It's a Guy Thing

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Number crunching my extraordinary journeys – Part 1

By Ian Kirke

I love figures. Calculations. Percentages and ratios. My Dad taught me long division, vulgar fractions, and the joy of averages when I was a kid. All great for working out the statistics related to my obsession with speedway and football. He once told me that one of his proudest moments was me winning the School mathematics prize. I got my face in the local paper too along with about ten other swots, but I have learned to never knock a little fame! 

Returning to my opening sentence I acknowledge that love is perhaps a tricky concept to place within the context of simple number crunching. On one hand, I could determine the number of lovers I have had, but could I accurately calculate the affect each person has had on me? I have two children. What nonsense would be served by trying to calculate who I loved more? Of course, I love them equally but on occasions, they both vie for being the most annoying and which is far easier to compute. Quantitative outcomes have a wonder of certainty, yet qualitative results have the warmth of emotion. Not to be daunted by the conflict between fact and ambiguity I decided to apply my love of mathematics to my other love: travel. The trigger to write this piece is, not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic which has effectively, for the time being at least, snuffed out the ability to indulge in this passion. 

It suddenly dawned on me that I could measure key aspects of my global footprint whilst simultaneously applying a less convincing, although more explicit, measure of how these locations have shaped me. So, join me on my guide to the globe. Not an amateur version of a Lonely Planet, Time Out or Marco Polo travel guide but a recognition, including percentage terms, of how my homage to Phileas Fogg (the nineteenth-century international traveler created by the author Jules Verne) has changed me by reference to those precious moments of personal awe and fascination. But before I move on to cover the terrain let me establish some important figures. 

As I write this piece the World population is approximately eight billion people. The ratio of constituents of each of those human beings is exactly the same. There are eleven primary ingredients and a handful of trace elements. The headline figure is that nearly ninety-nine percent of our body mass is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. On average sixty percent of a human being is water. The water content of a banana is a tad over twenty-three percent more. If only we all looked like bananas! But we don’t look identical and to add to the inequality across the globe us humans like to position imaginary borders all over the place along with other unnatural obstacles. Often this leads to conflict, chaos, and partition. On the plus side this has created culture, a most vital counterbalance which for those wishing to embrace it, can have the most incredible and tangible effects. My concluding analysis will determine a percentage positive change to me (displayed by the mathematical symbol for change Δ) and how much I love the place, denoted by a simple heart. 

I have visited thirty-five countries. Since there are one hundred and ninety-five sovereign states I have set foot in, as near as damn it, eighteen percent of them. Of the seven continents, I have done five. And it all started when I was born in Nottingham, England, the center of the universe. Perhaps not entirely accurate since the spoilsports at Google maps have calculated the geographical coordinates of the center of the World as 40°52′N 34°34′E (Beyoğlan, in Northern Turkey) but certainly figuratively. England along with three other countries forms the United Kingdom so please forgive an opening local bias. 



Where I grew up, formed my roots, and Fathered Lucy and Adam. A country that is steeped in tradition, transformation and, more latterly, turbulence. I love the contrast of England. The beautiful coastline: rugged, resistant, and regal with my favorite example being Cornwall. 

The magnificence that is London, loud, ludicrous, and alluring. The new and the old fused together with a symmetry that can take you from the twenty-first to the nineteenth century in a matter of steps, best evidenced by the frequent Jack the Ripper Tours that I have undertaken in and around East London. Puma Court in Spitalfields still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! 

The Midlands, and in particular my favorite bit on the East side: Nottingham. My heart is embodied in the stands at Notts County Football Club, Meadow Lane NG2 3HJ. To counter my, some may say, rose-colored spectacled view of this great City, some ancient graffiti of dubious origin and reproduced in the museum at Nottingham Castle claimed that it was ‘the worst slum in the British Empire outside India’. A completely false claim since I have stayed in the slums of Mumbai. 

Up to the North West and the great family holiday destinations. Southport is so posh that, according to the comedian Ken Dodd, the tide wipes its feet before it comes in and the Las Vegas of England, Blackpool. My travels across the country have been heavily influenced by my twin sporting passions, which has ultimately led to the decision to name my final resting place: Eastbourne on the South East coast. Having followed my childhood hero Gordon Kennett’s speedway career from Oxford to White City (London) and a return to the mighty Eastbourne Eagles, the second bend at the Arlington Stadium is where you will find me, as that is where I desire my ashes to be scattered. The thought of being propelled into the air during the first heat and landing on someone’s anorak would be my final act of lunacy and defiance. 

The place of my birth and the country I still call home after nearly six decades shaped my formative years and is therefore my benchmark of change. As for my love this has been reluctantly chastened as the seat of Governance threatens the unity of another treasured part of my national identity. The United Kingdom. 

Δ (change) 100% 

(Love) 90% 



The northernmost part of the United Kingdom and a country I have visited numerous times. From Ayr on the west coast, north of the eighteenth-century childhood home of the bard Robert Burns, via bustling Glasgow to the east and the beautiful city of Edinburgh. The first time I stayed there I booked into the Glasshouse, a hotel where the staff would probably breath for you if you asked. And the most bizarre of all, an honesty bar! The compulsion to pour a double and only pay for a single or take a freebie was immense. No one was watching! Oh, the risk! But were there CCTV cameras? Those real-life dilemmas swamped me in an instant! I needed a drink or two to fathom this out! On the safe side, I paid a little bit more. A clever piece of business! 

The Royal Mile which connects the mighty Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, passing the majestic Scottish Parliament is a walk of wonderment. Although to be fair I was less impressed with the centerpiece of the Toy Museum. A Raleigh chopper bike. I am not ancient! 

For all of its outward elegance, there lurks below a horrible history. The Edinburgh vaults, completed in 1788 were originally used for business, taverns, and storage. Thirty-odd years later the badly maintained structures leached commercial use allowing the poor to move in. A trip around these cold, damp and spooky chambers is a must if only to recognize that the sheer gulf in the haves and have nots was only a few slabs. Inequality has never sat comfortably with me. 

Δ (change) 65% 

(Love) 80% 


Northern Ireland 

The most western part of the United Kingdom and one of the most incredible places on Earth. Belfast was my main site. As a child growing up, a city synonymous with violence. A civil war that the good people of this province called ‘the troubles’. As I sipped my pint in one of the ornate booths in the Crown Liquor Saloon owned by the National Trust, I was conscious that across the road was the Europa Hotel, the most bombed resort in Europe. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 the capital had celebrated significant change with an air of optimism that was evident, especially within the ranks for the numerous and engaging local cab drivers. 

Checking into the Titanic Hotel, Belfast, my connection to one of the most prosperous times for this remarkable city was palpable. This building was originally the drawing offices of Harland and Wolff, the architects of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic. As I stood close by on the edge of the now decommissioned dock where the then-largest movable structure ever built was launched one-hundred and nine years earlier I was totally overwhelmed by the wonder of human endeavor and ingenuity. The scale of achievement was herculean. Yet the flaws of human arrogance and the strata of class were obvious. Although never claimed to be unsinkable by the shipbuilders, media articles of the day nonetheless gave rise to the legend. The opulence of first-class passengers contrasted the struggles of the third-class ticket holders. Titanic was a microcosm of Great Britain at the turn of the twentieth century and I was sick to my stomach. The ultimate tragedy only added to this depression yet the striking Titanic visitor center, synthesizing the shape of four hulls and eerily, to me at least, an iceberg, represents how this fabulous place had the intrinsic ability to deal with heartache and bounce back. 

Passing the proud powerful yellow cranes still resplendent in their ‘H & W’ livery on my way to the Giants Causeway, a natural formation of thousands of interconnecting basalt columns, in County Antrim I felt the passion of the people of this often-maligned part of the United Kingdom. 

Δ (change) 90% 

(Love) 89% 



The closest to my current residence, Wales completes the formidable United Kingdom. The Severn Bridge is my favorite route in. I must have crossed here hundreds of times, yet this elegant structure with suspension cables taught like musical cords held aloft by the gigantic twin towers still takes my breath away. 

Cardiff never ceases to excite me. As an avid speedway fan, the manner in which the locals welcome the fifty-odd thousand noisy crowd from all corners of the European scene reflects the very core of the Welsh heart: welcoming, inclusive, and loyal. The Principality Stadium is part of the cityscape and the flow into the heart of the bustling metropolis is exquisite. And the biggest late-night treat has to be the slow train back to Swansea, my favorite place to overdose on delicious welsh cakes and maybe a little lava bread (seaweed) with breakfast. I am usually filled up with beer thus the journey seems to call at hundreds of tongue-twistingly named stations with my favorite ‘P-Talbut’ which locals appear to stop short at spitting out. The English would have you call it by its traditional name of Port Talbot. 

Wales has a big heart that never stops beating. I like Wales a lot. 

Δ (change) 70% 

(Love) 92% 



On exiting The Radisson Hotel Shanghai New World topped by the revolving spaceship sculpted restaurant a left turn takes you downtown where there is a more or less westernized feel. On turning right, I entered another dimension. Street food, including insects and every conceivable part of a chicken. Children eating the feet of chickens in the same manner as kids at home would devour a packet of crisps. It’s true what they say that in China the only part of a chicken they don’t eat is the cluck. 

I will never forget the moment I clapped my eyes on The Great Wall of China during a taxi ride out of Beijing. Snaking across the landscape, reflecting every contour it stretched beyond the horizon. Standing on the structure itself I realized the brilliance of human engineering yet simultaneously the folly of mankind. Even I realized that to successfully protect this barrier would take a colossal army to patrol it and human ingenuity would always work in opposing ways. Resourcefulness was mustered to build it and creativity would be used to breach it. Motionless, five hundred and thirty-two years after the last brick was laid, I took in the awe of this Wonder of the World that as a kid I had been told could be seen clearly from space. Nothing could ever top this. Or so I thought. 

Xi’an was my next stop, the home of the Terracotta Army. The short walk to the viewing area, shaped like an aircraft hangar was pretty uneventful. The food outlets were doing a roaring trade and I felt no more than a little curious since I had seen many pictures of the warriors and was familiar with the general narrative. As I gripped the metal rail of the viewing area I was changed forever. I had never considered myself to be religious although my hitherto inert spiritualism erupted as I drank in the scene. Facsimiles of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s elite army. Row upon row. Each one unique, poised to protect their ruler in the afterlife. Archers, the cavalry with their trusty steeds and the swathes of infantry. How terrified of death had the Emperor been to have mandated that eight thousand soldiers were in need of eternal mobilization? What dark deeds had he committed in his lifetime that needed such protection? Was there indeed some truth in the notion of heaven and hell? The fact that only a section of the whole army had been excavated only added to this feeling of complete disorientation posing a litany of questions that I am never likely to secure satisfactory explanations to. 

Δ (change) 90% 

(Love) 80% 


Dear reader, we are about a third of the way around the World according to Kirke. Next time the moments that stopped me in my tracks in, amongst other places, Poland, Indonesia, the United States of America, and Holland. Until the next time stay safe. 

© Ian Kirke 2021