Built On Sand?

If – like me today – you ride through pretty well anywhere there are shops, you’ll find boarded-up premises. That’s around Berkshire and South Oxfordshire, in this relatively affluent region. There are plenty of places where it’s far more common.

Austerity, crisis, downturn and recession aside, an underlying reality is that a lot of high street retailers are unable to compete with the dominance of the supermarkets and their localized not so super versions. Colin’s corner store ain’t got a chance against Tesco, whether it’s the superstore-sized one a few minutes’ drive away, or its little brother just up the road – little in size but still getting all the benefits of scale so that Colin’s crushed. For numerous other local shops that aren’t in supermarket territory, the big online shopping ‘destinations’ – the Amazons and eBays of this world – will do for them just as effectively.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of all that, if there’s one thing it surely means is that there’s going to be a decreasing demand for online advertising. Tesco doesn’t need to advertise when it’s your only choice …

If you’re a niche retailer outside of the ambit of the big boys then you’ll not need to advertise (much) either, precisely because you’re in a niche: if you’re so small and specialist that Amazon/Tesco et al can’t swamp you, then you’ll be easily ‘find-able’ in any search engine anyway – or known-to or find-able-by your audience through other channels.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic with that analysis, but every time I read about yet another online business that’s going to fund itself from advertising, I can’t help but think that’s a business model built on sand. Even if the status quo persisted, I doubt that as of now there are enough advertisers out there to sustain everyone who thinks they’re going to be raking it in from happy entrepreneurs with shiny products and services to show off. And if the number is actually declining …

And if this current era of (largely) free online content is built on advertising, expect some big shifts there too. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” may be a knackered old cliché, but it’s also true.

Whether that’s all good, or bad, or merely change, I don’t know.

New Year Resolutions

I’ve been told or reminded of a couple of true tales in the last few days. The first is about a former colleague’s arrival in Britain, before the 2WW.

When H. was a child her family had fled from Russia at the time of the revolution and had settled in Vienna; in the 1930s that was not a good place to be. So she became a refugee for a second time.

When she arrived in Britain, her husband left her standing at the back of an enormous queue at immigration with their baby and two large suitcases while he went to find a loo. As she heaved her baby from one arm to the other she noticed a uniformed policeman looking straight at her from the other side of the hall. She said that her blood froze. Life had made her terrified of state officials; she said that no-one brought up in a free society would ever be able to understand her terror of uniforms. Uniformed state officials always meant trouble – always – even if no corruption was involved, as was all too often the case.

She looked away immediately, but when she heard heavy footsteps approaching she “just knew” that they were coming for her. She assumed the worst and started to cry. But when the policeman came up to her he said: “Madam, this queue is very long and your baby is looking very heavy.” Then he picked up her suitcases and took her to the front of the queue. That was H.’s introduction to Britain.

For the second tale: a friend of a friend’s experience in 2013: studying in London and from the Middle East, she’s been stopped twice on London Bridge by the Metropolitan Police, harassed about the legitimacy of her visa and threatened with deportation. Needless to say, she’s on a student visa that’s perfectly valid. That’s the impression of Britain – and Britons – that she’ll take home with her.

As a Briton hearing about this, if you’re a Briton reading this, it seems to me it is our choice as to whether we’re happy with that impression or not, in the same way as choices have been made that have created the current attitude of the police. Very few things about human societies actually have to be the way they are. If you or I don’t like things, however big or difficult they may be, then if we’re looking for New Year resolutions, we could do worse than ‘work to make changes happen’. Merely moaning is too easy.

Happy New Year, thank you for your time to date, and here’s to the future.

What Is To Be Done?

The cover of Lenin's What Is To Be Done

Indeed, what is to be done?

Times flies … I’m surprised that it’s 10 days since I last wrote a ‘proper’ new entry. Today’s ride, with Charli, was essentially a permutation on yesterday’s route – these are reasonably quiet lanes.

There’s plenty of tree-debris around, both from the recent unusually strong winds and just as you’d expect for autumn. It can make for a tricky ride at times, not least because a pile of leaves or thick coat of beech mast and mush can easily obscure the pot-holes. The pot-holes never go away.

Over some unexceptional autumnal rides and a couple of nights away, the last few days’ thinking has been dominated by revolution. From Russell Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman to the day-to-day conversations you find yourself having with friends and acquaintances, increasingly, discontent is in the air. Media figures and celebrities aside, Josephine and Joe Average aren’t happy.

I don’t know where that unhappiness might lead. I doubt there are many who genuinely want revolution in the sense of widespread unrest and violence, a real breakdown of order and social cohesion – civil war, almost inevitably. On the other hand, the need for something palpably significant to change in how we are governed in the broadest sense of that word, and thus how we feel about our lives, is increasingly strong.

‘What Is To Be Done’, as Lenin said. Spare us all the Marxism-Leninism, but, indeed, what is to be done?

Brand, Paxman and Channel Four’s Mason’s views on their meeting.

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.

God Waning

Up riding on the Ridgeway with Charli this morning for, I think, the first time this year. Events have conspired against us. Today’s route included a stretch I’d not ridden before, nearer to Wantage than we normally go, and this obviously Christian cross – presumably a memorial – caught my eye. Religion used to get everywhere.

Cross on the Ridgeway near Wantage

Religion used to be everywhere

This afternoon at Reading Festival, Frank Turner sang his ‘Glory Hallelujah’, a celebration – and that is the right word – of there being no God.

From being all-pervading to Frank Turner being cheered by tens of thousands – and being nationally broadcast too: we do make progress. If you don’t know it, this quote from Ricky Gervais might be apposite:

‘Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have catalogued over 3,700 supernatural beings, of which 2,870 can be considered deities.

‘So, next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra? …” If they say say “Just God. I only believe in the one God” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 Gods and they don’t believe in 2,869.’

‘Glory Hallelujah’ lyrics

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)