Walking the other day, I was passed by a cyclist. He wasn’t hurrying or working hard, but very soon he was in the far distance and then gone. It brought home to me, not for the first time, how efficient riding a bike is, even if you’re not “a cyclist” (whatever that might mean). It’s just a very good mode of transport.

It also made me think about how liberating it must have been back in the day – before cars – and how liberating it should still be. It’s a great shame that cycling now comes with a huge amount of baggage for the unwary.

A bike doesn’t have to be expensive to be enjoyable to ride. You don’t have to dress up to ride it if you don’t want to. You don’t need accessories galore. All of that stuff is the stuff of marketing – fluff, bullshit, hype. You just need a reliable machine, your ordinary clothes and yourself.*

I’m old enough to regret the passing of the days when even ‘high end’ bike bits would stay more or less the same for years on end; there wasn’t this ludicrous routine of ‘this year’s model’. (And it is dull and boring, as ‘routine’ implies.) I do think the introduction of mandatory helmets would be a mistake because of the amount of people it would drive away from cycling; I do think the same is already true for a lot of the cycling industry. No-one needs disc brakes on a road bike, nor electronic gears, nor ‘hydration systems’, nor … nor … There are any number of other examples … Most of it is about manufactured need (and profits). And it’s all combining to create barriers to riding a bike.

A new sticker

The tedium of the routinely new

Bikes can be simple and reliable. They can be user-serviceable or cheaply fixed by someone else. They should be understood to be approachable and accessible – cycling should be uncomplicated and inexpensive.

Explore your local world – there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had in getting out and about, not using a car but out of range of where you can easily walk to, without any fuss or faffing about. Cycling gives you a freedom that walking can’t – and that driving a car can’t either. Take advantage of it, without feeling like you have to have ‘the right kit’ – whatever that may be.

If cycling is to remain a liberating experience (or, perhaps, if it is to regain its potential to be a liberating experience) then we’d all do well to remember that the cycling industry, by and large, isn’t on the cyclists’ side. It’s just about making money. In short: “Dear Mr Marketing Person, please f**k off.”

* And before any long standing readers accuse me of hypocrisy: I think there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from a higher-end bike if that’s your thing, and I think if you’re riding a lot then some well designed clothes and shoes can make the experience more comfortable. I just don’t think any of that stuff is essential, and the hype surrounding it all can put off the non-enthusiast who might just want to ride a bike. (For that matter, even enthusiasts need to be careful they’re not sucked-in to wanting the latest when it’s merely that – the latest. ‘New’ is not synonymous with ‘best’.)

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.


A ride dominated by thoughts about branding.

Heading out towards the territory south of Reading, on a street in Woodley I saw a statuesque lady wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed in gothic script, ‘I am what I am’.

That’s fair enough – my first thought was that I’ve no quibble with that, good for her. But then I found myself pondering whether the t-shirt was a one-off or at least a small-run or print-on-demand design, or whether it was a piece of merchandise, some kind of spin-off from some major brand or franchise or something that I’m unaware of.

During a TV documentary the other day about Bowie one of the talking-heads said they wouldn’t insult Bowie by calling him a brand … and that’s right: it is an insult. It is very hard to think of anything positive, on a sustainable, human scale, about any of the corporations.

The very, very clever thing is that if write a few lines here denouncing corporate culture and all the attendant ills that have come trailing in its wake, many people would find that all trite and banal and thus easily dismissed. That’s very clever; clever has no direct correlation wth correctness. That the corporates have achieved that almost unassailable position is one of the most negative things about them.

As it is, I don’t know whether that lady in Woodley is just another branded human billboard paying for the privilege of carrying someone else’s advert around for them or not; is she what she is, or is she what she’s bought and sold. For that matter, I don’t know whether she’d give a damn anyway.

(And no, I’m not above wearing or using branded products either – I know my own weaknesses and failings. Just because I’m a mug too doesn’t make it all better.)

Reclaim Yourself

It is, of course, absurd to be pleased to get home after a ride no more than five minutes before it starts raining heavily. It was a fluke. Be that as it may, it’s still rather smile-inducing. And, with one short ride tomorrow, I’ll have done 100 miles this week – the first time this year I’ve managed it. Hurrah!

Talking of absurdities, I read a summary of an essay that – in a nutshell – tells you to give up consuming ‘the news’ because by doing so you’ll be happier. (Read the summary) I think I’ll be reading the book shortly.

As someone who used to work ‘in news’ and who still consumes a lot of it, I can wholly see the point. Consuming news is all too absurd. Charli’s given up with all newspapers and no longer has a TV. I suspect that’s the way to go.

As soon as you start on that route, any number of other absurdities cross your mind. Celebrities. First-pass-the-post politics. Our politicians. The whole ‘you have to pay top money to get top people’ argument. House prices. Bankers. Population growth. Religions. Consumerism. It soon spirals … If rejecting all these absurdities comes with reclaiming yourself as an individual, it takes effort to be an individual, to work out your own views.

As far as I can see, the only danger with cutting yourself off from all news is that you’re then giving up monitoring – and acting against – the corrupt. There’s a big protest against expanding Heathrow airport being held today; without ‘the news’ we wouldn’t know what the few are planning to inflict on the many for the sake of lining their own pockets still further. There must be a sensible way of knowing enough, without consuming pointless ‘news’ for the sake of it.

A black sheep, thinking

Free yourself; be yourself; look away from all the rest, find your own direction.

Notions Of Ambition

Today was another ride, with Charli helping on the plant identification front, where I’m noticing things that I must have seen but never noticed before; where I’m curious about things that I never used to be. And I continue to feel that life’s the better for noticing, for being curious about what’s around me.

Indian Balsam

Indian Balsam, here near Binfield Heath

What’s nagging at me a little is the ‘why’ of it – why do I feel able to take this different attitude now?

Just as a product of simple human limitation, I am sure there’s only so much that anyone can be actively interested in at any given time. Personal capacities will vary, but we all have a limit. That makes me wonder what I’m no longer interested in, what’s made room for noticing more, for this new-found curiosity in what’s all around me.

I think there’s a general social assumption that being engaged with the natural environment is something for only un-ambitious people, for ‘airy’ types, for ‘arty’ types … that sort of prejudice. In this scheme of things, I will have given up some high-powered job and become ‘at one with nature’ – or something similarly trite.

I’m pretty sure I never have – nor will – meet that stereotype; I’m no more or less ambitious than I ever have been; I haven’t ‘dropped out’ or any equivalent.

There are any number of underlying assumptions at work when ‘ambition’ is talked about in the common scheme of things, not least that being ambitious is somehow the norm, in some way ‘better’. And, of course, there are massive assumptions being made about what constitutes ambition in the first place: it presumes ambition equates to ‘getting on’ – earning more, a ‘good’ career, steps up in social status (of the variety that can be bought), accumulating possessions and so on.

An ambition to, say, know the names of all the plants you might reasonably expect to come across in southern England isn’t in that world view. That sort of ambition is rarely lauded.

Strangely, if my experience is at all applicable to others – and why shouldn’t it be? – then society’s approach of promoting an acquisition-based model of ‘ambition’ at the expense of curiosity for the natural world is also at the expense of the happiness of citizens. For society to not be working for the common good is, at best, odd.

A field of Field Scabious

A field of – appropriately – Field Scabious

Charity, chaps and dead squirrels

I’m not a great fan of riding weekends – it’s always busier – but the forecast is grim for the coming week(s), so it’s a case of grab the chance while you can.

I rode past two cycling charity events going on today, and the aftermath of one charity run. I respect and admire the people taking part – especially when I catch sight of those that are visibly doing something that’s hard for them. Some of the riders looked like it was a real effort.

The same goes for those helping to make it all happen. One of the rides was being marshalled by Rotarians and those chaps – for they are chaps, not blokes – were out there spending an awful lot of time in very mediocre weather to ensure it all went smoothly, and for everyone time’s so hard to come by these days.

Once again it makes me think about our collective, public values. Once again, I find myself suspecting the world would be far better if these charity supporters were the ones being lauded the most loudly; their motives and deeds trumpeted as being truly admirable; their attitudes and actions held up as genuinely desirable. I rather suspect the average charity-helping Rotarian would be far better company for an evening than any two-bit ‘celeb’.

And that different set of values would be to the good of all. After all, the things that make us happy aren’t things. Now things are so widely available, and now there is so much discontent, we badly need to learn that lesson.

Not far out of Reading, on the edge of Emmer Green, there was a freshly dead squirrel on the road. I don’t know what had killed it – it wasn’t squashed. Perhaps it had just fallen out of a tree. Nature does make mistakes.

A dead grey squirrel

Fertilizer? A meal?

When I drew close, I noticed a woman coming out of her house with a shovel. I looked back to she her scooping the corpse up. I could only speculate as to what she was going to do. Did she just want to bury it out of some notion of decency? Was that an act of charity too? Are dead squirrels good fertilizer? Did she simply not want an unsightly dead squirrel – doubtless soon to be squished by a car tyre – outside her house? Did she feel burying it was decent thing to do in some unspecific but deep-seated way? Was there some kind of religious angle to it? Do squirrels make a decent meal? I have no idea. I think I hope it was for fertilizing.