...THE sun was shining, and though there was frost, I decided that it was about time I tried out my new bicycle. This is the bicycle I 'bought' in August and paid for in October, but which has sat in my living room entirely unused. My intention was to use the bike to cycle to the tube every day (or New Barnet mainline station, when I feel like going that way), cutting down my commute to a vaguely sensible time. It still hasn't happened. But it was a weekend, and I was in the mood for trying new things.
I have never been so scared.
What should have taken me a maximum of ten minutes took me just as long as if I had walked. Southgate may be a quiet corner of London, but it is still London, and I found myself stopping and walking at every junction and crossing as the traffic tried to edge closer to get a good look at this rare breed known as 'cyclist' (or so it felt). And to think I recently agreed to cycle from Lands End to John O' Groats.
In central London I disembarked at Leicester Square, where I found a collective of joinees, many of whom I hadn't seen in years. Many of them had big, silly signs, the majority with the words "Free Hugs" on them. And at 2 pm, we were off, marching to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street, spreading the love, chocolate and general cheer.
A note on free hugs:
(This picture is from several years ago in Exeter)
Now, if a random stranger came up to you and asked if you would like a hug, you'd be a little alarmed and would be seriously concerned about being mugged. But when several hundred people are all asking, and most of them have silly hats and big, silly signs asking if you would like a free hug, coupled with Christmas cheer, many people can't help but laugh and join in. We've made a lot of grannies happy over the years.
Others at K6 yesterday gave out chocolates, Christmas cards and Christmas cheer. But before long, I had lost them, having been distracted at the start of the pedestrianised Regents Street by James Bond's Aston Martin, complete with 007 number plate. Up and down the shopping zone were street entertainers, musicians, jugglers, people on stilts, a human reindeer and a flying bicycle stencilled with the words "Love Your Mum". There were also an inordinate number of banjo and tuba combinations.
I wandered in and out of shops, including the new and rather brilliant National Geographic store, and found my way up to Oxford Circus. Here there was a stage, with two screens and a big open red-carpeted area for the purpose of advertising the new film Australia. On stage were an excellent band called Blue Harlem, playing the music of Ray Charles and the like, with professional dancers (I would guess) leading members of the public and shaking their stuff. It was really fun to watch.
I watched for a couple of numbers, until the band suddenly stopped and announced the arrival of Baz Luhrmann, the director of Australia (and also Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet). To a lukewarm applause (let's be honest, who really knows what Baz Luhrmann looks like?), he came on stage to speak about Australia and australia (sentence case is important). Then he announced a competition - a dance off for the public for two pairs of tickets to the film's premiere: one pair for the best dancing couple; one pair for the silliest.
The band struck up, and many brave individuals took to the floor (which, if you remember, was the middle of the road). The eventual winners were magnificent, particularly the adorable two-and-a-half-year-old girl who pirouetted around her father and was lifted up to the cheers of the crowd at the end. I stayed for the final song, watching the professional couples and trying to take artistic photos in the lens of the spotlight, and then wandered off down Oxford Street.
I have always gone down only one half of Oxford Street so, in the spirit of adventure, I decided to see what lay the other way (oh yes, I have wild adventures). Aesthetically, I wasn't impressed. This end of Oxford Street is far less impressive than the other. The buildings suddenly become concrete monstrosities, the shops suddenly became the same as any high street in the rest of the country. But there were live models in the Calvin Klein window of John Lewis, a steel band playing Christmas carols and I randomly found the High Commission of the Republic of Botswana. There were also interesting side streets, stalls and a very long queue outside Abercrombie and Fitch on Saville Row, where I suddenly, somehow, found myself.
And then to the pub. The entire Pitcher and Piano had been booked for Join Me, where much drinking and merriment occurred. It was great to see some old friends and to finally talk to some familiar faces from previous years: Lou and Team Jixie, Elliott and Tim, Captain K, Giulia, Phil, Mrs S, Sheli, Martin Kneller and many others I have regrettably forgotten the names of. I met two Aussies, one of whom is an offshore cleaner; a cool Brummie called Boris and a lovely Kiwi called Sarah. And then there was time for speeches - the story of the patchwork quilt, a project that has been going on all year and was to be auctioned for charity later, and then a speech by Mr Danny Wallace himself.
I've met Danny several times before. On the last occasion, he promised to take me bowling in Prague. This has never happened, although he might have been quite drunk. It was nice that yesterday, as he arrived, he patted me on the shoulder and said "nice to see you again", although he probably says that to everyone he vaguely recognises, particularly at Join Meets where most people have met him before. His speech was to mention the charity work of the day, a few bits of news, and then the 'almost New Year's honours' - an honouring of joinees who have done spectacular acts of kindness over the past year. My friend Lou was awarded a silvering, which raised a mighty cheer.
Shortly after this I decided to leave. I was very tired, and the rest of the evening belonged to those more committed. To follow was an auction, a raffle, and undoubtedly lots of drunken revelry (and given the patchquilt, possibly some ravelry as well). I made the long journey back to Southgate tube station, gained a few more grey hairs as I cycled home, and retired for the evening.
I still love Join Me, but I'm not so worried to be in the middle of it any more.
If you would like to contribute to the chosen charity of this year's meet (Build Africa), you can donate here. The current estimate is that £1,794.95 was raised on the day.