous cat’s piss and would he be so kind as to educate me in the ways of English beers. He points out that they have forty beers on tap and another hundred brands of bottled beer. I tell him to start with A and we’ll see how far I get after I’ve finished my fish and chips.

Only a few hardy souls are braving the beer garden with its unseasonal scorching 25 degree Celsius heat, the majority of customers having taken refuge inside. I savour the magic of being in London on a sun-drenched day, sipping on a beer and watching the Thames and its traffic go by. After enough savouring and imbibing of cleansing ales, I return to the hotel. As I undress from my flight clothes to revel in a hot shower I realise I’ve actually got sunburnt. In England. In October. Fully cleansed, I lie on the bed, naked, like a nude pink whale-calf and close my eyes for a brief snooze. I am on the outskirts of the Land of Nod when the door opens and a young man enters to re-stock the mini-bar. It’s a line ball as to whom is the most taken aback but I am too tired to care and rollover to resume my nap.

The next morning I arrive at the conference venue and approach the registration desk. I give my name and the young woman behind the desk says ‘Oh, yes, you owe us some money.’ I say “Let’s rewind and start that again. First you say ‘Hello and welcome to the conference. You must be very tired after your long flight. There’s just some details we need to sort out and then you can mingle with the other delegates.” She clearly thinks I’m some sort of difficult nutter and looks around for assistance from her colleagues. An American woman (who will become a great friend and colleague for many years to come) joins us and suggests the young woman take a coffee break. She waits until the lass is out of earshot before she laughs and says ‘Welcome to civilisation, fellow colonial’.

Manchester. I’ve pre-booked my train trip to Manchester. Virgin have taken over the trains and are trying to translate their hip chumminess from the skies to the ground and it is not going well. A cavernous entry hall is packed with people watching electronic display boards to find which platform to go to. The allocation of said platforms seems to be a cross between a sick joke and a lottery, punctuated by posses of people darting towards platforms as numbers are posted or groaning because their train’s departure is delayed or cancelled. These people soon discover there are no seats provided in this waiting room from Hell.

Ensconced on board, the glorious English countryside unfolds mile after mile, bathed in weak but brave sunlight. As we approach the outskirts of Manchester it lives up to its reputation as it begins to rain and never stops while I am there. But I take home with me the fond memory of a scrumptious meal of the local specialty, fish and chips and mushie peas, which (if I’m honest) was the real motivation for this side trip anyway.

Canary Wharf, London. All is going well in my ride in that most civilised of vehicles, a traditional London cab, until we are confronted by a roadblock manned by Police. A major demonstration has blocked almost every thoroughfare from here on. I explain to the cabbie that I have to get to this meeting, one that’s been scheduled months ahead with an important contact who’s flying out later this afternoon. ‘Do me best, sir’ he says and manages to do a u-turn in the space of a shoe-box. A few minutes later he turns the wrong way up a one-way street and we are almost home free when an impressively large policeman steps of the kerb and holds up his hand in a stop sign. The cabbie winds down his window and says ‘Look I know I’ve done the wrong fing but my passenger’s an old feller who’s got an appointment for an urgent operation on his leg and if he don’t get there he’ll have to wait munfs for his next chance. Do us a favor mate?’ I try my best to look old and in agony and the copper relents. We make the meeting venue just in time. I thank him profusely and offer him a generous tip but he refuses, saying ‘All part of the service, mate, and besides my mates won’t half get a larf out of this story.’

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