From A Bygone Era

With the prospect of another spell of chilly weather starting tomorrow, it would have been daft to not make the chance to get out for a ride today.

In just under a couple of hours I saw two family groups out cycling – one mother with three children; one mother, father and two children. (It’s half-term for many schools around here.)

Seeing them, the thought that came unbidden was that it was reminiscent of a bygone era. A moment’s reflection and the fact that I thought that struck me as pretty depressing.

I’m a cyclist – I don’t think of cycling as odd or anachronistic. Nevertheless, my unreasoned reaction – if you like, my ‘unmediated by my consciousness’ reaction – to seeing a family out cycling was that it was an event of a time now passed.
That even a keen cyclist like me is thinking that, surely, is a testimony to the power of marketing and how well we’ve all been sold a shiny, motorized, hi-tech and non-cycling life as the norm.

If ‘cycling’ wants to succeed as a lobby group, I fear it has an awful lot of counter-marketing to do.

A Problem Of Consciousness

Rendered nonchalantly gung-ho by temperatures in the balmy mid-40s (F), today I merrily went for a short-ish spin winding my way up towards Woodcote, having failed to take the strong wind into account.

A headwind for pretty well all the climbing soon makes one realise the stupidity of gung-ho actions.

I could have studied the weather forecast or studied the trees, but I didn’t. It wasn’t windy immediately outside of my front door so no alarm bells rang.

It’s a trivial example, but nevertheless it did make me think about consciousness – the question of how much you can be conscious of; the breadth of things in life you can ‘in tune’ you can be to any meaningful degree, at any moment in time.

I was predisposed to be thinking on those lines after two recent parties – nearly 100 people coming together to mark Charli joining the ranks of us 50-plus-ers.

Many of them were people we don’t see very often; often a year or more can go by with no contact other than, perhaps, an email or two. Years slip by easily. Then you bring a roomful of friends and family together and you’re conscious of that passage of time, of the friendships, of the reasons why these people are people you like to spend time with.

You know there are cancer sufferers there and cancer survivors; people with heart problems and mental health problems and all sorts of joint problems, not to mention money problems and any number of other problems you’re not aware of, but they’ve made the effort to be there despite it all.
And there are people who would have been there but have been called away, by their work to the Middle East and to the Far East and, more prosaically, to different bits of the UK; by other unexpected commitments – not least caring for the sick. Life intervened to ruin their plans, but you’re conscious of them in those circumstances precisely because of their absence.

You know there has to be some chance that you might never see one or more of those people ever again because that’s just the way the world is.

And you know you can’t keep them all in your consciousness but these are the times you feel you ought to be able to. But you can’t, so you just get on with it in the same way as you just get on with riding uphill into a headwind. The tailwind downhill makes you smile.

An over-sized garden chair - great for big thoughts

A big seat for thinking big thunks.


Rapeseed fields stretching off to the horizon near South Stoke. Clouds lined up to disappear over the horizon and away to who knows where. Today’s ride was mostly in the territory between Reading and Wallingford. When you stop to look, it’s surprising how big some of the views around these parts are.

Photo: clouds lined up and disappearing over the horizon

Clouds marching off to who knows where

I can remember as a youngster riding from Oxford to Reading and being daunted by being able to see the range of hills barring the way – the hills that Christmas Common sits on top of. They’re all too easy to see from when you’re not far out of Oxford. It’s often satisfying to be able to see the ground you’re going to cover – it reinforces a sense of achievement somehow. It can also make you feel awfully tired in anticipation. And I don’t mind admitting that sometimes it can make me feel very small somehow – there’s just me, perched on a bike, exposed and ultimately fairly vulnerable, with just my legs to get me home across all those miles lying ahead.

I don’t know if I’d like riding the really big open territories – parts of the USA for example. That would need a certain mindset which I’ve never had cause to test in myself.

This morning it was a strong north-westerly and I did cut the route short by a few miles – I was simply tired of plugging away in to a cold headwind. (I guess the day measures about a .2 on the Hengistbury Scale.*) However, happy coincidence: solely because of that decision I ended up riding a few miles with an old school friend who I’d barely seen or spoken to for, I don’t know, over 10 years. Fluke can be a wonderful thing.

Horizons, of a sort, loomed large in our conversation too – we’re both living where we grew up as teenagers, and we’re both hankering to move away, one day. There are no imperatives operating on either of us: we just want change – new horizons. Stopping us are the usual things – work and money, friends and family.

What we both have is a long way from being in any way bad. I’m not sure why I find it, I don’t know – reassuring perhaps, or pleasing or something – the fact that we both are very aware of how fortunate we are, but for me that’s a significant and positive thing. But for all that appreciation of what’s good about what we have, we both talked about how we wanted change. On the face of it that makes little sense. I don’t think it’s a case of the grass being greener. I hope it’s not something as base as boredom. I hope it’s not caused by being unable to properly appreciate the familiar.

*The Hengistbury Scale.


Circumstances conspired so I ended up doing an afternoon ride. I go better in the mornings but so it goes. At least I had a decent, dry and warm afternoon for it. One should be thankful – it’ll rain again tonight and tomorrow.

It’s easy to forget just how much traffic the school run generates.  A loop taking in Woodley, Twyford, Wargrave and Henley at school chucking-out time reminded me forcefully enough. Of course, that’s absolutely nothing new.  What did strike me was the number of men doing the driving: I’d make a small wager that it was more than it would have been, say, two years ago.

Photo: A young Horse Chestnut

A young Horse Chestnut, near Shiplake Cross

If I’m right then I’d guess it’s because men are finding it harder to get jobs in this recession. Men ‘normally’ want ‘proper’ jobs – full time, a proper salary or wage and so on.  Women, for better or worse, are more readily pigeon holed into part time posts with less remuneration. As a result they’re often easier to sack – sorry, ‘downsize’ – but they’re also easier to re-employ.  If you like, many women are in a sort of flexible fringe which can expand or contract easily. So-called ‘male’ jobs or ‘proper’ jobs may be cut less willingly by employers, but once they’re cut they stay cut until there’s a very, very real need again.  There’s nothing about the economy that’s on a firm footing and we’d be fools to pretend otherwise.

I don’t know how that might feel if you’re a bloke on the school run – all other things being equal. If you’re managing to make ends meet and your partner’s out to work, you could feel liberated … or emasculated. It could be very hard to break out of the traditional way of thinking about yourself, your household budget, your role in the domestic set-up. It could be necessary. It might not be a bad thing – one day.  There’s nothing inherently right about traditions.

If any of all that is accurate, then if society wants to play a positive role it should be helping people adjust – men and women and children too. National and local government, charities and other not-for-profits, churches and media channels and any other organisation with a stake in society – they should all be working to help people adjust to changing roles.

Just writing that – and hopefully just reading that – brings home how little positivism there is in society. Society’s voices are largely carping, criticising, point-scoring, bemoaning … If you have something to moan about, do something about it – even if it’s only pointing up the need.

Just Plain Dumb

A short ride in a hectic day – a ‘leg-turner’ to get some fresh air.

Near Wargrave and heading home I could see a heavy shower coming. By the time I was on the A4 it started. I pulled over and tried to shelter from it under some trees but they were quickly saturated as it was pelting down. I gave up and got back on … and by Charvil it was pretty well dry. I felt a total fool. I was riding into a westerly and heading west. Rather than try and shelter I should have just ridden on through it – through to the other side of the shower, to where when it had passed over it hadn’t even been raining. It was a shower cloud blowing in my direction: which bit of that couldn’t I understand? Sometimes my own stupidity amazes me.

Through every built-up area I went through – suburb or village – I saw instances of children with grandparents. As is so often the case, I have no statistics, no historical data to call on, and I don’t know where I’d find it if I wanted to look, but it seems to me this is becoming ever more common. Whether it’s an indication of recession and people needing ‘free’ child care, or whether it’s more accurate to say it’s an indication of people feeling they need to earn so much more than hitherto, to buy all the things that we’re all told all the time are essential ingredients to a ‘good’ life, I don’t know. Perhaps it is just down to a shortage of child care facilities.

Perhaps it’s just something that’s cropping up during these summer holidays because this year fewer holidays are being taken. I don’t know if that’s true but that’s the anecdotal version of events I’m hearing repeated quite a lot – but it’s always someone saying it about someone else.

Let’s imagine that is true and staying at home is more common. Perhaps that’s a good thing. That possibility shouldn’t be discounted – holidays are up there in the list of ‘most stressful things’. Just because we’re sold them doesn’t make them good. Maybe staying at home makes more people happier than we’re all led to believe.

Thanks to the driver of a large blue BMW near Shurlock Row for his or her consideration as I dithered; and hello to the very cheerful chap with his dog near Wargrave. And I hope the woman near Hurst who’d interrupted her bike ride to feast on fruits in the hedgerow was enjoying herself as much as she appeared to be.