Archives for June 2013

Never Before

Riding today, it struck me that never before have I seen so many dying bees on the roads. There aren’t hundreds of them, but I’ve noticed several of late and I think that’s a first. Climate change? Disease? I’ve no idea. I know worker bees do die off, but if what I’m noticing is unusual we should all be very worried.

I’ve never noticed young Wrens, newly fledged, before but I did earlier this week, in undergrowth to the side of woods near Mapledurham. And today I saw a female Blackbird busy feeding what I guess will be a second brood; I’ve seen more second-brood-related activity this year than ever before, both in my garden and out and about.

I’ve never noticed so many fallow fields before; today I wondered whether that was because of subsidies for ‘set aside’ land, depressed markets or similar; or whether it was because crops planned for them had failed with the late seasons this year.

Fallow fields

Fallow, or a sign of failed crops?


I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so conscious of my shorts having settled down as I rode around to being a good half-inch above the permanent ‘farmer’s tan’ mark on my legs: a pallid tide line isn’t a pretty sight – I know that. I can only apologise.

And never before have I contemplated killing government officials but today, as I dodged pot-holes, I found myself wondering whether that’s what I might do – perhaps even ought to do.

Let’s say someone I loved hit a pot-hole while cycling, fell off and died. People will have been responsible for that hole – some single person, some people in a chain of command, some people responsible for employing other people, for setting budgets, for setting the low quality standards that are deemed acceptable these days. My loved one’s death would be the direct fault of people – real, accountability-dodging people. No court would do anything about them. Some public hand-wringing and trite, bogus, hollow ‘our thoughts are with the family’ statements by the representatives of the apparatus that employs those responsible people aside, nothing would change as a result of that death – unless I took personal action.

I’ve no desire to be judge, jury or executioner, none whatsoever, but as I rode around today I wasn’t sure what would be morally right if people in a chain of responsibility killed my loved one; I wasn’t sure whether exercising such an extreme form of retributive justice could be argued to be right in the absence of a legal system willing to act, in the name of both natural justice and – as long as the reason for the killing was explained – in the name of trying to raise standards and thus prevent other unnecessary deaths on the road. I just wasn’t sure.

If the law fails, if the law is wrong, ‘taking the law into your own hands’, surely, can’t always be the wrong course of action. That is a very unsettling thought.

De-humanization

Last week I was up in Coventry. The drive there was almost all dual carriageways and motorways and, predictably enough, I didn’t see one cyclist. Of course, there were no pedestrians to be seen either. On trips like that, all you’re interacting with is your fellow human cargo in motorized metal boxes.

It struck me that the journey there had given me no realistic impression at all of the countryside I’d travelled through: the view from the motorways varies as you go but it’s all been smoothed and smothered by the needs of the motor vehicles. You can’t get any ‘feel’ for how it is to live in the regions you’re driving through. There’s no interaction with the people of different regions either, of course, and that’s just as much of a shame because there remains a remarkable variation between the peoples of the different locales in Britain.

Coming home, we went across country in the main – the lanes of Warwickshire and the B-roads or minor A-roads of Oxfordshire, a lot of the more northern parts of which are wholly unfamiliar to me. It looked like good cycling country – the roads were relatively quiet and, until you get around the Oxford City area and below, in far better condition than I’m regularly putting up with. The scenery seemed attractive; the landscape lacks any grand features – big hill ranges or rivers – but, I’m sure, it would prove interesting on a more intimate scale if you get to know it. You’ll never get to know it from a car.

A view over Warwickshire

Looking out from Ansty

I’m not a fool – I know we have a society structured around motor vehicles and that’s not going to end tomorrow. Perhaps because I’m not a natural traveller, I still marvel at the fact that I can drive to places that are so far away so relatively easily. It’s great! Not that many generations ago, the trips I’ve taken recently, to Cornwall and to Coventry, would have been massive undertakings.

At the same time though, we need to remember what we’re doing to ourselves as we continue to live in a society and with a lifestyle that’s predicated on so much travel, most of it by motor vehicle. It is no exaggeration to say we’re de-humanizing ourselves.

I know I’m saying nothing new – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit repeating. De-humanization, however innocuous it might seem, is, surely, an essential foundation for the inhuman. We all need a shared sense of our humanity if we’re going to build a society we’ll want to live in.

No Insults

Riding today and it was a bad case of failing to dodge the ‘showers’ – if prolonged periods of heavy rain driven along by strong winds can be called showers. I have more weather forecasting web sites bookmarked than is good for my sanity, but none of them are reliable when it comes to weather like this.

Summer rain on summer leaves.

Summer rain on summer leaves.

So, a short-ish ride by the end of which I was soaked – so it goes. And as I battled into a rain laden headwind, I thought to myself, well, at least no-one can call me a fair weather cyclist.

That in turn made me think, yes, being called a ‘fair weather’ cyclist is a common enough insult – but it’s gibberish really. A moment’s reflection will show that the keen are fools to dish that insult out. The keen should welcome cyclists of all standards and all levels of ability and dedication. It’s a numbers game: it will only be when there are enough of us that we’ll stop being thought of us ‘cyclists’ (or ‘bloody cyclists’) and will instead become who we actually are: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sister, wives, husbands, lovers and friends – just like everyone else.

And besides, there’s no shame in only cycling on a decent day if you’ve the choice.

Learn From Mother?

Riding between Reading and Windsor yesterday, I saw two Wood Pigeons sharing a verge with a couple of rabbits. I saw a Magpie very obviously hunting for eggs or young birds by a country hedge. The other day I saw a polecat or similar with a baby rabbit in its mouth. Today the Swallows were swooping overhead and flying magnificently – marvellous to witness, unless you’re one of the innumerable insects they’re snatching out of the sky. The other day Charli saw a Sparrowhawk carry off a young Starling. The Starlings in my garden very obviously work together as a group – finding comparative safety in numbers but also, it seems, working co-operatively in scouting for food. A while back I saw several Red Kites sharing a fresh fox carcass. This afternoon I saw a Crow chasing off a Red Kite and the Red Kite responding with a quick twist and a flash of two outstretched talons.

Back on the roads, today and on any number of other rides, the huge majority of people I interacted with while cycling were absolutely fine. That’s despite the blunt reality being that by-and-large, as a cyclist, you’ll often cause drivers to have to slow down – you’re an obstacle, however briefly.

What I was wondering was what’s the natural instinct – the base instinct of the human animal? We’re all too aware of ‘road rage’, whether directed at cyclists by drivers or driver versus driver. But as all those recent wildlife observations demonstration, if you look at ‘Mother Nature’ there’s little comfort to be found: nature is just dispassionate and as brutal as the basic requirements of life – food and procreation – requires; no more, no less.

So, is human anger or at best impatience perhaps our natural state? After all, an impediment to progress, however small, is just that. There’s little or no gain to be had, in the short term at least, from tolerating impediments. Once upon a time that would have amounted to tolerating impediments to survival. Presumably, we wouldn’t need laws to enforce tolerance if tolerance had been our natural state.

If we are, as it were, naturally predisposed to being angry towards impediments, it’s no excuse for intolerance or impatience or rage or dangerous driving or anything similar. All it might mean is that we should perhaps be grateful that on the whole, most people, most of the time, are able to rise above what’s ‘natural’. We should probably also be wary of anyone invoking ‘natural’ as if it’s inherently A Good Thing. We should probably be lauding triumphs over nature.

Hi Viz Indictment

Riding back in familiar territory: today it was a spin in the South Oxon lanes. Just outside of one village there was what seemed a quite old chap, smartly dressed in a tweed suit, walking with some difficulty with the aid of two sticks and, quite incongruously, wearing a high visibility waistcoat.

I wondered why.

Perhaps it was a ‘health and safety’ thing: his wife perhaps, or his kids, insisting he wears it because the lanes are dangerous and there aren’t any paths. Perhaps he actually felt safer wearing it; perhaps it was his choice. Whatever the reason, surely it’s sad if anyone is feeling such measures are necessary. That suggests a simple act like walking down an ostensibly quiet lane in daylight is accompanied by real fear, and that cannot be right.

Even if he’s doddering on his walking sticks, too slow to get out of the way quickly and that’s what’s prompted the safety garb, that’s still a horrible indictment of the way we live. It’s a sick society that can’t find the time or make the room for its less able members.

Cycling In Cornwall

Looe, lost in thick cloud

Yes, the top of the road is lost in sopping cloud

A few summer days in south east Cornwall. We can offer you ludicrously steep roads – no fun up or down. We can offer you scarily narrow lanes – barely one vehicle wide and no room at all if you meet anything coming around a blind bend, of which there are plenty. We can also offer you lethal main roads – wider than country lanes but not wide enough for a car to overtake a bike without going across the white line: recipes for disaster if there’s anything oncoming and the one behind’s going too fast to slow down enough. And the chances are that whatever happens you’ll have nowhere to bail out to, as most roads, minor or major, are lined with high hedges with stone cores.

And we can offer you rain – that uniquely soaking south west variety.

Photo: “Yes, the top of the road is lost in sopping cloud”