Real Pessimism

I’ve been cycling, largely off-road, in the rain, but I don’t think any amount of sun would change my outlook at the moment – the sopping state of things is just mood reinforcement.

Rain and mud and real pessimism

No amount of sun will help

Local and European elections have set off a few mild tremors to rock the normally complacent political establishment, but whether that’s for the better is at best moot; a lurch to the right, which is what we’re seeing, doesn’t have a happy pedigree.

Meanwhile, wars in Africa continue; wars in the Middle East continue; there’s a coup in Thailand; large parts of South America are failing; civil war or war with Russia looks increasingly likely for Ukraine and where that will leave the rest of Europe is unknown, and gross iniquities in the West are accelerating. And let’s not forget the Indian sub-continent’s increasingly volatile prospects.

There is the theory that war has led to much of humanity’s advances over the centuries but even if that’s true, that doesn’t mean we still have to descend to fighting now. We have history to learn from. We know that all wars will eventually only be settled by negotiation; we could skip to that stage. It’s easy to feel that if you want a cause for pessimism, even despair, it’s surely our collective difficulty in learning from the self-evident.

Perhaps a more far-reaching, more deep-seated cause to feel grim is how history shows us that, always, a few people get rich from wars and that the people who get rich are right-wing. Now put the current state of the world in to that context. We have wars actual or potential on the world-wide agenda; we have a (manufactured) popular lurch to the right in politics across much of the world too. Some people will be rubbing their bloody, greedy paws with glee at the prospect, and we – the victims – are doing nothing to stop them. That’s a very deep-seated cause for pessimism indeed.


Nature's relentless optimism

Nature’s relentless – but blind – optimism.

After the fun and frolics of a rim failure, the rest of the week has seen three short and gentle road rides on the flatter parts of Berkshire, still easing my ankle and foot back in to riding. It’s getting better.

And, of course, the week also saw the funeral of Thatcher, the Prime Minister in power when I was first looking for a job and unemployment was even higher than it is now. I remember writing the best part of 300 job applications to get two offers. It seemed an appropriate memorial to her that this week the number of unemployed increased again.

It seems appropriate, too, that Mutually Assured Destruction is back on the agenda. Although our ever-shallow media has moved on, the threat from North Korea hasn’t just gone away because our journalists and editors are preoccupied with a dead politician and how they might revise history to suit their current agendas.

If you look back to the 60s and the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the realities of the nuclear tensions then are hard to comprehend for someone of my age. Cruise missiles in the UK and all the nuclear sabre rattling of the 80s must be similarly hard to understand for anyone much younger than me.

Living with that kind of shadow being cast provided a very different context for all of life’s decisions. That so many just carried on carrying on is either testimony to human resilience or to human stupidity. History is full of praise for the triumph of hope over adversity but no-one ever recalls or tots-up the number of times that hope proves false.

I guess nature would be the perfect embodiment of the triumph of hope over everything else, if nature was exercising any choice.

Trapped In Our Modernity

Dropping down into Marlow today, from the Maidenhead side of the Thames, and then climbing back up again heading towards Henley, once more I was struck by the geography of the area. In places the Thames is running in a steeply sided – picturesque – valley that you’re just not that aware of as a driver.

Dog lazily looking out of a car window

Well, I’m in touch with my surroundings.

Once you’re out of a motor vehicle you become much more aware of the lie of the land. You wouldn’t have to go back that many years to enter an era when everyone must have been much more alive to their surroundings; when surroundings would have been far more of a barrier and travel wasn’t something to undertake lightly.

Life in the bottom of the valley would have been different from up on top and while their respective inhabitants wouldn’t have been alien to each other, even moving such relatively short distances would have required a significant effort.

Remember that this was a time when there was far less knowledge of the world beyond what you might have personally witnessed – no Internet, no TV, no radio, no photography let alone moving pictures, few books and so on – and you realise that from our modern standpoint you cannot even begin to imagine what life was like then. You cannot unlearn and it’s futile to even try; your brain has been formed by different influences; you can try to be empathetic but you’re doing so from a modern start-point.

We can’t go back, we can only move on. Insofar as progress implies change for the better, it’s important to not confuse moving on with progress; ‘moving on’ is merely change.

Essence of English

One of those all too rare ‘proper’ English summer days – warm but not stifling and no wind to speak of. Perfect weather for a longer ride so today was a circuit taking in Caversham to the north, Theale to the west, Aborfield to the south and the edge of Windsor Forest to the east – just over 50 enjoyable miles.

Near Tidmarsh there’s an old pillbox in a field. (For younger readers, a pillbox is a reinforced defensive position. Any number of them were built in the Second World War; the threat of invasion was very real. Don’t be fooled by ‘Dad’s Army’ re-runs.) Seeing it now, the whole notion of them seems to be faintly ludicrous but very heroic, examples of a dogged determination and a thoroughly irrational ‘to hell with the odds’ response.

Just a few yards from there, there were horses standing in the shade of an oak tree in the middle of a field. The summer-blue sky was full of those ‘little fluffy white clouds’ and further around the route it was easy to see white sheep set-off perfectly against lush green fields.

From the attitude behind the construction of pillboxes to the scenes to be found seemingly everywhere, it all seemed quite ridiculously English in any number of stereotypical ways.

The Almshouse Association

The Almshouse Association: pure Englishness?

The fifty miles took in duck ponds, babbling streams complete with ramshackle wooden footbridges and a fair smattering of picture-perfect old churches. Chocolate-box-ready thatched cottages? Two a penny. Near Maiden’s Green there was a lady wearing a summer dress and straw hat, riding a beautiful-looking sit-up-and-beg bike with poise and style and yes, ‘Maiden’s Green’ exists and no, I’m not making any of this up.

As I rode I kept looking for a photo to best illustrate all this Englishness I was being faced with. Everything I’ve mentioned could have been snapped but then I saw The Almshouse Association. My instant thought was that both ‘Almshouse’ and ‘Association’ are perfect words for conveying so much about the English: charity, care, the establishment and the church; history, patronage, doing the right thing and an unspoken order to the way things are done; volunteers, donations and genteel goings-on.

I don’t want to know anything about the realities of The Almshouse Association. I want to leave it to exist as I imagine it is. I don’t want to reflect any more on Englishness. Now, sitting at home, I don’t want to ponder and come up with something better reasoned. For today, today’s scenes were enough.

That said, it would be very interesting to hear what anyone else thinks about what sums up England and/or the English on a summer’s day. Do leave a comment.

Up On The Top

A ride on the Ridgeway with Charli – the first time we’ve been up there this year. It’s one of those areas – you need good weather and that’s been in short supply. For some of the parts of it we ride at least, there are lengthy sections that are clay on chalk. It’s fine in dry weather but if it’s wet it can get evil – incredibly slippery and it makes a horrible mess of a bike too – drying on very hard.

The Ridgeway

A small section of The Ridgeway

It’s always good to be up there; there are never many people around and the ones you see are, by and large, friendly. The views are often broad, the air feels cleaner and overall it’s a big – welcome – contrast to closed-in urban life. I know it’s as man-made an environment as the fields of Berkshire or South Oxfordshire, but there’s a very different feel that comes with being out of the Thames Valley.

I don’t know what it says about me that I feel absolutely no affinity or empathy or anything else with the ancient people who – we’re told – trod the same paths. I can’t pretend otherwise. I can look out across to Wittenham Clumps and I can see why Iron Age man would pick them to fortify, I can imagine that I’d do the same. I can see how walking a high ridge might be safer and I suspect probably easier than making a way through what would have been densely wooded lower terrain and I can imagine that I’d pick the same route. But that’s it.

Being up on the Ridgeway, there’s no ‘vibe’ or ‘buzz’ or any kind of deep-seated stirring in me that says I’m in any way ‘connecting’ with my ancestors. I don’t even see why there should be – their world was wholly and utterly different from mine in almost every single way.

Maybe that makes me a crass and insensitive fool. Maybe I’m the realistic one and people who wax lyrical about feeling they’re getting in touch with ancient man are just deluding themselves and anyone who listens to them. There are worse fantasies.

Wittenham Clumps, seen from The Ridgeway

Wittenham Clumps, seen from The Ridgeway

Railing Against

The government today announced they’re going ahead with new train line plans linking London with the Midlands and then on up the country. There’s the to-be-expected outcry and I can understand a lot of it, especially from people who will experience direct and personal disruption. Houses and lives will be blighted in a very direct way. But over and above those unfortunates, it seems there’s a large and generalised dislike of the scheme, with an awful lot of talk within middle England about preserving the landscape and countryside and so on. If I’m not to censor my stupidity, that’s my knee-jerk reaction too.

Rail track on a grey day

New railways – what’s not to like?

Riding around today though and reflecting on all this, I ended up wondering whether what we all really lack is any sense of and willingness to work towards a bigger picture, a greater good. Perhaps the Thatcher years did succeed in killing off notions of ‘society’. Surely, mass movement by rail is more efficient than movement by individual units on the roads. Surely, trying to spread prosperity out from the over-crowded south east corner of mainland UK is sensible and surely the historical record of improvements to infrastructures is that enabling easier movement does facilitate just that.

Maybe it’s wrong to blame the Thatcher years; maybe it’s just the natural result of increasing affluence as it mutates into increasing greed and increasing fear as we all end up with more to lose. Hence we end up trying to defend our patch, our possessions and all that we perceive as precious.

The similarly knee-jerk position of middle England is that the Victorian railways are wonderful, that Beeching’s cuts were a heinous crime and if only today’s rail companies would do their job properly and hence allow more people to travel by rail then so much would be better in so many ways.

And yes, that’s also my ill-thought-out knee-jerk view.

What I’m thinking is obvious. Of course, Britain wasn’t as crowded then but the great railway building era must have bought incredible levels of disruption to a very great many people. That disruption has now been consigned to the history bin and there’s only this rosy view of the rail network as it was. In time that will very likely be true of this new high speed rail development too. What’s slightly depressing is that that (I hope) fairly dispassionate view doesn’t seem to be given any voice. ‘News’ in the media seems to consist largely of axes being ground, more or less overtly. It needn’t be so ignorant. As a society we are capable of better.