Nothing Is As It Seems

Three lovely old ladies, good friends thrown together by circumstance and now sharing a house, decided they liked a vase they’d seen in a second hand shop window. It would brighten up their dining room. It was just £30 but their pensions weren’t huge. However, they decided they’d each chip-in with £10, so they saved up over a few weeks and eventually had enough in the kitty.

Money in their purses, off they set one Saturday morning and to their relief the vase was still there. Without any further ado, they paid the nice lad in the shop and set off home with it.

Just seconds after they’d left the shop manager came out from the office where he’d been doing a rough-and-ready stock check and said to the lad, “let’s mark that vase down to £25, it’s been hanging around for ages and it’s never going to sell.” The lad said he’d just that minute sold it to three old ladies. The manager, without a moment’s hesitation, told him to run after them and give them five pounds back – “it’s only fair”, he said.

So the lad grabbed five pounds out of the till and ran after the ladies. But while he was nice enough, he was also a crafty one, and when he caught up with them he gave them back just one pound each and kept two pounds for himself. “Well,” he reasoned, “they’re still going to be happy.”

So that meant the three old ladies paid £9 each. Three multiplied by nine is twenty-seven. The lad kept two pounds for himself. Twenty-seven plus two is twenty-nine. Where did the other pound go?

Nothing is as it seems.

This week I caught a glimpse of a not particularly imposing church while out near Wittenham Clumps but in fact it’s Dorchester Abbey – one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain.

The establishment in Britain is currently working out how best to deflect the resurgence, yet again, of claims that some of its leading members were, perhaps even are, involved in child sex abuse and/or covering it up. They’re doing the inevitable and setting up enquiries and investigations left, right and centre. I think it was either a ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘Yes Prime Minister’ episode that made the joke about an enquiry being just a way of kicking a problem into the long grass.

In the 80s I was told that you could tell which ‘top people’ the press knew were ‘fiddling with little boys’ by whose photo was printed next to other stories about paedophiles. I have no idea whether that’s true; the chap who told me is long dead. The point is, this is not a new story, in the same way that Catholic priests have been ‘joked’ about as fiddling with choir boys for far longer than I’ve been on this planet.

The establishment will always put a lot of effort into pouring oil on troubled waters – being seen to do something positive while in fact doing nothing apart from saving itself. As they do so now, it’s always worth remembering that nothing’s as it seems, not even simple maths.

Dorchester Abbey - ancient Christian site

Not an insignificant church


You could admire the snowdrops starting to show through in earnest now and be pleased spring is here.

Snowdrops on a verge

Spring, surely, has sprung

You could dodge the pot-holes (new and old, often very old) and cut the responsible councils some slack because, after all, the weather’s been awful.

Or you could find yourself wondering, yet again, how it is that so much money is wasted on sub-standard road repairs that fail at the first inclement weather – and from there start to ponder ‘the system’.

Forget all the talk of ‘austerity’. The system is massively rich. Huge amounts of money are sloshing around in local and national government, and vast amounts of that money get wasted. It’s wasted on road repairs that are repairs only in name, obviously, but in all sorts of other respects too. The staggering sums being siphoned out of the NHS spring to mind readily – not least because every passing week, it seems, word leaks out about another Tory/Tory donor with their snout in that particular trough. Whatever way they dress is up, it all comes down to public money being drained away from health care and into private hands for ‘consultancy services’ and management and failed IT projects and the private provision of the previously publicly owned and funded.

In short, a very few people are getting rich out of the public purse on the back of providing ever poorer, ever more expensive, ‘services’.

Nothing about that is news. What is interesting, therefore, is why we put up with it.

Today, riding along debris-strewn roads, I concluded because we’re being fleeced under the cover of politics, and the Brits have a) always been generally disinclined to take much interest in politics and b) when they do show an interest, these days find themselves wholly disillusioned with what’s on offer. And so we give up caring. And so we’re fleeced, royally.

I suppose that does leave us with the question of whether the disillusionment has been deliberately engineered. After all, it suits those who are in a position to do that engineering.

The Things I Didn’t See

A short-ish ride with Charli today, on the road because off-road is just so hideously muddy.

One thing we both remarked on was the number of Blackbirds around. It seems that, quite suddenly, they’re everywhere – rooting amongst the fallen leaves, flying out of hedgerows as you ride by or simply just very visible, perched in trees and bushes.

A beech tree lined lane in Autumn in England

What you can’t see are the Blackbirds criss-crossing the lane and rooting in the leaves.

If they’re notably visible now that must mean they weren’t so, previously. I think I’m right in saying that the Blackbirds that were here in the summer have now moved south, and the ones I’m seeing now are migrants from colder countries – Scandinavia in the main. If I hadn’t read that though, I wouldn’t see that as I look around. I’d just see Blackbirds, during some months more apparent than others.

That in turn made me think about other things I’ve seen but perhaps not seen while I’ve been riding in recent years.

I’ve ridden by a couple having sex in a car. I don’t know if I saw an illicit, exciting, even perhaps loving tryst or a woman being forced into having sex for money.

I’ve seen three girls, I thought Chinese at the time, walking hurriedly, holding tightly to each other arm-in-arm, near a lorry park. I don’t know if I saw just three girl friends walking or three stowaways trying to get away. If they were stowaways, did they want to be there or were they forced in to it? You read of gang-masters and modern day slave labour but I don’t know how that all works and I don’t know what I saw.

I’ve seen policemen parked up in a country lane for no obvious reason. Were they there for a genuine purpose or were they just skiving? Was something worse going on; did I see an outward sign of something deeply corrupt? We’d be fools to imagine that’s impossible; look at how many policemen are now implicated in the Hillsborough cover-up. It’s a long way from ‘a bad apple’ or two.

I’ve seen endless examples of what I take to be incompetence when it comes to maintaining the roads but is it something more than that? Someone’s being paid a lot of money to do pointless, appallingly low standard work that just needs re-doing and re-doing time and time again. Incompetence, or a nice little earner for someone, doubtless with back-handers all round?

I don’t know what I’m seeing, day in and day out.

Once you start down that track it’s easy to carry on. I’ve seen Jimmy Savile on TV any number of times but I never saw someone who abused under-age children. I’ve seen any number of politicians on TV but never realised I was seeing a parade of criminals actively fiddling their expenses claims or self-serving ‘career politicians’ only in it for themselves.

It’s dangerous – and wrong – to see a totally rotten world all around. It’s also wrong to think it’s getting worse. It feels like that precisely because it’s getting better – because truths are being spoken. Knowing these truths can easily make us feel worse but it’s the same for all problems of any magnitude: you have to admit to and face up to an issue before you can start looking for a solution.


This year seems a good one for Magpies generally, and they seemed particularly evident today – boldly pecking at carrion in the roads; chattering – if you can call it that – with that harsh noise they make at each other in trees.

From seeing them around it was a short mental hop to thieving bastards, and again from that thought to government – national or local. Sometimes I just get sick of the whole cursed lot and all the waste that they represent.

For a cyclist the obvious example is the state of the roads. There are pot holes everyone. A very significant proportion of them are holes in existing patches. The patches are always done badly. They’re not sealed around the edges. The rain gets in; the hole reappears.

One pot hole marked to be filled, the one next to it not.

Here’s a good idea. Let’s pay someone to mark a hole to be filled but leave the one next to it. Then we’ll pay some other people to come and fill one hole but not the other. And then we can do it all again when the second hole gets big enough. Yes, that will be brilliantly efficient.

That’s not some great insight or deduction. It’s not hard to see what’s going on, but we – idiot tax payers – continue to have countless thousands of pounds just thrown away on more useless repairs. The people spending the money either don’t give a damn or are criminally incompetent.

I can’t see any alternatives apart from corruption – that there are back-handers being paid somewhere along the line.

It’s not hard to come up with a corruption conspiracy. After all, those mending the roads are on a job for life. Mend it badly. Get called back to do it again. It’s easier than snatching sweets from kids; easier than fiddling an MP’s expenses. Bung a sweetener to some government wonk somewhere and it all can carry on nicely.

I have no idea if that sort of corruption’s happening. The natural instinct is to hope not, but would it be better if those running this system were just plain incompetent? Or totally uncaring? I don’t know.

There has to be a reason why this thieving continues – for that’s what it boils down to, this constant leeching from the public purse for someone or another’s gain. And if it’s systemic, if ‘the system’ means repairs are always done badly, then those responsible for the system are the guilty ones. Systems don’t just happen.

It is the waste that’s so galling; and against a backdrop of ‘austerity’ that waste is cast in ever sharper relief. And I have a strong dislike of being angry and impotent.

It’s not all bad. I owe some thanks to the friendly and considerate driver of the, I think, vintage Merc at the top of Aston/Remenham Hill coming out of Henley.

Never To Be Weaned

After the busy roads of Thursday, Easter Saturday afternoon was very noticeably quiet. Even Sonning, that normally traffic-choked home of the well-off, wasn’t busy. Sonning golf club car park had more vacant spaces than taken ones. Earlier in the day I’d had to be in Reading and that too was remarkably uncrowded. It made me think I’d hate to be a retailer but perhaps this is standard for Easter. Perhaps it’s the turn of all the out-of-town attractions – the National Trust houses, theme parks and so on.

If I’d hate to be a retailer, I suspect I’d hate to be a publican even more. I saw the pub by the side of the A4 in Knowl Hill has gone. Another one quite probably lost forever – they rarely re-open. It’s very easy to think it’s a terrible trend and that’s my knee-jerk reaction. Maybe it’s just change though.

Photo: The boarded-up former Seven Stars pub at Knowl Hill, Berkshire

Another failed pub, this one at Knowl Hill

Some pubs are thriving and it seems, in the main, it’s the ‘boozers’, the ones relying on drink rather than food, that can’t hang on. Perhaps it’s just a reflection of rising affluence and the high price we pay in terms of available time as a result: we end up ‘time poor’ and spending the money we’re working so hard to earn on going out to eat.

Perhaps it means the old stereotypes of him spending the house-keeping down the pub while she’s struggling to make ends meet at home, him coming home boozed-up and knocking her and the kids about, aren’t relevant any more. Perhaps it’s to be welcomed. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and those stereotypes are nothing to get nostalgic about.

Perhaps there’s some nasty, creeping conspiracy going on, to make us all dependant on the food industry. Since the 80s cookery has become a dying topic for schools to teach, if it’s not actually dead. Fast food / cheap food / processed food / ready meals / chain restaurants / pub food and so on have spread through all walks of society. There are plenty of people who can’t cook at home even if they wanted to. Add longer working hours, relentless media ‘food porn’ that is basically saying ‘you’ll never be able to cook as well as all these chefs, buy their branded meals or go out to eat instead’, and lo! All of a sudden you have a population sucking off the teat of the food industry, a population that will never be weaned.

Imagined Impotence?

It seems churlish to complain about nice weather after all the moaning I’ve been doing, but it’s not a thing to celebrate, not in the big scheme of things. If it’s not unseasonably cold it’s unseasonably hot. The explanation that climate change means, day to day, not a wildly different world but a world seeing unusual weather ‘events’ more often, and a slow, creeping change over the long term, rings all too true.

A friend’s just come back from a week skiing in the Alps and he was saying the weather there is fluctuating wildly. He’s not someone I’d call particularly ‘in tune’ with nature and he’s certainly no left-leaning ‘green’. For him to be saying it’s worrying is a good measure of how askew things are getting.

What to do about it is the moot point; ‘about it’ or in the light of it. From the mundane to the global, how to act is the hard part.

I was genuinely hacked off today, riding around the so-called Royal County and seeing so much neglect – the roads are rotting and the ditches and verges are strewn with rubbish, from the deliberately dumped piles of tyres to the carelessly slung fast-food trash. Fine, so it’s annoying or depressing or both … now what?

Whether about the planet’s climate or the local rubbish, am I / are the majority of us too passive? Or is it a very vain day-dream to imagine that anyone can make a difference? Or is our impotence imagined, what anyone who benefits from the current situation wants us to think, so we don’t all challenge the status quo?