Nothing Is As It Seems

Three lovely old ladies, good friends thrown together by circumstance and now sharing a house, decided they liked a vase they’d seen in a second hand shop window. It would brighten up their dining room. It was just £30 but their pensions weren’t huge. However, they decided they’d each chip-in with £10, so they saved up over a few weeks and eventually had enough in the kitty.

Money in their purses, off they set one Saturday morning and to their relief the vase was still there. Without any further ado, they paid the nice lad in the shop and set off home with it.

Just seconds after they’d left the shop manager came out from the office where he’d been doing a rough-and-ready stock check and said to the lad, “let’s mark that vase down to £25, it’s been hanging around for ages and it’s never going to sell.” The lad said he’d just that minute sold it to three old ladies. The manager, without a moment’s hesitation, told him to run after them and give them five pounds back – “it’s only fair”, he said.

So the lad grabbed five pounds out of the till and ran after the ladies. But while he was nice enough, he was also a crafty one, and when he caught up with them he gave them back just one pound each and kept two pounds for himself. “Well,” he reasoned, “they’re still going to be happy.”

So that meant the three old ladies paid £9 each. Three multiplied by nine is twenty-seven. The lad kept two pounds for himself. Twenty-seven plus two is twenty-nine. Where did the other pound go?

Nothing is as it seems.

This week I caught a glimpse of a not particularly imposing church while out near Wittenham Clumps but in fact it’s Dorchester Abbey – one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain.

The establishment in Britain is currently working out how best to deflect the resurgence, yet again, of claims that some of its leading members were, perhaps even are, involved in child sex abuse and/or covering it up. They’re doing the inevitable and setting up enquiries and investigations left, right and centre. I think it was either a ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘Yes Prime Minister’ episode that made the joke about an enquiry being just a way of kicking a problem into the long grass.

In the 80s I was told that you could tell which ‘top people’ the press knew were ‘fiddling with little boys’ by whose photo was printed next to other stories about paedophiles. I have no idea whether that’s true; the chap who told me is long dead. The point is, this is not a new story, in the same way that Catholic priests have been ‘joked’ about as fiddling with choir boys for far longer than I’ve been on this planet.

The establishment will always put a lot of effort into pouring oil on troubled waters – being seen to do something positive while in fact doing nothing apart from saving itself. As they do so now, it’s always worth remembering that nothing’s as it seems, not even simple maths.

Dorchester Abbey - ancient Christian site

Not an insignificant church

Being Reasonable

A cool Spring day with a noticeable easterly wind and just a sprinkling of a sun-shower out towards White Waltham – not a perfect cycling day but a long way from a bad one. If only my legs agreed.

Alongside most of the roads, there’s the inevitable litter thrown into the ditches and on the verges. It’s ‘just’ the normal depressing trail that humanity leaves, there’s nothing new about it. There’s also nothing reasonable about it.

Litter in a stream

Not in my vocabulary

With Codgertation, I ponder on and I try to be reasonable – the occasional rant aside. Looking at the ‘normal’ litter all around, and reading about the rising tide of rubbish on our beaches, today I found myself trying to be reasonable about being unreasonable.

Littering isn’t the product of a reasonable attitude – toward the environment or your fellow citizens. Wars aren’t reasonable, nor is any other violence for that matter. Corruption – in politics, in the police, anywhere – isn’t reasonable. Our all too prevalent ‘bonus culture’ and the complete myth that you have to pay top money to get top people is manifestly wrong, proven to be wrong, and thus utterly unreasonable. Cults, religions, fad diets, unchecked population growth, demonizing the poor and neglecting the elderly – none of it is reasonable.

The problem is obvious: an unreasonable and unreasoning mind isn’t going to respond positively to reason. That’s akin to two different languages spoken with no understanding on either side, and no interpreter.

Which leaves us with the question: what should a reasonable person do in the face of unreasonable behaviour? Learn a new language – actually be unreasonable? Try and act as an interpreter – understand the unreasonable with a view to explaining the reasonable?

Of course, I’m grappling with nothing new here. Plenty of finer minds than mine have thought long and hard about this and related/similar issues. We’re in ‘it takes a thief to catch a thief’ territory. We’re in ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ territory. But for all that it’s a commonplace topic, it does no harm to remind yourself that your own – supposedly/hopefully -rational, sensible world view is more-or-less incomprehensible babble to many others.

Fleeced

You could admire the snowdrops starting to show through in earnest now and be pleased spring is here.

Snowdrops on a verge

Spring, surely, has sprung

You could dodge the pot-holes (new and old, often very old) and cut the responsible councils some slack because, after all, the weather’s been awful.

Or you could find yourself wondering, yet again, how it is that so much money is wasted on sub-standard road repairs that fail at the first inclement weather – and from there start to ponder ‘the system’.

Forget all the talk of ‘austerity’. The system is massively rich. Huge amounts of money are sloshing around in local and national government, and vast amounts of that money get wasted. It’s wasted on road repairs that are repairs only in name, obviously, but in all sorts of other respects too. The staggering sums being siphoned out of the NHS spring to mind readily – not least because every passing week, it seems, word leaks out about another Tory/Tory donor with their snout in that particular trough. Whatever way they dress is up, it all comes down to public money being drained away from health care and into private hands for ‘consultancy services’ and management and failed IT projects and the private provision of the previously publicly owned and funded.

In short, a very few people are getting rich out of the public purse on the back of providing ever poorer, ever more expensive, ‘services’.

Nothing about that is news. What is interesting, therefore, is why we put up with it.

Today, riding along debris-strewn roads, I concluded because we’re being fleeced under the cover of politics, and the Brits have a) always been generally disinclined to take much interest in politics and b) when they do show an interest, these days find themselves wholly disillusioned with what’s on offer. And so we give up caring. And so we’re fleeced, royally.

I suppose that does leave us with the question of whether the disillusionment has been deliberately engineered. After all, it suits those who are in a position to do that engineering.

Issues Behind Issues

The prospect of western involvement in Syria’s civil war looms; it’s a prospect that inevitably loomed large all this week, filling the space for idle thoughts that bike rides create.

Above all else, it seems to me that too many questions aren’t asked. Why are chemical weapons ‘bad’ weapons that can’t be tolerated; death by bomb or bullet is preferable how? Why now? Why just Syria? Why should the west be seeking to punish this particular crime, given all the other crimes being committed by so many other regimes? Why does Britain imagine it’s still a world player? Why are we worried about a ‘special relationship’ with the US given that we know, as plain as plain can be, via Wikileaks, that it’s unreciprocated? Who stands to make any money out of intervention? Why did our political parties and politicians act the way they have this time around, given the way they behaved with Iraq? Which lobby groups – here or elsewhere – are going to be most pleased by action against Syria – and how likely is it that they’re influencing the decisions being made? Should we laud the Prime Minister for allowing and respecting the vote that went against action by Britain against Syria? How do you judge your local MP come the next election – by local issues or by how they voted on this?

And so on.

As always, it’s the issues behind the big issue that are most interesting, the most important. And pretty well as always, they’re issues that aren’t being aired. We all owe it to ourselves, as intelligent adults, to ask these questions and more; accepting the headlines is rarely wise.

And perhaps the most salutary – albeit depressing – thing I find myself thinking about all this, is that none of this is in any way, in any respect, new.

Treated With Contempt

This week, the government is saying it’s promoting cycling with a load of extra funding. The figures bandied about vary: £148 million is probably the most commonly cited, at least by the politicians; £77 million is often repeated too.

Let’s leave aside everything else – that it’s a drop in the ocean*; that a lot of it will be spent by incompetent local councils et al to no positive effect; that a lot of it probably won’t ever be spent, as has happened with town centre regeneration funds … and so on. Let’s leave aside all of that.

Let’s just focus on the sums involved. In reality it’s just £52 million of new funding. The rest has already been announced.** That is just a fact.

Another fact is that it’s not at all surprising that it requires other people to do the research to find out the truth about the sums, to find out the reality behind the numbers.

You could say any politician citing £148m or £77m as if it were new money is trying to fool us. You could say they are a liar. You could say they are treating us with contempt, as idiots. And you’d be right.

And that should be what we all take away from this announcement about funding for cycling: that once again our political classes are treating ordinary people with contempt. Anything else we might take away from it is, surely, far less significant.

* The figures in (some sort of ) context.

** How the money breaks down (1)

** How the money breaks down (2)

Voters On Bikes

Instances of cyclists being killed by drivers who then, more-or-less, get off with it, aren’t hard to find in Britain*. Today’s ride took me by Didcot. You get six months in prison, suspended, for killing a cyclist near Didcot, even if you’re driving illegally**.

Politicians are often keen to ‘send a message’ with sentencing – just think back to the last large-scale riots and the disproportionate government-directed judicial reaction to looting. There is only one deduction to make: the message politicians are happy for the judicial system to send out to motorists regarding killing cyclists is ‘well, we’d rather you didn’t but if you do, don’t worry, we’ll just give you a bit of a slap on the wrist’.

That’s not a grey area, that’s not open to debate; there’s nothing to quibble about here. The politicians in this country don’t much care about cyclists being killed; judged by their deeds rather than any cheap words, that’s a statement of fact.

If you’re a cyclist, any cyclist at all, that should inform your view of this country’s politicians, I suggest to the exclusion of any other consideration.

Forget the old, tired and trite left-wing / right wing politics; forget class-based politics; all those old divisions have long been meaningless. Review the past few decades of politics – as played out in reality, not as promised in manifestos, glib sound-bites and ‘spun’ for the media – and then forget any notion that one or another major party in Britain is morally, ethically or any other –ly ‘better’ than any of the others.

We live in a country governed, largely, by professional politicians who have opted to make a career out of politics in order to further their own interests – just like anyone in any other career. Perhaps there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, but understand it for what it is: we are governed by people who are driven to govern because of what they’ll get out of it. They’re not in it for your benefit, for my benefit or anyone else’s: they’re in it for themselves.

(That the desire to rule over people is determining someone’s chosen career is itself a trait that merits close examination, but that’s another issue.)

Lobbying is just a nice word for buying power – lobby politicians and you’re in effect, buying politicians, directly or indirectly. With the UK dominated by careerist politicians (local or national), then the way has never been more open for lobbying: careerist individuals are, by definition, all about advancement and attracting the attention of lobbyists (being bought), in this new scheme of things, simply means you’re doing well.

That leaves us cyclists with a choice. We could try and buy enough politicians to make a difference, but we’d be up against entrenched interests with very deep pockets. Arguably, ‘cyclists’ aren’t a coherent enough voice to organize and lobby for power anyway. Indeed, I’ve argued in the past that we need to be seen not as a group called ‘cyclists’ but as the diverse group of people we are: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, friends and lovers. ***

The alternative to buying politicians is voting them out of office. The more cyclists there are, the more of this basic political clout we have. We need to recognise our commonality – that we’re cyclists, that we’re voters on bikes, and that our politicians don’t much care about us – but beyond that, what we need to do is act as individuals against whatever politician, local or national, of whatever party, we are entitled to vote against by dint of where we live.

The diverse nature of the nation’s cyclists, in this scheme of things, is a positive: it makes us much harder to divide and rule, much harder to buy-off and neutralise. It should make us more of a threat.

In a nutshell – if your councillor or your MP isn’t actually achieving something for you as a cyclist, then vote against them. It doesn’t matter their party or your past allegiances; it doesn’t matter what they’ve said or promised. Judge them purely on what they have actually done for you, as a cyclist.

A lot of seats – particularly local – can change on a few votes. The more cyclists there are, voting for their interests, as opposed to along party lines, the fewer safe seats, even at a national level, there would be. ****

Yes, doubtless there are some exceptions to the career politicians out only for their own interests. Let them prove it though – not by talk but by action. The same is true of local councils: if you have a good one, demonstrably working for cyclists, vote to keep it in power. Nonsensical cycle lanes and other tokenism doesn’t count.

Otherwise, be as clear-eyed and cynical as I’m suggesting. You can be sure that, away from lip-service to the contrary, most of our politicians are far more cynical in their decision to not stand-up for cyclists.

Perhaps cyclists should organize in local groups if appropriate; perhaps the role of each town’s cycle club, cycle action group etc should primarily be to make it very clear to everyone what the politicians of their area are actually doing for the good of cycling. Again, this should be a wholly apolitical appraisal – based solely on demonstrable action or inaction.

And if anyone challenges you for being too cynical, or tries to rally you to a party’s colours, take that as a hint that you’re getting somewhere, that you’re rattling them, that you’re actually troubling the establishment, because the establishment is the whole lot of them – all the major parties, together.

* The Road Justice campaign site lists some injustices – but by no means all.
** Didcot cyclist-killer’s sentence
*** On the need to get away from being ‘cyclists’.
**** On how cycling doesn’t align with political divisions, and the need to reject the old party system.

Didcot in the distance

Didcot, dominating the skyline – and my thinking today