OK Then, Now What?

The first back-to-normal week of the year and four fairly short rides: the weather’s not that cold, but it has been stunningly wet of late. If nothing else, the very flooded Thames means the options for routes are very curtailed. Basically, from Reading, head north and pick your way carefully: it’ll be filthy and the puncture risks are high as you’re moving into chalk-and-flint territory, but you can work out loops that aren’t too bad. And, as (almost) always, getting out every now and then leaves you feeling better than staying in, even over this dreary month.

The highlight from the natural world this week has been the sight of a Red Kite timing his landing perfectly as he approached a perch in high winds. He came is so slowly, so accurately, it made me smile. (I also nearly crashed into the ditch as I was looking up for too long.) There’s always pleasure to be had from watching something done well, whether by a human or not. (Don’t watch me cycling.)

Catkins out too early

Yes, these are early. Yes, it is unseasonably warm.

As I’ve been riding lately, I’ve been thinking about what I was saying before Christmas: that we need to do more than merely moan if we’re unhappy about things. It’s brutally obvious, of course, that the question then becomes what to actually do.

You can report the pot-holes and flytipping you’ll see while you’re out riding. You can monitor whether the reports are acted on and keep on reporting as necessary. You can follow-up inaction with letters to the local papers, to the local MP. You can take direct action: if you just pick up any litter you come across near where you live that will make a difference.

You can monitor the direct-action activist sites such as SumOfUs and Avaaz, sign petitions and spread the word. You can stay with a cyclist-focus and fight for Road Justice. You and I can get involved in any number of ways: helping local charities; helping national charities and so on. One way or another, helping those less fortunate than you or fighting for justice isn’t that hard.

And that’s all fine and worthwhile. But it all leaves me with a nagging sense of it not being enough. Tackling symptoms is good – especially for the sufferer. But there’s still the question of how to prevent the symptoms occurring in the first place – how to make changes happen further up the line. But where to start and where to stop?

New Year Resolutions

I’ve been told or reminded of a couple of true tales in the last few days. The first is about a former colleague’s arrival in Britain, before the 2WW.

When H. was a child her family had fled from Russia at the time of the revolution and had settled in Vienna; in the 1930s that was not a good place to be. So she became a refugee for a second time.

When she arrived in Britain, her husband left her standing at the back of an enormous queue at immigration with their baby and two large suitcases while he went to find a loo. As she heaved her baby from one arm to the other she noticed a uniformed policeman looking straight at her from the other side of the hall. She said that her blood froze. Life had made her terrified of state officials; she said that no-one brought up in a free society would ever be able to understand her terror of uniforms. Uniformed state officials always meant trouble – always – even if no corruption was involved, as was all too often the case.

She looked away immediately, but when she heard heavy footsteps approaching she “just knew” that they were coming for her. She assumed the worst and started to cry. But when the policeman came up to her he said: “Madam, this queue is very long and your baby is looking very heavy.” Then he picked up her suitcases and took her to the front of the queue. That was H.’s introduction to Britain.

For the second tale: a friend of a friend’s experience in 2013: studying in London and from the Middle East, she’s been stopped twice on London Bridge by the Metropolitan Police, harassed about the legitimacy of her visa and threatened with deportation. Needless to say, she’s on a student visa that’s perfectly valid. That’s the impression of Britain – and Britons – that she’ll take home with her.

As a Briton hearing about this, if you’re a Briton reading this, it seems to me it is our choice as to whether we’re happy with that impression or not, in the same way as choices have been made that have created the current attitude of the police. Very few things about human societies actually have to be the way they are. If you or I don’t like things, however big or difficult they may be, then if we’re looking for New Year resolutions, we could do worse than ‘work to make changes happen’. Merely moaning is too easy.

Happy New Year, thank you for your time to date, and here’s to the future.

You Are Not Powerless

Just over a fortnight ago, I was cycling about in autumnal weather and pondering revolution – What Is To Be Done.

Russell Brand on Newsnight

We can all think. This is a good thing.

Since then, of course, nothing’s changed, but it’s interesting that the general issue of democracy, representation and the state of politics in the UK hasn’t just dropped off the agenda – much as many would like it to. As someone else said, the breadth and depth of the reaction by ‘the establishment’ against the Russell Brand-Jeremy Paxman interview and its follow-ons shows how rattled the establishment is by the prospect of being seriously challenged.

At the same time, it’s all too tempting to imagine we’re powerless; that for all the talk nothing will actually change. That thought, in turn, led me to writing an article about the political situation in the UK and what needs to be recognized if we’re to create the kind of change that might be beneficial.

Pleasingly, (especially for a first foray into writing for an outlet other than this blog for many a year) that’s now been published on openDemocracy.

This isn’t to boast! What I’m trying to say is that, as that article demonstrates and as many entries in Codgertation over the years show too, I think change starts with your own thoughts. You are free to think differently.

I surprised myself by writing that article. Writing it forced me to think things through, even if just to a limited extent. It’s quite challenging to go down that route, to question how you might naturally think and be open to answers you’d not normally entertain. But – in the UK at least, for now at least – we are free to think and we have remarkable access to information.

I suspect that whatever we want to change – from cycle lane provision to the distribution of wealth, the first step towards changing anything outside of ourselves is thinking differently inside of ourselves.

What Is To Be Done?

The cover of Lenin's What Is To Be Done

Indeed, what is to be done?

Times flies … I’m surprised that it’s 10 days since I last wrote a ‘proper’ new entry. Today’s ride, with Charli, was essentially a permutation on yesterday’s route – these are reasonably quiet lanes.

There’s plenty of tree-debris around, both from the recent unusually strong winds and just as you’d expect for autumn. It can make for a tricky ride at times, not least because a pile of leaves or thick coat of beech mast and mush can easily obscure the pot-holes. The pot-holes never go away.

Over some unexceptional autumnal rides and a couple of nights away, the last few days’ thinking has been dominated by revolution. From Russell Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman to the day-to-day conversations you find yourself having with friends and acquaintances, increasingly, discontent is in the air. Media figures and celebrities aside, Josephine and Joe Average aren’t happy.

I don’t know where that unhappiness might lead. I doubt there are many who genuinely want revolution in the sense of widespread unrest and violence, a real breakdown of order and social cohesion – civil war, almost inevitably. On the other hand, the need for something palpably significant to change in how we are governed in the broadest sense of that word, and thus how we feel about our lives, is increasingly strong.

‘What Is To Be Done’, as Lenin said. Spare us all the Marxism-Leninism, but, indeed, what is to be done?

Brand, Paxman and Channel Four’s Mason’s views on their meeting.

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.

Kippers, Curtains, Wheels And Progress

Time goes on and I sometimes think it’s hard to keep what’s been achieved in mind without being fooled. That applies to pretty well all spheres of human activity. The issue is always confused by interest groups: there are plenty of people who are keen to paint life as a story of endless progress, when a lot of what’s called progress is really merely change and change is often merely that – change, neither positive nor negative in the big scheme of things.

But of course there is positive change too – and today I was thinking bike wheels are a perfect example of that.

Part of today’s ride included Henley; Henley and nearby has more than the regular smattering of teeth-jarring pot-holes. According to some measures Henley is – or was – the most expensive place to buy property in England. Given the state of the roads and given the more-or-less perpetual traffic queues there, you could hold Henley up as proof positive that money doesn’t come with sense. (One suspects Henley is largely kippers and curtains, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the stupidity of the rich aside, despite the pot-holes in Henley or anywhere else, the wheels on all my bikes are remarkably true still. That’s quite amazing given the battering they take; as they did today and as they do most days. At the risk of sounding, ahem, like an old codger, when I was young broken spokes weren’t uncommon and we’d often have to get wheels trued-up.

So, yes, modern bike wheels are examples of real progress. We should value that. We should consciously appreciate that. We shouldn’t be fooled though. We don’t need electronic gears on any bikes; we don’t need disc brakes on road bikes; we don’t need hydraulic rim brakes on road bikes. It seems to me that these are all examples of ‘mere change’: solutions looking for problems.

Of course, these are developments being introduced in a bid to make money. Whether that aspect renders what might be mere change into something good or bad isn’t immediately obviously. By turning these changes down and not buying new equipment, am I threatening livelihoods? Or does reduced consumption mean I’m helping save the planet? Should we all be trying to stop cycling becoming overly technical, to keep it accessible? Or is that stifling innovation?

Sometimes, it seems absolutely nothing is straightforward. It must be wrong to wish for ignorance and the certainty of a simple world view. However …

And even if we do all accept robust wheels as a positive development, do they contribute to the neglect of Britain’s roads? Would we be passively accepting our rotting infrastructure quite so readily if every other bike trip meant a broken spoke?