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Monday, 24 March 2014

Hogtown Diaries, Part Three (and featuring a guest appearance from The Hammer): Fox-trotting with the Polar Vortex

Growing up in England, snow was a rare bird. When it came the nation rejoiced. Well the kids did. A chance to frolic and play in a new kind of nature, raid the carrot drawer for that snowman’s nose ~ and often bag a day off school.

Even those who loved school danced on the (snowcapped) rooftops, secretly craving a break-from-the-norm. The adults enjoyed the scenery, watching their kids play and chuckling at the mandatory traffic chaos. Providing they weren’t caught up in it.

One way or another, the excitement was palpable.

But the snow spells didn’t last. We blinked and, as fast as they came, they’d gone again.

In Canada, of course, winters are ~ on the whole ~ a different story.

My first seven years as an adopted Canuck were out west, where B.C.’s rainy winters mirrored England’s. A little depressing at times, but more a mental test.

Out east, as people would often remind me, the climate’s a tad cooler.

As I can now verify.

In a nutshell... it’s been FREAKIN’ COLD! Granted this season’s been one for the ages ~ but still. Nothing could quite prepare me for what lay in store.

~  ~  ~

I mainly travel by foot right now ~ so daily tasks, such as grabbing groceries, have come with unique challenges.

This past December and January I was living in downtown Toronto, on the crust of Little Italy. Scuttling back from Mirvish Village during a blizzard, lugging several bags of shopping as the bone-gnawingly chilly wind howled like a lonely werewolf and mucus gushed from each nostril like a Niagara fall, forced me to dig deep. First for a foot-long Kleenex. Then an extra layer of resolve.

I felt my fingers turning blue as my army camouflage Honest Ed specials caved under the pressure of keeping my hands warm. Or at least a degree of blood circling.

Things rose to a new level on a recent trip in my new hometown, Hamilton. Power-walking back from Fortino’s, I made a restaurant pit-stop and howled in agony as I defrosted my durable digits. The eatery’s owners must have wondered who on earth they’d (very kindly) ushered into their washroom. This was a new kind of washing.

I’m an avid runner and train almost daily. Aside from a trio of ice-heavy days during the Polar Vortex stretch, I’ve braved the elements ~ however Arctic-like they’ve been.

Ploughing through the teeth of a freezing flurry, my eyelashes often formed icicles during an easy 10. I had to prise them open with garden shears after surviving the expedition, squirrels scampering for their lives as mini-shards of ice pinged randomly into the cityscape.

On two successive runs in December I grew a stalactite on my chin ~ C for chin as opposed to ceiling ~ after drooling for umpteen miles into my freezing balaclava. I resembled a 17th Century poet who’d time-travelled back to the Ice Age.

~  ~  ~

I’ve been in Hamilton over seven weeks now and am impressed how the city handles the cold. Rolling up its metaphorical sleeves and embracing the challenge.

During my first week we had a fresh batch of snow. Gearing up for a run as darkness fell, I expected challenging conditions. How wrong I was. Most of the floodlit streets were bordered by blissfully ploughed sidewalks. Like freshly shorn sheep or beautifully sculpted art. I’d had a magical route carved out for me by a generous blend of man and machine working in orchestral-like harmony. It was very cool. In every sense.

Our biggest foe, of course, in tackling the freezing froid is the ice. If you’re good on skates it helps. I grew up gliding around on studs (cleats) ~ not blades ~ but have tapped into my inner Charles Hamelin (during his first Sochi 2014 event) these past few months to develop Olympic-like prowess on the slippery stuff. It’s served me well.

To the Ontarians, and every other Canadian province whose folk strap shovels to their backs and stoically endure these eyeball-popping spells year-after-year, I salute you.

Because, make no bones about it, these winters are an endurance sport ~ and this one’s been an Arctic version of America’s Badwater Ultra-Marathon (thankfully our Witney Portal ~ spring ~ is now in sight... PLEASE GOD!).

But I’m glad I’ve gone toe-to-toe with it.

Experiencing my first full-ON Ontarian winter I’ve found out what I’m made of.

That skinny white boys from Her Majesty’s fair isle can stoically adapt.

And that you can look bad-ass in tights.

Providing you add a balaclava or three.


Monday, 20 January 2014

Life Jim, But Not as we Know it ~ Part Two

AGED 13: Move to England's south-west ~ Glozzurrrrsheeeerrr, to be precise. Our family causes a rumpus in the sleepy hamlet of Quarhouse as we move into our new home: Spring Cottage. Who knew a big, fat removal truck wouldn't squeeze down a country lane the width of Mick Jagger's waist? I also quickly make an impression at my new school St. Peter's High (Gloucester) when I park my butt in Anthony Holmes's seat for Mr. Fleming's maths class. Anthony returns from a school skiing trip to Italy and politely asks me to shift a place over. I oblige and we become fast friends ~ remaining so to this day. Despite now living 4,500 miles apart.

AGED 14: Head to Saint-Brieuc in Brittany (northwestern France) on the annual Third Year exchange. My pen-pal is Eric ~ a year older and about a foot taller than the rest of us. And most of humankind, for that matter. Eric had to repeat a year (something our Gallic educator friends were pretty hot on) though I'm not sure whether this was due to screwing up exams or absenteeism. Rumour has it Eric made a great sideline terrorizing local communities ~ just for fun, of course ~ as a life-size Godzilla impersonator. One trip highlight ~ like literally a 'high'-light ~ was my kamikaze walk around the castle walls atop Mont St. Michel. A 400-foot drop to sinking sand was never more than a few inches away. What was I thinking? Well mainly... how can I most impress Delphine? The fair French maiden I had the hots for. Was she impressed? Not a jot. Just thought I was a pocket-sized lunatic. I also experience another rush-of-blood to the head (not fuelled by flaming loins this time, as I recall) when we go awanderin' in Saint-Brieuc's back country and attempt to cross a river via stepping stones. There's one jump that's tantalizingly out of reach. Or is it? Eric, whose stilt-like legs ensured he only had to step across, goads me into going for it. I can't resist. "Easy!" I lie. "Watch this!" I focus hard, summon all my courage and... soar like a salmon, making the jump. "See! Told you I could--" ... SPLASH! I hadn't accounted for the forward momentum. "The water's GREAT. Coming in? Anyone got a towel?"

AGED 15: Pass GCSE maths a year early (aged 15) though freak out after my result (a Grade C) gets lost in the mail. Looking back, this seems a slight over-reaction. After a summer assembling jewellery cabinets and playing Tetris with cardboard boxes (for my parents' design business), the Fifth year ~ and bulk of my GCSE exams ~ pulls into view. I start a paper round just before Christmas (1988). Perfectly timed... Yuletide tips! My maiden route took me through nearby Bourne ~ more village with a small 'v' ~ before I graduated to one featuring Bourne with a dash of France Lynch. Not sure if there was Gallic significance to the latter's name. Though, to be fair, I rarely plunged into the heart of Lynch's bosom. One theory, going back an age or three, claims the town's folk were famously 'lynched' by the fearsome Gloucestershire mob ~ led by Chip Cooper ~ who tied them all to a giant cheese before rolling them down a nearby hill. The move ignited a craze that's held firm to this day.

AGED 16: Two months before my GCSEs, I discover golf. I don't remember the exact moment this happened ~ though it may have been watching Nick Faldo win his maiden Masters in 1989. Or perhaps it was arch-rival and fellow Brit Sandy Lyle getting up-&-down from a bunker 150 miles (OK, more yards) out to become the first Brit to bag a celebrated Green Jacket 12 months earlier. Lyle's carefully choreographed victory jig was one for the ages. We had a golf course (Minchinhampton Old) located on the other side of the valley (to Quarhouse) and my buddy Marc and I spend countless hours sneaking onto the Par 5 12th, when no-one's looking. Mainly to evade our nemesis, the membership warden. "Are we members? Absolutely! Not of this golf course... per se. But of something I'm sure. Let me get back to you on that." We hiked up Brimscombe hill whenever we could, hitting balls with an old half-set of clubs Marc had been donated. This was something of a calamitous development for my academic career. Around this time I also bag my first proper Saturday job: kitchen assistant at Diner's Den. Free pizza (of my choice) for lunch made it all worthwhile. Back when wheat and I got along.

AGED 17: I fail the first of four driving tests (in the UK). My lean towards perfectionism was an issue. Well, that and mowing down an old-age pensioner (JOKE! The mowing was more of an upward motion). It's also true that the pressure and intimidation factor compounded with each test. Finally, beta-blockers came to my rescue on Test #5. That and NOT mowing down an old lady (JOKE! She wasn't that old).  I've now taken seven driving tests ~ including two in Canada ~ so it's become something of a part-time hobby. Also bag a job at the Debenhams (department store) restaurant, Intermissions.

AGED 18: Realize my golf addiction has got slightly out of hand, after I essentially flunk my A-Levels. D-E-N were my grades. Did actually get an A for my English Lit coursework. But that was only worth a third of the total mark. Which shows I really F'd up the exam. Like actually earned an F. Though my provisional place at the College of Ripon & York St. John has now gone for a Burton (I needed B-C-D to get in), I am still able to nab a college place ~ through Clearing: Computer Science with French at Staffordshire Polytechnic.

AGED 19: After a year in Stafford ~ I was able to switch from (computer) science to the arts two weeks in ~ my department moves to Stoke. So I'm forced to relocate. End up in the front room of a sloping house in the suburb of Etruria. Park Lane this wasn't. Housemates Eric & Ernie keep me entertained. Eric freely admits he's only here to drink. Alcohol, I mean. And he would graduate with Honours.

AGED 20: Flunk university exams and return to the family's new home in Hardwicke, Gloucester, where I work a night at a milk factory before bagging a part-time gig at a diesel injector factory. My buddy Ant calls it "making flutes". Which I think was pretty close. Get promoted to 'machine operator' and end up spending 18 months at Stonehouse-based Lucas EUI Systems. Mainly work evenings, so I can pursue my golf dream.

AGED 21: Get my handicap down to 8, but this doesn't cut the mustard. Realizing I'd now need to get a 'proper' job/career, I reignite the journalism dream. Submit a golf course guide I'd written to one of the local Gloucestershire weeklies (the Stroud News & Journal, where I'd done work experience at school). They call me up and get me to cover a rugby match the following Saturday. My report is the back-page lead the following week. No doubt a slow week for sport, but a feather in my shiny new journalist's cap. The following week, my golf course guide (to Painswick) makes it to the back page. I get referred to the Glos Citizen ~ more specifically Deputy Sports Editor, Terry Palin.

AGED 22: After working essentially as an intern three days a week, my soon-to-be buddy Shep and I are offered the chance to work for three months ~ the Summer of '95 ~ on the Summer Pink 'Un. We're paid 60 quid a week and are now living the dream. Or pretty close. Get to be a roving reporter at the English Open (Forest of Arden). A young buck, Lee Westwood ~ seven days my junior ~ was starting to make his mark on tour. Seemed like he had a lot of potential. Whatever happened to him?

AGED 23: I take the NCTJ Pre-Entry journalism course at GLOSCAT, needing this to earn a full-time slot at The Citizen. Meet buddies Steve, Nat and Jon (Land) on the course. Steve and I are able to land jobs as reporters on The Citizen ~ though I have to retake one of my exams. Finished top-of-the-class in shorthand though; only guy to pass 120 WPM in teeline (NCTJ requirement was 100). Work on news for three months, before snapping up the chance to replace Mike (Richards) as the Citizen's football reporter. Yippee! Learn how to ski via six lessons at the Matson (Gloucester) dry ski slopes. Spend Yuletide '96 skiing in Austria.

AGED 24: Steve and I train for our first marathon ~ London 1998. We're both doing it for charity; I'm representing Guide Dogs for the Blind and raise 800 GBP for the cause. Raising the sponsorship was tougher than the race--just kidding. It was WAY tougher.

AGED 25: Trying to break four hours in London, I'm a shade outside ~ 4:08. But that first one's all about finishing. Having been a roving reporter, covering Gloucester City then Forest Green Rovers, I leave the Citizen for pastures new: The Western daily Press. Actually finished on the Friday (September 30) and started my new job the next day (covering Swindon Town V QPR).

AGED 26: I run two London Marathons: the first aged 26 and one day (April 18th, 1999); the second, aged 26, 364 days (April 16th, 2000). The former is a disaster, as my festering stomach issues rise to the fore and wreck my day. A creamy pasta dish, doubling as both my birthday and pre-race dinner, is the main culprit. I see the inner decor of too many portapotties this day. Plus, a pub close to the 7-mile mark (somewhere in Woolwich, I recall). Final time is 6:18, after I'm forced to walk most of the way. 363 days later I return to clock 3:41; my first Sub-4-hour time and some kind of redemption.

To be continued...