Archives for March 2011

Fall-Out Saturation

Radiation warning sign

Fall-out saturation

The really perfect-for-riding spring weather continues. I’ve been out for varying length rides for five days in a row now and the legs (after a bad winter) are feeling it, but getting out on days like these is hard to resist. A bad day out on the bike is better than a good day at work, and other knackered and not really completely true clichés.

In contrast to all that good feeling, the air and missile strikes against Libya continue, and an awful lot of people in Japan are continuing to suffer. The death toll there is steadily rising too as uncertainties are replaced with harsh facts. The major development today seems to be the radiation in the water in Tokyo and presumably elsewhere too. That’s not good by anyone’s measure.

In a properly incredible coincidence, I overheard Bowie’s ‘Drive In Saturday’ while riding today, with the line about “fall out saturation”, coming from someone’s open top car.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the general topic of happiness. The idea of some kind of happiness index, or measuring the nation’s happiness rather than crude economic data, comes and goes at the national level and is often met with the sort of baying derision you’d expect from people who get their kicks from money and buying endless amounts of stuff, none of which makes them any happier. But measuring happiness, making any judgements about it, is fiendishly difficult. It’s easy to feel there are a lot of forces out there lining up to rob us all of happiness. Something to cogitate on.

I do know I am very unhappy at the thought of peoples around the world thinking the attacks on Libya are being done in my name as a British citizen. The same applies to Iraq, Afghanistan. There are people around the world who might justifiably look upon any Brit as party to war crimes. That’s quite sobering.

Everyone was more-or-less fine and considerate today despite doing quite a few urban miles, with the exception of one Transit van while I was going through town. It was no big deal, not a close shave, but he cut across in front of me to take a gap in the traffic and yes, I had to slow down. I’m pretty sure he’d have done the same if I was a car coming at him at the same speed I was doing – he’d been waiting to get across for a while and it was busy.

As always, the key issue is how to respond – and the only sensible thing to do is to not get worked up, not gesticulate or shout or anything else. The real bottom line in life is that by and large what goes around comes around. If someone goes through life being inconsiderate, then he’ll be met with inconsideration. That’s a sweet enough thought. Getting wound up just brings you down.

Of course, it’s perfectly legitimate to spend a few moments dwelling on how best the inconsideration he will eventually be on the receiving end of might manifest itself.

Oil And War

So, there I am, enjoying riding a bike around English country lanes on a decent Spring day, while military personnel are going to war in Libya, in deed if not in name, and in theory in my name. Of course this isn’t on the same scale and there are no parallels that I can think of, but all the same I’m reminded about those lovely English summer days at the start of World War Two. That must have felt even more incongruous, surely.

My grandfather fought in North Africa in the Second World War. That was a clear-cut war. Today, the British (and coalition) action against Libya doesn’t ‘feel’ right to me, doesn’t ring true. After all, the Libyan regime’s been in place for over 40 years. It might not be a model of democracy but it’s not known for its atrocities. And let’s face it, the West has been pretty happy to cosy up to it in recent years. No, it would seem to be more the case that –

  • ‘we’ had convinced ourselves that we were happy enough with Qadhafi but he’s not perceived to be the most reliable of individuals;
  • on the back of the Egyptian experience, some kind of popular revolt started;
  • ‘we’ looked at what happened in Egypt and backed the Libyan rebels;
  • the Libyan rebels started losing;
  • if they lose completely, that would leave ‘us’ with a lot of impossible-to-clean-off egg on ‘our’ faces;
  • ‘we’ end up concluding we’ve no choice but to try and help the rebels.

Qadhafi’s repression of the revolt is a pretty flimsy excuse. And no other regimes have harshly suppressed their own people? Come on – don’t insult our collective intelligence. What would a government in London do if faced with an armed mass uprising in, say, Scotland, Wales or Cornwall? Just let it happen? Civil wars can happen very, very easily. Former Yugoslavia anyone?

And of course none of this would have happened / be happening if Libya didn’t have oil. ‘We’ wouldn’t have been keen to ‘rehabilitate’ Qadhafi and cosy up to him; ‘we’ wouldn’t have been so keen on regime change as soon as there was the first whiff of it being a possibility; ‘we’ wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.

Military Communications

Military Communications

Relative Misery

Time being tighter than normal this week – work intervenes – so far it’s just been two brief rides on a fixed wheel bike, bookending one less-than-great regular road ride: into a fairly strong easterly wind for 10 miles outward bound and the homeward leg blighted by lousy road surfaces for at least 50% of the time.

There have been very few pedestrians around on any of the days; several notably considerate drivers give me room to avoid pot-holes, overtook with thought. It’s always appreciated; I always try to acknowledge it too. It does no harm to say thank you. Particular thanks to the Royal Mail van driver at the roundabout near White Waltham airfield, going out of his way to let me know I didn’t have to slow down for the junction.

Again, all things are relative. I’m hacked off by some lousy roads. That is not a big deal. Japan remains a good contrast. With the scale of the devastation still unfolding and the nuclear plant issues seemingly worsening, it would be hard to not let the plight of so many people cross your mind.

It would be bogus to say it is troubling; it’s not keeping me awake at nights. But it is distracting – the scale of the destruction is attention-grabbing. Of course, that it is distracting is media-driven, by the mainstream media and others channels too. Whether via TV, via different aspects of the ‘net or whatever else, the before and after images, the amateur footage, the on-the-spot newscasts relayed around the world all make for compelling viewing.

We didn’t get the same ‘great coverage’ of the earthquake in Haiti. Whatever the death toll in Japan, I’d bet a lot of money the number of casualties in Haiti will be vastly higher, and the recovery will there will take far longer – if it ever happens.

A TV report on the Japanese disaster made me question what I thought earlier, about any sympathy I might feel being futile and vacuous. It mentioned survivors being surprised and grateful at world interest and concern. Perhaps I am too cynical. I don’t know. I still don’t know what a meaningful gesture of support would amount to. This is the world’s third largest economy. They don’t need hand-outs. Perhaps we should give money to Haiti instead, our consciences pricked by the better coverage of the misery in Japan.

‘Consciences pricked’ or ‘consciences stirred’?

It does me no credit to say that, until now, I’d forgotten about Haiti in the months since it happened, but at least I’d not actively decided to ignore it. That would have been worse.

The big earthquakes this century, so far –

  • Haiti 2010: 220,000 dead
  • China 2008: 87,000 dead
  • Pakistan 2005: 86,000 dead

The misery and suffering in Japan may be terrible; it may also be small in comparison. Things – all things – can only be properly judged and understood in context.

Mutating Daffodils

Despite the Spring weather and the near-complete absence of even a blade of grass stirring, the wind was a real factor today. A ‘cyclist’s wind’ – not obvious, but hard work to ride into. Dispiriting. There’s a downhill stretch that I’ll normally roll down at about 22-23 mph on an average day; today it was 18-19, purely because of the wind. The approach of go out into the prevailing wind, come back with a tail wind paid off. I was tired by about the 18th mile but from there it was either tail- or favourable cross-wind all the way back.

A headwind. Oh, what hardship. As I went out this morning news about a large explosion at one of the Japanese nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake yesterday was just breaking. I crossed the M4 twice today and it was busy both ways. I could picture a mass exodus on Japan’s highways if the radiation leaks are going to get serious. We’ve all seen similar scenes on the news – motorways jammed with citizens fleeing this or that disaster.

It felt like Spring today, lots of growth bursting through and that little bit warmer. I’m inclined to think it’s observable, tangible, that good weather puts people in a good mood but perhaps it’s just me. Cyclists tend to be very weather-sensitive. Good weather puts me in a good mood and so I see the world as a better place, but it’s in fact the same as it ever was. I don’t know.

Flower buds: Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

Daffodils coming out can look attractive but what dumb word that is. It’s the ‘dil’ that seals its fate. Scott Adam’s ever-put-upon Dilbert, Robert Thompson’s superb Dill in Cul-de-Sac. I found myself wondering whether daffodils would mutate in a radiation-saturated landscape. Mutate into what?

It’s Not Schadenfreude

It’s just an average southern English mid-March day. Not hot, not cold; not sunny but not as grey as many. A decent enough day for a bike ride. An average early-in-the-year temperate climate day.

In Japan there’s been a large earthquake and what looks to have been a very damaging tsunami. A stint riding by the Thames and the post-winter debris caught up near a lock keeps the disaster there firmly in mind.

I know no-one in Japan. It is extremely unlikely to have a direct impact on me; I certainly can’t foresee one. In that I’m just the same as most other people in the UK I guess. And just like them, I’ve found myself fascinated as I watch the footage of it all. The BBC – TV and online – has been full of it all day. Regular schedules are being altered on BBC1 and BBC-HD, and the rolling news channel BBC News 24 can’t get enough of it.

I suppose the abject failure of BBC News 24 can’t be better demonstrated than by the fact that they feel they have to interrupt BBC1 to cover major news. They only persist with it to save face. All rolling news stations are founded on the bogus premise that there is that much news – according to their own agenda – worth broadcasting; that and the vain self-importance of ‘news people’.

The ghoulishness of what we’re all supposed to be like is well demonstrated by the BBC-HD coverage. I can’t think of any other reason to show human misery in high definition. Are tears somehow better when you can see them clearly? Wounds? Broken limbs? Wrecked homes?

It seems we’re all rubber-neckers. At least, it seems the BBC, the nation’s broadcaster, judges that we are. If we’ll slow down to watch a motorway pile-up, then hell yes, we’ll all watch a nation-scale catastrophe, even if it is on the other side of the world.


Flotsam, but on an insignificant scale

Perhaps that’s a key factor, that it is on the other side of the world. A safe distance. It’s not as if you’ll be staring at someone you know dying. That makes it so much better.

It’s nonsensical to sense there’s an incongruity in riding around lanes, struggling a bit up hills, enjoying some hints of warmth from the sun but feeling as if that’s all somehow wrong because of an earthquake thousands of miles away. Nevertheless, it niggles at me the whole time I’m out. I’m not comfortable that I’m willing to,even keen to watch disasters befalling others.

I can make excuses, I suppose, along the lines of it being the ‘power of nature’ that I’m watching and not human misery. That it’s the scale of the event that’s gripping, not the individual pain and loss. Those are true statements … but I suspect that’s not the whole truth. Schadenfreude? No, I’m not deriving any pleasure from the misfortune of others. It’s not akin to a Roman Holiday. Some feeling of ‘there but for the grace of god’ doesn’t work either. We don’t have earthquakes like that here. Something like that is never likely to befall us. There’s no plausible ‘lucky escape’.

Perhaps it’s positive to be reminded of our collective mortality.

I could say the victims of it have my sympathy but that’s futile and vacuous. As if it means a thing. I took some pictures of some debris on the river and thought about the scale of the debris strewn around in Japan.

I said hello to two old boys walking along the lane near May’s Green as I rode by them, pretty confident in expecting an acknowledgement. What I got was the most ‘hale and hearty’ greeting back that I think I’ve ever had. Wonderful. The sort of event to makes you smile, any day, whatever’s going on in the world. And that’s odd too.