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.

Nineteen Thousand Near Stubbings

Cateye Computer showing 19,000 miles

The Cateye on my Nerone rolled over 19,000 as I rode by Stubbings

Today, just past Stubbings, the Cateye on my Nerone rolled over to show 19,000.

And that’s the only time in my life I’ll have the chance to write that.

(And if you’re feeling bewildered, Stubbings is a place near Maidenhead; a Cateye is a brand of cycle computer that logs total miles ridden, average speed on a trip and so on; and a Nerone is a type of Bianchi road bike. I’ve a first generation model and it’s the bike I consider my workhorse. Today it clocked up 19,000 miles.)

So, doing some major rounding off, let’s call that 1,266 hours if I was doing about 15 mph – which isn’t unreasonable. That’s 75,960 minutes. I tend to pedal a medium gear rather than push a big one, but let’s say I’m doing just 80 revolutions a minute. That’s 6,076,800 pedal revolutions, and that’s only on that bike. That’s just a silly number.

In terms of human evolution, obviously enough we weren’t designed to ride bikes because bikes are quite new in the big scheme of things. Legs ain’t made to go around and around. But it isn’t – on the whole, for most people – a painful form of exercise, your weight is quite well supported and there’s none of the jarring that can come with running, even if running is theoretically more natural.

I get tired from cycling and I can get aching muscles from it, but that’s about it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cycling-induced injury as such, and that has to be a good advert for riding a bike. It’s not as if I’m some super-fit, lean, mean racer – I’m a fat bloke in his 50s. If riding’s suiting me it might well suit any number of other less-than-fit people.

The utterly daft thing, of course, is that we have to find ways to keep fit. Ever increasing numbers of us have lifestyles that we’re just not physically designed for, that we then have to shoe-horn ‘keeping fit’ in to already over-crowded schedules. It is, on just a moment’s reflection, farcical. At least cycling offers more than merely exercise; it’s as much a means to escape and reflect as it is a way of getting fitter or a way of moving around.

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.

Culture Of Fear

Today was a nondescript day and a similar ride really; a forty mile trip heading out from Reading towards Maidenhead to start with, wending a way through lanes south of there for a bit and then coming back in to Reading via Hurst and then Sandford. The weather was overcast and the air felt thick – stuffy. Dirty, perhaps? Humidity is high, there’s no wind to speak of and it’s neither cool nor notably hot.

For a large part of the ride I was in quiet country lanes. I was passing streams, woods, rivers … I saw one group of four teenagers riding bikes on the path near Woodley and that was it – not another kid to be seen anywhere.

Perhaps they are all on holiday, having great times in exotic climes. Perhaps they are all indoors. Maybe they’re doing stuff they want to do and my notions of a good time, outside, free of parental oversight are outmoded and laughable in their eyes. Perhaps, but I can’t help but doubt that.

We seem to exist in this horrible culture of fear; this adult-media-created climate that has made most or all notions of childhood grim. On the one hand ‘yoof’ is readily demonised – ‘feral teenagers running riot’ comes to mind. On the other, kids have to be molly-coddled and kept not safe from harm but away from all perceived possibilities of harm.

These views of the young are all media constructs and perhaps my adult perception of the nature of modern childhood is just a media creation too. The trouble is, constructs or not, it all seems to be or to be becoming real; today it all chimed all too well with what was observable.

It’s real enough that I wouldn’t have anything to do with children. I wouldn’t want to work with them because of all the suspicions, hassles and legalities that wanting to do so seems saddled with. The same goes for volunteering to help out with anything to do with anyone under the age of eighteen.

If I had seen some kids playing, say, in a country stream today, I wouldn’t have taken a snap of them to illustrate this, for fear of that having some kind of repercussion. I have no idea what that might be or from what quarter is could come from, but that sums up the feeling that surrounds anything to do with the young: it’s all fraught.

A society that believes young people are either a threat or under threat, and that all adults are predatory towards them unless proven otherwise, isn’t healthy or happy.

There’s a media drumbeat that grossly distorts and exaggerates any real threats and politicians are callow enough to want to be seen to be marching in line with those exaggerations rather than challenging them. Hence the whole panoply of government then falls into line. And there you have it: one sick society, created just to sell a few more newspapers.

I’d like to hope that’s all a product of some bogus nostalgia on my part and it’s all been ever thus, but it doesn’t seem like that and it doesn’t look like that, out and about in southern England on a summer’s day in the school holidays.

Applied Intelligence

The relentless chain of April showers continues. The wisdom is, ride out in to a headwind, back with a tailwind. Today, I could look west, where the rain’s coming from, and see a clear spell followed by shower clouds. So I set off heading east and got a good way towards Maidenhead before starting to loop around below Reading.

Photo: Shower clouds over South Oxfordshire

April Showers ...

By that time the clouds were piling up and sure enough I hit a shower near Shurlock Row but the smart thing was that I was riding in to it. That meant I was riding through it – and yay, it wasn’t long before I was in the dry again. OK, that meant riding into a headwind as I was heading home, complete with rain in the face, but that’s far better than riding for a long spell with a shower cloud following you, dumping on you.

OK, that’s not the greatest insight ever afforded to mankind, but I was pleased to have thought of it and even more pleased to have acted on it: going against conventional wisdom is never as easy as it ought to be.

Perhaps ‘conventional wisdom’ is a red herring of a juxtaposition; too much of what we do does no-one any favours. Well, no-one but those who profit from the status quo. Perhaps we should consider it akin to ‘sex and violence’ – a conjoining no more or less valid than ‘corruption and politics’ or ‘perversion and religion’.

If yesterday saw a mild but persistent case of the ‘if only’ blues, then why aren’t I celebrating my good fortune today? There should be an equivalent ‘didn’t I do well’ sense of satisfaction. Once again, I’m wholly unsure whether that’s just me or something more common. It seems easier to remember failures than successes, the bad than the good. But then again, perhaps writing about it is a mild celebration.

Herded

Work sometimes gets in the way so today it was just a short afternoon spin to remind my legs that pedalling’s what they do best – the roads between Reading and Maidenhead. If work hadn’t been intrusive I probably wouldn’t have bothered, it wasn’t weather to entice anyone out – relentlessly grey, fairly windy and on the cold side.

The roads were busy and I admit it took me a while to realise why – Easter. I’m not cursed with the dreadful arrogant certainty of any religion, one that recognises Easter or not. So, as a significant event, festival, rite, fable or whatever you want to call it, it’s not on my horizon. And working for myself, with no kids, means I’m not overly alive to the rhythms and routines imposed by bank holidays, school holidays and the like.

Easter – the first break of the year and with it all the grief and aggravation that’s associated with trying to compress presumed pleasures and imposed duties into a few precious days. The family holidays that half the family don’t want to be enduring; the visits to relatives that all agree are important but for half of those going along are always tarnished by the nagging knowledge that free time’s precious and there are almost certainly better pleasures to be had.

I’m very lucky in that I like my family; they are people I’d socialise with as friends if they weren’t relatives. Perhaps my cynicism about Easter – or any other holiday – is unfounded. But it’s all too easy to think of so many examples of far less happy family situations amongst friends and acquaintances, let alone the stories abounding in popular culture. It’s quite possibly unwise to trust popular culture, but that doesn’t account for all the anecdotes and moans that you can hear first hand.

Even with questions of family set aside, it’s at times like this that I feel sort of defeated. I don’t understand how we can have organised ourselves so that we’re so pressurised; so herded, corralled and controlled; so squandering of our time, our lives, our riches. We – Joe and Josephine Average in the West – are incredibly well-off. We have so much – health, longevity, possessions, security, the basics and all the comforts and luxuries. But, for so many us, too much of life is screwed up, wasted. There are options, but thinking of them and then taking them is rarely the path of least resistance.