Built On Sand?

If – like me today – you ride through pretty well anywhere there are shops, you’ll find boarded-up premises. That’s around Berkshire and South Oxfordshire, in this relatively affluent region. There are plenty of places where it’s far more common.

Austerity, crisis, downturn and recession aside, an underlying reality is that a lot of high street retailers are unable to compete with the dominance of the supermarkets and their localized not so super versions. Colin’s corner store ain’t got a chance against Tesco, whether it’s the superstore-sized one a few minutes’ drive away, or its little brother just up the road – little in size but still getting all the benefits of scale so that Colin’s crushed. For numerous other local shops that aren’t in supermarket territory, the big online shopping ‘destinations’ – the Amazons and eBays of this world – will do for them just as effectively.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of all that, if there’s one thing it surely means is that there’s going to be a decreasing demand for online advertising. Tesco doesn’t need to advertise when it’s your only choice …

If you’re a niche retailer outside of the ambit of the big boys then you’ll not need to advertise (much) either, precisely because you’re in a niche: if you’re so small and specialist that Amazon/Tesco et al can’t swamp you, then you’ll be easily ‘find-able’ in any search engine anyway – or known-to or find-able-by your audience through other channels.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic with that analysis, but every time I read about yet another online business that’s going to fund itself from advertising, I can’t help but think that’s a business model built on sand. Even if the status quo persisted, I doubt that as of now there are enough advertisers out there to sustain everyone who thinks they’re going to be raking it in from happy entrepreneurs with shiny products and services to show off. And if the number is actually declining …

And if this current era of (largely) free online content is built on advertising, expect some big shifts there too. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” may be a knackered old cliché, but it’s also true.

Whether that’s all good, or bad, or merely change, I don’t know.

An Old Revolution

Clenched fist salute

To the barricades

And so another week goes by, with rides largely determined by when they can be fitted-in around work and other commitments. It’s unusual for me to have to demote cycling so far down the pecking order, but needs must sometimes.

What time I have had to think on a bike has been dominated by thoughts of revolution. To explain –

Earlier this week I saw the Mark Thomas show, 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – a good show by a good man and good performer who’s been consistently on the side of good over the decades, at the good venue that is Norden Farm. It was all good and I went with friends so I was in good company too. So, what’s not to like? Nothing – except that we were almost all old.

It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty but I’d be very surprised if the average age of the audience wasn’t somewhere well on the other side of 50. Certainly, I didn’t feel old there. And why that’s perhaps important is that once upon a time dissent (protest, action, radicalism, revolution) was perceived to be and I think actually was, largely, the province of the young.

Once, it seemed only the young had the mental freedom, the energy, the time and the willingness – through having little to lose – to be radical. The older you became, the more you were sucked-in to the system and the more interest you had in maintaining the status quo. And once upon a time there was a not particularly rigorous dole system and there were student grants and they combined to create a certainty of sorts, a broad type of bedrock that radical thoughts could be built upon. That has all been swept away. Enforced vocational training, unpaid internships and student debt will foster nothing.

So, what I’ve found myself wondering is whether it’s now up to us 50+ people to be the radicals. If the broad-brush-stroke picture of getting older and more affluent is right, then perhaps we need to be using our relative security and comfort as a new bedrock, upon which to build change rather than stasis. Speaking in terms of generations, many of us will have had the experience of radical views in our youth, even if only vicariously. Perhaps it’s up to us to (re)discover our once more radical selves and our perhaps lost idealism. If there’s a wisdom that comes with age, then that wisdom is saying very loudly and clearly that there’s one hell of a lot that we should be being angry and radical about.

Camouflage

Upturned Chair

Perhaps we need to upset the whole order of things

A cold wind today but plenty of sunshine and it’s still dry – which seems something notable after all the rain of late. Hence a decent length ride was in order, taking in Sonning Common, Henley, Remenham, the Walthams and thereabouts. Even the road by the gravel workings in Sonning is looking a little less like a causeway.

I spotted two big ol’ Mistle Thrushes in a field today, I guess foraging in the mud for worms and what-have you. Also, a very plumped-up Song Thrush rootling about in dry leaves on a verge. You don’t see either very often but whether that’s a reflection of their numbers or their camouflage I don’t know. Perhaps the drab state of the vegetation at the moment means they stand out a bit more.

Talking of camouflage, at this time of year you can see all the houses (mansions and similar) of the seriously rich dotted around these parts far more easily, simply because trees and hedges aren’t so dense. It occurred to me today that I don’t really know what it makes me feel, seeing all these examples of quite high end wealth.

Even if you conclude it all comes down to how the money’s earned, there’s still a lingering doubt. Perhaps the business that generated the wealth was fair and decent; perhaps the money came through creativity – being an author or something – and it’s all been above board in every way imaginable. However honest the toil, there’s still the doubt about whether we collectively benefit from a society that tolerates – let alone lauds – a class of super-rich people; people who, in turn, are happy to be so rich when there’s so much that needs funding for the less well off.

I know it’s complicated and messy. If you’ve earned a huge sum by honest and fair means, given 50% away but found that left you with more than enough to buy a mansion – what then? Giving away half of your earnings would be generous by any measure – it’s more than I donate. Yes, it’s messy. That doesn’t mean it’s intractable.

I can’t say seeing such wealth makes me angry or indignant. It does make me question how we’re living though. Perhaps I don’t get angry about it because I’m comfortable enough; indeed, because I’m comfortable with the idea of ‘enough’. Perhaps it’s because so many of us are more-or-less comfortable that a critical mass hasn’t formed, angry enough to lynch the bankers and the politicians that have permitted the bankers to thrive.

Big Issues and Bentleys

At last, a day when you’re not going to fall off your bike because of ice, and it’s not lashing down with rain either.

Bentleys and Big Issues

Bentleys might be common in Berkshire but Big Issue sellers are an even more common sight.

Going through Marlow today, I saw the precise moment when a new Bentley passed by a chap selling the Big Issue. Also today, I saw some claim that if the top 10 richest people in the world pooled their money, that would fund feeding the world’s poorest one billion (yes, billion) people for over 200 years.

It’s very unlikely the chap driving the Bentley is directly responsible for the Big Issue seller’s plight.

I know the claim about the richest people funding the poorest would need to be heavily qualified – that it’s glib and easy to pull apart.

But despite all the essential caveats and any reasonableness, you can’t help but wonder at how wrong the values of society commonly are, world-wide, when there’s such obvious gross inequality reaching right down to the basics – food, water, shelter.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be one of those richest people in the world, knowing I could do that much to make such a big difference to so many people. I cannot imagine knowing that but not acting on it.

If you can’t put yourself in someone’s shoes, does that make you unimaginative or lacking in empathy somehow? I don’t know how I should respond to that inability on my part. On the other hand, is it only by dint of not being able to adopt that mindset that I can see it’s wrong? Perhaps a lack of imagination or empathy has a value.

Theft And Avarice Abounds!

If you ride around some of the quiet, well-off neighbourhoods – today in Berkshire but this could be anywhere – one of the ubiquitous things is security. It’s generally reasonably unobtrusive but it’s there: alarms, dogs, formidable gates, barbed wire intertwined with thick hedges for discretion’s sake and, with some of the really large houses, watchful people trying hard to look like ordinary staff rather than ‘security’.

A rusting padlock and chain

I might not need it, but you still can’t have it

You could argue that it’s a sad reflection of the inequalities of society, the hopelessly unfair distribution of wealth. Perhaps it is. The indefensible grossness of the wealth gap is no secret.

The trouble is, I’m not rich but I’ve locks on my doors and anyone reading this almost certainly has as well. The need to protect property comes with all property ownership. “All property is theft” might be a resounding battle cry but you’ll struggle to find many who can live by it.

It’s just one of those grotty facts of life: whatever the unjustifiable iniquities of wealth distribution, wholly aside from unchecked avarice as a source of social decay, a lot of people are given to theft if they think they can get away with it, and as a result all of us need some form of security.

Perhaps it’s all just one and the same thing at root: maybe unchecked avarice is just what common-or-garden theft matures into if it gets half the chance.

Nothing’s Wrong, Except Everything

I was cycling ‘up on the downs’ (a phrase that I’ll never tire of) today, with Charli. It was a lovely day – a warm clear day in England in September does tend to be far better than a mid-summer day; it can be hot but somehow fresher.

The path down from up on the downs

The path down from up on the downs

As you’d expect for the area (near Wantage), it’s all very ‘nice’. The average car’s on the new side; the typical house is a long way from cheap. There are plenty of horses in the fields and let’s face it, they’re purely luxuries. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with anything we saw at all – nothing, except everything.

Save The Children is having to start operations in the UK. I do not know how that can not be a screaming headline in every form of media. No, poverty’s not a simple problem to tackle. Yes, surely, there are problems to address in how society might and does try and tackle poverty.

But all that should, surely, pale into insignificance against the bald fact that Save the Children is starting work in the UK. That headline should be screamed until it is no longer true – until the problem is effectively tackled.

That anyone with any influence at all over the levers of power, the levers that could be being used to address the ludicrous, gross inequality of wealth distribution, can be failing to respond to that bald fact says pretty well everything you need to know about those with their hands on those levers.

As much as I’m a happy little cyclist mooching around the comfortable rural idylls of middle England, we need different people to operate the levers.