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

A Human Pace

And just like that it seems we’re in quite settled, quite warm weather. It changes everything, not least how long I feel like being in the saddle. I’m now doing 30+ mile (50-60 km) or longer rides in Berkshire, South Oxfordshire or North Hampshire.

With the warmth comes a change in pace – if they can, people seem to slow down, or at least want to. Where they can, there are more smiles to be seen; people seem happier and more relaxed.

In the villages (numerous) and small towns (Wallingford- or Watlington-sized, for example) that I’ve ridden through lately it seems palpable. People are still doing what they have to do, of course, but there’s less bustle and less hustle.

In contrast, in larger towns, Reading most obviously, the hot weather seems more likely to generate frustration – people want to slow down but can’t. The heat serves only to increase the tensions that come with the inevitable traffic jams or car park queues and so on. You can only pity the slow-cooked commuters on the trains.

And it seems to me the key thing is that it’s not the case that warm weather makes us want to relax and makes us happier and thus makes us slow down. Rather, it’s that we are wiling to slow down when it’s warmer, and it’s when we slow down that we find the slower pace makes us happier.

Obviously, that’s all just unscientific impressionism – it’s how it strikes me, that’s all. But it did make me wonder whether there’s such a thing as a human pace – a speed of things, a speed of life, that somewhere, somehow, deep down, chimes most happily with our internal body clocks or some other internal, instinctive rhythm.

If that were true, the natural conclusion should be that we ought to be trying to match the speed of our collective lives to that pace. As it is, collectively we seem remarkably willing to let any number of external factors dictate to us how fast we must live our lives: from the non-negotiable demands of the working day to the incessant nagging of social media.

PS: Apropos of nothing, I work with ‘unstated.name‘ – newly launched and which you might like.

Fox gloves in the sun

“Time to stop and smell the …”

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.

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.

You Are Not Powerless

Just over a fortnight ago, I was cycling about in autumnal weather and pondering revolution – What Is To Be Done.

Russell Brand on Newsnight

We can all think. This is a good thing.

Since then, of course, nothing’s changed, but it’s interesting that the general issue of democracy, representation and the state of politics in the UK hasn’t just dropped off the agenda – much as many would like it to. As someone else said, the breadth and depth of the reaction by ‘the establishment’ against the Russell Brand-Jeremy Paxman interview and its follow-ons shows how rattled the establishment is by the prospect of being seriously challenged.

At the same time, it’s all too tempting to imagine we’re powerless; that for all the talk nothing will actually change. That thought, in turn, led me to writing an article about the political situation in the UK and what needs to be recognized if we’re to create the kind of change that might be beneficial.

Pleasingly, (especially for a first foray into writing for an outlet other than this blog for many a year) that’s now been published on openDemocracy.

This isn’t to boast! What I’m trying to say is that, as that article demonstrates and as many entries in Codgertation over the years show too, I think change starts with your own thoughts. You are free to think differently.

I surprised myself by writing that article. Writing it forced me to think things through, even if just to a limited extent. It’s quite challenging to go down that route, to question how you might naturally think and be open to answers you’d not normally entertain. But – in the UK at least, for now at least – we are free to think and we have remarkable access to information.

I suspect that whatever we want to change – from cycle lane provision to the distribution of wealth, the first step towards changing anything outside of ourselves is thinking differently inside of ourselves.

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)