Wake-Up And?

Wind turbine by the M4, Green Park, Reading

This is quite new. I am not.

A reasonable 30-miler, circumnavigating Reading, taking in Purley, Pangbourne, Theale, Three Mile Cross, Aborfield, Sandford, Sonning and Caversham. It’s a mark of how dismal the year so far has been for cycling, for me at least, that this is the longest ride I’ve done in 2013. With such a badly laid foundation over the winter, the summer’s riding will be harder than ideal.

For large parts of the route south of Reading, the wind turbine by the M4 looms large. Quite simply, that could not have existed just a few years ago. For most of my life, wind turbines like this just weren’t around. It feels very odd to be reminded of the passage of the time in such a blunt way.

Reality, of course, is that reminders are everywhere, from the bikes I ride and the shoes I wear to ride them upwards, and in every other aspect of life. Perhaps it’s the size of the wind turbine that makes it more striking – more forceful as a wake-up call.

Is being reminded that you’re getting old a wake-up call? It probably should be, if only to tell you to make the most of it. The hard part is knowing what constitutes ‘the most’ of any ‘it’ and, indeed, deciding which ‘its’ one should make the most of.

Top-Level Sporty Types (Are Just A Distraction)

A decent-length ride circumnavigating Reading (Twyford, Aborfield, Theale, Pangbourne) and, in truth, it was fine – not much traffic, no wind to speak of, not that cold. However, it was unremittingly dull – that grim uniform grey sky that the Thames Valley in particular seems to do so well – and everywhere is soggy and starting to get a winter sheen of dirt on it. It’s not enticing.

An artist’s impression of today’s sky over Berkshire

An artist’s impression of today’s sky over Berkshire

The Lance Armstrong scandal about doping is raging at the moment. I suppose it’s understandable that people ask me what I think about doping in cycle racing because I ride a bike … but in reality it is of very little interest to me. Besides, in what way is a highly paid sports person cheating really news?

Even if there wasn’t a hint of drug taking in any sport, I can’t seen any top-level sports person as a good role model; they are almost by definition mono-maniacs; freaks, if you like. I can’t see what I’m going to usefully gain by taking an interest in them. You may or may not admire their ambition, their drive and their achievements, but don’t hold them up as people to ‘follow’ or emulate. Enough already – I’ve gone on about this before.

I guess that I get asked my views on doping in pro cycling is a reflection of how few cyclists many people actually know. In reality, it’s akin to asking any car driver his views on Formula One racing drivers: no-one assumes every car driver will automatically have something to say on that front. I don’t mind being asked, it’s just a misplaced thing for people to do and a sad reflection on how relatively rare cycling still is.

Essence of English

One of those all too rare ‘proper’ English summer days – warm but not stifling and no wind to speak of. Perfect weather for a longer ride so today was a circuit taking in Caversham to the north, Theale to the west, Aborfield to the south and the edge of Windsor Forest to the east – just over 50 enjoyable miles.

Near Tidmarsh there’s an old pillbox in a field. (For younger readers, a pillbox is a reinforced defensive position. Any number of them were built in the Second World War; the threat of invasion was very real. Don’t be fooled by ‘Dad’s Army’ re-runs.) Seeing it now, the whole notion of them seems to be faintly ludicrous but very heroic, examples of a dogged determination and a thoroughly irrational ‘to hell with the odds’ response.

Just a few yards from there, there were horses standing in the shade of an oak tree in the middle of a field. The summer-blue sky was full of those ‘little fluffy white clouds’ and further around the route it was easy to see white sheep set-off perfectly against lush green fields.

From the attitude behind the construction of pillboxes to the scenes to be found seemingly everywhere, it all seemed quite ridiculously English in any number of stereotypical ways.

The Almshouse Association

The Almshouse Association: pure Englishness?

The fifty miles took in duck ponds, babbling streams complete with ramshackle wooden footbridges and a fair smattering of picture-perfect old churches. Chocolate-box-ready thatched cottages? Two a penny. Near Maiden’s Green there was a lady wearing a summer dress and straw hat, riding a beautiful-looking sit-up-and-beg bike with poise and style and yes, ‘Maiden’s Green’ exists and no, I’m not making any of this up.

As I rode I kept looking for a photo to best illustrate all this Englishness I was being faced with. Everything I’ve mentioned could have been snapped but then I saw The Almshouse Association. My instant thought was that both ‘Almshouse’ and ‘Association’ are perfect words for conveying so much about the English: charity, care, the establishment and the church; history, patronage, doing the right thing and an unspoken order to the way things are done; volunteers, donations and genteel goings-on.

I don’t want to know anything about the realities of The Almshouse Association. I want to leave it to exist as I imagine it is. I don’t want to reflect any more on Englishness. Now, sitting at home, I don’t want to ponder and come up with something better reasoned. For today, today’s scenes were enough.

That said, it would be very interesting to hear what anyone else thinks about what sums up England and/or the English on a summer’s day. Do leave a comment.

Neither Left Nor Right

A circumnavigation of Reading – Goring Heath, Pangbourne, Theale, Three Mile Cross, Aborfield, Twyford, Caversham – takes in roads controlled by both Tory and Labour controlled councils. The roads repaired by Wokingham (Tory) are generally pretty well done. Those looked after by Reading (Labour) will be patched but badly – most of the potholes are in fact old potholes, needing repair again. Those looked after by South Oxfordshire (Tory) are often simply not repaired, year after year, and if they are then they’ll be done badly. To be fair, this seems to be particularly true if it’s a minor road; South Oxfordshire will sometimes properly mend bits of more major roads.

Is cycling something for the common man? It used to be a working class sport, perhaps, but nowadays that’s probably not so strongly the case. Anyway, I’m not just thinking about the sporting side of it – there’s the utility aspect too. On that front it’s going to be fair to say a lot of those either riding more or riding for the first time, out of necessity, are those the recession is hurting the most, but that’s not strictly a class thing either. I can think of friends you’d certainly call middle class who are struggling to make the family budget add up.

I know this is fairly flimsy. What I was trying to grope towards as I was riding around is some kind of conclusion about the Left and Right. Would it be fair to assume a Labour council would be more cycling friendly than a Tory one? I think that’s tempting but it’s not true on the ground if you’re riding around Wokingham’s roads after experiencing Reading’s ruts. But the South Oxfordshire experience will quickly disabuse you of any pro-Tory notions.

In the end what that silly little example perhaps helps demonstrate is that notions of Left and Right, if they ever did mean anything in any consistent way, are now completely invalid. There are far better examples: the way both ‘sides’ are so happy to go to war in the service of oil; the way both ‘sides’ are so deeply entwined with the rich, the way both sides are so happy to betray their supporters.

As always these days, now we understand better the role of the media in life, it’s not enough to reject the old divisions, the old ideologies. It’s also necessary to reject their messengers, their propagandists. Lord Haw Haw was hung for a reason.

Rejection isn’t enough though. That’s just negative, and that will get you nowhere. Everything needs reassessing by a different light. We need new positives.

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.