Barry, Kev, Tina and Trudi

Today and yesterday saw rides in very changed weather: autumn has arrived in a rush. The winds have been strong, from the north, and the temperatures have dropped very noticeably. Last Sunday I was still wearing shorts … not this week.

Yesterday – annoyingly, without a camera – I passed a Volvo called Barry. I kid you not.

On the back of it, someone had taken a lot of trouble to add to the normal maker’s letters and numbers (Volvo V40 / XC60 / XC90 or whatever) the word ‘Barry’, in metal letters that seemed, at a glance at least, to perfectly match the official ones. You can only admire the trouble that the owner had gone to.

Whether the car was called Barry or whether the owner was and this was his version of a personalised number plate, will necessarily remain a mystery.

Today I rode by two road signs in quick succession that someone had written names on – Kev, who I hope is a cyclist …

Kev the phantom cyclist …

Kev the phantom cyclist …

… and Tina and Trudi, who ought to ride horses if they don’t already.

… and Tina and Trudi, the two horsewomen of the apocalypse

… and Tina and Trudi, the two horsewomen of the apocalypse

I have no idea what motivated the writing on the road signs or on the back of the Volvo. Is it all just for a laugh, or completely thoughtless – neither here nor there in any possible sense? Is it all evidence of how some people struggle to assert their individuality in a loneliness-inducing, alienating culture – consciously or otherwise?

It’s disconcerting to suspect there’s meaning in everything, even something as insignificant as a marker-penned name on a temporary road sign. If you accept that there is meaning in everything, it’s perhaps even more perturbing to realise how ineffective in its consequences so much of that intended meaning actually is. Someone’s crying out to be recognised as an individual – to the utter indifference of the milieu that cry’s being made in.

The Greater Reading List II

Another circumnavigation of Reading, another reasonable summer day for it and another jumble of impressions:

  • Freshly shorn sheep seeking shade under trees around the edges of a field, the lambs now losing the curiosity they had in such abundance when very young.
  • Tired-looking left-over jubilee bunting. When’s the right time to take it down?  Do you risk accusations of disloyalty from a neighbouring monarchist?
  • A Goldfinch in its prime; strongly coloured and perched close to me as I rode by, perfectly set-off against a blue sky.
  • A ‘vacancies’ board outside a factory, with a vacancy they’re trying to fill.
  • An idiot in a sporty Bentley, taking brainless zero-gain risks.
  • Someone setting-up their easel to paint an old bridge over a stream; were they good at their work; would they come away satisfied or frustrated with their day’s effort?
  • The inevitable rotting infrastructure.
  • Construction at the Atomic Weapons Establishment site – investment, jobs, money: it’s growth of sorts. I don’t know how you’d feel working on weapons that can each kill tens of thousands. Do you believe Mutually Assured Destruction is a good thing? Do you just think of it as a job that if you weren’t doing someone else would?  Do you hope to see them used one day, believe in enemies of that magnitude?  Robert Wyatt’s song, Shipbuilding, came to mind but I’m not sure what I think. I didn’t even understand the so-called moral arguments against the neutron bomb.

Construction work at AWE

Building for better bombs …

  • A large deer’s corpse on a verge; you don’t have to see it – the smell is unmistakeable.
  • Three large blokes by a snack van, shirts off, stopped for lunch. Heads of brawn looking nicer shorn, to quote Bowie.
  • A thin, small, old lady with a walking frame, struggling, alone, each leg shaking as she laboriously made her way, step by individual step. She looked vulnerable and she looked lonely. Perhaps that’s just me. Perhaps she noticed me, a lone cyclist, and thought the same. I hope I’m as wrong about her as that would be about me.

Lonesome Pigeon

I think I’m right in saying it’s in winter particularly that you’ll find largish flocks of wood pigeons gathered, for instance in the beech woods north of South Oxfordshire. Today, on the lane heading up to Hook End, I disturbed this single pigeon who’d been runting around in the leaves and it made me wonder, was he alone by choice? Could it be that he’s lost the flock he normally hangs around with, that he’s now lonely and vulnerable and feeling frightened rather than just the normal wary? Or might he be brave and fearless and ready to strike out? Perhaps he smells and has been ostracised, or has some hideous pigeon habit.

I suppose it’s just fanciful to imagine animals having a notion of lonely.  I’m always slightly reluctant to draw that kind of conclusion though; it’s very arrogant. It’s also convenient. I sometimes suspect the gulf between us and animals is nowhere near as wide as we like to think.

It is a mistake to imagine solitude equates to loneliness, of course, but to be lonely and to be isolated so there’s no easy way out is a grim state of affairs. I spend a lot of time totally on my own – a whole day, a day-and-a-half sometimes – and I’m quite happy with that, but I’ve plenty of people that I can and do communicate with, online or on the phone, and I know that if I was struggling with just myself for company there are people I can turn to. Having that fall-back, even if you’re not resorting to it, makes all the difference.

I’ve long made a point of always saying ‘hello’ to people when I’m out riding, and I’m always mindful that my greeting might be the only interaction with another human some people get of a day. Loneliness amongst the elderly is reputedly very common and making eye contact and just exchanging one or two words takes no effort, and maybe it helps. Today I had a 50% strike rate: two of the elderly folk I spoke to today looked at me as if I was an alien, two smiled and replied in kind.

I’m aware that I might look like a fat old alien when I’m riding,  and I’m aware that the two who smiled might be smiling at me rather than with me but hey ho, so it goes.

I’m not saying all this to stake a claim on sainthood. All I’m suggesting is that saying hello is easy to do and  it would be good if more people did it; it might make a little bit of a difference to someone. If it doesn’t then nothing’s been lost.  And if you’re not riding by but can talk for longer, then that’s going to be all the better.



A Sense Of Place

A sense of place, of home, of roots, isn’t something that we’re ‘sold’ these days as being desirable. If we’re supposed to be anything, we’re supposed to be globe-trotting world citizens. Perhaps that works for some, but even travellers need a home to return to. You don’t hear much talk about a sense of place, at a local level, being important to people but I doubt that anonymity and rootlessness is a widespread human desire.

Perhaps the real sadness is that people seem to easily under-estimate the importance of a sense of place, of home, of roots, until it’s too late. Once a place’s identity is eroded, it’s almost impossible to reclaim it. If you listen to the concerns of charities and similar, as opposed to the puff of ad-men, you’ll hear that there are plenty of lonely people out there.

These were thoughts that came about after a simple circumnavigation of Reading with Jim, taking in places like Pangbourne, Theale, Three Mile Cross, Arborfield and Twyford. Perhaps not the prettiest of routes but there’s something satisfying about a ride that has a definite focus. It wouldn’t have been long ago that all those places would have been far more distinct from each other than they are now but gradually the in-fill between them erodes their differences. If you’d lived there for a long time I suspect it would be easy to pin-point what’s been lost but harder to say what’s been gained.