Archives for November 2011

Bravery In The Fading Light

The coldest night of the year so far, followed by a very slow-to-warm-up day – blighted by lots of patchy cloud. It wasn’t quite that foul uniform blanket of grey that’s enough to depress anyone, but it was doing its best to bring you down.

I suppose in my defence I can say that riding in cold weather has played havoc with the general chronic sinus-related grief I’m cursed by, so my wariness about going out when it is in the low 40s Fahrenheit, or lower, is justified.

So it was that I rolled out at around 2pm, just as it reached 46F, with the intention of getting in a 40 mile trip.

I don’t go well in the afternoons. I don’t really like riding after lunch at all. Needs must – it’s a full week this week with a patchy weather forecast too. And in truth I did OK for the most part, but at about 30 miles the light started to drop rapidly and I had to make a judgement about whether to keep riding with just a couple of small ‘safety lights’, or whether to call it a day and call on a friend for a lift home. I went for prudence and called Charli; I carried on riding and we met up at about 33 miles. It was very dull by then, and the decision was the right one. By the time we pulled in to my place it was, well, late dusk and dusk is probably the worst time to be out on the roads – it’s a far more dangerous light than when it’s properly dark.

So, why this humdrum tale? I thought the unbidden considerations that just turned up in my mind as I was wondering whether to stop or not were interesting, albeit in a not very satisfying way. For a start, I don’t think anyone would ever call me proud but I was wondering whether I’m somehow failing for giving up. I wondered, too, whether I was being somehow cowardly or a bit of a wimp, but I’ve never thought prudence was cowardly nor the prudent wimpish.

Initially I thought the question to consider is where do those thoughts come from; why do I give them any mental time when I know I disagree with them. But really, I guess, that’s easy enough to answer: ‘macho values’, for want of a better shorthand, are all too commonly held desirable, particularly for males. On the whole they’re stupid but that’s never stopped a notion from having currency.

Perhaps a more interesting angle to ponder is why I was happy to ‘fail’ and ‘wimp out’. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s age and the lessons of experience, but I’m not sure I’d have behaved any differently 20 years ago. Perhaps it’s rooted in the way I’ve rarely felt the need to prove myself to anyone other than myself – I just never have. (For that matter, I’m not interested in competing with others either; the only person I ever feel a need to beat is me and all the limitations I come with. If I beat someone else at something – so what?)

Perhaps I’m really very macho; perhaps it would be more sensible if we all recognised that knowing your limits, knowing what’s prudent, knowing when to stop as well as when to carry on, is harder than just ‘toughing it out’ or ‘carrying on regardless’. Perhaps.

And then you read of someone like Tommy Godwin, who in 1939 set the record for the most miles ridden in a year – a record that still stands. His utterly staggering 75,065 miles – yes, seventy five thousand – makes any notion of effort, endurance, bravery or anything else on my part that I might even vaguely think of as laudable into a permanent and very deep shade.

It Didn’t Just Happen

Riding along what I call Harpsden Bottom today, in fact on the lower stretch of road between Perseverance Hill and Chalk Hill, three horses looked for all the world like three wise judges passing verdict on me as I rode by. They were perfectly lined-up in near identical poses; it has to have been by chance but – stupidly – it’s somehow more pleasing to imagine it was deliberate. Why such an unlikely incident of chance shouldn’t be as pleasing is a failing.

Something ‘just happening’ is how South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) would like us to believe the roads come to be in the state they’re in. I saw a road sign today that I’d never seen before: ”Failed Road”. It isn’t, therefore, closed. It’s not restricted. It’s just “Failed”.

Firstly, there are plenty of worse roads than that one (Blackmore Lane, Sonning Common) within their jurisdiction; I presume they feel they can get away with labelling this one as such because it’s so minor.

Secondly, it did not just fail. Roads need to be maintained. Roads fail when they are not maintained. It is that simple. The sign should read: “Road Users Failed By The Council”, or “The Council Has Failed To Maintain This Road”, or similar.

Would that there could be such honesty.

Instead, we get this passive “Failed Road” sign, as if it somehow just happened, with no human being responsible. SODC aren’t alone among councils in this sort of approach. Councils aren’t alone in society in this sort of approach. It’s like a pox that’s spread far and wide, first among the leaders then amongst the led. The people we have allowed to assume any kind of authority welcome every opportunity to take the rewards without any responsibility. The people who are victims of this callow, venal class have fallen for the lie and are all too happy to apply it to their own existences.

Litter And Racism

A longer ride and some greasy roads, but it was good to be out. As I set off I was reasonably confident I’d remember the route through Pinkney’s Green to get down to Marlow, as I’ve done it once or twice before. That confidence proved optimistic and I needed the reassurance of two helpful walkers somewhere near Bigfrith (I think) that I was on the right road. I was … although I had no recollection of it.

The hairpin bends on the descent were horrible – really slippery. That sort of thing makes you realise how brave you’d have to be to ride a bike professionally, where you’re expected to go down mountains, quickly. Everything else about pro cycling aside, I’m just not brave enough to feel for a nano-second that I missed my vocation.

The hill out of Marlow, heading back to Henley, was as bad as ever.

There’s an awful amount of litter about these days – it’s everywhere; quiet country lanes are no exception. I completely fail to understand why anyone would drop litter – the unthinkingly discarded sweet wrapper or similar. How people can do something like actively dump a take-away meal on a verge or in a hedge beggars belief. At least fly-tipping – builders’ rubble and tyres most typically – I can sort of understand as a money-making / money-saving act, however grotesque it is and however depressing it might be.

A friend who’s Polish and who’s lived here for years but still visits relatives at home fairly often, blames ‘bloody East Europeans’. He says they just don’t have the same view of these things as the Brits do.

I have no idea if that’s true. I have no idea if that’s racist. If a Pole says that of Poles then I suspect most people will say that’s not racist, in the same way as if a Brit says Brits are insular and yawn-inducingly obsessed with the weather no-one gets up in arms. But if someone says something – something broadly true – of a group they’re not a member of, or even if someone reports another’s comments, as I’ve done with a Pole’s comments about Poles … that’s a different territory altogether. I don’t know if that has any logic at all.

Talking about it with Charli, her experience of it being drummed into her at school to never drop litter was formative and powerful – and exactly the same lesson that I received. I wonder if they teach anything like that in schools now. It should be core; that kind of small-scale respect for what’s around you is an important building block. There have been plenty of studies to show that litter begats more litter which begats fly-tipping which begats vandalism which begats other crimes. A neighbourhood that looks uncared for rapidly becomes uncared for, and people live in neighbourhoods. No-one deservers to live in an uncared-for neighbourhood.

Right Wing

A short-ish road ride with Charli, and as we neared Henley we witnessed a car chase. Speeding up Remenham Hill was a Mercedes with its tyres blown out, rubber-smoke billowing out from behind. In pursuit, a police helicopter, three police cars and a police van. High drama indeed. We were going the other way and none of this posed a threat to us.

Later, we read that the car had been stolen some days earlier in London; that the pursuit ended in a crash in which some poor unfortunate passing motorist was hit and hurt (although at least incurring only minor injuries), that the car caught fire and two men, one 18, one 23, were arrested, and stolen goods from a burglary were found.

What’s interesting is my knee-jerk reaction – and that of all the contemporaries I talked about the incident with. That reaction was, basically, ‘shame the two men didn’t die in the crash’.

It’s a well-worn belief that ‘we all get more right wing as we get older’. I can’t say I can think of any reason why that has to be inherently so. I’m ashamed at that knee-jerk reaction. It’s ignorant and founded on nothing but assumption and prejudice. I have no idea about the circumstances that led up to those two blokes being in that situation.

The trouble is, I have a lot of trouble imagining circumstances that could in any way justify all the aggravation and hassle they’ve caused to their victims, the danger they put other road users in and the injury they caused one, the way they apparently hit two manned police cars as they tried to get away, and so on. Perhaps that just betrays a lack of imagination on my part.

And I also have come to suspect that no prison sentence or other punishment will steer someone in his 20s on to the straight and narrow but that is founded on nothing; it has no factual basis; I’ve no knowledge about the relationship between recidivism and age. It is just knee jerk dumb prejudice. That is ugly; it’s depressing to find yourself thinking it and it’s depressing to find contemporaries thinking the same.

Bad Ambassadors

Pootling along today, I was overtaken by a group of five cyclists. Three of them were in a team strip – a local shop’s team; two were in other colours but riding with them. They came by me without a word, riding very, very close to me – unnecessarily so, it wasn’t on a narrow lane. It was unfriendly; you could argue it was sort-of aggressive. In either case I don’t care – I’m big enough and ugly enough to look after myself.

What I do object to was that they made me jump and if I’d be a less experienced rider that would have been either unnerving at best or downright dangerous. If it’d swerved – startled, or to avoid a pot hole for that matter – I could easily have brought them down. It would have been ‘them’ too, as they were dumb enough to be riding tightly together with overlapping wheels, which is a sure-fire way to have a mass crash.

I more-or-less kept up with them for a while, gapped only by the breaks in the traffic. The three in their uniforms went ahead of the other two and I lost sight of them. Tailing the other two, after a while I saw them coming up to a pair of horse-riders. I can’t swear to it because I was several yards back, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t give any warning to the horse-riders that they were approaching – i.e. they treated them with the same rudeness as they did me, but that’s far more dangerous with horses. Certainly, by the time I got to the horses, their riders were well hacked off. Presumably, the three in uniform had been just as inconsiderate.

All in all, it was tedious and wearisome. Whether we like it or not, non-cyclists tend to lump ‘bloody cyclists’ all together. Pretty well all cyclists struggle to be treated fairly on the roads. Cyclists like these five do that struggle no favours at all. They will have won no friends for cycling today.

What’s more, I’m not sure it’s a very sensible thing for the local bike shop to be sponsoring riders like these. Sure, having a sponsor’s presence at race meetings and what-have-you is probably going to help win trade from racing cyclists. I’d wager that there’s far more money to be earned from non-racing cyclists though, and all these ‘brand ambassadors’ are going to achieve are thoroughly alienated casual cyclists. Cycling at any level beyond the most utilitarian can seem very arcane to the outsider. If I were new to riding and had received this kind of treatment from this shop’s team out on the road, then you can be sure I wouldn’t be going to that shop to be similarly looked down upon by the staff, which I’d be quite reasonably assuming would be of the same ilk.

Later, between Wargrave and Crazies Hill, I came across a dead squirrel being eaten by a buzzard – one of those pale-variants with a light coloured head and neck. As he or she was tucking in, a crow was hopping about very nearby, not quite bold enough to grab a bit to eat but nearly. Of course, as I neared they both flew off. When I looked back the crow was tucking in but the buzzard was nowhere to be seen. Curious to see what would happen I stopped (which is unusual for me) and watched for five minutes. In that time three cars went by and each time the crow flew up but was back as soon as it was safe. A magpie turned up but wasn’t brave enough to take on the crow and after the third car disturbed them, didn’t bother to return. The buzzard never showed up again and that’s the bit that struck me as odd; I’d have imagined that would be the dominant one, top of the pecking order, and the one most keen to retain the prize. We imagine all sorts of wrong things.

Nature Learning

A short ride with Charli, who’s been off the bike with various minor (non cycling) aches and pains for a few weeks.

It continues to be unseasonally mild. We both commented on the brightness of the moss to be found growing in the centre of quiet lanes, and there’s new grass growing here and there too that’s similarly vivid. The temperature-moisture combination must be just right. It’s also suiting fungi, which seem to be popping up everywhere in any number of different varieties.

Even on some busier roads – such as the one that goes by Sandford Mill – there’s moss (or is it lichen?) growing here are there. It’s not as thick as on very quiet lanes, but there’s a visible green sheen. Of course, it’s also lethally slippery.

The birds that are around seem different too – there are very few blackbirds, for instance. Presumably they migrate to here and so far haven’t made the journey.

It’s interesting and, I guess, a privilege to witness birds learning. That’s certainly true of red kites. A few years ago they were rare and very shy. Now they can rightly be called common and are far more bold. Today there were two sitting on adjacent lamp posts on the A4 near Twyford, more than likely just waiting for some fresh road kill. They are, after all, primarily scavengers. They’ve got to know about road kill; they’ve learned that they can sit that close to humans and be rarely, if ever, bothered.