Tag Archives: holiday

My philosophy of life and an invitation to see mountains of bidets in Stoke

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Lewis Schaffer, macho American comic and philosophy lover

Yesterday, American comedian Lewis Schaffer Tweeted:

Words to live by – @thejohnfleming’s greatest quote – “It’s better to do something than to try nothing”

I am grateful for the publicity and would reciprocate by going to see him perform at Vivienne & Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One comedy club tonight, where he is appearing with Brian Damage & Krysstal et al – bound to be a great night (even if I am blatantly plugging it) – but I am off on a train to the Leicester Comedy Festival today where I am on a panel tomorrow morning allegedly talking about what has happened to British comedy in the last twenty years.

I’m buggered if I know.

But Pull The Other One supremo Martin Soan has, I think, tried to hoist me with my own “It’s better to do something than to try nothing” petard.

Martin Soan performs at Pull The Other One

Martin Soan offers to take me up a canal

“You and I should go on a barging holiday for a week,” Martin told me yesterday.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” said Martin. “I do all the barging. I do all the cooking. And you just sit on your computer and you blog.”

“About what?” I asked. “About you barging?”

“Well,” said Martin. “I’ll be telling you stories. But also you’ll be sailing at six miles an hour – roughly two miles an hour faster than walking speed – which is very good for contemplation and creativity. So, yeah, what a brilliant idea that is, don’t you think?”

“Would I have an internet connection?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t need one, would you,” enthused Martin, “because you’d be writing it all.”

“But I would have to send out the blogs to my many millions of fascinated readers,” I said.

“They’ve got WiFi out in pubs now, man,” insisted Martin. “You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t go to Soho or see any comedy shows.”

“What need have I of comedy shows if I have you as a bargee?” I observed.

“I tell you,” said Martin, “there’s lots of blogs. I know a bloke who almost killed himself on a barging holiday.”

“Is this a selling point?” I asked.

“It was a mate of mine who used to work in the wine trade,” continued Martin. “So he was a bit pissed, because they’d taken loads of bottles of wine and beer on this barge and they were all wine traders and this tunnel came up and he thought it would be really good to lie on top of the barge and watch the brickwork go past.

“So he’s lying on the top and the tunnel came up and, after a few metres, he felt the first scrape on his rather extended pot belly, realised he could be in trouble, so dug his heels and fingernails in and managed to inch his way back and fell off into where the tiller is.

“Just imagine the indignity of your life, dying by being scraped to death on a barging holiday.”

“So,” I said, “ you are trying to persuade me to go on a barging holiday where it’s possible to die a terrible death?”

“No,” said Martin, “you’ll just sit down in the hold on your computer.”

“But I’ll hate the countryside,” I said. “It’ll be nothing but fish and wet things. Where would this barge go from and to?”

“The best one is the Grand Union Canal,” Martin told me. “It goes from just outside London to Birmingham, up though countryside.”

“Why would I want to go into countryside on a barge for a week? I hate the countryside. At night, you’re surrounding by animals ripping out each others throats in the dark.”

“It’s a perfect environment for you to do a blog,” said Martin.

“About you,” I said.

“About stories I’ve got to tell,” said Martin. “If you spent a week with me, then all the stories I’ve forgotten about would come out, wouldn’t they? Plus you’d be going through interesting places. Industrial heartlands like Birmingham or Stoke.”

“Stoke?” I asked. “I want to go to Stoke? I’ve been to Stoke. It was closed.”

“But Stoke,” said Martin, getting enthusiastic, “has bizarre, surreal countryside along the canal with all the Potteries. You get mountains of bidets.”

A bidet, of a type visible from Stoke canal

A bidet, of a type reportedly visible from a canal near Stoke

“Have you been on a barging holiday before?” I asked.

“Never,” he replied. “I’ve been canoeing and I’ve walked along loads of canals.”

“So,” I said, “you are trying to persuade me to go on a potentially fatal trip on a barge steered by a bloke who’s never been on one before.”

“It’s only fatal if you lie on the roof.”

“I have a pot belly. That’s the only detail I paid attention to,” I said. “Why do you want to go on this trip?”

“Because I’ve never done it. I’d love to go on a barging holiday. Canals through industrial areas are like rural motorways.”

“Why is Stoke surrounded by discarded bidets?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Martin, “when they cast every dozen bidets, one may be imperfect, so they put it outside. When I walked along the canal through Stoke, there were mountains of toilets and mountains of sinks. It looked bizarre.”

“You’ve got my interest,” I said, “but there’s still the problem that it’s the countryside. If I can’t go to a cornershop at 10.55 at night and get a bar of chocolate, I come out in hives.”

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No free trips to Egypt, but Mongolia is highly recommended

As an addendum to yesterday’s blog about the Destinations holiday show at Earls Court… there were competitions aplenty for free holidays but strangely not on the Egypt stand – the one country you might think could currently benefit from competitions to attract punters to come.

And there were two stands touting the joys of Mongolia… but there were no punters at them.

I think that’s the punters’ loss. Ulan Bator has a lot going for it. When I was there, they had an impressive statue of Joseph Stalin and the only shop I found in several thousand miles selling Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

These things matter when you travel.

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Dangerous holidays in quirky places

The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.

About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.

“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.

I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.

“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.

“Ah,” I replied.

I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.

Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).

Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.

Now that’s my kinda ruler!

You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.

Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.

Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.

I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.

People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.

Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.

I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.

I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.

I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.

At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.

Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed,  “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.

On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.

A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”

Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.

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