Top-Level Sporty Types (Are Just A Distraction)

A decent-length ride circumnavigating Reading (Twyford, Aborfield, Theale, Pangbourne) and, in truth, it was fine – not much traffic, no wind to speak of, not that cold. However, it was unremittingly dull – that grim uniform grey sky that the Thames Valley in particular seems to do so well – and everywhere is soggy and starting to get a winter sheen of dirt on it. It’s not enticing.

An artist’s impression of today’s sky over Berkshire

An artist’s impression of today’s sky over Berkshire

The Lance Armstrong scandal about doping is raging at the moment. I suppose it’s understandable that people ask me what I think about doping in cycle racing because I ride a bike … but in reality it is of very little interest to me. Besides, in what way is a highly paid sports person cheating really news?

Even if there wasn’t a hint of drug taking in any sport, I can’t seen any top-level sports person as a good role model; they are almost by definition mono-maniacs; freaks, if you like. I can’t see what I’m going to usefully gain by taking an interest in them. You may or may not admire their ambition, their drive and their achievements, but don’t hold them up as people to ‘follow’ or emulate. Enough already – I’ve gone on about this before.

I guess that I get asked my views on doping in pro cycling is a reflection of how few cyclists many people actually know. In reality, it’s akin to asking any car driver his views on Formula One racing drivers: no-one assumes every car driver will automatically have something to say on that front. I don’t mind being asked, it’s just a misplaced thing for people to do and a sad reflection on how relatively rare cycling still is.

Essence of English

One of those all too rare ‘proper’ English summer days – warm but not stifling and no wind to speak of. Perfect weather for a longer ride so today was a circuit taking in Caversham to the north, Theale to the west, Aborfield to the south and the edge of Windsor Forest to the east – just over 50 enjoyable miles.

Near Tidmarsh there’s an old pillbox in a field. (For younger readers, a pillbox is a reinforced defensive position. Any number of them were built in the Second World War; the threat of invasion was very real. Don’t be fooled by ‘Dad’s Army’ re-runs.) Seeing it now, the whole notion of them seems to be faintly ludicrous but very heroic, examples of a dogged determination and a thoroughly irrational ‘to hell with the odds’ response.

Just a few yards from there, there were horses standing in the shade of an oak tree in the middle of a field. The summer-blue sky was full of those ‘little fluffy white clouds’ and further around the route it was easy to see white sheep set-off perfectly against lush green fields.

From the attitude behind the construction of pillboxes to the scenes to be found seemingly everywhere, it all seemed quite ridiculously English in any number of stereotypical ways.

The Almshouse Association

The Almshouse Association: pure Englishness?

The fifty miles took in duck ponds, babbling streams complete with ramshackle wooden footbridges and a fair smattering of picture-perfect old churches. Chocolate-box-ready thatched cottages? Two a penny. Near Maiden’s Green there was a lady wearing a summer dress and straw hat, riding a beautiful-looking sit-up-and-beg bike with poise and style and yes, ‘Maiden’s Green’ exists and no, I’m not making any of this up.

As I rode I kept looking for a photo to best illustrate all this Englishness I was being faced with. Everything I’ve mentioned could have been snapped but then I saw The Almshouse Association. My instant thought was that both ‘Almshouse’ and ‘Association’ are perfect words for conveying so much about the English: charity, care, the establishment and the church; history, patronage, doing the right thing and an unspoken order to the way things are done; volunteers, donations and genteel goings-on.

I don’t want to know anything about the realities of The Almshouse Association. I want to leave it to exist as I imagine it is. I don’t want to reflect any more on Englishness. Now, sitting at home, I don’t want to ponder and come up with something better reasoned. For today, today’s scenes were enough.

That said, it would be very interesting to hear what anyone else thinks about what sums up England and/or the English on a summer’s day. Do leave a comment.

Role Models

A good long ride largely south of Reading, essentially a round trip with an opening stint with a tailwind, a lengthy section into a stiff-ish headwind, a stretch with a favourable crosswind and then home again with a tailwind – not a bad way to spend 40-odd miles.

That said, once you get south of Reading it’s not that attractive as countryside goes; it seems the area has more than its fair share of the unsightly – derelict former industry; run-down barely surviving light industry; regularly fly-tipping-strewn side-roads and so-on.

Even as you get beyond that fringe of the town, there’s something, too, about a fair swathe of North Hampshire that I can’t get enthusiastic about; I can see there are aspects to appreciate but somehow it lacks much geographic identity. Perhaps it just needs exploring at a more micro-level.

Near Aborfield I came across a fairly large group of cyclists. I might be wholly wrong and apologies to them if I am, but it struck me as a mixed-ability but perhaps not that experienced group of older riders, largely men, being led by a younger and, presumably, experienced lady.

It struck me that that’s the kind of sporting activity that needs supporting, funding, promoting … it’s likely to have far more positive consequences than anything ‘Olympic’.

The list of what’s wrong with the London Olympics is long and still growing. There are plenty of commentators out there who are explaining all the failings and I won’t repeat the whole sorry litany. The headline aspects of the whole grim spectacle aside though, what I can’t escape is the underlying fallacy of the entire Olympic-sporting ideal.

Elite sports people, of any nationality, in any discipline, have to be policed to the Nth degree. If they’re not they will cheat. They will cheat by any means available – ‘professional fouls’ anyone? – not least drugs. Yes, there are ‘clean’ athletes but that we have to hold them up as shining examples says all you need to know about the rest. And you have to ask, too, whether these shining examples would be ‘clean’ if they didn’t believe they might get caught.

Given that that’s what elite sportspeople are like – to hold them up in any way as some kind of role models to aspire to is quite ludicrous.

Even if I’m being unfair and there are plenty of genuine sporting sports people among the elite, even if 99.9% of them would never cheat in any way, they are nevertheless an elite and, in essence, freaks. They have to have mentalities that are not commonplace. They are no more useful as role models for Joe and Josephine Public as any other freak, any other exception.

If there was to be a genuine Olympic legacy to benefit real people, it would be no more Olympics and the fall of the charade of an Olympian Ideal. It would be the showing-up of elite sports – any and all of them – for what they really are. It would be a new culture of sport engaged in by amateurs for pleasure, happily. It would be money wasted on Olympics spent on grass roots sports. And I can whistle in the wind for all that.

The skip, tired of being so foully treated, evolved into a sentient being

The skip, tired of being so foully treated, evolved into a sentient being and threw out all the rubbish that had been dumped on it.

Neither Left Nor Right

A circumnavigation of Reading – Goring Heath, Pangbourne, Theale, Three Mile Cross, Aborfield, Twyford, Caversham – takes in roads controlled by both Tory and Labour controlled councils. The roads repaired by Wokingham (Tory) are generally pretty well done. Those looked after by Reading (Labour) will be patched but badly – most of the potholes are in fact old potholes, needing repair again. Those looked after by South Oxfordshire (Tory) are often simply not repaired, year after year, and if they are then they’ll be done badly. To be fair, this seems to be particularly true if it’s a minor road; South Oxfordshire will sometimes properly mend bits of more major roads.

Is cycling something for the common man? It used to be a working class sport, perhaps, but nowadays that’s probably not so strongly the case. Anyway, I’m not just thinking about the sporting side of it – there’s the utility aspect too. On that front it’s going to be fair to say a lot of those either riding more or riding for the first time, out of necessity, are those the recession is hurting the most, but that’s not strictly a class thing either. I can think of friends you’d certainly call middle class who are struggling to make the family budget add up.

I know this is fairly flimsy. What I was trying to grope towards as I was riding around is some kind of conclusion about the Left and Right. Would it be fair to assume a Labour council would be more cycling friendly than a Tory one? I think that’s tempting but it’s not true on the ground if you’re riding around Wokingham’s roads after experiencing Reading’s ruts. But the South Oxfordshire experience will quickly disabuse you of any pro-Tory notions.

In the end what that silly little example perhaps helps demonstrate is that notions of Left and Right, if they ever did mean anything in any consistent way, are now completely invalid. There are far better examples: the way both ‘sides’ are so happy to go to war in the service of oil; the way both ‘sides’ are so deeply entwined with the rich, the way both sides are so happy to betray their supporters.

As always these days, now we understand better the role of the media in life, it’s not enough to reject the old divisions, the old ideologies. It’s also necessary to reject their messengers, their propagandists. Lord Haw Haw was hung for a reason.

Rejection isn’t enough though. That’s just negative, and that will get you nowhere. Everything needs reassessing by a different light. We need new positives.