Wednesday 29 December 2021

Meals On (Two) Wheels: The Full Monty

A culinary wonder in London’s East End

It’d been a while since I’d gone on one of my long cycling jaunts around London. This time around, with the temperature reaching the late 20s (really, September? I thought you were supposed to usher in autumn), I decided to tour the Magnificent Seven. These are seven, Victorian-era cemeteries built on the outskirts of the capital to ease the overcrowding of the existing burial grounds at the time.

I knew I was looking at a 30-mile-plus journey, so stocking up on good, belly-filling food was essential. My first stop was at one of my favourite cafes in London, The Full Monty.

One of the elements The Full Monty (formerly known as The Workers’ Café) has in its favour is its location. It sits far enough from the overpriced restaurants and eateries in Shoreditch, Hackney and Hoxton. Yet, it’s not off the beaten track completely. Situated on Globe Road, it is right next door to the London Buddhist Centre. East End legend, Ray Winstone was born in nearby Plaistow. West Ham United Football Club’s London Stadium is roughly ten to fifteen minutes away on two-wheels.

I was feeling hungry. The ride from Abney Park (where I’d started my seven-cemetery tour) had worked up an appetite in me. I’d have usually gone for the full English, but this time I opted for the full veggie instead. I wasn’t disappointed.

A generous portion of mushrooms, with fried eggs and tomatoes, two hash browns, one vegetarian sausage and two pieces of toast was all I needed to refuel. I belong to the “really well done” brigade, so I chastised myself for not telling the lovely and smiling staff to cook my egg well. Still, it was nice.

Having lived in London for close to 24 years now, I’m always on the lookout for local characters. I’ve never been afraid to strike up conversations with complete strangers, especially when these interactions help me understand an area’s culture better. On this occasion a man turned up dressed in a suit, waistcoat, shirt and tie. He also wore smart shoes. Despite the already-rising temperature, this gentleman seemed at ease with his choice of wardrobe. The way he just strolled into the café, sat at a table and shot a cursory glance at the menu, told me he was a regular. Later on, as I was unlocking my bicycle and getting ready to go, I noticed that he, too, was a cyclist. His frame was parked next to mine. Although we did exchange a few pleasantries (he was having a smoke outside), only when I was riding towards Tower Bridge later on, it occurred to me that I could have stayed behind a while longer and found out a bit about his life.

The total bill at The Full Monty came at £6.50. A snip when you have similar establishments just a mile and a half away, on Cambridge Heath Road that will charge three or four quid more for a similar meal. Although I didn’t have any beverage this time, I’d strongly recommend the mocha here. I’ve had it before and it’s the way I like my mochas: strong (double shot of espresso) and milky. I’ll certainly come back to The Full Monty again. And this time, if Mr Dapper-Man-on-a-Bicycle happens to be there as well, I’ll have my phone ready. There are some stories that need to be recorded and told.

Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner is on sale now

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (2nd August — 3rd September)

Thinking of insects and Unsplash models 

Monday 2nd August — Friday 3rd September 2021

A couple of tiny winged creatures crash against my shades as I ride down the A1, in Barnet. I think back to when I started driving fourteen years ago and this used to be a common occurrence. Insects smashing against the windshield.

I read in the paper the other day that the insect population is in free fall. There are fewer bumblebees, fewer butterflies, fewer of everything we tend to call “creepy crawlies”. This is not only down to the old swat with a newspaper or similar rolled-up publication, but also to the disappearance of an insect-rich wildlife habitat.

In a drive towards economic growth we have sacrificed marshes, tropical rainforests and meadows. Pesticides, whilst having been seen as a godsend at some point, have caused much long-term damage to the environment.

The small nature of insects doesn’t allow us to see how tall in ecological stature they are. They pollinate crops, constitute an active part of the food chain and keep the soil healthy. Without them our planet would slowly, but surely, grind to a halt.

London’s green enough for us, Londoners, to become aware of insects’ importance. Parks and recreation grounds are ten a penny. As a cycling instructor I’m never short of a “Such-and-such Gardens” to run an off-road session.

Another minuscule winged creature smashes against my sunglasses. I stop, take my shades off and shake the little darling off carefully.

I think I hear a “thank you” as I cycle off.

ith some time to kill until my next lesson, my mind wanders off to Medium. I’ve just drafted up another article and whilst choosing a picture from Unsplash to go with my piece I couldn’t help thinking of the models in the photos. What if they also happened to be writers on Medium? What would their reaction be when faced with myriad posts featuring them? In the same poses? Making same gestures? Ad nauseam.

This would be enough, I think, to make anyone waste away like poor Narcissus, eventually winding up as a flower.

Tell you what, though. Some insects would love it.

very rarely listen to Radio 4’s Today programme these days. With no school work because of the summer holidays, all my assignments are cycle skills-related and therefore I can get up later.

However, I had an early lesson today and my landlord had the radio on in the kitchen. I happened to catch the end of an interview with a Tory minister. Funny how Covid has not only wreaked havoc in our lives, but also brought new clichés. As if we were in need of any. For instance, the phrase “if the pandemic has taught anything…”. Every time someone (especially a politician) uses this false promise of a phrase what follows is evidence that people are not learning the lessons being taught. As the first lockdown was winding down last year Last Minute wasted no time to start flogging cheap (airborne) holidays.

Summer 2020 saw Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, promoting his “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. In addition to this ill-thought initiative (it was responsible for ushering in another wave of infections) he encouraged businesses to coax employees back to their offices and shops. Seems like the only lesson this government is interested in learning is how to spend more. Or get people to spend more. Economic recovery. Even if that’s not what the pandemic has taught us.

If the pandemic has taught anything is that we (humans) are not in charge. We’ve never been. We never will be. Nature is. And we’d better learn that lesson before it’s too late.

ve got a few one-to-ones and family cycle skills lined up for the next few weeks. Most are people who either want to get back to cycling for leisure or want to get to work with minimum contact with other commuters. Never thought that a bit of misanthropy would be good for business.

I’m usually asked the same question at the beginning of the lesson: is it safe? (sheepishly, though and not in the terrifying way Laurence Olivier’s Dr Christian Szell voiced it in Marathon Man).

Yes, it’s safe to cycle in London. In fact, it’s safer than many people think. Whilst the current — still-developing — cycle infrastructure is not completely flawless, it’s better than it was ten years ago. The key factor for me is a change of mindset. We, cyclists, are road-users. And everybody else had better get used to that.

Besides, if you’re a driver and leave your car at home, you’ll be doing the environment a world of good. You’ll be contributing to the protection of our environment. Who knows? You might even get a “thank you” from a winged friend.

Monday 13 December 2021

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (11th July — 30th July)

 The England football team lose on penalties and a murder of crows triggers apocalyptic visions

Monday 12th July — Friday 30th July 2021

he mood the morning after the night before is subdued. Unlike last week when we had overexcited zombies instead of riders (many of the children stayed up late to watch England beat Germany in the semi-final of the Euros), this time my co-instructor and I are greeted by a sea of disappointed faces.

England lost again. On penalties. Against a team that didn’t deserve to win (sorry, Italy fans, but your eleven was totally uninspiring). To make matters worse, the racists were out in force againPlus ça change, plus la même chose.

The only consolation was that the kids managed to concentrate more.

elderly man passes us on Mountfield Road riding a Brompton. He’s smartly dressed, even though it’s all bright cycling gear. Colourwise, the effect is more David Hockney’s “California period” than the muted grey of London’s N3 he could have blended in with.

Banter ensues. He also did some cycling training “in my time”. He leaves me savouring that phrase, “in my time”. Continuity. He must be pushing seventy, I gather. I turn back to face the kids and carry on explaining the importance of L-shaping your way around a junction when turning in or turning out.

m still of the opinion that children start in school too early in the UK. This reflects itself on a pattern of low-level disruption in later years. If a Year 5 or 6 child is asked to focus on a task on the road, this requires a certain level of maturity, responsibility and independence. If they’re still transitioning from a “play” stage to a formal “this is how you hold your pencil” one between Reception and Year 2, you can bet your bottom dollar that some will be left behind. These are the ones still “catching up” when they get to the top end of primary school.

I think that if children started writing and doing phonics at age seven or eight instead of five or six, they’d have more time to play and understand the importance of play not just at their age but throughout their lives. Picking up a pencil in order to draw squiggles on a piece of paper when they’re still too young should take a back seat to getting their hands dirty while mucking about with other kids.

hen the roads are deceitfully quiet as they are today, children suddenly acquire a sense of false confidence. For a cycling instructor this situation might be manna from heaven (no grumpy drivers to deal with, for starters!), but in reality you want some challenging traffic your young charges will have to deal with.

hen I told children today that we’d ordered a fleet of vehicles to travel up and down the roads where they were going to do their drills if traffic calmed down too much, some believed me. Some people might think this cruel, but to me it denotes the importance of keeping an innocent mind for as long as possible.

fter Sunday’s evening thunderstorms, Monday morning feels as fresh as if the world’s been made anew. Last night the tap-tap-tapping on my window sounded as if nature was weeping on us in biblical proportions. Quite apposite, I thought, as Glasgow gets ready to host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in the autumn.

very time I hear a church tolling its bells (I’m sure it was the one in Crouch End this time), I’m reminded of the Catholic church near which I grew up in Havana. Did its bells ever toll? I can’t remember now. I think it unlikely, though. What with Fidel’s well-known approach to Christianity. There was no other God but him.

arly morning and I’m waiting for a trainee in Lordship Rec, Tottenham, north London. Two dozen crows descend upon the four or five light green refuse bags that crowd around one of the bins outside the Hub, the volunteer-run café. Like a scene from a Hitchcock film, the birds apply themselves to ripping the bags with their pickaxe beaks with strong determination and fervour, trying to get at whatever they can find inside.

Metallica’s The Call of Ktulu appears in my head all of a sudden as the soundtrack to the spectacle unfolding before my eyes. As Hetfield and Hammett move up the scales, the corvids’ feeding frenzy increases, interrupted occasionally by the odd runner, walker, pram-pushing parent or two-wheel rider. There’s a lot of shoving and get-out-of-my-way attitude amongst the birds, and harsh, loud cries. These are the same crows that have always been regarded as a menace by farmers. Their bodies shot and nailed to barn doors. Then, there’s that word “scarecrow”. Not that I’m likely to run into such old-clothed figure here, on the Rec. But with their big, scrawny feet bouncing across the grass, and their high-pitched, shrill calls, crows elicit revulsion in some people. In the same way they’re tearing the refuse bags now, they’re also capable of tearing flesh.

My trainee arrives. She, too, scares them away momentarily with her bicycle. As we move towards the traffic model area, I turn around one last time. I notice a look of defiance and pride coming from one of them. As if it were telling me that should all or most birds disappear, they’d be the last ones to go. If, that is, they did go. I don’t know why, but it somehow feels reassuring.

Friday 10 December 2021

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (Week 5th July — 9th July)

Taking ownership of your learning is the only way to enjoy the challenge


Not a lamp, but a sky-tickling, Victorian-era, rusty stinkpipe

Week Monday 5th July — Friday 9th July 2021

“Back, forward, back” might sound like the slogan of a government that’s dilly-dallied over Covid, but the phrase is actually part of cycling training’s lingo. It’s what a rider does before executing a U-turn.

It takes time for our young charges to adopt our language, let alone our practices, but it’s ever so interesting to see the intention there, on their anxious-looking faces. Many of these kids have been cycling for years, and yet, the concepts we introduce, the techniques we discuss and the tips we give them, carry a magic that spellbinds them. Well, most of the time and most of them.

thers are just as happy riding their BMXs in the local park, hands off the handlebars, bums off their seats.

elivering cycling training in a school exposes you to some “colourful” language. The type many people can’t conceive teachers and school staff ever using. Nevertheless, this exposure validates their humanity in my eyes. As someone who was in the same environment for eleven years, I’ve got utmost respect for anyone who throws their lot in with educators. Even if that means putting up with the “f” word bandied about gratuitously.

ore than cycling, it is language training what we deliver sometimes. We live in a world of cars, not traffic and masculinised drivers (he/him/his). Since I started working as a cycling instructor my intention has been to revolutionise the way we see the road. That’s why I employ the term “road users”, not cars, “they” instead of “he” or even the longer-sounding “he or she”. The mythical creature we’ve created to explain that when pulling in on the left side of the road (as it should be. After all, we drive and cycle on the left in the UK), we must look over our left shoulder, is “pizza delivery person”.

Let the anti-woke brigade call me politically correct. If they’re handing out badges, I want mine.

what moment of the learning process do you let go? Never mind if you are an English language teacher or cycling instructor, like me. An adult learner (as I have been) or a child. And when mistakes are made, do we look back and say, we could have done more? Or is it more about our learners taking ownership of the material they’re given?

Once we leave the safe confines of the school and start our on-road training, there’s very little we can do when our young trainees make the wrong choice. Even when the training is playground-based, there’s not a lot we can assist them with. Especially when they’re in the top tier of the school, Years 5 and 6. We cannot ride their bicycles for them. And I wouldn’t, given the chance.

The most beautiful part of learning is when the challenge doesn’t become easier, but more appealing. Damn, you actually start enjoying the challenge, the getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone feeling. That’s the moment that’ll stick with us.

t’s not that I don’t mind that that Deliveroo rider cut in in front of me, or that he jumped a red, or that he zigzagged so perilously around pedestrians on the pavement later. I do mind that. But what I mind above all, is that he stayed on the same gear going up Holloway Road, Highgate-bound. Mate, change to a bloody lower gear! That way you won’t have to get off your seat.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (Week 28th June — 2nd July)

In north London, I find a road with its own inferiority complex 

Week Monday 28th June — Friday 2nd July

Of the four core functions in cycling training (observation, position, communication and priority), both position and priority are the harder for adult learners to take in. We’re so used to giving way to motor vehicles that any attempt to reclaim our right on the road is seen as a threat.

When I explain to trainees that the primary position, i.e., riding in the middle of their lane, away from parked car doors, is one of the ways to keep safe and visible, they look at me as if I’m crazy. Yet, how are we to challenge motorists’ hegemony if we don’t start by reclaiming our roads?

It’s the same reaction I get when I tell them that as soon as they begin their cycle journey they become road-users. That means that should traffic appear all of a sudden, coming from the opposite direction, the cyclist still has priority. And yet, time and time again, I see the same response. Trainee pulls over (not even pulls in on the visibility line, but disappears completely from the traffic flow) to give way to, most of the time, a car.

Methinks we need an updated version of Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso’s famous “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”, but with the word “cycling” instead.

We’ll leave the bonnet-banging out, though.

ther than London and Havana, I’ve never lived in another capital. It follows, then, that I could be biased in favour of my adopted city. Although I know that most metropolises have well-established immigrant communities with their own network of restaurants offering authentic cuisine, I doubt that they have the same multicultural mix we have on a stretch of road like Green Lanes, for instance. Vietnamese, Turkish and Italian (to name but three countries) eateries vie for the visitor’s attention. You only get a real sense of how diverse this city when you walk or cycle past these restaurants and you get hit by the smells emanating from them.

his is where you’ll be based for this week. This is Year 6’s self-contained area where we encourage their independence.” These are the words you don’t want to hear when you first turn up for your new school assignment on a damp Monday morning.

Last time I was in this school was almost twenty years ago. So much has changed. For instance, they certainly didn’t have a self-contained area for any year group back then.

I left my lunch in the fridge reluctantly. It was all right in the end, though. My only gripe was that the chairs were child-designed. There’s not much joy in (almost) crouching down on a plastic seat after cycling around a school on nearby roads with a mixed-ability group of riders.

uring training today I became distracted by a half dozen swifts flying over us. Pirouetting around like little kites in the sky. Luckily, the kids didn’t catch me looking up. There’d have been a lot of explaining to do.

alisbury Road in Wood Green is a rare street. It looks and feels like a major road, and yet there are give way lines at every junction with other roads, turning it into a minor or side road.

Something Salisbury might want to bring up with its therapist one day.

Monday 6 December 2021

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (Week 21st June — 25th June)


Are we sanitising our children’s futures too much?

Week Monday 21st June — Friday 25th June

he greeting today was “Have you done a lateral flow test recently?” Just when you think that Covid’s receding in the distance on our rear-view mirror, you’re snared back into its anaconda embrace. A throat and nose swab later, I was ready to go and check the bikes.

a morning like this one, when London’s typical spi’ing turns into a downpour, you’re faced with the dilemma many trainers face: grit or caution?

I’m of the opinion that our risk-averse society has gone a bit too far in dealing with how the younger generation uses the outdoors. In many schools, the minute the first raindrop falls, “wet play” is declared. However one of my indelible memories as a child is of playing in the rain.

Some will say that there’s a liability factor involved. Who’s responsible if you take children out and one of them ends up on the ground because the surface was too slippery?

This creates an uncomfortable situation for the trainer. On the one hand, I think we need a more grit-driven attitude, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of a parent’s complaint.

We had to cancel the off-road training session today.

ven worse news today. My co-instructor and the lead of us two, has been taken ill and can’t make it the rest of the week. The school office staff was not impressed at all, even if they didn’t take their frustration out on me. Look, I still got up early and clocked in just before nine. I could have done with a lie-in.

On top of that I had to cycle back home up and down rain-sodden Archway Road.

ycling through Highgate earlier reminded me of how barbershops used to double up as dentists, doctors and A&E department in the old days. Now, after this sixteen-month pandemic-affected year, they’ll double up again as what they’ve been for many years: a community hub.


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