Monday, 14 April 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Peter

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.

Tokyo 1984
In 1984, at the age of 26, I travelled to Tokyo, eager to discover what I had heard was a beautiful country and a fascinating culture. I knew it was expensive and that I would need to find work in order to stay. Nearly all the money I had, had been spent on the airfare. I got off the plane at Narita airport with around a hundred pounds and discovered that half of that was needed to take the coach into the city. Fortunately I had an address for a cheap working-men's hostel. When I arrived there I had £40 after currency exchange commission. A dormitory bed in the hostel cost around £8 a night. I felt sure, however, that something would turn up. 

Okubo House
The friendliness of the elderly hostel staff was an immediate boost to my natural sense of optimism. The hostel used to cater for Japanese workmen but more recently had started to take advantage of the foreign backpacker market. I understood very little Japanese and they very little English. The manager, who was affectionately known to western residents as Mosquito San, knew one or two phrases in English. The most memorable of these being "Mosquito drive away!" uttered with cruel intent as he roamed the dormitories in the evenings with a pump-up spray bottle. He was weird, but by no means the strangest person living in Okubo House. Within a day I had encountered quite a motley selection of long-termers who furnished me with invaluable information:
A US Vietnam Vet who told far-fetched stories of living underground and in trees in the Vietnam jungle and who ranted in his sleep. Israeli draft dodgers who knew all the best ways to live on minimal income in Tokyo and how to find temporary work such as in model agencies or film studios. A Russian shot-putter who hid men (or women) in her bed when they climbed in through her window evading curfew, and a timid New Zealand Irish alcoholic who ranted and raved around the house when he got drunk and was eventually barred. But there was one man to beat them all. 

Okubo House - Traditional Japanese Hostel (taken in 1998, now demolished)

Okubo House ran on military order. Mosquito San had clearly served time in the service of his country. There were posters around the place about cleanliness. The fact that these posters were in (comical) English (Rule 1. Never sleep the kwilt no pyjama), indicated that they were aimed at foreigners (since the Japanese are obsessively clean themselves). One was required to attend the communal bath every evening. Mosquito San kept a check. However, he was aided in this task (unsolicited) by a very odd young German. Peter would appear by surprise through a doorway and ask in a most accusing Orwellian voice "Are you clean?" This happened numerous times on a daily basis. New residents were petrified by the experience. Mosquito San and the other staff could never understand what the resulting hilarity was all about. 

Peter Sausage
Myself and a few of my newfound friends were fascinated by Peter. He was a little strange. We had each tried to engage him in conversation at various times and were left with the sense that he was mad. One evening we heard him in the foyer (this was a traditional Japanese building made of a wood frame with paper walls) having received a call on the house phone. 
"Jah, jah this is Peter Wurst."
Peter spoke English but it was not good English and he had a very strong German accent.
"Jah, I am English of course. My parents are English und now I am come here to living in Japan. I am liking to work as English teacher in one school like you language school. Jah, jah, I am having university certificate, naturally. When can I begin?" 
There followed numerous other calls involving laboured conversations of a similar nature. Although most people running these language schools were Japanese, most spoke good enough English to spot that all was not correct with Mr Wurst's English.
"My accent," I heard him say once, "jah, my accent is English of course, but maybe because mein father is von Scotland."

Peter told us he was an honest man seeking to earn an honest day's wage. Clearly his idea of the truth was somewhat different to most and it irked us that he might teach Japanese people to speak English like him. I was even suspicious about Peter's surname. Peter Wurst (Sausage) seemed a little too obvious for a man who told us he had been in Tokyo for two years working as what he termed a "Stick-man." 
"If you want earn big money in Tokyo my friend," he told us, "you need to find work as stick-man. Are you a good stick-man my friend?"
Peter's hand gesture left us in no doubt about what the job of stick-man entailed.
"There are much old women here who like the young western man for boom boom, jah? If you are good stick-man you can make much money. I do this for two years but now I am tired. I can give you phone number for agency, jah?"
He went into great detail about the type of clients one could expect and the nature of their usual requirements. In the interest of international relations and common decency I shall not relate the lurid details here, but suffice it to say that his descriptions were hilarious.

Mad times in Tokyo 1984

Helped by advice from the Israelis, I managed to survive on noodles and All You Can Eat Shakey's Pizza for two weeks until I found a teaching job. But Peter didn't forget about my interest in his previous work. On his nightly visits around the hostel enquiring about personal cleanliness, he would always ask me "did you find some stick-man work my friend?"  

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Herman

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.

During the 10,000 mile cycle ride I did with my son, one of the most spectacular places we cycled through was Laos. Heading north, away from the more civilised little capital of Vientiane, it was largely undeveloped, but for about three towns. The countryside was made up of verdant mountains with fairly good roads and almost no traffic. It is well known amongst long-distance cyclists for this reason. 

Sam takes a rest near 'The Hot Springs Place'

So little traffic, anything is a spectacle in Northern Laos

On the road Sam and I met a couple of other cyclists out in the wilds. One told us we simply must stay at a place he called 'The Hot Spring Place'. It was not marked on any map, however. Their glowing descriptions made me think it was something like 'The Hotel California' in the Eagles song, with a casino and 'pink champagne on ice'.

After hours of climbing through jungle in oppressive heat, there was no sign. No civilisation at all in fact.
"How will we know it when we see it?" asked Sam. "We don't have a name, no address – not even the name of a village."
"Oh it sounded pretty big and spectacular," I said. "Surely we couldn't miss it out here!"
Just as the sun started to sink towards the peaks we came across it. Thankfully, the Hot Springs Place was not what I had imagined. It was little more than a layby on the narrow mountain road.

The Hot Springs Place is only usually visited by intrepid cyclists

Finding the old lady who ran the place, we enquired about accommodation and were delighted to find there were two wooden huts left (out of five) with a double bed and WC/shower shoehorned into the tiny space. We parked our bikes, paid the old lady and scurried off down through the trees to the large stone-sided water tank surrounded by jungle. Here several other cyclists had just jumped in and were busy soothing away the day’s aches and pains in the steaming water.  Three or four local children, small and glistening brown, had climbed out and were sitting at the edge watching. 

The Hot Springs with roadside cafe nearby 

In this heavenly pool, we began chatting with a rather forthright German lady.  Sonja took pains to explain that the older man who had just gone back to the hut was not her husband or her boyfriend.
“I don’t have sex with him, oh mein Got, no!” she assured us, frowning. “And anyhow, it is not possible; he is having a bad back problem."
Herman was just a friend, she said, and a very annoying man to travel with indeed.  

After Sonja got out, Herman returned and seemed to us far from annoying.  As we soon discovered, he had cycled almost everywhere in Asia over many years, between his job as a landscape gardener back in Germany.  He proved to be a fascinating source of information and had a great sense of humour – especially, when pressed, about Sonja. It was obvious to us that he was completely exasperated with her and probably wished he had stuck with his usual habit of travelling alone. But although he chuckled to himself over my humorous questions, he was reluctant to say anything. From the way he kept looking over at the path and into the surrounding jungle, I presumed she had a bad temper and a fearsome hold over him.

Friendly children queue up to slap your hand as you pass

After an afternoon sleep to get over our day of steep climbing, we awoke feeling hungry. It was early evening and nearby, above the general hums and screeches of jungle fauna, we could clearly discern sounds of merriment. On the opposite side of the narrow mountain road below us there lay a small cafe. Wandering over, we were surprised to find them serving pretty good food, well beyond the standard feu (Laotian thin soup), bush-meat and rice we had become used to.  Our cycling neighbours were there and after we had eaten Herman came over to share a few Beer Lao with us. Having enquired about our route, he reiterated stories we had heard from other cyclists about the terrible unsurfaced mountain roads ahead of us from northern Laos into North Vietnam.  But where we were now was certainly a great place and we were so grateful to those other cyclists for guiding us here.  

Loosened up by a few beers, Herman became great entertainment. After a few minutes I began to ask him more about his relationship with Sonja.
"Herman, as you are German and used to direct questions, I'm going to ask you – does Sonja have a mental problem?"
All of a sudden Herman doubled up on his chair, as if perhaps he had suffered a burst appendix or some such catastrophe. He looked up at us, gritting his teeth, his face purple. Clearly he was struggling valiantly to hold in his screams of agony, but eventually he could hold them no longer. In an instant the whole cafe full of people came to a grinding halt as Herman's scream rang out through the jungle. A pot crashed in the makeshift kitchen. Bottles of beer fell over and glasses dropped from the hands of drinkers. People stretched their necks and stood up to see what had occurred. But Herman was not screaming now. Hermane was laughing. He was in pain because he was laughing so much.
"Herman, was machs du, dumkopf!" demanded Sonja.
"Nichts, Sonja, nichts – one of the cats surprised me or some such." 

After a minute or so Herman had calmed down. There were tears in his eyes as he sat there looking at me, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
"Are you psychiatrist?" he asked, finally able to speak again.
"No, no, a risk management specialist. I work in crisis management and disaster recovery." I tried to keep a straight face. 
Herman began to snigger again. It seemed about to grow. I looked over at Sonja who had also noticed the sniggering. Eager to prevent another outburst, I got up and placed my hand over Herman's mouth. Keeping his laughter inside was painful for him, the poor man. His body began convulsing. Sonja stood up.
"What is the problem with him?" she demanded crossly. Her concern was clearly not out of sympathy.
"A small epileptic fit," I said. "Do you have his medication?"
"Medication?" she shouted. "He is not epileptic. Not so far anyhow."
"Perhaps it's just begun on this trip?" I suggested. "The stress or something."
"Stress!" she laughed. "I am the one who suffers the stress – stress from his craziness! Got und himmel."
At this Herman's convulsions became more desperate – although this could have been because my hand was too tightly over his mouth and nose. Beads of sweat had begun running down his balding head. 
"Be calm Herman," I said gently. "Be calm. Now listen, I'm going to remove my hand but only if you're calm."
I felt Herman relax.

After a few glugs of beer and some deep breaths, Herman seemed to have returned to his normal downtrodden state. He continued looking at us, smirking now and then and shaking his head. 
"I tell you, my friends, be careful about taking passengers. I'm going to tell you how it happened, but first I need more beer." 
Herman signalled and three bottles of Beer Lao arrived promptly. Sonja looked over, worried what he might do next.
"So, this woman you see," continued Herman, more serious now. "She was visiting a house where I was working in the garden. The householder introduced us and told her I travelled very much in Asia. This woman (Herman stabbed his finger towards Sonja accusingly), she told me she always has the desire to visit Asia. She asks my number, then she calls me later to invite me for drinking. Like a foolish man I say okay. It's a common story I think. First she made me quite drunk, then captured me with nice behaviours.”  Herman fluttered his eyelids and stuck out his chest – with the addition of hand gestures, which we did not need. “This is how I am now broken down with this such difficult woman in Laos – a woman who is complaining from waking until sleeping. No – that is incorrect. I believe she is also complaining during her sleeping. Believe me my friend, many times I think death is better and wish to... to ride over the mountain ledge!”
Herman was crying again now, but these were no longer tears of laughter.
"I offer to pay her aeroplane to go home early but no! it is too easy. I carry all her luggages on my bike but she don't have fucking gratitude. Excuse me. I pity her dog, my friend, if she will ever have one. She like to give men pain, that is clear. Two husbands have suicide, she tells me so. What for hell shall I do?"

Despite Herman's tears, it was a wonderful evening. The setting as well as the company. My wife and I always tell people that the best way to know if you are truly compatible with a partner is to travel overland with them for a few months. I assume Sonja and Herman knew they were incompatible after only a few days. 
Should you be reading this Herman, please get in touch.

If you would like to read more about the cycle adventure from Ireland to Japan with my teenage son, click one of the Long Road Hard Lessons links in the right hand margin of this blog, or enter the title into your internet search box.

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc.
Mark Swain on

Mark Swain on Smashwords

Monday, 31 March 2014

People I've Met On The Road - Henri

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet many interesting people on the road. This is the second of a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals.

Several years ago I was cycling through South-west France on my way to the coast. The mountains of the Massif Central make for tough cycling and in summer the baking heat combines with the gritty dust to sting your eyes and parch your skin. Added to this personal discomfort, no amount of lubrication at the time would seem to prevent my chain from clogging and before long the grit had made a sound job of eroding the rollers. I had just climbed out of a deep valley somewhere after Millau and was finally struggling over the apex of the long hill when with a sudden release of pressure there came a crunch from below. Cursing I stopped and looked down. The chain hung there, dragging on the road.
"You bloody swine," I muttered, gasping for breath after the exertion of the long hill.
"Elle est cassee, mon ami."

I looked around, unable to see where any voice could have come from.
"Hello, who's that?" I called, rather confused.
"Allors, monsieur, your first job should be to get out of the sun! You will die, standing there."
At that point my eye caught sight of a dog, lying in the shade of a stone wall. Next to it I could see a worn out boot with no laces. It moved as it's owner began raising himself to his feet. The man emerged from the shade and put out a broad arm. I shook his hand, which was grubby and gnarled. The young man doffed his dirty sailor's cap. As he did so it revealed an untidy shock of curly blonde hair.
"Henri," he said, politely.
"Mark, enchente." I replied.
"If I am not mistaken, you need a chain tool my friend!"
Despite Henri's apparently excellent command of English, his French accent was strong and slurred. I took him for perhaps someone from the rougher side of Marseilles, although his blonde hair made this seem unlikely.
Henri crouched down to peer at the wrecked chain. His large Indian Army-style shorts had seen better days, while his loose white vest was also torn and stained. Perhaps he was a vagrant, I wondered? He got to his feet again.

Whistling to the dusty dog, Henri began wandering off. He walked in a purposeful but slovenly manner, his loose, laceless boots dragging on the melting asphalt as he headed down the hill to... I knew not where. I presumed he intended me to follow him, although he had said nothing to confirm this. Kicking up the stand on my bike, I moved quickly to catch him up.
"Any idea where I can find a bike shop?" I asked.
Henri pointed somewhere to the right. I could see no sign of a town or village. I looked at him quizzically but he continued looking straight ahead, chewing the stem of a long blade of grass. Then all of a sudden he turned off the road through a gap in the stone wall.
"Faite atencion!" he grunted, pointing at a strand of rusty barbed wire as we crossed a small ditch.
The dog jumped over the fence in a practiced manner and ran off ahead, looking back to check his master was following. Lifting the bike over first, I struggled to clamber across – surprised at Henri's reluctance to help.

After about a half a mile, walking through copses and along the edge of a ragged field of vines, we arrived at a small hamlet. An old woman seemed to be doing washing at a large stone font with constantly running water. She turned and stared, waving to Henri and saying something about the 'bicyclette'. Henri doffed his cap in a somewhat eccentric manner and boomed,
"Encore salvateur des idiot Anglais, putain!"
The woman laughed, shaking her head and continued with her laundry.
Henri shoved at a heavy old door and allowed the dog to enter a stone village house. Following Henri inside I instantly felt relief from the cool air.
Looking about me I saw a tall, ancient building that seemed to be in the process of reconstruction. At our feet was an earth floor littered with various unloved implements for construction, some mixed concrete in a small tin bath that had gone hard with a shovel stuck fast in it and a few piles of tiles. Quite a few were broken. There was a lot of other junk lying around covered in cobwebs and the remains of an old Citroen 2CV which several mangey cats seemed to have made their home. I looked up. There were no floors. Light was coming from the roof. Hardly surprising since much of it was missing. Fixed to the wall one floor up was the remains of an old kitchen, but no floor to stand on. Instead there was a builder's ladder, up which Henri was now climbing. Reaching the top he stretched one foot across to steady himself against a protruding stone and then filled a kettle from a tap on the wall. I watched, fascinated. Placing the kettle on a small makeshift shelf fixed to the stone wall he plugged it in before placing teabags into two filthy mugs with broken handles.

"Tea pour moi, conard!" (for those unfamiliar with French slang - 'conard' means asshole)
The voice had come from somewhere above. A woman's voice I thought, but gruff. She sounded annoyed. Perhaps we had interrupted her work, I wondered?
Tilting my head back I could see some kind of makeshift wooden platform. It was hanging from the rafters of the roof, attached at the corners by some rough old ropes. As I looked I saw a round face and straggly hair peering down at me.
"Bonjour monsieur," she said, embarrassed, "pardon!"
I greeted her politely and averted my stare as she sat up; more rotund than voluptuous, and naked.
"Vien Cecile!" called Henri, climbing back up the ladder to make the tea.
As I watched Henri deftly walk front-ways down the long ladder, carrying three cups of tea without spilling any, a question occurred to me. How was Cecile going to get down from that platform? Cautiously I looked up. I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a large girl in an Indian-print sarong climbing out onto the rooftop.
"Where's she going?" I said, fearful that this half asleep barefoot girl would slip and fall.
"Peuff, elles arrive toutes suite," he mumbled, slurping his tea in an exaggerated manner.

A few minutes later the front door was pushed open and in came Cecile.
"Il et un eschelle en bar." I was not sure what an eschelle was but seeing my confusion she translated into English. Her English was excellent. Better than Henri's in fact. Yes, the house was in a terrace, she explained, but by swinging a ladder down onto their neighbour's balcony they could then climb down, then down a tree, climb over nextdoor's garden wall and come around via the alley. I was astounded. Their neighbours were less than impressed, apparently.

"So you do that every night and every morning?" I asked.
"Yes, or sometimes in the afternoon too when this conard can be bothered to do the sex with me!"
What more surprises did this young woman have in store, I wondered?
"Er, I don't suppose I could use the toilet?" I asked. "You do have a toilet?"
"Mais oui, of course," said Cecile, "vien avec moi, cheri."
Cecile beckoned me over towards the back of the space, where there seemed to be a stack of old floorboards. As I passed she squeezed my bottom and giggled. On the boards I saw a bucket with a lid.
"Pull that curtain across if you like," she said. "Pour les Anglais. Henri put it up especially for visitors. There's paper on a box there if you need it."
I squirmed, wishing I had gone somewhere along the track on our way here. I didn't pull the curtain across, hoping to impress her with my laisse faire attitude. As it was I found myself unable to pee and returned looking most embarrassed, I'm sure.

Sitting on boxes and a bucket to drink our tea I learned that Henri and Cecile had lived in the house for three years, having bought it for only two thousand pounds. I was surprised to hear that they had been working on it all that time.
"We get distracted easily," sniggered Cecile, pulling her sarong up to cover more of her heavy bosom. Her skin was tanned, oily and covered in mosquito bites – or flea bites perhaps? The place and the pair of them smelled rather unsavoury, but hardly surprising given the lack of facilities.

"So where do you keep stuff – you know food, clothes, that kind of thing?" I asked, barely able to mask the amusement in my voice.

"Poeff, we only buy what we eat for one day," said Cecile. "If we have money. We have no congelateur! Clothes, we have only this what we wear now. We don't l'argent, but we like le... the minimalism, no Henri?"
"Oui, je prefer la vie simple com ca," agreed Henri. "Moins de stress."

The more Cecile and Henri told me of their life here, the more intrigued I became. They seemed to know few people in the area.
"We avoid other English," said Henri, "Conard! This is my island. Cecile is invited to my island, bien sur. You can visit too, mon ami, because you are cyclist, mais les autres, non! I prefer to look at people on the other shore, tu comprende?

I did understand, yes. But it seemed a pitiful existence. Was there no way to earn money here?

"Henri sometimes repairs the old cars to sell," but the locals don't like to give him things. They are not generous here, les conard. Except the gitanes – the gypsies who live in the woods. They make great absinthe. Fort! They like us so we buy from them and sell to bars in Montpellier and Beziers. Henri goes one time par month but the car is broken too much now."
Cecile pointed to the derelict 2CV. Surely this can't have worked for years, I thought? It was becoming clear that the two were pretty crazy. Driven mad by absinthe I guessed.

In amongst the cobweb-covered junk in Henri and Cecile's ruined abode, Henri uncovered a few antiquated bicycles and some rusty old tools. Although one bike had a corroded old chain on it, he did not manage to find a chain tool. The chain was in a far worse state than mine, but Henri insisted he could fix it. Using a file, worn smooth with age, and a large lump-hammer (almost the sum of his toolkit, it seemed) he began hammering and filing on the step outside. An elderly woman poked her head out of some shuttered windows and muttered a few disdainful words. Clearly his hammering was disturbing her afternoon sleep. He looked up, then continued.
"Putain!" he muttered.

Somehow Henri managed to spend two inefficient days butchering the chain before giving up. I could see now why they got nothing done here. During this time I had raked away the cat mess, pitched my tent on the earth floor of his house and treated them to bread, cheese, tomatoes and cheap wine from the nearby village shop. Cecile, when intoxicated, began propositioning me outrageously. I think I managed to decline without offending her.

"Don't tell her you are staying with us," Cecile had said, when I went to the shop. "She'll ask you to pay the bill before she lets you have anything."

"There's an old conard down the road who has asked me to help him lift his 2CV engine out and put in one out of his brother's old motorbike," said Henri on the third morning. "If you help me we might get paid enough to buy you a new chain in town."
"What? There's a bike shop in a town near here!" I coughed.
"Bien sur mon brave!" said Henri, theatrically."
Bending forward he picked a flea off the dog. He put it into his mouth and bit it in two. I was exasperated. All this time there was a bike shop nearby. I could have gone there by bus, or hitch-hiked rather than have got caught up in Henri and Cecile's chaotic life.

I had never lifted an engine out of a car before. In most cases, I realised, it is done with a large winch and block and tackle. Not with Henri it wasn't. First we took off the panels (fortunately on a 2CV they unbolt), then we unbolted the rusty engine mountings. Using an old jumper, Henri pulled it under the block and instructed me to get hold of one sleeve, while he took hold of the other. We heaved at it and bashed it for about fifteen minutes with a big hammer to loosen the rust. Eventually it moved. Quickly as we heaved on the jumper sleeves, the owner shoved in a lump of wood and a tiny car jack. In this manner we raised the lump until we could get hold of a cylinder head each and lift it out. It was not easy. A 600cc engine is tiny for a car but it was still heavy. My back creaked under the strain. There was a lot of swearing but we got it out. After being fed beer and saucisson by the old man's wife, we returned and lifted the adapted motorbike engine into place.

Fortunately the old man was so pleased with his newly functioning 2CV, he offered to drive me into town to buy my new bicycle chain. Desperate now to get away from the bizarre living conditions at Henri and Cecile's place, I agreed to go immediately.
It was a successful trip into town. I found a decent quality chain of the right type and the old guy took me to his favourite cafe for a beer. We met some of his cronies and there was much slapping of backs. It was around 4pm by the time we got back. I went straight around to Henri and Cecile's hoping to fit my chain and get back on the road. Arriving at the house, however, I found a fracas going on in the street. Unsure what this was about, I hung around at the corner, from where I could hear most of what was being said. Surprisingly the argument was entirely in English. A well dressed elderly man in a safari suit and a beige fedora hat seemed to be remonstrating with Henri. I could hear the dog barking inside and Cecile shouting "Taire toi," at him.

"I mean damn it all Henry, you know you were always her favourite. It's not like anybody's asking you to come back and join the family law firm or run for parliament, just to be around. We accept that you want to live your life differently, boy, of course we bloody do. There's the cottage now your aunt's gone – what's wrong with moving in there?"
"You're wasting you time Pa," said Henri, his head hanging, "I'm happy here on my island. I have all I want."
"What, Cecile? Alright for Christ's sake, you can bring Cecile! Fortunately you're mother's got over the business with uncle Timothy. Really, she can come too... I assume she does have some clothes? Come on old boy, I'll help you with your things, there's room in the Bentley."
"Will you listen for once, old man, it's not happening," exploded Henri.
"Oh bloody hell Henry, this really has to stop now, really! Do you have any idea what it's like for me? Do you have the faintest notion how it will be for me if I arrive back in Winchester without you?
Your mother's talked to a chap at that place she goes. He says he can help. Plenty of young fellas like you go through it, he says. They can treat it now. That's what he told your mother."

I wandered over to the font trying to look nonchalant.

"Listen I bloody mean it this time," I heard Henri say. "Don't make me get the gun. I have one you know. Anyway, I have to go, I've got a friend staying," said Henri, nodding towards me.

Turning his head the father looked over his shoulder at me. His disparaging look said enough. Perhaps he thought perhaps I was the cause of the problem? He walked over towards me as I put my hands under the running water and took a drink.

"Now look here old chap, it's not that I've any axe to grind with you, but my boy's sick, you see. He's a danger to himself and to others. He has a violent temper that boils over at any time without warning, do you see? Not just the normal bad temper, mind you – oh no! He was in a hospital for that kind of thing but he got out and now he's here with a gun and this bloody whore of his. The consequences don't bear thinking about. Now I don't begrudge him a good time, not me, but I need to get him back home where he can be helped, before he harms someone else. Now look, I'm a man of some means. If you could see your way to persuading him to come with me, I'd be very appreciative. Of course I would. I'm sure you could do with a leg-up. I think we understand one another, don't we?" He patted me on the shoulder.

"I'm afraid I can't help you," I said. I hardly know him. Really! I mean until just a minute ago I thought he was French."

"French!" said the man, puce in the face, "I should bloody say not!"

At the sound of Henri's door being pulled shut, the man turned and made his way up the street towards a large car, which was partly blocking the street. A rather irritated looking man was out of his van, looking around it. I went to Henri's door.

"Um, Henri, I wonder if I could get my stuff!" I called. "It's me, Mark."

Henri could be heard removing something from behind the door. I stepped aside for a moment, hoping it wasn't the gun.

"He's gone," I said, "his car was blocking the road."

"Oh he'll be back, don't you worry," said Henri, pulling open the door. "Last time dear old Lord Conard, as Cecile calls him, came every day for a week. Afraid to go home without me."

Cycling downhill on my way south a little while later, I passed the Bentley coming the other way. I was just considering whether to wave when I noticed a pair of police cars behind him. There were large men in the backs of the cars, dressed in black with rifles and helmets – they didn't look like they were out to make a social call.

"Poor Henri," I muttered to myself.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

New Book Of Travel Stories

The Truth In The Lie

After what seemed like an age spent in the editing stage, The Truth In The Lie has finally launched. It was a frustrating six months but looking at it now, it seems well worth the effort. I am so pleased with the cover. The road trip story behind the cover photo is a fascinating one and will be the subject of a future blog post on its own. The editing of the stories was the work of my very literary eldest daughter, as described in the previous blog. She did a brilliant job; better than I could ever have imagined. In fact I would say she's a natural.

Tales Of A Travelling Storyteller
The stories in this new book are all related in some way to travel. Some are pure 'travellers tales' while one or two are simply set in locations where I have spent time travelling. Many of them though, are stories I have told to people while I have been on the road, or when I returned home. They have developed over the years as a result of the telling.

Talking to girls in a shanty village - Cochin, Kerala, Southern India

The book has been out barely a day and already I am receiving feedback. Some people are fast readers. Thankfully that feedback has been good. As with my last book of short stories, people have commented upon the authenticity of the characters - or should I say queried them:

"Is that guy in Red Card based on the footballer you used to know in Ireland?"
"Be honest Mark, the Dottie in Dottie's Diary is based upon my friend Jo, isn't it?"
"I hope the cafe in All In Good Time is not my cafe, Mark. I could lose a lot of customers!"
"Mark, I read your book. Tell me, The story Traffic... how the hell did you know that about me?"

and most worrying of all –

"There seem to be several characters based upon you, who are all preoccupied with their mortality."

Traffic: Story of a naive English art dealer in Africa

The Commuter: 
A story of what an exhausted man sees from a train window at night

The Title
The title, The Truth In The Lie, was chosen because of the number of times I have been asked whether my stories are based upon truth. It seems obvious to me that every fictional story is based upon truth. Personal truths from past experiences or those one has heard of, and 'great truths'. Great truths may never have actually happened, yet they are universal truths of life understood by all.

Story Outlines
My Only Friend – An elderly widow in Lisbon is estranged from her son who prefers to live in squalor and idleness since the death of the father he idolised.

A Minor Distraction – A rich American man on a train in Africa tries to tempt a poor young girl into his carriage while stopped at a wilderness station. The tragedy that ensues hardly seems to touch him.

Greta – A pair of travellers arrive in a rural Hungarian hotel where all is not what it should be. They are shown to their room by a young woman who seems something of an automaton. 

All In Good Time – A woman who runs a cafe is told she is being watched by the security forces. It seems unlikely until one of her staff disappears under strange circumstances.

Masaji – A father and son attempt to escape from China on foot after their visa runs out. 

In The Line Of Fire – A man in a war zone is attacked and hounded by those he once regarded as friends. They seem unwilling to allow him to leave the area, however.

The Crossing – Exhausted after several days at work, a man begins to experience strange occurrences while driving home through a long road tunnel.

Traffic – An art dealer makes his first trip to Africa and almost immediately becomes the victim of not one but two carefully engineered scams – or so it seems. 

River Witch – A young man camps by a river and is shocked to see a naked young woman float past as he lies in bed enjoying the early morning sun. How could he not go after her?

Red Card – Once a promising professional footballer, Pat Carmichael becomes an alcoholic loser after he suffers a crippling injury. Finally after two years of depression he picks himself up.

The Commuter – Travelling home on his daily commuter train, David is drawn to something strange he sees in the dark while the train is stopped. What he sees transfixes him.

Dottie’s Diary – Two women hill-climbing in Wales take shelter in a stone barn. Soon they are joined by a wealthy local woman who invites them home where they meet her husband. He is familiar to one of them. 

Burned On Him – A rather reserved family meet for a weekend at the parents' house where a revelation by one sister causes an argument and unexpected consequences.

The ‘F’ Word – A conversation overheard on a train with three children, their mother and her friend. 

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang – Surreal happenings when a group of friends meet at their regular breakfast cafe by a busy main road. 

Mark Swain on Amazon
Mark Swain on Smashwords

To find the book and to discover the characters for yourself you should click the link to Amazon or Smashwords below or in the right-hand margin of this blog. The book is currently priced at an introductory price of $1.99 or £1.27

Cover photo by Fumiko Jin - Taken in Hokaido, Northern Japan. 
Story of the photo to follow in a future blog

The Truth In The Lie - Smashwords (all e-book formats)
The Truth In The Lie - Amazon UK (Kindle)
The Truth In The Lie - (Kindle)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Gap Year Travel

Why Should Kids Have All The Fun?

Many of us parents now find ourselves talking to teenage kids about what they will do on their gap year. So excited was my youngest daughter at 13, to see my son set off to cycle across the world, that she immediately began planning her own pre-university adventure. I began to take notice; and there was no doubt about it, the majority of teenagers now see it as an issue of not if they will have a gap year, but when - perhaps along with who will pay for it. For many it comes a close second to completing a university entrance form (UCAS in the UK). I don't begrudge them that. I do believe that a gap year can be a valuable part of a kid's education – learning the stuff they don't teach you in school. Useful stuff like how other people live and how lucky we are to have what we have. Learning how to speak other languages or even how to better communicate with people who do speak our own tongue. They can learn a lot. Learning where other places are in the world and what kinds of people live there. Learning how to get out of trouble and how to avoid it. Learning how to seek out a bargain or the best quality in things with limited funds. Learning the value of a good pair of boots, a comfortable bed and a wholesome meal. Why kids don't learn most of these things at school or at home anymore I don't know, but I won't get going on that one.

So basically then, a gap year is a great idea, even if you can't get your parents to pay for it and it has to involve work (actually I think it can sometimes be better that way). But what about those of us who left school before gap years were thought of? Well in fact there were gap years for the well-off around the turn of the 19th century and before – they were know as The Grand Tour – but I doubt anyone reading this will be that old. I have to say that was my feeling when my kids started to talk about gap years. "I wouldn't have minded having one of those myself!"

Grown-up Gap Years?
And why not? Sure it's great if you can go off and learn about the world before you embark upon a life of adulthood. There's no doubt in my mind that travel or working abroad will make a young person far more employable in the world of work and far better parents too, when the time comes. But that is not to say that this is the only way. There are a great many reasons for taking an extended break from work later on in life. Here are a few:

1. You didn't get one when you finished school so you feel you missed out, compared to others.

2. Your experience of the world is limited so you feel unable to share conversations with friends or your own children and grandchildren.

3. You are bored with the same old living and working environments.

4. You are stressed after years of work and have seen others getting sick from overwork.

5. You need fresh impetus in your life - both privately and in your work. A fresh look at things. An extended trip away might help you to find a new direction.

6. Your job has ended and you don't know what to do next. You need to clear your head – look at things from a distance.

7. You have retired and you want to catch up on things you've missed out on.

8. You find yourself single again and want to meet some different people in new environments that might spark unexpected friendships, or even a romance.

9. You are tired of short, expensive package holidays and want to go overland travelling, like you did when you were young. Backpacking and staying in hostels.

10. You want to have some adventures before it's too late. Before you are too old or unfit to enjoy it.

I did not necessarily think I needed an adult gap year. At 42 I had been running my own successful consultancy business for 3 years. Before that I had had several careers and had lived in many other countries. I had taken lots of breaks from work to go overland travelling before my children wore born, so I did not feel deprived. But I was working too hard. My son was 10yrs old and just getting to the age where we could go off on little adventures together – cycling, hiking and camping, mainly. It was after our first cycle / camping trip together one freezing English December, that Sam asked me if I would take a year off work when he finished school.
"What for?" I asked him.
"Well, I wondered if you'd cycle to Japan with me," he replied, nonchalantly.
8 years later we set off. But not before I had gone through a good deal of worry, trying to find someone to run my business while I was away.

As I have said, I did not need a gap year in the same way that other parents undoubtedly do. Or at least I didn't think I did. But the truth was I was overworked. Stressed. I had begun to focus only on work, with my family-life coming a poor second. I was there to provide for my family, I told myself. Someone had to pay for it all! But what I discovered over the next eight years, while I prepared for that gap year (actually I only started taking it seriously as a prospect about three years before we went), was that my family didn't want me to work so hard. My kids just wanted more time with me. My wife too, I think. She certainly didn't want to see me get a heart attack – and that was probably the way I was heading. So as I said, finding someone to run my business was a tough challenge just in order to escort Sam on a cycle trip from Ireland to Japan, but once we set off I realised something important. I didn't care about not earning so much money for a year. I didn't even care if I came home to find my business had folded. I had enough money for the trip and an adequate house. Why did I need more? My wife told me I should become a sculptor upon my return, since that is what I love doing. But the absence of phone calls, letters on the mat, bills, toilet cisterns needing mending or light bulbs changing – it was a revelation. I felt free in a way I almost never had. Not as an adult anyway. I felt reborn and I had hardly even been away for three days!

Why had I not done this before, I asked myself? I think because it never seemed possible. Too expensive. Too much time away. Perhaps it would have seemed irresponsible? My wife had certainly helped by telling me it was okay to do it. Good to do it, in fact. "You're allowed to enjoy it," she said.
But in the main, it happened because my son asked me to do it. Looking back, I can see that otherwise I probably would not have taken a break at all. Most likely I'd have kept driving myself to make my business evermore profitable, until I got sick or had an accident. Then I would have taken a break. Except I would never have been able to cycle 10,000 gruelling miles with an 18yr old. Not after a heart attack or cancer. No, I have my son to thank for my health, my peace of mind and a great later life.

Incidentally, I did not come home to find my business had folded. I found my new business partner had increased business by 45%. He told me he was happy continuing to run it largely without me. As a result I sat down to with my son to write a book about our experience (more about the trip and the book on my cycle travel blog) which subsequently became an Amazon bestseller. I never imagined myself becoming a writer or giving motivational talks to businesspeople, but I can see now that was my destiny. It's a life that fits me well, but I would probably never have achieved it if I had resisted taking those ten months off work to go with my son on his gap year. You will be unsurprised to hear that the trip did wonders for our father-son relationship (also an issue covered in the book).


Video of us cycling through 'The High Range of Travancore,' Munar, India. Click arrow.

My gap year was an adventure trip, covering 10,000 miles from the west coast of Ireland, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea and finally ending in Tokyo. But not all gap year trips need to be this way. I had an older friend in Japan who I taught English to when I was 25. He was a senior manager of a major Japanese trading company. An important and well paid job, but one he found rather mundane. Outside of work he had an interest in wild flowers and also watercolour painting. When he retired, he took a trip to a number of countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and China – seeking out unusual indigenous wild flowers and painting them. This eventually brought him to the attention of an international botanical society who asked him to submit some of his work. Over time it led to his becoming an honorary fellow of the society, giving talks all over the world. He had never imagined he could do such a thing. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago. He told me he felt fulfilled by his post-retirement activities but wished he might have taken that first trip when he was a little younger. Who knows how that might have changed his life?

To find out more about my adult gap year, try reading the book about the trip, Long Road Hard Lessons. You will find links to the book in the right hand margin of this blog, or just enter the title of the book into your local amazon search box. You can also search for other books by Mark Swain or see other blogs via the links at the top of this blog.
Thanks for reading – and remember to make the most of your life. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Price You Pay

People I Have Met On The Road - 1

Homeless Cyclist
Most of my encounters with other cyclists are happy ones but a meeting with a cyclist last week left me with very mixed feelings.
Due to a break in the wet and stormy weather of the past three months, my cycle ride from my home in Canterbury (UK) the other day was the first since November.

It was great to be back on the bike, breathing country air, instead of driving around in a tin box and peering through a (wet) glass screen. The sun shone on me all the way to the coast at Whitstable and astounded me by shining the rest of the day. It cheered me up no end. I remarked upon this uplift in my mood when I saw another cyclist coming out of the bakers shop in the High Street. I had already noticed his bike parked outside and seen by the luggage that it was the mount of a long-distance cyclist. I could also see from plastic bags encasing his luggage that the rider had been struggling with the incessant rain.

"It hasn't been great weather for cycling, mate," I said as he arrived, pasty in hand. "Where have you ridden from?"

"Oh, just Dover today," he replied, shyly.

He sounded American but having embarrassed myself too many times before with this, I overcompensated.

"You a Canadian then?" I said.

"What? Oh no I'm from Montana – North America." His accent was now garbled – skewed by a mouth-full of pasty.

"So where were you before Dover?" I asked.

"Oh, Europe. Holland; Belgium before that; Germany before that; France; Switzerland; Italy." He thought carefully. "Slovakia before that I think; Hungary and Bulgaria; Turkey; Armenia." He laughed. China; I've been all over."

"Where are you heading now?" I asked.

"Oh, just somewhere to sit and eat my pie."

I decided not to point out that this was a pasty, not a pie. I think the English already have a reputation with Americans for being pedantic. I told him there was a bench just along by the library. I was going that way so I walked with him. Once we arrived I sat on the bench to finish our conversation. He had asked if I was a cyclist. I told him I was and had covered some of his route when cycling with my son to Japan in 2008. He asked me a lot about this and about the father - son dynamic. I asked if he had kids. He was silent for a moment. I assumed this was due to a mouthful of pasty, but his face looked pained – I mean more pained than it already did. He had a weathered and unkempt appearance and the aroma of damp dirty clothes overpowered that of the pasty.

"I did have kids," he said quietly.

 He had stopped eating. I felt I shouldn't have asked. I waited for him to say more but it was a while before he did.

"I had two kids – a boy and a girl. We were in a car accident. I survived but they didn't."

My stomach felt like it was screwing itself into a tighter and tighter knot. What should I say? I didn't want anything I said to be cliched. I thought hard as my skin continued to tingle.

"Was your wife – I mean the kids' mother in the car?"

"We're divorced now. She works – has a pretty high powered job. I was unemployed. I had problems. Alcohol dependency." He coughed as he said the last bit and spoke the words like he was hoarse. "She called me late morning and said her mother was sick and couldn't get to school in the afternoon to collect the kids. You see, I wanted to do something good for a change. Prove I could be reliable, so I said no problem... I would be there. I was nervous though – about other parents we knew seeing me there. Looking such a state and all. So I shaved and bathed and dressed right, then at the appointed time I drove over to the school. I was so fixated on doing it right, I got there an hour early."

He sighed deeply. His hands were clasping his knees tight. I could guess what was coming, though I hoped I might be wrong.

"So, near the school there's... there's a bar. I'd never been there, but I knew it was there. I thought I'd have a coffee but for some reason when I got to the counter I found myself ordering bourbon." He ran his hands through his long greasy hair and hesitated again. "I was late getting the kids. A teacher was waiting with them. I apologised and she looked at me funny. I suppose she smelled the drink. Well I know she did, because that's what she told the police. I don't understand how I could walk away from the accident and not them. They..." There was another long pause before he spoke again. "I never saw my wife again. She made sure she didn't even see me at the court. My family was devastated of course, same as hers. They all disowned me. The divorce was a paper exercise. That was nine years ago and I've been travelling ever since. I took my bike, my passport, some clothes and the little money I had and I just went. Nine years I've been on the road. All over the world and I don't know how to stop. I only know how to keep going – keep pedalling. I don't know what's at the end – but I can guess."

"You should get some help," I said. "I mean you didn't want your kids to die. It was an accident. Alcoholism does that. Didn't they offer you any therapy after the accident?"

"I felt like a criminal," he said. "I did very nearly go to prison... They thought I'd suffered enough. I suppose I felt I didn't deserve help – still don't. The price you pay – that's what I think, the price you pay. Best for me to drink myself to death, that's what I thought afterwards. I tried, I really did, but it wouldn't happen. I don't drink now. Just stopped one day. Maybe I'll get hit by a truck?"

"You should see a doctor," I said. "Tell them what has happened to you. They'll get you some help – I could come with you to arrange for you to see a doctor?"

"Thanks," he said, "I have an old friend in London. He wrote a couple of times. Someone sent on the letters to my solicitor. That's where I'm headed – the friend. Despite what happened he still wants to see me. The only one who does. A Christian, you see. Trying to earn his ticket into heaven I suppose." He laughed for the first time. "Works with unemployed kids I think. Anyway he'll help me out. I feel more ready to be helped now."

"Maybe you should take the train to London?" I suggested. He looked in quite a bad state. "I could pay for your ticket."

"You're too kind," he said. "No I like to ride. I find it healing. It calms me. Somehow when I'm cycling everything seems kind of... pre-destined. Thanks, it's been a real help talking to someone about it. I usually keep it to myself but... I don't know why but I just felt I could tell you. Is that okay?"

"Of course it's okay," I said. "It was a privilege to hear your story. It's very sad, but perhaps it was just... I don't know, meant to happen."

I shook his hand as he got up to go.

"I'll keep a look out for you on the road," I said.
He wouldn't be hard to spot - his bike was a mobile dustbin.

Then he rode away. He had a limp. I noticed that as he walked to his bike. He even rode a bit lop-sided. I waved. I didn't even get his name, I realised.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Charm & Sleaze of London's Soho

Each To His Own
I often take my bike on the train from Canterbury to London. Most of the time I find myself drawn to the same areas. My bike and I enjoy nothing more than cruising the seedy backstreets. 
Some travellers will always feel an aversion to certain environments. Best they stay away then. Personally I hate very commercial areas - places with gift shops, out of place shopping malls, tea shops selling tacky gifts, smack in the middle of areas of outstanding natural beauty etc. I notice lots of TripAdvisor reviews by people who hate seediness, sleaze and low-life areas of cities. Yet the latter is a big cultural draw for some visitors, and I am with them.

Image courtesy of
Sleaze is hard to avoid in cities. All cities have a low-life, sleazy zone. Some cities are all sleaze, some would say. Often in the past such quarters were populated by immigrants, especially Chinese. Most still are. Usually they encompassed the red-light industry and with it a fair amount of gambling and crime. Desperate people find themselves here, living on the margins. Yet in a world full of artifice and 'Disnification', I find such locations to be the warm beating heart of 'real life'. Locate this area of any city and you will find it to be where the gritty writers, musicians and artists hang out. Here you can find people enjoying the 24hr buzz and excitement, who are willing and wanting to show and share their true selves. It's where music is made, new trends develop and genius is born. Yes, yes I know, it's also where diseases are spread and people are killed – get over yourself. 

Down Among The Low-life In London's Soho
Undeniably, in England amongst all of the sleaze available, one of the major hotbeds of such culture is to be found in London's Soho. This place smoulders with intrigue, passion, illegality and barely hidden attitude. It's been smouldering for a long time. There were opium dens here run by industrious Chinese immigrants long before Carnaby Street played host to Mods and Rockers. And where there are drugs there are sex and crime. Even the Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown hint of an exoticism beyond what is displayed on the shelves. Back in the early 1980's I remember going with a Chinese friend into the basement of one of these supermarkets. Amongst the sacks of Napa Cabbage and Star Fruit it housed a dimly lit illegal gambling den. Men in dirty white vests betting their entire month's wages or their restaurant' takings in a game of cards or Mahjong. Later I asked another friend in London (a cop) about it. Almost casually he said; "We allow the Chinese in the Gerrard Street area to police themselves. So long as they keep it local and under control, we find it's actually safer for everyone outside."

The Police keep an eye on Soho but often exercise a soft touch. Image courtesy of

Over time Soho has blended at its edges into other areas, such as Covent Garden. This is a less sleazy area but is now very trendy. It benefits from being adjacent to Soho and tourists easily find themselves there after walking up from Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. Especially those put off by the hustling and the overt risk of robbery in the central Leicester Square area. But if frock and shoe shopping or tourist cafes are not your bag, I suggest you take some time to seek out some genuine charm in the seedy backstreets of Soho. Here you will find real London culture. Low-life culture, some might call it, but for me the low-life atmosphere is all part of the draw.

Alternative Brides - image courtesy of

Eating Out In Soho
Outside of the sleazy atmosphere and the colourful characters on every street corner, Soho has other charms. It is a great area for foodies. The cafes and small restaurants along Store Street, St Anne's Place, Wardour Street and Berwick Street became popular in the so called swinging sixties but popular culture had discovered them long before that. Some have not been redecorated since the sixties! You can find good food here served in laid back, often confined environments. 
Those looking for Chinese food will find most of the busier places in Chinatown, around Gerrard Street and Lisle Street, Gerrard Place and Newport Place, plus the tiny 'China Village' passage of Newport Court. In Gerrard Street particularly, you will find top-end restaurants frequented by celebrities alongside busy Chinese supermarkets where the locals and the restauranteurs shop. Be careful, not all of these restaurants are good. Some are squarely aimed at tourists and non-Chinese. Lee Ho Fook and the tiny 'Poons' were always reliable but both have sadly closed. Quality goes up and down, especially as restaurant owners win and lose fortunes in big gambling adventures, so it's best to check review sites. I tend to check the Chinese Community Network magazine . 
In the narrow confines of Newport Court you will find seedy Chinese Dumpling shops / cafes where you can hardly believe you are not in Asia. The fact that few menus are in English here and one can't expect politeness, is usually a sign for me that I am in the right place.

Image courtesy of

Backstreet Charm
For those seeking the backstreet charm I have mentioned above, there is a hint of it to be found in Newport Court and in the cheap Chinese / Japanese cafes around Newport Place at the top, but it's a little to close to the bustling tourist centre of Leicester Square so I suggest heading north to the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue, over to Wardour Street, into the Berwick Street market area via the steps just after the famous Windmill Theatre (based on Paris' Moulin Rouge). Here one can find genuine character and a fair amount of tasteful sleaze (a bit of tasteless sleaze too). Wander around these back streets, behind the theatres, up Archer Street and along the charming Brewer Street and you will find the real heart of the old West End. There are so many great places to discover and mostly fairly cheap. Shops selling old vinyl records, vintage shops run by vintage old people selling catering kitchen equipment or briefcases, perched comfortably alongside others selling whips, chains and black plastic dresses. There are also some great vintage pubs. Best not to flash your wealth or naivety around here, by the way. Once in the back streets, well-heeled visitors are considered fair game.

BM Records (25 D'Arblay Street) image courtesy of

The Dog & Duck in Bateman's Street is rarely as quiet as this. Image courtesy of

A Literary Walking Tour
I have a particular penchant for visiting cities with a novel or a book of short stories in my pocket. Stories based in that area. Some of my favourites for bringing with me to this quarter are Fergus Linnane's 'London The Wicked City', Barry Miles' 'London Calling', Nigel Richardson's 'Dog Days In Soho' and, especially atmospheric, 'The Pimlico Tapes,' by A.K. Anders. Such topical books prove far more interesting and more rewarding, I would suggest, than following a traditional guidebook to discover an area.


A few other practical recommendations: 
For a traditional trolley service Dim Sum (the last in London), I suggest you go to New World Chinese Restaurant in Newport Place. For real Chinese dumplings, go to Baozi Inn, in Newport Court. It is tiny. If you are on the large size you might not be able to sit down. For a night out on the fringes of Soho, see if you can get into Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, at 47 Frith Street or one of the stand-up comedy venues, like The Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus. Better still I would suggest you wander around and look for yourself. Do that for half an hour after dark and you can be assured that something interesting will happen.