For this Relief, Much Thanks …

October 27, 2021

I’m having something of a worlds colliding experience at the moment. On the one hand, I do have a book coming out in January, which will mean a little bit of self promotion over the next few months (apologies in advance for those of you who are here for the cycling and ford updates, although at least the book does have some hares in it and look how gorgeous its cover is).

Since my last book was published cough years ago, book promotion and social media have come a long way – I didn’t even have a twitter account back then, now I come to think of it. And now I’m getting tagged in by people who have been sent advance copies of my book to review (and even been followed by my publisher) who may be looking at my feed in some confusion and wondering if they’ve actually got the right Sally Hinchcliffe.

I have been guiltily thinking that I should probably be doing some more writerly tweets at least every now and then, or perhaps tone down the climate doom mongering / cycle campaigning / swearing a bit, which might not be a bad idea anyway. All of which good intentions went flying out the window with one casual tweet that went moderately viral about … toilets.

Although, given the grateful response from people of all ages and genders, I’m not sure I should apologise at all.

Anyway, in the interests of book sales and keeping my publishers happy, my book is available for pre-order now. There’s even a bicycle in it.


Welcome to the New Normal, Just Like the Old Normal…

September 11, 2021

The last few weeks have seen a lot of ‘firsts’ for me (and, I suspect, for many of you), as I’ve been ticking off a number of ‘first X since the pandemic’. Today was my first parkrun since 14th March 2020, when we all stood around talking about herd immunity and speculating about what the future held. It was at once weird and utterly normal to be back. I was delighted that the elderly woman who used to be liberated from her care home every week to sit bundled up in a chair and act as a marshal was back at her post and still going strong, and slightly discombobulated by the new route, which has been modified to ensure better social distancing at the expense of making me much more likely to get lapped by the speedy folk. Other than that, the main sign of the profound changes we’ve all been through over the past 18 months was the willingness of more drivers than usual (including a posse of motorbikes) to ignore the park road closures because what force do a ‘road closed’ sign, line of traffic cones and, indeed, a large crowd of people standing in the way, have against the divine right of motorised traffic to go wherever the hell it likes?

Indeed, in general, despite case numbers in Scotland being higher than ever, it seems we have collectively decided to carry on as more-or-less normal, just with more face coverings, weird elbow bumps instead of handshakes and stroppier drivers. I’m not sure I am comfortable with this, but equally, I am fully vaccinated and I don’t want to miss out on some of the things which are happening as we resume ‘normal’ life. My response has been to take a cost benefit approach to balancing the risk of getting and spreading COVID with the benefit of going out and doing things again. Outdoor stuff? No problem (it was such a joy to replace grim Zoom meetings for a gathering in the park for the Bigtown Cycle Campaign on Tuesday). Eating indoors in a restaurant crammed full of strangers? Not so much. Head to England to celebrate someone’s life – or a missed wedding? Yes, albeit with trepidation, and leaving a long gap afterwards before going to see my parents. Agree to take part in a panel on women and cycling infrastructure, possibly without checking beforehand that it was an actual in-person event? Why, yes! To be honest, this last was organised so far in advance that I hadn’t really believed that it was going to actually happen, but it is and it’s suddenly next week, and I think it is one of those things which is worth the risk, whatever the risk currently is. As well as the opportunity to radicalise a few more cycling women, it is also a chance to meet up with some fellow campaigners who I haven’t seen since this whole thing started, and spend some time setting the world properly to rights, possibly with the addition of some alcohol. This, more than anything, I have sorely missed during these strange and socially distanced times and if the opportunity is snatched away at the last minute, I shall be bitterly disappointed..

As my legs have been reminding me every time I go up and down the stairs today, it has been a long old time since my last parkrun and those conversations about what the future might hold. I don’t think any of us had a clue then how long it would be before we gathered together again at what a friend of mine calls ‘jogging church’. And nor do I have any clue whether this new normal will be any more permanent than the old one. But maybe it is time to seize the opportunities we have – cautiously – while we can. Assuming – in the traditional caveat that gets less and less theoretical as time goes on – we are spared.

What are you doing in your new normal?


We Interrupt this Everyday Tale of Rural Folk…

August 12, 2021

… to announce that I got something very exciting in the post today

Cover of Hare House, by me

This is not the final finished product yet; the book comes out officially in hardback on January 6, 2022. But it is still exciting nonetheless (and I may be biased, but I think it’s a gorgeous cover design).

Back cover and blurb

Mark your calendars …

And now, back to cycling, gardening, and existential climate angst.


There and Back Again

August 8, 2021

It seems to be an ironclad law* that the one thing you worry about most, is the thing that doesn’t happen, while you’re then blindsided by the thing (or things) you never even thought about. So when I set off yesterday on my epic(ish) journey south, my main concern, apart from actually catching Covid, was the fear of other people’s behaviour – as if the last 18 months had somehow managed to turn the UK into a live version of Twitter where people would feel the need to harangue other people in public about their life choices, instead of simply pretending they weren’t there or – in extremis – perhaps tutting, even possibly audibly.

If you weren’t following along on Twitter at the time, here’s the blow-by-blow version, or at least the edited highlights.

Or if Twitter’s not your thing, suffice it to say, that the least of my worries was being accosted by strangers in any way, even on the evening train heading to Blackpool North. Instead what happened was I got completely drenched on the bike ride down to the station and spent the rest of the day squelching round in wet socks, and I ended up booked onto a train that didn’t exist, that would anyway have connected to a cancelled train and hence very nearly ended up spending the night on a bench in Preston. Fortunately, I was rescued from this fate by the man in the ticket office who managed to find me a route that got me on the very last train home, and very grateful I am too.

It’s clear that over the last 18 months, I’ve completely lost my train travelling skills, because despite facing a complicated 3-train journey home, with very little wiggle room, I never even thought to check on line that the trains I was booked onto were running, or whether there was an alternative route should things go wrong. After 18 months of barely having to cycle anywhere except at a time of my choosing (not to mention three weeks of unprecedented sunshine) I would have said that I’ve lost my ability to deal with the Scottish weather but the truth is, I never did master the ability to cycle in the rain and not arrive at the other end looking like a drowned rat, however much wet-weather gear I accumulate. And nor do I ever manage to spend the few dry days of summer resourcefully re-proofing the kit I have.

As to my Covid fears, I can report that, once over the border into England, the number of people wearing any form of face covering was pretty low – about 30% at best, despite many signs and announcements encouraging people to do so (in Scotland it was more like 70%). I even overheard a mother telling her kids ‘you can take your mask off now, we’re in England’ as I boarded the train in Carlisle (although I was slightly cheered to note that at least two of the children in question were still wearing them as they got off the train a few stops later). I suppose I could have guessed that leaving things up to people’s common sense was never going to work in a country where a goodly proportion of the population pick up their dogs’ poo and then leave it dangling in a plastic bag from the nearest tree. Hopefully, I won’t have caught anything but having taken all manner of risks in one day that I’ve been avoiding for the last year and a half, my plan is to limit my interactions with other people as much as possible for the next few days (and take a couple of lateral flow tests just in case).

On the positive side, yesterday’s adventure has jolted me out of my cosy little retreat, and that’s probably a good thing. If I’d stayed home much longer, there’s a risk I’d never leave southern Scotland again. As it is, after my seven trains epic, not to mention my brush with trench foot, my next couple of outings should be a complete doddle.

I’m a great believer in diving into something scary headfirst to get it over with. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out that the pool had been drained…

* At least I hope so, because in that way I’ll manage to solve global warming through the power of fretting alone.


If Not Now, When?

August 4, 2021

I do love a train journey, and I haven’t been on one for almost 18 months so this ought to be exciting …

Train tickets

… but if I’m honest, I’m finding the prospect rather daunting. Saturday will see me on not just one train, but seven, as I make my first proper trip out of Southern Scotland since this pandemic began (walking over the Chain Bridge briefly into England doesn’t really count). I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t something I felt I had to do – a memorial bash in celebration of a man who was one of those people who tirelessly worked away in the background turning someone’s vision into reality, and who was still working away even into the last weeks of his life. Lockdown robbed his family and friends of a chance to say goodbye, and I couldn’t let my own misgivings prevent me from joining them now that they can gather again to do it properly.

Even so, and even though I tell myself that I’m double jabbed and that cases are (at least for now) declining, I can’t help feeling The Fear at the prospect. Partly I’m worried about COVID itself, having got this far without catching it, and partly about people taking it upon themselves to object to my wearing a face covering on the trains, even though I’ve no idea whether they will or not. I think I’ve spent too long seeing the world filtered through social media to know what actually happens out there beyond my quiet little rural corner of Scotland. While it’s possible that every train will be crowded with coughing strangers who want to explain to me at close quarters why Coronavirus is a hoax and they’ve not had Bill Gates’s jab, it is surely much more likely that everyone will be carefully spacing themselves out to the maximum extent possible and avoiding all eye contact like normal British people, because that’s what we do best, after queueing.

Either way, it’s time for me to put on my Big Girl Pants (and my Big Girl Triple-Layer Mask, let’s not go mad here) and get out there and find out for myself. And once I’ve braved that, I have other more purely pleasurable trips in the offing to look forward to.

If, as Huttonian used to say, I am spared.


No Longer Shouldering On

April 15, 2021

As I mentioned over two years ago, one of the indignities middle age has visited on me has been A Shoulder,* self diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury. As this was causing me some distress by changing my reading habits of a lifetime, I eventually took myself off to a physiotherapist who basically winced, strapped it up a bit, told me to sort out my neck or I’d really start suffering and finally sent me to my GP who sent me for an X-Ray, diagnosed a very tiny amount of calcification in the joint and bounced me back to the physio.

Unfortunately at this point I’d stopped seeing the physio for the very British reason that she’d suggested doing some acupuncture, which I didn’t particularly want, so I dealt with it by saying nothing and then never going back, which I’m sure you’ll agree is an entirely rational response. This threw me onto the tender mercies of Dr Google and also asking everyone else in the Shoulder cohort what they suggested. When the pandemic hit and I started spending longer at my desk, I did finally raise my screens up to eye level, get a decent chair, and a separate keyboard. I also bought a not-as-kinky-as-you-might-hope Swedish device that encourages me to sit more upright, did more yoga and an exercise suggested by someone on Facebook I vaguely know but have never met, started reading propped up in bed like a middle aged woman in a 70s sitcom, and hoped that things would improve.

And there things stayed for roughly the last year: not in as much pain as I originally was, but with a constant nagging ouch in the background and a limited range of mobility in my right arm. I resigned myself to the steady decline of age. After all, for a cyclist, A Shoulder was better than A Knee, and both are better than A Back.

And then my keyboard began to play up, and I idly asked on Twitter if anyone had any opinions about replacement keyboards (spoiler: oh boy, yes they did). It turns out keyboards are complicated. Just as I was about to go down a loooong rabbithole regarding mechanical keyboard switches and how many centiNewtons of force I wanted to use for each key stroke (I swear I am not making this up), someone came to my rescue by offering to send me his old ergonomic keyboard, saving me from weeks of research and indecision and it from ending up in landfill (or the drawer under the bed where old electronic equipment goes to die, which is more or less the same thing).

Shortly afterwards the keyboard arrived and I have to admit, at first I was dubious. I don’t know how many centiNewtons of force were needed to press the keys, but it felt like a lot, and indeed the whole keyboard felt like it was designed for the Default Man with large manly hands rather than someone who spent her university years wearing children’s gloves because they fit better than adult ones. Plus I’ve always secretly felt a bit dubious about these ergonomic keyboards – they just looked a bit unnecessary. Surely I didn’t need a special keyboard when I’d spent all my life battering away on a five quid job from Tesco?

Keyboard set up

However, I persevered. And after about five days of battling with the thing, I noticed something strange. Well, two things. One, my shoulders were no longer around my ears and I was resting my wrists on the rest the way I was supposed to with my upper body largely relaxed. And two, my shoulder – and indeed my neck – no longer hurt. I found myself rotating my arm around this way and that, trying to remember exactly what it was I wasn’t able to do before and not finding it. The whole nagging background pain I’ve been carrying around for the last two years … just gone.

I do realise that ‘ergonomic keyboard actually makes life better for someone with shoulder pain’ is yet another finding in the No Shit Sherlock category from the School of the Bleeding Obvious, but hey, it turns out it’s one more thing I’ve had to learn the hard way. Hopefully there’s someone out there who can profit from my experience without having to do the whole ‘two years of pain’ part. If so, you’re welcome.

And now having written all this and realising I may no longer have A Shoulder, I’m just crossing everything that it doesn’t get replaced by A Knee instead. Or, worse, A Back. Ergonomically, of course

* As I understand it, as you approach your middle years, everyone is issued with either A Shoulder, A Knee or, if you’re really unlucky, A Back, which will be your cross to bear for the next couple of decades, when I believe things really start falling apart.


We Interrupt this Pandemic …

September 25, 2020

… with some good news (for me at least):

After *cough* years of variously avoiding, evading and simply refusing to answer the question I can finally now reply to all those people who ask ‘how’s the second book coming along?’ with some good news.

(It’s also kind of terrifying when you update your official author photo as the original is 15 years old and you have to contemplate what a decade and a half of fending off well-meant enquiries about your next novel does to your once youthful appearance).

For those of you here for the cycle campaigning, there is a bike in it but very little in the way of infrastructure design.

For those of you here for the hares, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

hare and flowers

 


Mr and Mrs Pepperpot Revisited

June 25, 2020

Of the many things I never imagine I’d end up doing until this crisis (ringing people up randomly for a chat, voluntarily making a video call, not riding my bike for a week) we can add another: driving out 100 miles in one direction just to have a picnic in someone’s garden, and then driving home again the same day.

But it’s different when the garden in question is your parents’, and you’ve been unable to visit them for over three months.

Since last week, we’ve finally been able to leave our local* area, as long as it’s to visit family and friends, and as long as you all eat your own food and don’t go into their house except to use the loo. We would have headed off earlier, but I had missed the import of the latest announcement, and then we had to find a date when we were free, combined with a forecast for suitable weather for sitting in a garden with two octogenarians. The weather immediately turned dreich for the first two days of this week, but today looked just right and despite various cautionary texts from my father about it being to cold, too hot, too windy, too sunny or too perfect, we took our lives into our hands and headed across to Duns with a packed lunch, a wide brimmed hat and a bag of salad from the garden (pandemic or no, we’ve reached the stage of the salad growing cycle where nobody escapes being given a bag of salad unless they actively fight it off).

selfie with parents

Oh yeah and you can add ‘posting a selfie’ to the list of things I never thought I’d willingly do …

It was just over two hours to get there (not helped by the coonsil deciding to close half the roads in the county for roadworks, just as the traffic was getting back to normal) and the same to get back, and it was very strange to be in the same garden but not to have a hug, or even go into the kitchen to help Mum with the lunch – but it was entirely worth it.

We’re so fortunate to have have been able to reach this milestone at all; so many thousands of families have not. The news as we drove back was full of stories of lockdown easing but I’m not champing at the bit to get to a pub, or eat a meal in a restaurant, or even go anywhere else but to my parents’ any time soon. I can only hope that things continue to ease enough that the next time we go, we can give each other a hug – and then that the other half can get to see his dad again, over in the US.

parents

That doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

* defined as about 5 miles, but that doesn’t even get us to the nearest shop here, so a bit of creative accounting has been applied.


Black Lives Matter

June 7, 2020

It’s fair to say, I wasn’t expecting the people of Bigtown to hold a Black Lives Matter demonstration. It was something of a culture shock when we moved up here from London to be in a place where there were so few people who weren’t white. Since then, it’s got a little more diverse – helped by the council agreeing to take in a couple of dozen Syrian refugee families, as well as the increasingly multicultural staff of the hospital – but it’s still by a long way the whitest place I’ve ever lived apart from the even smaller rural Scottish town where I went to boarding school back in the 80s.

Levantine restaurant

So, I was surprised, pleased, and a little conflicted when I saw the event announced on Facebook a few days ago. I wanted to do more than donate some cash to the cause and retweet a few stories – I felt that this was an occasion to stand up and be counted. But it was also an occasion to be standing in one place with more people than I have interacted with for the entire period of lockdown and even outside and with social distancing measures in place, it felt like a risk in the middle of a pandemic. But then again, I had merrily cycled off to the garden centre last weekend – for a far less pressing cause – without really feeling it was too risky a venture. If I could do it for a new blueberry bush, then I could do it to show solidarity with those suffering from systemic racism even here in the UK – even in Bigtown, indeed.

Even so, I have spent an anxious few days monitoring the Facebook event page (full of reassuring information about distancing measures) and the Bigtownshire Coronavirus numbers (thankfully very low), and hoping that the scenes I was seeing in London and elsewhere weren’t repeated here. And today with face coverings sorted, and emergency hand sanitiser in our pannier bags, we pedalled down into town to take part with some trepidation (at least on my part) at the risks we were possibly taking.

socially distanced protest

Thankfully, it was all very well organised and it felt like the potential dangers were well managed. We stood on our little tape crosses, 2 metres away from everyone else, and everyone was wearing a mask (which cannot be said for pretty much anyone else in the town). The only person who didn’t socially distance was the (sole) counter protester who took it upon himself to wade into the crowd complaining about people spreading the virus and – after a tricky moment or two when it looked like everyone was going to move forward to remonstrate with him and prove his point – he was somehow socially distantly ushered away and the demonstration continued. We heard from some impressive young Black people who had grown up in Dumfries about what that was like and then we all knelt, painfully, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which I can tell you is a very long time.

crowd taking the knee

We also supplemented our symbolic efforts by spreading a little financial love towards minority-owned businesses in the town, although this was absolutely no sacrifice on our part. Our favourite lunch spot – owned, indeed, by one of those refugee families – has reopened its doors to takeaway customers. This was the last restaurant we visited before lockdown began – and we were so happy and relieved to see it had weathered the storm so far, especially as our stockpiled baklava had run out many moons ago…

The truth is, Bigtown is a richer place for  its increasing diversity (even those who don’t come bearing pastries). I just hope that this continues to be recognised by everyone in the town – us included – and not just for today.


Defragging*

June 6, 2020

Back when lockdown started, and we all thought we would have loads of time on our hands, I idly wondered on Twitter what the last thing people would resort to doing

At the time, I had no thought of organising my own books having lived quite happily for most of my life with my books randomly crammed into all the available shelf space and overflowing into a number of piles in various parts of the house. This is fine when mostly what your bookcase is for is storing books you have read (the ones I haven’t read wait enticingly beside my bed) and occasionally ransacking them for something to re-read. It works less when when you wish to track down a particular book that your lockdown bookclub has decided to read and end up in this situation:

Two copies of Transcription

I’m sure there’s some sort of metafictional joke I could make here about having two copies of a book about making a copy of something

(I had thought the original would show up as soon as I ordered a second copy, but in fact it bided its time until the new copy had arrived, and been re-read, and then appeared in a pile I could have sworn I had searched already the morning after our bookclub session)

So as the bookcase needed moving today, I took advantage of the fact to impose a little order on the bookcase in my study, if only in the hopes that one day I will be in a position to attract the gimlet eye of Bookcase Credibility, and pass muster

In the end, I didn’t alphabetise them – that would have involved getting all the other books in the house out of where they’ve been breeding and rearranging everything, which might have been quite satisfying but would probably have taken a week and involved all sorts of complicated decisions about what books to keep and what to pass on, and frankly, lockdown or no lockdown, I just don’t have that sort of time. But I did impose some sort of order that made sense to me and had a lovely afternoon reminding myself about books I had forgotten I owned, and recalling happy times spent with others I remembered very well.

(This book suffered from my habit at the time of stuffing it in the waistband of my trousers to leave both hands free for holding my binoculars. I did see a German birder who had made a handy little carrier for his field guide – a cloth cover that came with two integral handles so he could dangle it from his wrist leaving his hands free. Unfortunately by that time our field guide was well on the way to disintegration but it has our list in it from two years spent in Swaziland and I could never throw it away).

Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys the odd judgemental truffle through someone else’s bookcases, so here is the end result (bear in mind that you’re only seeing the front layer of books – most of the shelves are stacked two deep).

restacked bookcase

Next step: tackling the recipe folder. Or maybe I’ll save that one for when the second wave hits.

* Title courtesy of @MatthewSndeker on Twitter.