Liberation

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’.)

We Are Not The Good Guys

Stoke Row Maharajah's Well

The English celebrate a gift from India

Englishness and/or Britishness has been in the news of late – not least as it’s been brought up by the question of Scottish independence, by the relative success of the more jingoistic UKIP in recent voting, and by a subsequent poll purporting to show that people are more racist these days.

Recent bike rides have:

  • taken me past the Stoke Row Maharajah’s Well, all decked out to celebrate its 150 anniversary, and that made me think we can’t be that rabid in our dislike of Johnny Foreigner, surely, if we’re still celebrating this gift from a foreigner to the English rural poor.
  • taken me past Jeremy Paxman, who I tend to think of as very English in the way he occasionally asks allegedly tough questions of politicians, but never actually goes for the jugular, never actually rocks the boat in any serious way. It’s also very English that this high profile TV personality can be walking in a lane on his own and be happy to exchange pleasantries with a stranger cycling by.
  • witnessed the eccentricities of village scarecrow competitions;
  • witnessed people suffering with Stoicism for good causes on charity rides and walks …

… and so on – I could drum up any number of examples of Englishness/Britishness; it’s especially easy to during a summer of bad weather, when we really do show our national characteristics off.

But then I read about how Britain was the ‘go to’ country if you wanted to want to learn how to torture your citizens.

Yes, that was in the 60s and 70s and perhaps we genuinely have moved on from then, but finding out about it is, nevertheless, enough to throw into question the whole image of the British.

At home, that image has been deftly managed to ensure that we think we’re the good guys in a world of untrustworthy foreigners.

What I found myself wondering was how would we look at our day-to-day lives, the manifestations of what we think of as Englishness/Britishness, if we knew these were the actions not of the good guys, but of the citizens of the ‘go-to’ country for wannabe torturers.

I didn’t arrive at any conclusion. Ultimately, it hinges on how responsible ordinary people are for the actions/apparatus of the state they live in. Unfortunately, it is possible to conclude that we, the British/English, might be guilty of not acting against the state when we should have done … or perhaps should do. That is sobering.

The Stoke Row Well
Racism On The Rise
Britain Training In Torture.

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.

Culture Of Fear

Today was a nondescript day and a similar ride really; a forty mile trip heading out from Reading towards Maidenhead to start with, wending a way through lanes south of there for a bit and then coming back in to Reading via Hurst and then Sandford. The weather was overcast and the air felt thick – stuffy. Dirty, perhaps? Humidity is high, there’s no wind to speak of and it’s neither cool nor notably hot.

For a large part of the ride I was in quiet country lanes. I was passing streams, woods, rivers … I saw one group of four teenagers riding bikes on the path near Woodley and that was it – not another kid to be seen anywhere.

Perhaps they are all on holiday, having great times in exotic climes. Perhaps they are all indoors. Maybe they’re doing stuff they want to do and my notions of a good time, outside, free of parental oversight are outmoded and laughable in their eyes. Perhaps, but I can’t help but doubt that.

We seem to exist in this horrible culture of fear; this adult-media-created climate that has made most or all notions of childhood grim. On the one hand ‘yoof’ is readily demonised – ‘feral teenagers running riot’ comes to mind. On the other, kids have to be molly-coddled and kept not safe from harm but away from all perceived possibilities of harm.

These views of the young are all media constructs and perhaps my adult perception of the nature of modern childhood is just a media creation too. The trouble is, constructs or not, it all seems to be or to be becoming real; today it all chimed all too well with what was observable.

It’s real enough that I wouldn’t have anything to do with children. I wouldn’t want to work with them because of all the suspicions, hassles and legalities that wanting to do so seems saddled with. The same goes for volunteering to help out with anything to do with anyone under the age of eighteen.

If I had seen some kids playing, say, in a country stream today, I wouldn’t have taken a snap of them to illustrate this, for fear of that having some kind of repercussion. I have no idea what that might be or from what quarter is could come from, but that sums up the feeling that surrounds anything to do with the young: it’s all fraught.

A society that believes young people are either a threat or under threat, and that all adults are predatory towards them unless proven otherwise, isn’t healthy or happy.

There’s a media drumbeat that grossly distorts and exaggerates any real threats and politicians are callow enough to want to be seen to be marching in line with those exaggerations rather than challenging them. Hence the whole panoply of government then falls into line. And there you have it: one sick society, created just to sell a few more newspapers.

I’d like to hope that’s all a product of some bogus nostalgia on my part and it’s all been ever thus, but it doesn’t seem like that and it doesn’t look like that, out and about in southern England on a summer’s day in the school holidays.

Free / Shame

The sky seemed on the verge of ominous for most of today; it could easily have rained at almost any time. As it was, Charli and I fitted in a decent enough road ride taking in places like Sonning, Wargrave and Henley, criss-crossing over a now much subsided Thames in comparison to just a few days ago. All that precious water running away and the threat of drought still remaining – all for the want of some forward-thinking investment, for the want of something other than short-termism and greed.

The thought that struck me today was that Charli and I were free – free to ride where we wanted, when we wanted. Free to get outside and ride. That’s something to appreciate on so many levels, but today it’s just hit home in the most basic way: we’re not in prison. Fair enough, we’ve done nothing to merit being in prison. But nor did Sam Hallam, who it seems has spent seven years in jail for nothing and who’s only been freed this week.

That’s seven years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Police didn’t investigate his alibi. Evidence, including mobile phone data and CCTV footage, was never disclosed. People made those decisions; people, not ‘the system’.

I don’t know how I’d cope with that kind of injustice. It’s one thing to be being punished legitimately; it’s quite another to be framed. And as Patrick Maguire said, while there’s plenty of state help for former, genuinely guilty, prisoners, there’s none for the framed innocent if and when they’re released. Patrick Maguire should know – he spent four years in prison for something he didn’t do.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, I don’t think it can be over-stated. This is the apparatus of the state knowingly persecuting an innocent man. It’s not the first time – far from it. In Britain, we’re taught that this is the kind of thing that happens in tin-pot countries ruled by corrupt dictators. In Britain, we’re taught lies.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, is haunting. The absence of a major media-led outcry about it is shaming.

Today we rode past the Henley Regatta grounds – the marquees are going up already. The preparations take weeks. High society will gather there – the great and the good – and they’ll have been totally unruffled by what’s happened to Sam Hallam. As long as it doesn’t involve them it doesn’t matter.

I also read today that the government, after a Freedom of Information request, has had to reveal that over 1,000 Civil Servants have ‘snooped’ on British citizens’ private data. Against that backdrop, the government wants the power to pry extended even further. Again, there’s no concerted national outcry and, again, the great and good won’t worry about it – they’ll imagine it will never concern them.

One day it will.

One day, security services will use the powers granted to them by government against a government or against a potential government. More people will be framed, and unless we are very, very careful, sooner or later we’ll get to a point where the framed are never freed.

Photo: A Hawthorn hedge in full flower

A Hawthorn hedge in full flower. Up to 200,000 miles of Hawthorn hedge were planted during the Parliamentary Enclosures, from 1750.

Links:
Sam Hallam and Patrick Maguire.
Civil Servants snooping.
Government plans to monitor electronic activity.
The Innocence Network – working against wrongful convictions.