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.

Cycling’s Challenges

You can get closer to a lot of things cycling – to the weather, the lie of the land, the area’s natural history, your fellow road users (for better or for worse) and so on. You also get a bit closer to death than you otherwise might.

Today, on a short-ish ride taking in Caversham, Sonning Common, Checkendon and Woodcote, I rode by this sculpture, as I have many times before. This time though, I’d not long ridden by a dead badger on the road side. That put death in mind, and so this time I stopped to photograph it.

A sculpture of skeletons embracing

Death’s embrace, presumably

Today was cold and the badger’s corpse didn’t smell, but on hotter days you can often smell something rotting long before you see it. That experience always emphasises that ‘the stench of war’ must be stomach-churningly grim – likewise any other site of mass death if it’s not cleared quickly.

What I’ve never decided is whether I would – should – stop if I’m cycling along and can smell something rotting but can’t see it. What if it’s a person? Stranger things have happened. I don’t know how brave I am – if I’ve the stomach for it. So far, I’ve never actually had to make that decision; the source of the smell has been visible. But one day …

Is it a case of would, should or could stop?

The challenges that cycling can create aren’t always the obvious ones. Climbing hills is one thing; investigating the smell of death another.

(Of course, in truth, I’ve no idea what was in the mind of the artist who created this sculpture – to be found near Woodcote / Exlade Street / Checkendon – but let’s assume we’re looking at death’s embrace. The crumbling building makes a perfect accompaniment.)

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.

Biggles

A flat Berkshire ride, thirty-odd miles in the familiar region between Reading and Windsor, with a noticeable easterly wind blowing. Still, while it made for a noticeable headwind at times, it’s not ‘thick air’ yet so it wasn’t so bad.

Seeing the smoke from a fire near White Waltham made me think of Biggles. Yes, Biggles – in particular,the First World War stories. I am pretty sure that somewhere in those books the author (Capt. W.E. Johns) talks about judging wind speed by how long and how close smoke stays to the ground – which is pretty obvious when you think about it, but you have to think about it.

Now, I’ve not read those books for years and I can’t remember the plots of the stories or much else, which begs the question: why did that snippet about smoke come to mind today of all days? That in turn brings up questions about the degree to which you’re really in control of yourself, given that you are your brain. And that is intriguingly scary.

Smoke blowing low over a field

Capt. W.E. Johns says …

Sometimes, I Just Sits

Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. The same’s true of riding a bike.

It’s odd, but having an empty conscious brain for a couple of hours is both mildly disconcerting – when you realize that X amount of time has elapsed without you being aware of it – and refreshing. It’s a state, an experience, you can only get when you’re doing something you’re well practiced in, something you can just do.

Is that a case of fooling your own brain? Is that even possible as a concept?

A lone chair in a garden

Sometimes, I just sits

Never Before

Riding today, it struck me that never before have I seen so many dying bees on the roads. There aren’t hundreds of them, but I’ve noticed several of late and I think that’s a first. Climate change? Disease? I’ve no idea. I know worker bees do die off, but if what I’m noticing is unusual we should all be very worried.

I’ve never noticed young Wrens, newly fledged, before but I did earlier this week, in undergrowth to the side of woods near Mapledurham. And today I saw a female Blackbird busy feeding what I guess will be a second brood; I’ve seen more second-brood-related activity this year than ever before, both in my garden and out and about.

I’ve never noticed so many fallow fields before; today I wondered whether that was because of subsidies for ‘set aside’ land, depressed markets or similar; or whether it was because crops planned for them had failed with the late seasons this year.

Fallow fields

Fallow, or a sign of failed crops?


I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so conscious of my shorts having settled down as I rode around to being a good half-inch above the permanent ‘farmer’s tan’ mark on my legs: a pallid tide line isn’t a pretty sight – I know that. I can only apologise.

And never before have I contemplated killing government officials but today, as I dodged pot-holes, I found myself wondering whether that’s what I might do – perhaps even ought to do.

Let’s say someone I loved hit a pot-hole while cycling, fell off and died. People will have been responsible for that hole – some single person, some people in a chain of command, some people responsible for employing other people, for setting budgets, for setting the low quality standards that are deemed acceptable these days. My loved one’s death would be the direct fault of people – real, accountability-dodging people. No court would do anything about them. Some public hand-wringing and trite, bogus, hollow ‘our thoughts are with the family’ statements by the representatives of the apparatus that employs those responsible people aside, nothing would change as a result of that death – unless I took personal action.

I’ve no desire to be judge, jury or executioner, none whatsoever, but as I rode around today I wasn’t sure what would be morally right if people in a chain of responsibility killed my loved one; I wasn’t sure whether exercising such an extreme form of retributive justice could be argued to be right in the absence of a legal system willing to act, in the name of both natural justice and – as long as the reason for the killing was explained – in the name of trying to raise standards and thus prevent other unnecessary deaths on the road. I just wasn’t sure.

If the law fails, if the law is wrong, ‘taking the law into your own hands’, surely, can’t always be the wrong course of action. That is a very unsettling thought.