Politics as Bloody Unusual

December 6, 2019

We’ve a new game in our household, whereby the other half shows me a headline and I have to guess if it’s from the Onion or not. This is getting harder and harder, to be honest, as reality appears to be playing catchup with satire; it’s getting to the point where reading the Onion just gives you a jump start on what will be happening down the line, only it’s a lot less funny when it’s for real. Despite us being in the middle of a general election, I’ve reached the point where I’m actually beginning to lose interest in politics, at least as it happens at Westminster, which for a lifelong politics geek (it was even my degree) is embarrassing. It’s almost as bad as when they decided to shake up the Archers by throwing Nigel off the roof of Lower Loxley – one minute you’re invested in these people and follow every twist and turn of the plot, and the next you’re lunging for the radio when the Today programme comes on. Which is sad, and a bit worrying, given that they’re actually running the country, not pretending to farm it.

Every so often, reality does break through and I remember why it’s so vitally important – like when someone at writers’ group was outraged because the council budget exercise is asking us to choose between homeless shelters and library opening hours, school music lessons and lollipop ladies. I pointed out that (much as I love to give the coonsil a kicking) it’s not their fault that they’re being asked to cut everything to the bone just in order to deliver the statutory services and suggested that as well as defending the homeless shelters we should be writing to MSPs to suggest they properly fund local authorities. ‘Well no doubt they’ll just blame Westminster,’ someone said. ‘Well, you know what to do about that on December 12th’ I said, to scepticism all round that voting for any one party over another might make a difference, which even in my disengaged state I found a bit shocking. Blame social media or our short attention spans, but we’re all so caught up in the minutiae of who made what fake video or ducked out of what debate, that the actual massive differences in actual policies has somehow managed to pass people by – even me.

So this week I did something distinctly analogue and attended a hustings event for our local constituency (it wasn’t a climate specific one, so all four candidates attended, even the Tory). It was recorded by Radio Scotland (so you can hear it in its entirety here for extra credit) and I didn’t get to ask my carefully worded question but I did get to clap, boo, and greet the Tory candidate’s weaker efforts at humour with a contemptuous silence (he did get the only genuine laugh of the event by promising to ‘deliver breakfast’ though – a policy would could have all properly got behind if he hadn’t meant to say ‘Brexit’). In our digital age it was a good opportunity to observe the politicians in person, and make them all at least a little more human. As always with politicians, their initial answers weren’t too bad – the test comes in the less scripted follow-ups* and I have to confess that I was surprised by which candidate impressed me most (it wasn’t the Conservative, though, that would be more than ‘surprised’, that would be ‘flabbergasted’).

None of which will alter how I vote, unfortunately – in a first-past-the-post system I have to vote tactically for the least worst option. In fact, this might be at the root of my disengagement. Over the past 10 years I’ve got used to voting in Scotland for the person I want to represent me, instead of having to settle for the person who will beat the bastard I don’t want.

I’ll still be voting, of course – I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. But I’ll be continuing to put the rest of my efforts into cycle campaigning in Scotland, where politics do remain a tiny bit saner than further south.

vote by bike

* Like when one candidate firmly promised to look at all policies ‘through a climate-related lens’ in response to a climate-related question, and then twenty minutes later was happily agreeing we should dual both major A-roads through the region without so much of a nod towards the climate emergency. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear my squeaks of frustration as I bit back a heckle…

Blast from the Past

October 20, 2019

It’s not often you hear that your (old) home has been demolished, especially via a random tweet on a Saturday night.

A quick glance on Google Streetview revealed that it was absolutely true, with the cameras capturing a last glimpse of the condemned terrace (and the fact that some subsequent owner had painted it an unfortunate shade of blue).

boarded up terrace

It was the first house we ever bought, in around 1994, back when people in their twenties could buy their own house. Actually, even then it was a bit of a stretch for a young couple in an affluent part of the south east, but it was the cheapest house on the market and we managed to get in right at the end of the housing price slump.

When we moved in, the wallpaper was hanging off the walls, having been up since apparently the 70s and it had no central heating just wall-mounted gas fires. This became a problem a few months later when we smelled gas and called British Gas. It was a freezing November evening and I remember being both horrified and impressed at the thoroughness as the engineer went round and condemned pretty much every heating appliance in the house.

It had no pavement in front of the house when we lived there, and as it was right in Maidenhead town centre, there was nowhere to park a car so when we did finally buy one, we had to rent it a garage about a mile away – and in a much nicer postcode, which meant the rent paid for itself in reduced insurance premiums. I can highly recommend keeping your car 20 minutes walk away from your house to cut down on frivolous car usage, by the way.

Like a lot of Victorian houses, it was pretty poorly built; there wasn’t a right angle or horizontal surface in the whole place, and no insulation to speak of. When we bought it the loft was one continuous space along the entire terrace – sadly, the forces of health’n’safety insisted we put up firewalls, thereby preventing us from either taking up a very localised career in burglary, or setting up an awesome extended model railway layout.

Its best feature was the garden, my first ever. It was south facing, and as the house had been built on the Thames’ floodplain, had the most beautiful alluvial soil. I created my first veg patch in that garden and I had absolutely no idea how lucky I was. It wasn’t very big, but it had everything we needed: a tiny warm patio with evening-scented plants, a lawn just big enough for one person to sunbathe on, raspberry canes that kept us in raspberries for most of July (£5 from Woolworths; bargain), my fancily named ‘vegetable parterre’ (what can I say, it was the nineties, we all watched Gardener’s World when we weren’t watching Changing Rooms), and a shed that came with all of the contents thrown in when we bought the house, including Arthur’s Bike.

I loved the process of turning what was a bit of a wreck into a home although it’s fair to say the other half was less keen, preferring a house where you weren’t woken at 5:30 by the street sweeping machine which always sounded like the approach of the end of the world, only more menacing. This often after a night when the party people of Maidenhead would have chosen our street (indeed often our front garden wall) to wait loudly and drunkenly for a taxi, fall out noisily with their boyfriends, or – at least once, anyway – knock on our front door to explain that they were too drunk to remember where they lived and could they come and sleep in our house instead.

Despite all this, it proved a sound investment, with almost as impressive returns as those £5 raspberry canes from Woolies but on a larger scale, and helped us to afford the place we live so happily in now. We often wondered if it would be compulsorily purchased – our little terrace was a strange anomaly in the midst of the office buildings and car parks of the town centre – but it seems it took another 15 years for that to actually happen. I hope that in the intervening years it was a happy home to more young people starting out on the housing ladder – and that it’s turned into more homes for people to be happy in, and hopefully with better soundproofing.

Onna Stick

August 30, 2019

It’s a sad truth, but when you’re on US time and the bulk of your followers are on UK time, your scintillating Minnesota State Fair Twitter thread is going to largely fall on deaf ears. This is especially so when the only members of your entire UK-based Twitter timeline who are awake are lying staring in the dark at the ceiling contemplating the latest grim twist in UK politics* and aren’t interested in carnival princesses being carved in butter, for some reason.

But – should you be looking for light relief, proof that Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler is alive and well and living in the Midwest, and an 11-day extravaganza that can only be described as a cross between an eating competition and an agricultural show, the Minnesota State Fair is the place to be.

big Fat Bacon on a stick

Although I think the US version of Moo-I-5 lacks a little in animation.

inflatable cows

We spent a glorious four hours there yesterday and I think we poked into most of the nooks and crannies and managed to try pretty much all the major food groups that can be served onna stick. We climbed what could be climbed, marvelled at tractors, slid down the Big Slide, said hello to the cows, and emerged somewhat footsore, excessively well fed and more knowledgeable about walleye conservation than we were when we went in.

I also finally found a slice of frozen chocolate-dipped cheesecake onna stick – something I once tasted when I was 19 and travelling round the States on the train, and have never managed to track down again. I may have mentioned it a few times to the other half because he was the one who spotted the stall amidst the competing stands offering alligator (onna stick), Pronto Pups (onna stick) and mini-donut beer (not onna stick, but I suspect not from lack of trying). Readers, it was exactly as delicious as I remember it from 30 years ago. And there’s no photo because I scoffed it instantly and wasn’t going to let anything slow me down.

All in all, the fair was $15 well spent (plus how much?! for the cheesecake) and should Brexit end in the way the worst case scenarios predict, we’ll be able to survive the resulting food shortages for at least a week just on the fat stores we laid down over the course of the day. And you can’t say fairer than that.

cow at the fair

* I know we’re not all ardent remainers here on this blog, but I can’t see how the current political shenanigans do anything but make us look like a banana republic without the bananas. Or a stick.

More Light than Heat

August 20, 2019

Next week we’ll be uprooting ourselves from the comfort of our corner of Scotland to head to the US for a couple of weeks visiting the other half’s family. I’ve been watching with mixed feelings as friends and online acquaintances take the pledge to give up flying in light of the climate crisis, but unfortunately I don’t think we can join them. Much as I’d love to never have to shuffle through an airport security queue in my socks – let alone get into a plane – again, even George Monbiot allows us love miles and regular flights across the Atlantic are going to be unavoidable for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to dismiss the issue, however. I’ve already decided to cut out all unavoidable short-haul flights – our last one was to attend a funeral – and am doing my bit in other ways to cut emissions, from cycling as much as possible to wearing as many jumpers around the house as is compatible with also moving my arms. We’ve installed solar panels and we’re upgrading our insulation – but according to the various carbon calculators available online, pretty much all of this effort will be wiped out by a single visit to America.

So that leaves offsetting, in itself a bit of a thorny topic. I understand that it’s not a get out of jail free card – and that it would be better not to fly than to fly and then attempt to undo the damage, but it does seem to me obvious that if you’re going to fly anyway then balancing that damaging action with something that will help to mop up the emissions, or cut them in other ways, seems the least worst action. The question is how to actually take that balancing action, or fund someone else to do it. Naturally, I asked Twitter:

Equally naturally, I got a fair few people who just wanted to shout at me for not just flying but for having the temerity to ask about offsetting my flights because apparently that’s somehow worse – and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything different (note to ecowarriors: it was still annoying though). I also got some replies from people who know me who were kind enough to suggest that I was doing enough already with the cycle campaigning, which is flattering (and in line with this excellent article) but I suspect a bit over-optimistic about the impact my efforts are having.

More surprising was the volume of useful responses I got which actually answered the question – including a link to this article in the Guardian which led me to the Atmosfair carbon calculator, and links to various other resources: in particular the excellent Drawdown site which analyses which interventions are likely to be most effective and the Gold Standard site which lists projects which don’t just help to mitigate carbon emissions, but do so in a way that contributes to sustainable development.

So I’m now, thanks to Drawdown, a fair bit better informed about how we might get ourselves out of the planetary-sized mess we’re in (and it confirms my gut instinct that educating girls and providing family planning are two things we should definitely be doing more of). And, thanks to Gold Standard, some trees will be planted in East Timor (and more importantly, subsistence farmers will get some money for looking after them), a small patch of degraded pastureland in Panama will be replanted with trees, and some refugee women in Chad will be able to use solar cookers rather than having to risk their lives to go and cut firewood to cook.

As to whether any of these actions will do anything to offset the impact of our flights, I don’t know. But it does seem to me that they do have the potential to make some people’s lives a little better in some small way, and that seems to me to be a good thing whatever else they achieve.

ash in tree tube


June 11, 2019

After a day and a half of phonelessness, I now have a phone again – courtesy of Back On My Bike who seems slightly less hard on her personal electronics than I am. It’s still at the ‘how do I get rid of that annoying notification?’ stage of being set up, but I have now at least been reunited with most of my social media channels just in time for our 20mph demo today and the Women’s Cycle Forum ‘Pecha caka’ evening on Wednesday.

I’m actually in two minds about this – and not least because I found that after just 24 hours with neither a phone nor much to do on the laptop, I woke up with no pain in my shoulders and several extra degrees of rotation in my neck. It was also interesting to see when I was automatically reaching for my phone and how often it was just out of boredom rather than any really pressing need to be in touch. I do use Twitter and the like to pass the time – even when I’m not actually at a loose end, just procrastinating. I have occasionally found myself reading the very same article on my phone that I know is printed in the paper I have cycled eight miles for and purchased at some expense. Certainly I far too often find I’ve reached the end of the day having not had time to read much of the paper or read a book, and yet I’ve obviously had time to spend far too long idly scrolling through various social media feeds.

On the other hand, it’s a (metaphorical) pain in the neck trying to make arrangements to meet people without a means of getting in touch and with three trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow this week, going completely without a phone would have been challenging. I also genuinely miss having a camera with me to record the things I want to share with the world – from a new young leveret scampering flightily around the garden (it’s going to have to learn that hiding under the car, right by the front wheel, isn’t sensible; hopefully not the hard way) to Bigtown’s baby rhino sporting a traffic cone, Duke of Wellington style, on its head. And this ‘road narrows’ sign on our already narrow road, courtesy of our trench digging pals from last week, which amused me this morning (the camera on the new phone is also a step up from the last, so I’m looking forward to boring you with compost pictures in higher resolution than ever before).

road narrowing sign

Not entirely sure how it could get any narrower …

So on balance it’s probably a blessing to have a phone again but I have resolved (a forlorn hope, I expect) to try and make sure I’m picking it up when I actually need it, rather than just to scratch the boredom itch. Who knows what I might manage during all the extra time that frees up?

Politics by Other Means

May 22, 2019

Enjoying a post-lunch ice cream with the other half in Bigtown yesterday we were startled to encounter what sounded like a Brexit Party rally on the High Street, complete with cheering at Nigel Farage’s name and pantomime-style booing at Nicola Sturgeon’s. Closer inspection (but not too close) revealed that this was in fact a recording, and the actual Brexit Party stall was three balding men handing out flyers while the entire town resolutely ignored them and got on with their lunchtime shopping.* I know not everyone who reads this is a remainer, but the whole setup was strange and actually pretty obnoxious – it’s the first time ever that I’d wished the guy who busks with his bagpipes further up the high street was a) louder and b) closer.

A short time later, I found myself heading into Bigtown again for a very different kind of political gathering which started, for reasons which made perfect sense at the time, with the police being invited to take their kit off if they wanted to remain (they made their excuses and left). I decided by the end that, while I wish them well, I’m probably not cut out to be an eco-warrior – the warrior part I could manage, but the meetings part may need some work, at least as far as the Bigtown chapter goes. On the other hand, it was a lovely day and an even lovelier evening and so two trips to Bigtown in one day was no hardship.

ash tree

Fortunately tomorrow we also all have an opportunity to do politics by traditional means – I hope everyone who can, whatever their opinions, will be getting themselves down to the polling station to vote.

vote by bike

Bonus points for getting there by bike

* I gather that later on there were some full and frank exchanges of views.

Old Person’s Railcard

May 14, 2019

Idly scrolling through Twitter as I took the train back from Glasgow this afternoon, I saw a promoted tweet pushing ScotRail’s 50 Club, which is currently offering a flat rate £17 ticket to anywhere in Scotland for anyone aged 50 or over. Bloody old people, I thought, they get all the good travel deals, that would be brilliant seeing as it’s going to cost me £78 return to get up to Inverness on Friday.*

And then I realised that I am now, as far as ScotRail is concerned, an Old Person (seasonally adjusted) and for the first time since my Young Person’s Railcard expired when I reached the grand age of 23, I would be eligible for discounted tickets, albeit only in Scotland – not just the limited time £17 offer, but 20% off all rail fares booked online or 10% off tickets bought at the station. Having spent the rest of the journey calculating that, since I had turned 50 in March, I had taken enough rail trips to pay for the card already, I stopped in at the ticket office to find out more.

Obviously, there are hurdles to clear – the first of which is you can only apply online, potentially eliminating some Old Persons from the off, and the second of which is that once you get online to apply, you will spend several baffled minutes going round in circles on the ScotRail website until you realise that first you need a Smart Card before you can add your Old Person’s card to it – I imagine that my browsing history alone would be enough to prove that I was sufficiently Old and befuddled to qualify. Having worked that one out I fell at the third hurdle which was to provide a selfie of sufficient quality to act as a photo id (actually, being far to old to take a decent selfie, where I really failed here was in working out whereabouts I’d stashed the memory stick with the photo I had had taken when I renewed my passport which ticks all the requisite boxes of having plain white background, being in focus, and making you look like an axe murderer). Clearly ScotRail have thought this one through with some care. I may need to find a young person (or at least a photographer) to get past that one.

Once I have defeated the technology and got hold of my card, my battles will not be over, however. Because my planned route to Inverness goes via England (I know, I know) so will not be eligible, and all other routes are flagged up as not being off-peak when you look online, even though they are and hence also not eligible. Fortunately, in Bigtown Station we have a secret weapon, in that some of the ticket office staff consider it a point of pride to sell you the cheapest possible ticket on any given route. The most innocent-sounding request for a ticket can lead to a thoughtful pause, much tapping on the keyboard and jotting down of notes, a few searching questions, and finally a set of multiple tickets that, by routing you through Dundee or making your final destination Paisley Canal rather than Glasgow Central, save you the sum of £5.73. I feel confident that, however hard ScotRail try, the arcana of the Old Person’s Rail Card will prove no match for these ticketing ninjas and I will place myself in their capable hands, even if it means a queue building up of epic proportions while they work it all out. It is for such triumphs that we Old Persons live and breathe.

*Where, among other things, I will be hopefully hanging out with some of the cool cycling women of Inverness (or at least those not quite cool enough to have something better to do on a Friday night)