Archives for May 2012


Heading through Kidmore End today going north, part of a decent road ride on a classic story-book blue-sky-big-white-clouds English summer day, I passed a ‘Community Grocer’ van.

Blues skies and white clouds

Blues skies, white clouds

Firstly, I thought what a sensible idea that was – that has to be a help to people who’d otherwise be cut-off in villages like that, now that rural bus services are so dismal. Secondly, it made me smile a little bit at the way so much that’s seemingly new isn’t – when I was a very young lad living near Plymouth there used to be a commercial (as opposed to community) greengrocer’s van coming around, and a bread van too. And thirdly, I wondered if the chap driving it was dying.

As I rode by, I caught out of the corner of my eye the sight of a man kneeling in the driver’s seat, seemingly doubled-up as he faced backwards, with his arm across his chest. It was a totally unnatural position to be in. This was as I rode by; by the time I’d reached the village nursery – just a few yards further along – I’d concluded I had to turn around to see if he was OK.

As I rode back I was working out whether it would be quicker to turn my mobile on to call an ambulance or ask the nursery school teachers I could see out in their garden to dial 999. When I drew level with the van I could see the chap was fine: false alarm.

Not long later I was riding through Nuffield. There was a baby bird – probably a blue tit – in the road. I would guess it had just fledged or perhaps been disturbed from the nest. As I rode by a car overtook me and the draught from it knocked the bird over. As it struggled to right itself, I thought it looked injured.

I rode on. It worried me just as much as the chap in the grocer’s van but unlike in his case, I couldn’t formulate a plan of action. I didn’t know what I should or could do if I did go back.

I doubt I could have rescued it; I doubt any bird charity would have taken it in if I had been able to pick it up. I had some vague idea in the back of my mind that if it was fine but I touched it, it would be abandoned by its parents and I’d be making the situation worse. (I have no idea if that’s true.) I feared that if it was injured then the kind thing to do would be to kill it – but that I’d be too much of a coward to do it. And so I rode on – which is just as cowardly.

I can’t say I felt happy with myself; I still don’t. Cowardice isn’t a great trait – to witness in others or to find in yourself. What it boils down to is that I only went back to the grocer’s van because I would have been able to call on the resources of others – the emergency services – to sort it out.

Sitting Down Again

A late morning short leg-stretcher on a fixed-wheel – some exercise on an otherwise enervating hot spring day when it would be all too easy to just do nothing.

Nothing much was happening; there weren’t a lot of people around; nature – animals, birds, even vegetation – was remarkably still on a hot and quite calm day.

And now I’ve started noticing them, there were seats for the public cropping up all over the place – in Emmer Green, Sonning Common and in Binfield Heath. There was an elderly couple sitting on the bench at the end of Kiln Road, and families on the seats in the park at Binfield Heath.

Benches in a park, here in Binfield Heath

Benches in a park in Binfield Heath

These seats, they’re not just tokens or left-overs from a bygone era. I wonder if they’re more important than anyone might give them credit for; if they – in some quiet way – represent a really very basic decency that’s too easy to take for granted.

Sitting Down Outside

Near Twyford today I had to stop and tighten a cleat (the bit that allows a shoe to clip in to a pedal). That was just sloppy on my part: I’d changed them a little while ago, ridden them since but not checked and tightened them. A basic over-sight but no big deal: a multi-tool will fix most on-road problems.

What it made me think about wasn’t bike maintenance but the fact that I could sit on a bench to sort it out. It, the bench, was just there, on a grassy few square yards near Ruscombe Church.

Public seats near Ruscombe Church

Seats near Ruscombe Church

That’s really quite wonderful. It’s civilised and it’s caring.

Once you start noticing them, there are lots of places for the public to sit down outside, provided by councils or churches or any number of other groups or individuals. If you look further, there are any number of semi-public seats – in National Trust properties and that sort of place – for people to rest on, outside. Add to them all the seats in gardens and it’s obvious that we like sitting down outside.

That’s not something you’d naturally associate with Britain – land of grey skies and showers. Perhaps as time goes on they’ll get more appropriate. Today was another day hovering around the 80F mark and the second day in a row with a very strong wind accompanying it. And there I was, thinking Sirocco-like conditions weren’t for old Blighty.

The saving grace for this time of year is that hot air isn’t so thick, so the strong winds of the last couple of days aren’t so hard to battle against as they would be in winter. It looks far worse than it is once you get out there. The classic ‘out in to the headwind, back with a tailwind’ works well.

Dripping and Salty

And just like that, it’s now unseasonably hot. After the unusually cold and the unusually dry, we get the unusually hot. And still no-one seems alarmed … which is perhaps odd. Perhaps we’re all fatalists.

Perhaps it just demonstrates how selfish we all are at root: yes, I can see climate change is a problem and I’ll go the extra mile and recycle an extra cardboard box, but don’t expect me to actually change anything significant. Don’t ask me to give up breeding or foreign holidays or driving everywhere or … or … or …

The first red poppy of the year

The first red poppy of 2012

Hot weather changes things: there were Red Kites flying higher today than they have been for a while, turning gently in big lazy loops, and there were Buzzards slowly circling even higher; even the crows mobbing the lower-flying Kites didn’t seem that fussed.

The swifts chasing insects in the lanes below Woodcote weren’t flying as fast as they often do; the blackbirds and the unidentified LBJs* criss-crossing between hedges didn’t have any urgency either.

Nor could I muster any speed, in the long plod up the hill to Woodcote itself. It’s fair to say I was dripping at the top and salty by the time I arrived home: not exactly delightful but it’s not a problem – just drink a lot during and after and enjoy being out.

In fact cycling is one of the few things I’m happy and relieved to be doing on a really hot day; as long as you keep moving it’s fine and even warm air passing over you is cooling when the temperature’s nudging 80F. When you stop, get indoors and guzzle and you’ll be all the better for the ride and none the worse for sweating.

As with any other weather, the trick is to get on with it and enjoy it for what it is and don’t fall for the notions of good and bad – it’s all just weather.

The hot weather doesn’t just bring about changes in animals: there’s a little more colour appearing in the vegetation now – more yellows, more blues and a lone red poppy made an appearance today too. I think it’s true to say that the more I look, the more I see. Noticing the things around you does make being alive more satisfying.

(*little brown jobs)

Germander Speedwell

Germander Speedwell

Bold and Brave

When Red Kites were first becoming more common around these parts you could guarantee that if you neared one perched, typically, in a tree, it would fly off. No matter how high the tree and lofty its perch, just a human coming along would make it put in what often looks like a lot of effort and lift off. The first thing they learned was that cars weren’t a problem – they wouldn’t fly off for a car going by, but they still would for a pedestrian or cyclist. They are continuing to learn: today one landed in a tree as I approached, not far out of Caversham, and it just ignored me cycling along – it wasn’t even high up in a tall tree.

I don’t know if you can apply concepts such as bold or brave to animals; I rather suspect not. They’re just becoming familiar with people. Quite naturally, familiarity breeds if not contempt then certainly some awareness that the typical human is no threat. Dolled-up in lycra and balanced on a bike, they may be an eyesore – but not a threat.

Just a few yards after being ignored by the Kite, two girls came hurtling along down the lane – the first in something like a new-ish open top little Renault, the second in what looked like a fairly tatty Ford Fiesta. I might be wrong. They were racing each other – I could see the one in front was paying more attention to her rear view mirror than to the road ahead. It wasn’t a close shave for me or anything faintly resembling it, but if I’d been even a mid-sized van like a Transit, things would have been a bit fraught all round.

I’m know I’m old enough to suspect anyone under about the age of 30 is in fact barely 12, policemen included, but these two weren’t ‘women’ in the sense that that word means mature female – they were girls. If they were over 20 I’ll be surprised.

I doubt you can call the actions of youth bold or brave either. We’ve all been there – there’s a feeling of invulnerability that’s so common in the young. You can’t be bold or brave without the alternatives crossing your mind – without considering the timid option, without feeling fear. I suspect the fact that they might be risking a bad car crash for the fun of a chase down a lane simply never crossed their minds.

I don’t know how you can legislate for that; the best you can do is attempt to educate – to show the fragility of it all.

And if it had gone horribly wrong for them and they’d ended up crashing, thrown from their cars, dead in a ditch, I don’t know what the right response would have been. It would have been just nature really – you get old if you can survive the follies of youth. That’s true for pretty well all animals.

We wouldn’t have been able shrug it off though, even if we should. There would have been an outcry of some sort about dangerous roads, some public hand-wringing about kid drivers, and some media fool standing outside where one or other of them lived and talking to camera about the shock it’s been to ‘the local community’. No-one would say it’s just nature.

And if the first to the ditch had been that Red Kite, viewing a corpse for the carrion it is, there would have been an outcry about that as well – even though that’s just nature too. A cull for birds of prey would probably be just around the corner.

Free / Shame

The sky seemed on the verge of ominous for most of today; it could easily have rained at almost any time. As it was, Charli and I fitted in a decent enough road ride taking in places like Sonning, Wargrave and Henley, criss-crossing over a now much subsided Thames in comparison to just a few days ago. All that precious water running away and the threat of drought still remaining – all for the want of some forward-thinking investment, for the want of something other than short-termism and greed.

The thought that struck me today was that Charli and I were free – free to ride where we wanted, when we wanted. Free to get outside and ride. That’s something to appreciate on so many levels, but today it’s just hit home in the most basic way: we’re not in prison. Fair enough, we’ve done nothing to merit being in prison. But nor did Sam Hallam, who it seems has spent seven years in jail for nothing and who’s only been freed this week.

That’s seven years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Police didn’t investigate his alibi. Evidence, including mobile phone data and CCTV footage, was never disclosed. People made those decisions; people, not ‘the system’.

I don’t know how I’d cope with that kind of injustice. It’s one thing to be being punished legitimately; it’s quite another to be framed. And as Patrick Maguire said, while there’s plenty of state help for former, genuinely guilty, prisoners, there’s none for the framed innocent if and when they’re released. Patrick Maguire should know – he spent four years in prison for something he didn’t do.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, I don’t think it can be over-stated. This is the apparatus of the state knowingly persecuting an innocent man. It’s not the first time – far from it. In Britain, we’re taught that this is the kind of thing that happens in tin-pot countries ruled by corrupt dictators. In Britain, we’re taught lies.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, is haunting. The absence of a major media-led outcry about it is shaming.

Today we rode past the Henley Regatta grounds – the marquees are going up already. The preparations take weeks. High society will gather there – the great and the good – and they’ll have been totally unruffled by what’s happened to Sam Hallam. As long as it doesn’t involve them it doesn’t matter.

I also read today that the government, after a Freedom of Information request, has had to reveal that over 1,000 Civil Servants have ‘snooped’ on British citizens’ private data. Against that backdrop, the government wants the power to pry extended even further. Again, there’s no concerted national outcry and, again, the great and good won’t worry about it – they’ll imagine it will never concern them.

One day it will.

One day, security services will use the powers granted to them by government against a government or against a potential government. More people will be framed, and unless we are very, very careful, sooner or later we’ll get to a point where the framed are never freed.

Photo: A Hawthorn hedge in full flower

A Hawthorn hedge in full flower. Up to 200,000 miles of Hawthorn hedge were planted during the Parliamentary Enclosures, from 1750.

Sam Hallam and Patrick Maguire.
Civil Servants snooping.
Government plans to monitor electronic activity.
The Innocence Network – working against wrongful convictions.