Simple Decency

Fifty-plus miles; hot summer sun; plenty of hills: a harder ride than I’m used to. It’s good to know I can do it; I’d like to do it again when it’s not so hot and I’m not so tired before I even set out.

I was, again, struck by how quiet the South Oxfordshire lanes immediately north of Watlington / Wallingford are – it’s recommended cycling territory and, riding aside, remarkably pleasant if you’re at all partial to a spot of rural England looking like rural England ought to.

English countryside looking like it should on a warm summer's day.

English countryside looking like it should on a warm summer’s day.

A talking of archetypes, not far from Nettlebed I witnessed an older bloke who appeared to be not quite in full possession of all his faculties, walking down the main road with his back to the traffic. I’m not sure if he looked distressed or not; he certainly wasn’t safe there. (I’ll apologise now if I’m misjudging him.)

Just before I came across him a car had pulled in to the side road I was emerging from. As I drew level with the guy in the road, the driver of the car got out and called across to him, offering him a lift to Nettlebed. I looked back and it looked like the lift was being accepted.

I would place a reasonable wager, on the basis of how he called out, that the driver didn’t know the bloke in the road and that he was acting purely out of simple decency: a classic ‘good Samaritan’.

I hope I’d have done the same if I’d have been the driver. In the few moments between seeing the bloke in the road and the driver calling out, I had started to try and think what’s best to do – it was obviously not a good situation. The problem was resolved before I’d thought any more than that. If you like, the driver got me off the hook.

I don’t know if helping a fellow human is innate and that we’ve learned to be wary or if it’s the other way around – we need to be taught to overcome natural wariness and be forthcoming in offering to help.

Innate or learned, perhaps wariness isn’t an issue. I don’t know if acts akin to what I witnessed – acts of simple decency, basic human kindness towards a stranger – are as rare as it’s tempting to imagine, or if that’s a media-generated illusion. I hope and suspect it’s the latter.

Strangers

Windy again and the fun of grinding slowly up to Nettlebed into a headwind somehow escaped me. Still, the homeward leg was reasonable and the end result was that I’ve ridden more miles this week than I did in the whole of January last year – wrecked as that was by a mixture of ‘flu and snow. It feels positive to get the year off to a good start.

Up near Nettlebed I ended up helping out a chap who’d punctured. Another rider had stopped to help too but his pump was playing up; between us we sorted the flint-victim out. No big deal: it cost me a few minutes of my time and an inner tube. In return I got to chat with strangers I wouldn’t have ever spoken to otherwise, and it’s somehow just plain nice to be able to help someone.

What I want to know is what that says about me. I could be just a mug – someone’s gained an inner tube for nothing and I’m out of pocket. I like to think that what goes around comes around but there’s no guarantee of that.

“It’s nice to help” is awesomely limp and meaningless. I’m sure it’s not buying me a ticket to heaven: I’m not doing it out of fear of a god looking down and judging my actions for some future reckoning.

Taking some satisfaction from knowing that you’ve somehow made the world a slightly better place than it was is pretty well as unenlightening as it being “nice to help”. Frankly, “the world” doesn’t care.

I don’t know why I don’t hesitate to offer help. I don’t know the source of the satisfaction it brings me. That’s a big hole in any claim to self-knowledge. It needs to be returned to.

Maximum Sweetness

Riding along a narrow lane, into a strong and cold headwind, the first I was aware of a vehicle behind me was its really peeved driver honking on its horn. Even with the headwind, it would take me, what, a couple of minutes to get to a point where it could pass me. Anyone but a moron could see there’s nowhere for me to let it pass – not least because it was one of those fat pseudo four wheel drives, not a properly rugged working off-roader but a ‘poncing about in the country’ version, much loved by the ladies who lunch brigade and never known to get dirty.

This is the second time I’ve had a sort-of run-in with a vehicle like that on this lane near Checkendon in the last two or three years. It might well have been the same person, there are only a few houses down this lane. Either that or the houses constitute an enclave of the peevish.

Anyway, I went out of my way to pull over as soon as I could and sure enough, the grotty little individual driving it sped by without any acknowledgement – as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning.

To pull over I had to cross the gravel-strewn middle of the lane and I pulled off-road into a muddy field entrance. Just a few yards further on, I had a puncture, with a large sharp flint stuck in the tyre.

At this juncture, I’m not a happy bunny and I thought then as I’ve thought before about bad tempered motorists: if I pass you further up the road, and you’ve crashed and you’re in need of help, I’m just riding by without a backward glance.

And those thoughts do me no favours at all, superficially sweet as they might be. To think them is to lower myself into the same angry little hole the peevish idiots dwell in.

So, rising above that seemingly is better … but why? You could take the view that in those circumstances it would probably be sweeter still to demonstrate that you’re capable of helping them, even though they’re such grotty individuals. The trouble is, that’s getting awfully smug.

I suspect, ultimately, it comes down to what emotional baggage you want to burden yourself with and carrying around pointless hatred is just that, a burden.

Anger as a positive energy is another thing entirely.

Know Your Limits

For me, anything over about 40 miles is tiring. I can do it – I did it today – and I can do it non-stop and at a reasonable pace, but tomorrow I’ll know I went for a longer ride today whereas for shorter rides there are no such consequences.

What is frustrating is not knowing whether that tiredness is legitimate (if that’s the right word) or not. I’m an over-weight, over 50 ex-smoker. I ride regularly but I’ve never been sporty. I’ve always had sedentary jobs. What should I reasonably expect from myself?

I’ve said before about knowing yourself being a vital element in a happy life, and surely knowing your limits is part of knowing yourself. What I don’t know is whether limits are best set on a personal basis or whether there are any kind of benchmarks that should be kept in mind.

Shortly after I’d rolled out today, near Sonning, a delivery driver for a firm called Addison Lee made a point of making room for me. As always, I thanked him. It just made my day a little better. A while later, on Drift Road nearing Windsor Great Park, there was a vehicle parked on the side of the road and the driver asked me the way to Windsor. It was an Addison Lee minibus. Obviously, this was pure coincidence and I would have helped anyway, but there was something particularly pleasing about being able to offer directions to the latter chap, his colleague having helped me.

I have no idea who or what Addison Lee is or what they do. I could look it up but I quite like not knowing. My albeit limited experience suggests that their drivers seem like decent people.

Thanks are due, too, to the driver of a Chrysler estate near Burchett’s Green for making room for me. And in Wargrave a driver of a blue Ford noticed my attempt to make his day a little better by over-signalling my movements and waved his thanks. Yes, this is all small stuff – tiny little interactions – but in comparison to when I’m driving, they are more frequent and more human somehow, more personal. Cycling makes you realise how impersonal driving is, no matter how well you drive.

Talking of driving, the traffic around Ascot way today was heavy because of the races. What made me smile was how little variety there was amongst the ‘toff’s cars’ : it was all Mercs, the better BMWs, Range Rovers and the occasional Bentley or Roller. Of course they could buy lots of other cars but presumably they don’t feel they can and they wouldn’t be in the ‘right’ price bracket. Isn’t there something rather … stupid? … about the less well off ultimately having more choice of motor vehicle.

The Comfort Of Strangers

Seven rides in the last eight days, including two short partially off-road ones, just for a change. There’s been a fair bit of talking to strangers, which always adds something, and the weather’s been pretty good by-and-large – with all the improvements to everyone’s mood that that brings.

Even drivers snarled up in Wargrave (road works) and Sonning (the usual mid-day-even-though-it’s Saturday queues) gave me plenty of room; hats off in particular to one chap in Sonning who edged over to let me work my way down the middle of the road more easily. Pleasingly, he had his window open so I was able to thank him in person. On Sunday I inadvertently made a jogger jump – I just said ‘morning’ as I went passed him. I was going slowly enough for a brief conversation, something like:

‘Morning.’
‘Oh, morning! You made me jump then …’
‘Sorry! Nice day to be out.’
‘My fault – I was in a world of my own … thinking about the pain to come!’

And that’s it; totally inconsequential and fleeting. Nevertheless, that kind of interaction-with-smiles and a few pleasantries is strangely satisfying. Just a few hundred yards further up the same road I had another similar exchange with a cyclist I overtook. Just greetings and, on my part, a couple of words of encouragement as he was struggling a bit. That’s all.

Perhaps it’s just that humans are innately social animals, pack animals.

I also chatted to a cyclist making his way from Barnes to Cane End, which is a reasonable trek although in the main it’s flat. I passed him when he was stopped; he caught up with me to ask for directions and we rode together for a short while. Again, just a few pleasantries. Again, an easily overlooked ingredient going towards making a day a good day. I hope he made it to Cane End in time.

Perhaps it’s some kind of substitute for that sense of belonging, sense of community, that’s all too easily lost as we shuffle between our houses and our jobs.

‘Community’ – as knackered a word as ‘iconic’. Meaningless. Attributed far too freely.

On one ride I came across a cyclist stopped by the road side. The convention, if it can be called that, is to always ask a stopped cyclist if everything’s OK. It’s (perhaps surprisingly) well adhered to, particularly among so-called serious cyclists. I asked; he asked if I had an allen key; I did; I stopped; we chatted and he fixed his front mech. Is that evidence of a community of cyclists? We talked a little about helping out fellow cyclists; giving out inner-tubes and so on. It happens. What goes around comes around – that works for the good and the bad.

Relative Misery

Time being tighter than normal this week – work intervenes – so far it’s just been two brief rides on a fixed wheel bike, bookending one less-than-great regular road ride: into a fairly strong easterly wind for 10 miles outward bound and the homeward leg blighted by lousy road surfaces for at least 50% of the time.

There have been very few pedestrians around on any of the days; several notably considerate drivers give me room to avoid pot-holes, overtook with thought. It’s always appreciated; I always try to acknowledge it too. It does no harm to say thank you. Particular thanks to the Royal Mail van driver at the roundabout near White Waltham airfield, going out of his way to let me know I didn’t have to slow down for the junction.

Again, all things are relative. I’m hacked off by some lousy roads. That is not a big deal. Japan remains a good contrast. With the scale of the devastation still unfolding and the nuclear plant issues seemingly worsening, it would be hard to not let the plight of so many people cross your mind.

It would be bogus to say it is troubling; it’s not keeping me awake at nights. But it is distracting – the scale of the destruction is attention-grabbing. Of course, that it is distracting is media-driven, by the mainstream media and others channels too. Whether via TV, via different aspects of the ‘net or whatever else, the before and after images, the amateur footage, the on-the-spot newscasts relayed around the world all make for compelling viewing.

We didn’t get the same ‘great coverage’ of the earthquake in Haiti. Whatever the death toll in Japan, I’d bet a lot of money the number of casualties in Haiti will be vastly higher, and the recovery will there will take far longer – if it ever happens.

A TV report on the Japanese disaster made me question what I thought earlier, about any sympathy I might feel being futile and vacuous. It mentioned survivors being surprised and grateful at world interest and concern. Perhaps I am too cynical. I don’t know. I still don’t know what a meaningful gesture of support would amount to. This is the world’s third largest economy. They don’t need hand-outs. Perhaps we should give money to Haiti instead, our consciences pricked by the better coverage of the misery in Japan.

‘Consciences pricked’ or ‘consciences stirred’?

It does me no credit to say that, until now, I’d forgotten about Haiti in the months since it happened, but at least I’d not actively decided to ignore it. That would have been worse.

The big earthquakes this century, so far –

  • Haiti 2010: 220,000 dead
  • China 2008: 87,000 dead
  • Pakistan 2005: 86,000 dead

The misery and suffering in Japan may be terrible; it may also be small in comparison. Things – all things – can only be properly judged and understood in context.