A Multi-Coloured Future

I took the snap below (near Henley) because I don’t think I’ve seen that colour combination in fields before. The reddish-coloured-grass is struggling to recover after the winter’s floods. I don’t think the die-back and discolouration has been caused just by being too long under water; other places haven’t gone the same way.

Years and years ago a friend met a soil analyst who’d been looking at the flood plain between Henley and Shiplake, and he said the soil was badly polluted with pesticides running off from the hills. Perhaps that’s the cause – the floods created a lingering pesticide bath for the low-lying land.

(He also said that he wouldn’t eat anything grown on the land in question. Of course, plenty of crops were and are.)

Whatever the reason for the red grass, I guess the future will hold many more unusual sights in nature, as the consequences of climate change become ever more apparent. I guess lots of disasters have a ‘wow factor’. I rather suspect that any ‘wow factor’ won’t prove much of a compensation for a parched or poisoned environment.

Coloured fields nothing like nature intended

Colours nothing like nature intended

Who’s Me?

A decent length ride looping around East Berks and South Oxon, including Sonning, Maidenhead and Marlow; Henley and Checkendon – with Sonning Common to bookend it nicely.

Big Tree, small seat

Sitting down here, I could feel quite small

As regular readers will know, I’ve long been noticing seats outside – don’t ask why. ‘Sitting Down Outside’ has become something of a theme.

Today was no exception and seats in Checkendon caught my eye. I stopped to take a couple of photos and while doing so heard a very tuneful bird song. I can recognize a couple of common birds by the noises they make but mostly it is just noise – some of tuneful, a lot of it not. This one I didn’t recognize at all but, more interestingly, I am also willing to bet that I’ve never heard it before.

If you like, what I’m saying is that I don’t know what I heard, but I do know I’ve not heard it before. And that seems quite an odd thing for the brain to be able to do: I’ve not been able to categorize or ‘file away’ most bird song because I can’t attribute it, but that unlabelled mess of aural experience is nevertheless sufficiently understood, somewhere way beneath my consciousness, to enable me to notice a new variation.

As with ‘Biggles’ and the low smoke over the fields the other day, it’s another example of not really being in control of yourself, given that you are your brain: I might be able to claim that ‘I’ have learned to recognize a blackbird’s song, for example, but there’s no way I can claim to consciously know which noises I don’t know.

Deserted

What if something terrible had happened?

Work being hectic, today’s spin was just a quick jaunt taking in Twyford, Wargrave, Remenham and Henley before heading back over the hills to Reading. Coming out from Remenham Lane to cross over Henley Bridge, late morning … and there was just no-one around – no cars, no people.

Of course it was just a momentary freak of circumstance – in probably less than a minute ‘normality’ returned. However, what struck me in retrospect was that my first thought was ‘what’s happened?’ I’m immediately imagining some unspecified disaster has occurred and I’m unwittingly riding into a town deserted as a result. That has to be an odd response.

I’m no horror film fan – this isn’t something I’ve learned from the cinema; rather, I suppose it betrays a deep-seated fear that’s a legacy of growing up in the Cold War years and the ever present threat of nuclear war. We may have all joked about it, I certainly don’t recall ever losing sleep about it, but it was real. You can only wonder what other sub-conscious thoughts and attitudes I might be harbouring as a result of those years – me and everyone else of my generation.

Nearly Dead Angry Cyclist!

How to approach life? Now, that’s a question-and-a-half. Today, for part of the ride, I was following a cyclist who was pulling on the bars, rocking his body and stomping on the pedals; everything about him oozed anger and frustration. Over Henley bridge and turning left to Remenham there’s a sharp bend. He lined up to take it fast and thus swung wide; a small Peugeot came around – perfectly reasonably positioned on the road and slowly enough – and Mr Angry missed being sprawled on its bonnet by a whisker.

Mr Angry let loose a stream of hollered invective and stomped on. The driver pulled a ‘what the hell was that all about’ face and I could only shrug my shoulders in sympathy.

And I’m relating this simply because it made me think about anger (again). I get angry; I think anger can be a useful force for change – but it needs to be positive and it needs to be directed. Going through life with a generalised unspecific rage isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. I don’t want to go out splattered on someone’s bonnet, with an unspecific rage as my final emotion.

It often seems there’s a widespread feeling that anger’s inherently bad but that seems to me to be promoting a neutralised and ultimately ineffectual response to a world in which a lot of things genuinely merit a more powerful response than that. We shouldn’t be condemning or trying to nullify anger; we should be learning to focus and direct it, gaining energy from it, using that energy where it needs to be used … and then approaching the rest of the world with appropriate equanimity.

I found myself wondering, too, about whose interests are safeguarded by the promotion of this notion that anger is somehow bad. The answer is the obvious one: those who are gaining most from the iniquities of status quo.

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?

Enjoying Inequality

Cycling and walking around the Stonor Park estate near Henley, on a good, warm but not stupid-hot day, and

  •  yes, as claimed, it is a beautiful setting for a house;
  •  yes, the whole valley is lush and attractive; English Chilterns countryside at its best;
  •  yes, the whole area is criss-crossed by footpaths and bridle paths and so there’s plenty of access for the likes of Josephine and Joe Public (albeit some of it in a fairly poor state – broken stiles, overgrown tracks etc); and
  •  yes, for sure, the whole area wouldn’t look the way it does if it hadn’t been owned by the same family for centuries: the land doesn’t just look after itself; it has been managed to end up the way it is; it has been kept the way it is only because this particular ownership model (repeated with variations all over England) has allowed it to happen.

And it’s disconcerting to realize that something I’m enjoying and valuing can only exist by dint of extraordinary inequality. I have no ready response to that realization.

Stonor House

Stonor: made possible through inequality


I suspect the extent that that inequality is acceptable hinges on the social quid pro quo between the rich and the rest of society. I also suspect the newly rich in our current society don’t understand that implied contract. There seems to be a grubby, base greediness about today’s ‘fat cats’ and many other ‘successful’ people in the news that puts them at odds with those who society rewarded in the past.

But then again, time mellows things: quite possibly the people who first established Stonor and all the similar estates were just as venal in their day, and it’s only over the years that any kind of social responsibility developed.

Quite possibly though, I’m simply thinking about the wrong thing. Perhaps the real question is whether any general, to-be-enjoyed-by-all gains only possible through such gross inequality are worth the social and human costs, and that’s a question that can be asked at any and every stage of the acquisition of wealth, a question that doesn’t mellow over the years. It’s a question that could do with being asked now, of an awful lot of people.