Goodbye Didcot (A), Goodbye Baggage

Summer continues and the lanes of South Oxon, criminally neglected though they are, beckon. I’ve been riding the roads near Didcot lately because part of the power station there is being demolished. Three of the six landscape-dominating cooling towers are going later this month.

And that’s all a bit odd.

I’ve taken dozens of photos of Didcot over the years, nearly all of them from some distance away, primarily because it’s one of those features in the landscape that’s surprising for how often and where it pops up. It’s not as if losing three of the towers will reduce its impact in the wider landscape (although of course it will make a big difference close-up), but it’s still going to be a major change, so taking a slightly longer look at it as it appears now seems, somehow, the right thing to do.

Didcot with six cooling towers

I’m easy, either way

But looking at it now I find myself strangely, surprisingly neutral. And looking back, I realize I’ve not taken all those photos with any real affection, nor with any dislike. It’s more a case of ‘because it’s there’ rather than anything else.

And that’s all neither here nor there in itself, but it leaves me wondering what else that applies to. How much of what we see do we actually care about? For that matter, how much of any facet of life do we genuinely care about?

Of course, it’s a knackered old cliche that you only realise how much you care about something/someone when they’re gone but that’s always taken to mean that you find you care a lot about something/someone you take more-or-less for granted, if you only knew it.

What thinking about Didcot power station is making me realise is that the converse can be true too: under examination, it’s possible to realise that you don’t actually care much about something. That sounds negative, but it might be a positive – if you look properly at your life you might find you’ve fewer ties, less baggage if you like, than you might imagine.

A Human Pace

And just like that it seems we’re in quite settled, quite warm weather. It changes everything, not least how long I feel like being in the saddle. I’m now doing 30+ mile (50-60 km) or longer rides in Berkshire, South Oxfordshire or North Hampshire.

With the warmth comes a change in pace – if they can, people seem to slow down, or at least want to. Where they can, there are more smiles to be seen; people seem happier and more relaxed.

In the villages (numerous) and small towns (Wallingford- or Watlington-sized, for example) that I’ve ridden through lately it seems palpable. People are still doing what they have to do, of course, but there’s less bustle and less hustle.

In contrast, in larger towns, Reading most obviously, the hot weather seems more likely to generate frustration – people want to slow down but can’t. The heat serves only to increase the tensions that come with the inevitable traffic jams or car park queues and so on. You can only pity the slow-cooked commuters on the trains.

And it seems to me the key thing is that it’s not the case that warm weather makes us want to relax and makes us happier and thus makes us slow down. Rather, it’s that we are wiling to slow down when it’s warmer, and it’s when we slow down that we find the slower pace makes us happier.

Obviously, that’s all just unscientific impressionism – it’s how it strikes me, that’s all. But it did make me wonder whether there’s such a thing as a human pace – a speed of things, a speed of life, that somewhere, somehow, deep down, chimes most happily with our internal body clocks or some other internal, instinctive rhythm.

If that were true, the natural conclusion should be that we ought to be trying to match the speed of our collective lives to that pace. As it is, collectively we seem remarkably willing to let any number of external factors dictate to us how fast we must live our lives: from the non-negotiable demands of the working day to the incessant nagging of social media.

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Fox gloves in the sun

“Time to stop and smell the …”

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.

Pink World

Rolling out at the start of a ride and cycling through Caversham, I saw a young female runner. She had on a pink top and pink-and-black calf-length leggings. She had bright pink shoes and her long blonde hair was tied up with a pink band. She was running with supreme, enviable ease. She had white headphones on, attached to whatever her chosen mobile device was, which in turn was strapped to her arm. In one hand she had a clear-with-pink-bits water bottle while the other was holding a shiny black-and-silver dog lead, at the other end of which was a not-quite-handbag-sized-but–small dog, running along as fast as it could to keep up.

And it occurred to me that this person’s world is just amazingly far away from my own. We can share the same streets, the same town and country but surely we’d have almost nothing in common if you sat us down in a room together to chew the fat.

It’s election time in England at the moment – European MPs and some local councillors. Inevitably, you’ll see some political activists have put up posters for parties and hence beliefs that you simply do not share and cannot understand why anyone else would want to adhere to.

It’s easy to wish for a world in which one’s own political beliefs were universal, but I’d hate it if the world didn’t include runners in pink and any number of other strangers living different lives to me. Which I guess is a way of saying the politics I really want is the politics of consensus – a world where different views are accommodated and respected.

For some, it's a pink world

For some, it’s a pink world

You Don’t Need A Weatherman …

… to know which way the wind blows. Maybe not, but a forecast worth the name can sometimes be useful.

It’s April. In April we have April Showers in the UK. This is not news. April showers are hard to predict – fair enough. Britain’s weather is hard to forecast because of its position on the planet – fair enough. What’s galling is

a) my own stupidity, after all these years, as I still look at weather forecasts for information that I then rely on and which then proves wrong, and

b) in most cases, the fact that these forecasts even exist.

Granted, they’re not all as culpable, but the majority of them present what’s little more than guess work as certainty, and present it with a confidence that still fools me – and any number of other people.

(I’m not even going to be begin to ponder the wisdom of all the expenditure on national weather forecasting when it seems it’s essentially a lost cause.)

If we accept that I’m not a complete fool, I guess there’s a lesson there about how anyone can be suckered if the person doing the suckering is convincing enough.

And then you see photos of the damage caused by the latest lethal tornadoes in the US and a soaking from an unexpectedly-early-in-the-day April thunder storm is placed firmly in an appropriate context.

Wet handlebars and brake hood

No, that is not gloss black handlebar tape

The Joy Of Self-Delusion

Cycling around South Oxon today, in lovely but unseasonably warm weather, I found myself wondering about the distinction between us and rats.

To explain: the latest IPCC report confirms what we already knew – because of climate change, the planet faces a bleak future, and thus so do we all.

It’s that simple. This made top story in some news outlets … for a day. And that’s it. The scale of news media’s response is a good measure of how we are collectively going to respond to this looming calamity. We’re not. We know it’s coming, but it’s not going to set any meaningful national or global agendas. It’s not going to make any significant difference to how we all behave. And then, sooner or later, the problems will force themselves into our lives (if they haven’t already), and then we’ll struggle on, and cope as best we can – or not.

Perhaps some did, but none of the news reports I saw made mention of the screamingly obvious elephant in the room: population growth. If you really want to tackle both the causes of climate change and help mitigate the consequences of it, there would be a world-wide drive to discourage the human population from growing. There’s as much chance of that happening as there is of us all decamping to a new planet to live there happily ever after.

What I did see in the news reports was the inevitable clutching at straws – the mentions of ‘perhaps this report by the IPCC might be alarmist’, or ‘perhaps some crop yields will increase’ or ‘perhaps human ingenuity can come up with solutions’.

Crops in unusually warm spring weather

Perhaps all this unseasonable warmth will mean bumper crops. Perhaps.

Ignoring problems and instead clutching at straws: this isn’t surprising behaviour. It’s akin to smokers believing that they won’t get lung cancer, or the obese not believing it’s what they eat that’s the problem. (Said the over-weight ex-smoker.) There are any number of examples of how humans like to and, more importantly, are able to deceive themselves.

There’s a famous – if pretty grim – experiment from the 1950s by someone called Curt Richter. In a nutshell: if you put rats in jars of water that they can’t get out of, they’ll give up struggling fairly quickly and drown. If you set the same conditions up but take a rat out before it drowns, then put it back in again, it will struggle on for far longer, before – of course- it eventually drowns too. Such is the power of hope.

The distinction between us and rats is that the rats need an external cause to have hope – they need to be rescued (albeit briefly) before they feel they have a reason to struggle on. That is to say, they can’t fool themselves that there’s hope. Unlike rats, we can fool ourselves and have hope despite all the evidence to the contrary. Whether that makes us the superior of a rat or not, I’m not sure.