January 26, 2012

I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that regularly cycling – indeed regularly getting drenched and frozen on a bike – does wonders for the old immune system. This is partly borne out by the fact that since I’ve moved up here and regularly got drenched and frozen on the bike, I’ve barely had a cold, or at least not one that’s got beyond a day or so. So when the neighbour – as thanks for looking after his cat – brought back a stinking cold from Australia, the other half duly succumbed but I wasn’t worried. I even nobly headed out for the paper on some pretty ropey days to save the other half the drive and to top up my immune system in case it needed it. The problem was, having begun to believe my own propaganda, I’d mistaken ‘less liable to getting colds’ for ‘my superpower is not catching cold’. And yep. The day before I’m due to be in London for high-powered ambassadorial meetings I have come down with what promises to be a stinker…

I’m not going to let it stop me, though. I’ve spent the last year, one way or another, trying to make the case for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. Far too often, it feels like the very people who should be helping are the ones that hold us back. Never mind the Mr. Toads who hate cyclists – or the hardened vehicular cyclists who feel comfortable mixing with fast traffic and can’t see why everybody else should do so too – they were never going to support us in the first place. No, the real grief seems to come from the people who are nominally supportive of the idea of proper cycle infrastructure but who always seem to come up with a reason why it won’t work here and we should stop wasting everybody’s time asking for it. And the one that comes up time and time again is the ‘crap cycle lane’ argument. You know the one. Because half the time the facilities that get put in for cyclists are derisory, baffling, and occasionally downright dangerous then, so the argument goes, if you ask for cycling infrastructure – particularly separate cycle tracks as they have in the Netherlands – then you’ll just get more of the same. And worse – you’ll be MADE to cycle in them. Ergo, safest not to ask for anything at all and just keep on taking the lane, accelerating up to 20mph to get round multi-lane roundabouts, dicing with lorries 20cm from your wheel – and occasionally taking a cycle tour to the Netherlands to enjoy their superior cycling facilities with your family (who won’t cycle in the UK, for some reason, even though statistically it’s extremely safe) while reminding yourself why it is that such things would not work in the UK due to the fact that we’ve got different laws of physics from those crazy Dutch people.

Oh no, wait, hang on…

What’s really different here from the Netherlands is not the laws of physics but a failure of the imagination. We look at the crap we’ve got and we can’t imagine any different. We look at the amazing facilities the Dutch have and we can’t imagine how we would ever get there given the complete lack of will to create that sort of thing in the UK, and so we give up. We fight our inch-by-inch battles for an ASL here or a bit of shared path there or half a foot wider lanes along the potholed margins of our roads until we’ve forgotten we ever had a vision of something that wasn’t just not crap, but was actually a bit fantastic. And when somebody else comes along, all starry eyed and excited about their holiday in Amsterdam we snarl at them and remind them that it’s never going to happen here and besides who wants to cycle on those lousy Dutch bike lanes with their horrible smooth surfaces and their over-generous width when we’ve got the thrills and spills of a potholed roundabout to tackle…

What we’re trying to do this weekend is to close the gap between the UK reality and the vision that we want to achieve. We’re not trying to change the laws of physics – but we are trying to chip away at the laws of human nature. Which might be a lot harder, but it’s worth a shot. I’m looking forward to it, cold and all. I’m just sorry in advance that I’m going to give everyone my lurgy.

Big Society

February 24, 2011

A letter arrives from the charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off since we arrived here, announcing the end of its volunteer service due to lack of funding. To be honest, they weren’t the best organised outfit I’ve ever volunteered for (though neither were they the worst) but what they managed to do they did well, and it seems to be part of a worrying trend – the local conservation volunteering coordinator doesn’t look as though he’s having his contract renewed either. He was Mr Health’n’Safety gorn mad, and rather over fond of his paperwork (in fact I more or less stopped volunteering for him over a slight difference of opinion about whether asking volunteers to fill in time sheets was a justifiable use of dead trees or not) but you couldn’t fault his energy or his commitment to his job.

I’ve been a regular volunteer all of my adult life, since I first spent a summer peeling potatoes at a homeless shelter in Washington DC in the middle of the crack epidemic. Drug-crazed knife-wielding vagrants notwithstanding, this process has only got harder every time I’ve moved somewhere new and trotted down to the local volunteer service to see what use they could make of my time. I’m pretty certain that my nineteen-year-old self would not have persisted with filling in a three-page application form and providing two references, which is about the minimum required for a wannabe volunteer these days (and I’m fairly certain she would also have told anyone who asked where they could stuff their timesheets so some things don’t change). I can sort of see why charities have professionalised their volunteering operations, or tried to, but I can’t say it’s led to much of an improvement in my experience. The best volunteering I’ve done has always been with groups that were entirely volunteer-run themselves. And they’re not dependent on time-limited project funding to provide an officer who ends up justifying their job description by thinking up new and exciting kinds of paperwork for people to fill in.

So when it comes to the Big Society, I’m actually pretty conflicted. Obviously I would never want my volunteering to come at the expense at someone’s real job – much as I’d love to pretend to be a librarian (all those books! And rubber stamps!) I’m buggered if I’m going to give up my time doing someone else’s job badly for free so some cheese-paring councillor can claim the front line has not been affected – but I can see the attraction of groups of like-minded citizens getting together and just doing something that needs to be done without there needing to be a whole lot of paperwork first. But while that works well for litter picking and tree planting and things like that, you can’t just march into vulnerable people’s lives and start doing good at them without some sort of structure in place. And I really can’t see how we’re all going to fill in the holes being left by the cuts through our own uncoordinated efforts. Somewhere between anarchy and bureaucracy there must be a happy medium. It’s just I don’t know where it lies, and I suspect David Cameron et al have no idea either.

But never mind all that, on a happier note I saw some blue skies and a flying chicken today. I was beginning to believe that the first was as implausible as the second…

This one’s for Steve

July 29, 2008

There’s a stretch of A Road between us and Notso Bigtown. Not one of your nationally important, single digit A Roads – it doesn’t have any dual carriageway, for example, or even any Little Chefs. But it’s big enough: proper white lines, multi-lane roundabouts, crawler lanes, speed cameras, big lorries, snack vans and more lay-bys than you can shake a stick at. As of a few months ago – about the time we arrived – they had some major roadworks on that stretch, strained mightily & brought forth a gnat: a bike lane. Not much of a bike lane, admittedly. For a start it runs from one arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere to another not terribly far away arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere. For another start, it’s shared with any pedestrians there might happen to be, my least favourite sort of bike lane. And for a third start, it’s only on one side of the road so that any bikes actually using it westbound are forced to ride against the traffic – never fun in the hours of darkness, and dangerous if any cars want to turn across the lane, although at least the shortness of the bike lane means that at least is not going to happen. But hey, it’s a bike lane and even if it was only built because the powers that be had targets for putting in so many kms of bike lane and no targets for putting them anywhere actually useful, it’s the only bike lane that A road’s got if you don’t count the (I swear to God) nine-inch wide red-tarmacked extravaganza that runs through Papershop Village. Which I don’t

And that, my friends, is why it was an extremely bad place for twat tourist family to park their twat tourist car and get out their twat picnic table and start having a picnic. You’d think after passing about nineteen dozen of them, they’d have known what a lay-by looked like by now, and that the picture of the bike and it being a bit narrow might have tipped them off, but no. That’s holiday makers for you, I’m afraid. Leave your brains behind.

Looks like the tourist season is in full swing up here in the middle of nowhere. And I don’t think I’m going to like it one bit…


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