Some stuff is important. It’s not what you think

FoD - Autumn MTB ride #forjenn

So my friend Jenn succumbed to the total bastard that is cancer lastFriday night. She was 38 years old. At times like this, luadable homilies are deployed to assuage the pain: ‘there is now no more suffering‘ and ‘the worth in a life can be defined by the gap that it leaves’

Which I suppose is lovely and fine. Not entirely helpful though for those closest to Jenn now staring into that gap. I don’t include myself in that circle – as I said before we were friends, good friends I hope but not more than that. What I remember most about Jenn is her open heartedness, her instinct to help others and her unwavering joy at being alive.

On a cold and wet northern ride nearly ten years ago, I asked Jenn what she thought of a test bike she was riding and a minute later I was riding it myself. An hour after that – through my awesome powers of mechanical savagery having jammed my chain around the bottom bracket – Jenn rocked up, had a giggle, whipped out her chain tool and fixedit about the time it’d taken me to look at it, wrench it, swear at it and give it a well deserved kicking.

Small things, happy memories. Many who knew her better have many more. The outpouring of understandable grief would bring tears to the hardest hearted. I’m not one of those soit’s without a hint of embarrassment I’ll admit to havingmore than the occasional blub.

So we rode. Of course we did. That’s what we do. This is our Church. Turning circles unwinds our angst; makes sense of the world; stops the introspection; starts finding important things. Maybe if conditions were shit under stair-rods of rain depression might have set in, but we had none of that.

I believe in pretty much nothing tainted by religion, yetriding 60km of dry singletrack under benign skies with friends I love as brothers had me giving a brief nod to those who confuse beliefwith faith. Determined to make the ride matter somehow, I gave myself a stern 8am talking too re: not riding like a twat, not taking this stuff for granted, not being some kind of emotional cripple. Went well, even the dog looked impressed.

Go ride. First up a gap I’ve never done or even seen. Straight over without even checking it out. Worked our way back up the valley to descend a serpent shaped trail finishing with a deep-breath committed vertical roll in with consequences for imprecise lines. Never even stopped to have a look.

Gravel fireroad, pushing into a loose corner, front went and a second later so did a stomping foot bashingthe bike back onto line. I can’t ride like this. Not for long anyway but right now I’m the lucky bastard with the choice to do so. So get on with it.

On and on. I bottled one thing that’s been giving me the eye for a year or so and watched Cez launch long and stupid over something much removed from stuff I consider in mysphere of sanity. But that’s okay, still pushing it a bit, still having a laugh, still taking the piss, still doing the thing which defines us and – as importantly – our community.

I’ve seen many posts ‘I don’t know Jenn but thoughts to her family and friends‘. It’s easy to be cynical about this – say the right thing for group approval but I’m confident this is our tribe closing ranks and lamenting the loss of a good one. Social media is a bastard tho, Tom (Jenn’s husband) posted a pic of Jenns’ favourite bike with a ‘fuck cancer’ sticker on the seat-tube and no rider. Pass me those tissues.

And that got me thinking onwhat was brilliant about today’s ride. It wasn’t the loamy trails holding your tyres before throwing them off in an entirely predictable direction. It wasn’t risking a little to finda lot of stuff that’d been hidden in the oft visited drawer of ‘I’ll do that next time’. It wasn’t even encouraging others in their endeavours while being genuinely delighted they rode stuff you did not.

No. It was something quite different. 11km of tarmac separates us from our post ride pub finish and home. It’s mostly uphill and not a whole load of fun especially with the cold descending from grey clamped skies and every pedal stroke battling a rising headwind.

We’re not roadies. So we never leave a mate. No one gets shot out of the back. We trained our way back with a tag-team of wind takers without a word being said. Every 10 pedal strokes had us swivelling eyeballs over shoulders. Knackered riders took their turn even when it was clearly hurting.

Close to the end we slowed to a pace entirely appropriate for those blowing it someway out of their arse. Your individual speed matters not a jot. That has no place here, you are a member of a team, a community if you will of riders who look out for their own. The needsof the many is far more important that the prowess of the one.

We talk often about not taking riding mountain bikes in amazing places for granted. And we’re missing the point by a million miles. What matters is being there for each other, being part of a close knit group of the like-minded, being included and being part of something rather nebulous, slightly cliquey and endlesslyfantastic.

We’ve lost a great one one in Jenn. Let’s not fuck about and pretend anything different. But what a privilege it is to have been part of her world and ourwider bike riding community.

It’s not the gap that people leave. It’s how they make you feel when they’re gone. Go hug someone you love. And raise a glass for those so cruelly taken you cannot.

Ride In Peace Jenn.

Dark, cold, wet. Pick none.

Worcester Beacon

Last week was rubbish. Vocationally such things are commonwhen the best laid plans meet that stimulating and challenging group of randoms otherwise known as customers*

Not this time. I was riding my bike. Although not really. More slithering darkly between – and tediously often into – trees attempting to reconcile mountain biking with my friends andthe extreme grumpiness of not being in the pub yet.

Excuses were legion. I traded them in the car park explaining to anyone who even pretended to listen that night-riding was for those with proper 9 to 5 jobs, my lights were at best ciphers for 13th century monastery candles, this bike – this one right here – had questionable suspension at the front, none at the back and about an undamped inch derived fromthe broken dropper post.

No one cared. Quite rightly. They just fucked off at light speed engaging the Chinese lumen photon drive with nary a care for ground conditions best described as boundlessly shit. Two days torrential rain had turned rock hard trails into griplesswonders pretty much signposting wheeled idiots into the trunks of waiting forestry.

I didn’t hate it. That’s too strong an emotion, but I wasn’t enjoying it much. Neither was the hardtail I’d selected as theindubitably perfect companion to three hours of mud wrestling. It responded by silently shedding vital transmission components far and wide into the deepestreaches of this dark forest.

A tipping point was reached where mechanical suicide of a chainring gave me the perfect excuse to leave the field of battlecitinga verified medical injury to my worthy steed. Which would have been fine. Lovely. Perfect. See you in the pub – not for me the infamyof a dishonourable discharge, I could instead sympathise with those having slogged a further 15km. While feigning disappointment at the cruel mechanical maladies preventing my participation.

I wish. Toolkits rolled out littered with spares of every description. A fewof which could be best summarised as ‘oh fuck, chainring bolts’. The mechanicaly minded fixed my bike for which I thanked them through clenched teeth. Back in the saddle, things improved a bit but only because we’d breached the FPFP** and any riding I managed had to be better than the shitty-scared stuff exhibited so far.

Some way behind the rest of the crew I couldn’t help noticing. I rode this very bike on these trails a few months ago with the sun in the sky and loved every minute of it. Not tonight tho, stiff, blind and confused – I’m just not well configured for winter.

Except it’s not winter. Since that night when even the pub failed to add much cheer, the rain has stayed away and the trails have responded with a last echoof summer hardness. I’ve been doing this long enough to fully understand that no deadline or parental obligations are anywhere near as important as heading back into the hills for one more perfect fix.

Not perfect. Pretty close tho. Malvern Hills looking mighty fine. Chilly but not cold, moistness in the trails manifested as grip not mud, feeling fit regardless of a hotel diet of bacon, eggs and beer. We stuck a couple of digits up at the fast coming night by starting two hours before sunset – a rather lovely phenomenon we chased homeon the last descent.

Between the two, hills were climbed, loam was middle aged roosted (I don’t really know what that means but jamming on the rear brake and sliding the bike into line for the next bend has to be called something), route options were considered, new trails were revealed. And all the time watching the darkening horizon.

No lights. Not interested in having something of the night about us. Winch and plummet for a happy two hours riding with someone with whom I have long had a friendship, a hint of competitiveness, an understanding he’s mostly faster than me and a vague level of maturity that I no longer care.

We parked bikes on a well photographed bench at the highest point of the hills and 1.5km from the cars. All downhill. Admired the sunset, congratulated ourselves on living in a pretty damn fine place beforefixingour sights due west onto that orb currently setting fire to the clouds.

I’ve ridden this descent a hundred times. And every time I pick a terrible line, give myself a scare, brake when I mustn’tand attempt to wing it when I really shouldn’t. This time I lost Martin 30 seconds in and my doomed attempt to make up lost ground had me hitting the ‘moon rock’ a little faster than intended.

A moment of silence. Just enough time for a full on retina download of silhouetted peaks cast with a reddening glow. Then the crunch of 150mm travel forks damping the danger of loose gravel. Fast, so damn fast – never wanting this to stop, but hoping the end comes one second before my ego out-rides my competence.

Done. Grin. Point at things. Make plans for next week while prevailing weather conditions stay fair. Wonder about last week. Work out that without the bloody awful, you’ll never appreciate the almost perfect.

Apparently there’s something important on the television. I’m watching the video behind my eyeballs. Nothing beats that.

*plans never survive contact with the enemy as the old military diktat states. Lesser known is the concept of ‘first intent’ where whatever happens you try and do just one simple thing. For the NHS it is ‘do no harm’. For me it’s ‘do no harm that might end with a jail sentence’.

**FPFP – Furthest Point From Pub. From here it’s just a matter of staying upright untilthe lights of the post ride medication centre hove into view.

Laziness is hard work

When you start texting family members demanding a cup of tea, you can officially declare yourself a lazy bugger.

Laziness is a curse. Or a blessing. Or somewhere in between, but for those of us born / afflicted with the lazy gene it is all we know. Whichmakes understanding that jolly demographic whosedays are filled with activity and never seen without some kind of creative tool in their hands all the more difficult.

You know the trope- never at rest because there’s always so muchstuff to improve their environment or themselves and their families. Half way up mountains accompanied by equally active tiny children, or copying theSistine Chapel roofwhile redecoratingtheir toilet walls. it’s tiring just thinking about achievingso much stuff,and whatlittle energyI can exertis directedathating them. Just a little bit.

While they are drinking from the font of endless endeavour,we are slumped over the lesser relics of procrastination, apathy and displacement. I could explain this to you,but it’s far too much bloody effort. Instead let me give you some examples from a mundane interlude in my life.

This incident of the incurious Al in the daytime took place ona balmy late summer afternoonat Morrisons. This meteorological context is provided only to fail to explain the behaviour of the pathologicallylazy.The supermarket has two car parks, one a two minute walk away from the front door, the other abouthalf that. At no point was any shopper risking anything other than squinting on their epic march to the entrance.

Yet denizens of the indolent tribe were impatiently queuing for the latter which appears unhealthily focussedeven to a lazy bugger like me. Parking in the tarmac emptiness of the able limbed, I still had time to lock the car, unlock it on returning for my wallet* and pass those who’d been in front of me. Revving engines and vigorous hand signals suggested lazy should not always be considered synonymous with an easy going nature.

Upping the ante somewhat, a man emerged from a car abandoned in adisabled space. He looked perfectly abled to me, not – for example- obviously missing a leg. In a moment of perfect irony he was very nearlymowed down by those who were too lazy to park at all,insteadcircumnavigating the car park waiting for their shopping kin to trudgeout of the exit. Now that’s properlyslack.

Inside it’s somehow worse, all glassy eyed sweeping of random items bytired arms. And yet within this state of apathy are occasional outbreaksofverbal violence. This is because supermarkets have a secondary function as anger factories equipped with temper amplifiers hidden in the cheese aisle.

Flashpoints over such red-line issues as the choice ofbreakfast cereal ‘Not that oneJohn it gives you terrible wind’ escalating to couples nearly coming to blows at the deli counter. The bemused employee behind is half cheesemonger, half councillor. It’s a good job the sharp tools are held safe on his side of the counter.The dull ones are very much on the other side.

I digress, laziness permeates even the checkout. Bags carelessly loaded with no methodother than that of the slovenly path of least effort. Soft stuff thrown into empty bagswhile heavy, edgy stuff is shovelled on top. Only my inane Englishness preventsan embarrassingbarging in and loading the produce with some kind of system ‘the square things all fit together and – for future reference – what you believed was the large lettuce at the bottom of that bag is in fact your baby’.

And then payment. Or not as it it oft the case. Women – and I blame their voluminous purses for this – delve deeply into their handbags thereby triggering theopening of a portal to another dimension where infinite compartments may OR MAY NOT contain a credit card. I’m always surprised at their surpriseof being complicitin some kind of financial transaction to free their overloaded trolley.

“Oh hang on, I just need to find my Morrisons card’ they’ll trillblind to the seething eyes of passive aggression queuing behind them. ‘Is it worth dying for?’ I nearly shout as my hand grips a wine bottle and my mind dreams of committing blunt force trauma for the benefit of the gene pool.

This is the hard edgeto being lazy. It’s brilliantif that is all you are. Sail through life achievingfuck all and not giving a shit. I hate you almost as much as Mr. 24 hour party person up there. Sadlymost of us are trapped in a venn diagram of laziness, guilt and impatience. The intersection of which is angst.

It’s that thing of being geneticallylazy but feeling endlessly bad about it. Which inevitablydescends intoan ever deepening spiral of guilt. And further apathy. I find the best way to tamp down those imposters, and revel in the guilt-free life of the singularily lazy, is to douse their fire with alcohol.

It’s like Frank Turner sings ‘I dream of all the things I need to do, but wake up and never follow through’. He could have been talking about taking a dump of course. I’m far too lazy to work it out one way or the other.

Right now the lawn needs mowing.If I procrastinate for long enough, it’ll probably start raining.

* this is happening increasingly often. The forgetfulness trajectory suggest not many more days pass before I turn up to something important in just my underpants.

Turning a corner

Most of Cwmcarn.. the bits they weren't logging

Have you ever had the the feeling you’re a minnow pretending to be a shark? No? Really? I get it all the time, sometimes professionally which is easily mitigated by astrategy of winging it- an approachserving me well duringthe last twenty years. And asoften riding mountain bikes, where that doesn’t work at all.

There’s a strange juxtaposition of a digital record proving you are faster than 75% of people you’ve never met, while being 10% slower than those whoyou know. Placing yourself as tail-end charlie does get a little wearing as those with more skills and less imagination flick perfect turns, while you fall ever further behind attemptingto reenact apparently simple techniques to forestall a squishy tree hybrid.

Sometimes I wonder if I think too much. Heading into an apex – and every apex feels like the one which ripped my knee open triggering an extensive hospital stay – mentally there is all sorts going on, setting an edge, point hips at the exit, pushing the bars, leaning the bike not me and all that skills-course mental memory.

The physical manifestationis somewhat different. It’s not representative of whats going on in my head, leaving me sufficient time to disconnect the frontal lobe and go with thescreaming hind brain to ‘slow the fuck down’. Which I do. And blow the corner. That’s quite annoying. Possibly tending to the understatement hereas it’ll keep me awake beyondthe midnight hour, becausemental castigation fails to trigger the appropriate physical moves.

Big rocky stuffwith pain etched on every pointy granite formation? Fine, let me at it. Reasonable sized jumps with no obvious landing other than ‘something over there’? Okay with that thanks very much. Flat corner of 30 degrees or more with an apex perpendicular to a tree? Pass me some logs and I’ll portage my way round. It’ll be quicker.

It doesn’t stop me loving riding mountain bikes, but it is a bit bloody irritating. Watching other riders, apparently unconcerned by the prospect of a tyre offering slightly less grip than they expected, or the trail failing to deliver an apex where they were expecting it makes me wonder if I’m just a bit nesh.

Well I am. But I know what bravery feels like. It’s being shit scared and doing it anyway. Done loads of that and surfed long on the dopamine rewards. There’s just something about long corners that messes with my head and no amount of skills courses, givingmyself a good talking too or following those lacking the fear can really fix.

I shall go and practice. And that’ll be fine. On my own with no peer pressure there will be a complicit pretence I’ve cracked it, only for muscle memory and latent fear to rear their ugly heads in a parody of Medusa. Snakes on the trail and all that.

This isn’t about being as quick as someone else. I’ve lost that urge at the same time as most of my body fat. I can beat more than a few uphill but that’snot ametric I’m measuring myself against. I can get fitter still, but can I get braver? Not sure.

Cwmcarn a fwqweekends ago was great. Except for the bits when I watched Matt and Cez dive through the bends in a way I cannot. That bothers me far more than it should. I’ve ridden a million corners and crashed on only a few. Unfortunately those incidents have left me physically and mentally scared.

Only one of those has healed. I’m stupidly lucky to be able to ride Mountain Bikes whenever I want on fantastic trails with people who are my greatest friends. And yet, there’s something missing. Something not quite right. Two choices; go ride with those for whom getting down uninjured is as good as it gets, or stop obsessing about something that broke me overseven years ago.

Looking through the corner is one thing. Chasing the crash images out of my mind is something else entirely.

Real life choices

Most of Cwmcarn.. the bits they weren't logging

There’s an apocryphal tale telling the story of buttoned up IBM suits arriving for an interview with Gary Kindell, who’d single handedly written a PC operating system. Hethen decided the most appropriate response wastoslack off for the day rather than entertaining a squillion dollar contract with the man.

Here was single individual presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness his shonky wagon to a corporate monolith, ready to ship twenty million personal computers. Instead he flew his aeroplane, leaving the suits to throw their lot in with Bill Gates. The rest is recent history. I always though the bloke was an idiot, but now I’m not not so sure.

Kindell’s action stand as a metaphor for slacking off when the real world demands commitment. I’ve always enjoyed deadlines – mainly the sound of them whooshing above my head, while I’m buried in something far more important. This feels as close to anarchy as a bloke who slavishly followed corporatehours in a monkey suit could evergo.

Today we rode mountain bikes. That’s pretty much the default state for a Sunday. Tomorrow I’ll go ride some more, which really isn’t how you should spend a Monday.The joy of being paid by outputsnot inputsmeans you get to pick the times to work and those to slack. It’s easy in winter when sideways rain slashes at the window, somewhat harder when the trails are dry and there’s a freshly lubed bike giving you the full Labrador.

I should be better at this. I’ve been at it for twenty + years,, and still there are too many moments regressing into a Risky Businesssomedays you just have to say what the fuck’. And here’s why; it’s not simple displacement activityor cognitive dissidence – no what we’re mining here is the tired ‘no man ever went to his grave wishing he’d spent more time in the office’

Obviously not. As he’d be spending it with his family. Or his Church. In my case the latter lacks rote, hymns and timid stupidity, but is full of trees, trails and epiphanies. I know what desperate repetition feels like, and I know better what tortured tires soundlike sothere’s nothing that’s going to make me spend a Sunday under the pretence that somehow Christian values are a conduit to a better place. I’ll risk the here and now, thanksfor asking.

And not family either. Well not entirely. There’s a line of excuses mirrored by pretending that riding bikes makes me a better person. Send out grumpy, get back normal, caring human being. Yes, and indeed not really. Sometimes I’d rather than play with my bikes than play with my kids. Does that make me a rubbish parent? Probably. Am I alone? Probably not.

Two weeks ago I received multiple texts from good people who had the misfortune to work for me. They told me one of our team had died suddenly while sitting in a meeting. 150 miles from his wife and two kids. Working his arse off to provide forthat family. Four minutes between a massive heart attack and the world going black.

He was two years older than me. and I’m pretty venerable. He was the perfect contractor, skilled, hard-working and interesting. Taught me a lot. Put more into his community than I could ever be arsed to. Told me a great joke howhis clan would rather put a Mercedes on thedrive than food in the kids mouths. Funny, clever and extremely competent. Taken way before his time.

Today was great. Riding with my friends and trying to keep up with them. Feeling fit and warm in the occasional sunshine. Looking into distant valleys and not wanting to be anywhere else. Taking the piss and getting it back in spades. Pushing it a bit and caching in on dopamine. Having a beer and wondering why the real world isn’t like this.

This isn’t about riding mountain bikes. It’s about working out what is important. It’s thinking abouta bloke tuning blue being desperately attended to by the designated first aider. It’s wondering if this is as good as it gets, and trying bloody hard to find out.

Life is about choices. You can vacillate but that’s still making a choice. The older you get the more important it is. Pretty sure that work deadline is going to slide.

A critic is just a man in the crowd

It probably does.

Vanity publishing has much to recommend it. Not if you’re looking to eat regularly, or maintainthepretence that your output has any actual value other than virtual cat litter. But because it’s self centred and self censored, you can live off the occasional crumb of positivity, while entirely ignoring the somewhat larger biscuit of disinterest.

In a 1000 posts and 2000 comments, exactly nine people have had a whinge. Three of those were religious nut jobs who called down localised server smiting after a singlearticle poked fun at an outmoded belief system. Four – and I kid you not because that count made me go back to check – took side splitting umbrage afterI accidentally strayed into the fundermentalistuniverse where the plots of Star Trek apparently represent some people’s reality.

The final two were employees of Chiltern Railways whofelt my lampooning of a service failing to meet the twin objectives of ‘timetables ‘ and ‘value‘ should – in the Starzi state their uniforms suggests utopia might be – result in being tied to the line and evisceratedby a passing train. My response, suggesting they’d probably want to pick a competitors track to make sure a train actually turned up, failed to defuse their angst.

I let those comment run because a) I’m waving my hands in the vanguard of free speech wherever it takes us and b) well it’s another hit isn’t it? And us self publishers are whores for that. It’s not like anyone is going to notice*

Hit whorage can be the only explanation – other than a bit of walking about cash** – to why the armies of bloggers crave recognition by a proper publication. Of those 1000 articles, 20 or so have tested the grammatical integrity of the hair pulling sub editors beforepassing into print where us literary wanabees are desperate to see ourwords.

Somehow your crap on a page is not the pidgen deposit others may see – it feels special and important. Back in the day when commuting to London appeared to bea great way to waste my life, I dodgem’d back from the loo only to find the man seated next to me reading an actual article I’d written. As he wasn’t tutting, ripping the page out or self flagellating with the entire magazine, I was close to venturing a semi apologetic waft that I was in fact the very man who’d penned the piece.

But I bottled it. In case he didn’t like it. A bloke I’d never met, whose values I didn’t know and whose prejudices might disgust me. Which didn’t stop me fearing his criticism of something that’d clearly exercised me and – false modesty aside – had been deemed good enough to fill pages of something others paid money for.

Years ago I wrote an article about the joy of the evening ride unwinding the angst and conflict of a difficult day. Buried in too many words was athrowaway comment ondriving home in bare feet and a beer to the good. So it was surprising to receive a message, via the editor, from a very angry fathercastigating me because his mountain biking son had died in a drink driving accident. I wasn’t condoning it, I wasn’t even making a point either way, but that’s the thing when you throw stuff out there, you lose control of anarrative woven tight through pencil sucking blocksand much rewriting.

I had no idea how to respond so finallyI justdidn’t. Which makes the fact I can’t leavethisalone pretty fucking amusing. The standard response from the wronged author is ‘show me what you’ve written, so I can come back and tell you how shit your workis. Especially your spelling. And lack of verbconjugation. Hah that’s showed you

Which is stupidbecause thecritic doesn’t provide an alternative. It’d be nice if they offeredsomething other than ‘well that’s a load of shit, what were you thinking?” but you don’t get to control the crowd. You stick it out there and for everyone who silently has a little nod and a chortle, they’re are 10 guys*** who hate it. Even those whose didn’t actually read it.

I try to be ambivalent to criticism, and that’s fine untilsome smug arsewipe reads one sentence beforeinforming the world there’s no point reading any more. Do me a fucking favour and plough throughthe rest of it. I know there’s a lot of stuff out theremaking me cringe, but there’s also quite a bit less representing the best wordscoming from this side of this keyboard. I appreciateit’s not E.M. Forster but it’s the best I can do. At least read the bloody thing before tellingthe worldit’s killing innocent electrons.

In the stuff I do to pay the mortgage, no one behaves like this. We’ll have disagreements, conflicts and discussions on what good looks like. But in 30 years of actual paid work, no one has ever said ‘read the first line, shit, so that’s what you must be

I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Because I’m really not. People I’ve never met complaining my metaphorical constructs are too difficult to understand should make me feel quite a bit superior. But it doesn’t, I still feel the urge to explain why and – this is the heart of it – they are just wrong.

Many years ago the lessonof ‘every crowd is full of critics and there’s nothing you can do about that‘ was hard learned long before it was well understood. The stuff you write is part of you, sostrangers poking it with a stick does hurt a bit. It shouldn’t but it does and this is why – even if I had more than a modicum of talent – I could never try and make real money out of it.

I appreciate this is a self referential polemic on why life isn’t fair, and how the big boys keep picking on me. That’s the joy of self publishing. And if you don’t agree, I’ll just delete your comment. Self esteem doesn’thave much truck with democracy.

* except my mum. Who worries about my mental state, while at the same time expressing her disappointment that her 47 year old son still feels the urge to use the word ‘fuck‘ quite so often.

** and this wasn’t the case ‘back in the day‘. Getting your name in print and the odd random tyre turning up for review was more than enough for the crud, sweat and fears of lobbing semi literate stuff into the 4th estate.

*** It’s always blokes. Right and Wrong. Black and White. Shades of grey are for those who don’t understand the world. Pub Bores on the internet.

Units of measurement

It’s worth prefixing what follows with some context. That being the night after an extremely boozy birthday dinner leaving me with wobbly typing fingers, a head full of faux angst and an entirelysuperfluous glass of wine. Frankly it was days before I even remembered any events between staggering home and passing out. A edit in total sobriety saw the removal of many’fucks’ and words I didn’t even know I knew. Still the dictionary didn’t either. Even afterthat, it’s still marks me as a pretentious, self-absorbed twat of course. But I don’t feel I’m revealing anything new 😉

There’s an eyebrow raising ironyobserving Internet forums where some hapless poster receives advice in the vein of ‘this is probably a good time to have a sit down and considerwhere your life went wrong’*. Which – if you think about it for a minute – sounds like code for being judged by other peoples values. And value is a good word because of its close association with worth which tends to becounted in desperate steps towards anunreachable destination.

I have reached an age where lifehas impartedtwo immutabletruths; firstly everyone – absolutely everybody – is winging it on a daily basis, and your value to the planet is unlikely to be summed by all the stuff you own. Any further understandingof ‘how life works‘ is merely a continuum of ‘buggered if I know‘, butat least there isan emergingclarity about what’s important and how it might be measured. If you care about such stuff, which in my experience almost everybody does when it’s all about them. Outside of our personal orbit, not so much.

So here’s how it goes: I hit another birthday rituallysuggesting celebration but physically marking furthermental decline. 47 is close to the life expectancy a mere 100 yearsago,soan audit of what’s still working is more of a damage report: I’m not quite fiftyyet and that’s not a numbereven seen – because I’m missing my reading glasses and half-century baggage whiffs of welcoming beige, dinner parties, responsibility and all that shit into your world. Still they said that about hitting forty, and I’ve smashed that with aching limbs, slow repairing muscles, and fascial lines to the power of crevice.

At no point hasgravitas entered my life. I don’t feel wise, but blimeyI’ve failed to learn from a litanyof mistakes. I’m far less certain than thirty years ago becausewhat happens next stops being exciting and starts being scary. I’ve learned much about decay and how things end. I’ve been to funerals and pattered earth on hardwood where much loved soft bodies were encased. I’ve watched the tiny bodies of our DNA steeple beyond at least one of their parents and become something rather more than children. I’ve seen shit that’s not quite TannhauserGate, but nevertheless on the wrong side of mildlyperturbing.

Right enough of this pretension, let’s do the audit thing by considering how one values worth: is it the things you’ve done, the stuffyou’ve made or the toysyou own? Is the life equation a sum ofwhat you’ve acquired divided that by the years you’ve graced the planet? I really hope it isn’t because while my ratio may look mildly impressive, that’s a nonsense so far up its own arse I really want absolutely nothing to do with it.

So how else might one measure worth and value against a planet screwed up by greedand the short-termism?**. What I see is middle class angst against hacked out forests thousands of miles away missing a rather more pressing localprerogative of feeding a family. Protesting against wars that cannot hurt ussalves a moral conscience that maybe we should be doing something more. Not throwing a 50 pence piece into the hat of a homeless personon waterloo bridge because ‘it’ll just encourage laziness’ . We are way WAY better than that, and yet still feel the urge to measure ourselves against our peers, those whom we’re silently racing and whose artefacts loom large as we park our so-called executive car in our block paved drives perfectly sealed against rainwater collection.

Worth is a nebulous quantity. It’s used by the chattering classes to keep score. If I have learned anything in forty seven years, it’s something like this; how you are perceived is nothing close to whoyou really are. What scares you is at worse pointless and at best transitory. Keeping score only matters if you have interest in playing the game. The people who you care about, you care about because you’ve shared stuff that has a cumulative value not an asset value.

So here’s my audit; my body is mostly intact – shorn of some mobility by injuries and a little bit more by age. I’m stiff in the morning and that’s not mainlining morning glory. Quite a few bits down’t work properly and some other bits not at all. 20% of my right shoulder doesn’t articulate fronting up with an arthritic union with a left ankle and right elbow. I can’t read anything upstream of three feet without reading glasses, and despite my best efforts an increasing tyre of gluttony adorns my midriff. Risk evaluation is no longer a ‘fuck it it’ll be fine‘ and instead transcends shades of grey. The edge movesever closer which is slightly less irritating than my inability to accept my ever increasing cautiousness. And I find myself standing in front of the dishwasher or the fridge in a bit of a fug muttering ‘No, don’t tell me, there’s definitely something I came to do here, just don’t rush me

Well that all sounds pretty fucking compelling eh? And yet I’ve somehow managed to morph from shit-kicking northern nobody to a bloke who has somehow raised two great kids mostly because ofa fantastic partner who deals effortlessly with my inability to get interestedin grown up life. I’ve a shed full of fantastic mountain bikes which raise me to atheist gods on a weekly basis. Somehow I’ve conquered a chronic lung illness through a tough regime of stopping smoking Marlboro Lights and refusing the odd cheese plate.

So today I’m 47 years old. I don’t feel anywhere near that until that grizzled bastard, looking back at me from the shaving mirror, points out the almost lack of hair and infinite cast of lines . I don’t recognise that person. I certainly don’t know him. That’s a face of giving in and getting old and frankly fuck that. For a while at least.

Growing old is inevitable. Getting old less so. I’m done with excuses about exactly what stops me acting my age. I know these suited people with serious faces – almost debilitated by anxiety and terrified of stepping beyond rigid lines drawn by accepted societal norms – are winging it just like me. Time to walk across the line and see what’s on the other side.

*Generally when someone who has swapped dignity for attention-seeking blurts out amiddle class indiscretion around caravan ownership or stone cladding. To a crowd-sourced hive-mind fully invested with keyboard warriors, logic-freeutopianism and a stratospheric moral high ground. Good luck with that.

** And I’m very muchaware that much of the reason I’m sat behind a very nice Mac keyboard in our own house and not experiencing any type of poverty are gains from that system.

Mind The Gap

It’s not a very big gap. But then again I’m not very brave

We are are all scared of something. Or many things. Or fear itself. It’s part of that human self awareness conundrum. Cards on the table, for me it’s impostor syndrome, mortality fear and gap jumps. Obviously for a man who collects neurosis’s as a hobby, there are many more, but at no point did I say ALL cards on the table 😉

So let’s summarise the driving forces here; deep concerns about being found out, being found lacking, being diagnosed mostly dead, and being in possession of a mountain bike approaching an obstacle where some bastard has hollowed out the middle of it. The epicentre of this personal blast radius is neatly metamorphosised through a rain soaked tractionless trail neon pointing at a bunch of slick logs, barely cresting a gravity sucking hole clearly ending in Australia.

I exaggerate. Generally, but specifically in this case as it’s not even a proper gap jump. The entry isn’t even higher the exit. No that particular pleasure was saved for the next scythe-waving grim reaper located a little further down the trail. First tho, we’d best deal with gettingover eight feet of A&E potential. Until this weekend, my entire gap jumping back catalogue represented a single unitary entry. Yes, exactly one. I know this is right as I’ve counted it a number of times. It’s neither big nor clever, but it claimed a riding buddy who spent significant drinking time supine on a spinal board awaiting a diagnosis offering him a vertical future.

Tonight it’s four. An emergency addition came via a desperate ‘make the bike longer’ thrust on Saturday, after being assured an unridden trail had neither gaps nor doubles. Except, as was explained during my tourettes tirade come unlikely survival, ‘that one’. Two more managedtoday,inspite ofdisplacement activity mostly coalescing around mental images of crisp sheets and cool nurses. The problem I have with gaps are – somewhat unremarkably – the bloody big gap masquerading as a gaping maw to chew up uncommitted mountain bikers.

Table tops are by their very definition entirely devoid of gaps. You might look rubbish failing to hit the downslope but that’ll be looking rubbish without troubling the emergency services. Jumps defined by trail wedges pointing vaguely into space are right in the slot for my meagre skills – pick a point onthe far horizon, compress the suspension somewhere close to the lip, deep breath, close eyes, stick Newton in the driving seat and wait for the firma to become a little less terra.

Big, scary jumps aren’t a problem either. Just ride round them and present your ‘whist drive’ card to the youngsters laughing at your brittle bones. Gaps tho – entirely doable in terms of bike, muscles, skills and vague aptitude. The issue is the counterbalancing vegetable up top – kaleidoscope heavywith broken images and crammed full of endless doubt. Most of mountain biking at the level I do is about managing your head. Everything is a battle, a fight against intuitiveness, a war with the inner coward against a creeping barrage of unmitigated fear.

This is not some testosterone fuelledmasochism- because chucking yourself off stuff ignitesthe adrenalin compressor and fires raw dopamine into waiting veins. Chasing the Dragon without dealers and needles. Dropping the bike and high five-ing a mate before some very British embarrassment around being forty six years old and not really comfortable with that level of emotional vulgarity. Firm handshake next time okay?

And that bloody bike is going to either going to buttress my fragile bravery gland or send me to an early grave. Or possibly both. And maybe at the same time. But it’s still not enough to bridging the gap between ‘that’s doable‘ and ‘I’m doing that’. No for that I need Matt to lead me in at a speed entirely missing from my own jumping repertoire. And for all the elevated heart rate, wobbly armsand screaming head-thoughts, the actual event is blanked bymuscle memory and mental censorship. In the same way I envy those who dream in colour, I’d love to describe how getting it done actually feels. But I’ve no idea, it fades rapidly to black before the impact of tortured suspension bleeds colour back into my world.

The next gap was bigger. Sliding straight into it was an exercisein quelling the cacophony in my head. The bike saved my arse and other bits as we landed a bit short, and my brain saved me trying the next one on the not unreasonable grounds that a working flange of limbs at this point was a bonus not to be risked.

So now I’m ‘Four Gaps Al’ which is an excellent moniker for a red-neck band, but a rather paltry return for a man who has been riding mountain bikes for more than a decade. The counterpoint of that rather sorry statistic is the immutabletruth that bravery is not merely a lack of imagination and excellent medical insurance. Rather It is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. There’s something about standing on the edge of things and wondering if you can fly. Almost every instinct and experience would suggest not.

Bravery is launching yourself into the gap. There is much to recommend it. And not much point dying wondering.

I really must write up that visit to the Penis Museum. It’ll be slightly less self-referential and have far more knob gags in it. And I think we can all agree, that represents a massive improvement in the content of this blog.

London. No still don’t get it.

This blog stumbled, embarrassed, into the light from the darkness of my commuting angst. A working week sliced and diced by a thousand weary cuts splitting my happy home life from a somewhat less joyous vocational experience. Being alarm-turfed from bed at 6am/slice. Digging out the least stinky riding kit/slice. Suffering frostbite and trenchfoot six+ months of the year/slice. Pedalling the same old ground day after day/slice. Useless trains that were always packed/Slice. Rain bashing the window I’d soon be outside of/Slice. Grotty work changing rooms/Slice. Is the shower working anxiety/Slice. Repeat with no prospect of escape.

But these were mere nics and burrs when transposed against the ‘hack my head off with a blunt cleaver, it’d be a mercy‘ of doing this every day in what some people* proudly label as ‘the best city in the world‘. One could take a narrow view that this may well be true if your hobbies include killing cyclists, mainlining endless fuckwittery, pushing, shouting and shoving. Not for me though. Not even close.

There were odd days when the gladiatorial contest of staying alive ended with the Christians besting the Lions, but mainly it was a drudge full of danger and dirt under a cityscape of dazzling modern brashness silhouetting a thousand years of fascinating history. I’ve always maintained London can best be described as ten million idiots wrapped around a stunningly interesting core. As a ghost-town it’s hard to hate, but peopled with Londoners it was impossible for me to love.**

Five years ago I waved it goodbye with a pair of fingers and have missed it hardly at all. Occasional sallies into its mean streets and fetid tunnels reinforcedmy old prejudices, and the first train out cannot run soon enough. Although not quite- hidden in the boonies you vaguely remember that by scratching beyond London’s grimy surface, there’s all sorts of mouth-open-wide amazement for those of us who find crop identification mildly exhilarating.

That was me then; on a sunny winters day blinking my way out of St. James station. First order of the day breakfast, so ignore the main street franchise and instead duck into an alley partially blocked by builders’ vans.Behind which was hidden an authentic London Cafe with a blackboarded menu offering Bacon and Eggs. Tea or Coffee. No credit cards, don’t ask as a punch in the mouth often offends. Run by some cheerful Polish dudes who provided this mildly hungover traveller a pint of tea buttered up to a heart-stopping Bacon Roll for about four quid.

Sated, I had something else to spend; Time. An hour of it to invest under a winter warming sun in a now mostly deserted post-rush hour city. First stop, a circle of the lake in St James Park giggling at those paying thirteen quid for ‘breakfast in the park‘, stepping away smartly from hissing swans and misidentifying the Disney spires and endless crenelations of a shimmering palace.

My bet was the Kremlin, a local suggested the less interesting/more likely Queen’s residence now much photographed by Japanese tourists grouped by tour umbrella. Many of whom were adjusting focal length through the simple medium of stepping back into the traffic. Where amped up taxi drivers attempted to run them down. Gave the cyclists a bit more of a chance I suppose.

And what cyclists! All shapes and sizes, some astride the latest race tuned technology, more wheezing slowly on Halfords specials with knackered everything and brown chains. Even a few intrepid Boris-Bikers weaving unsteadily between rows of gunning cars. I have absolutely no idea how I survived five years of this, it’s absolutely bloody mental and yet somehow survival rates are slightly better than sticking ones head into a melting nuclear reactor. Bonkers.

Refreshed by a second artisan beverage, I was amazed that such a small square of real estate could contain three ministries of state, Scotland Yard, a big bit of the treasury and the headquarters of a dozen major corporations. Squeezed between these corporate behemoths were proud, regency houses blue-plaqued with eighteen century prime ministers and philosophers.

My aimless peramble gave rise to a grudging respect for London. The juxtaposition of stuff older than most nation states mingling with high tech/high rise thrusting corporations. The identikit high streets sharing custom with esoteric cafe’s in winding back alleys. The suited and booted worker ants jostling with finger pointing tourists. Maybe familiarity had bred contempt. Sure, I still would never want to live here, but it’s not entirely terrible either.

And then it was. Buzzing overhead like an irritated mutant wasp was a bright yellow police helicopter festooned with massive lights, camera and – possibly – machine gun action. It swept over the high rise buildings, rotating this way and that clearly searching for bomb-carrying lunatics, escaping bank robbers or any individual not associated with the Masons.

This was amazing and a bit scary. I fully expected black-clad MET Ninja’s to throw out ropes and descend into the mean streets. My expectations were not met as, after a couple more minutes of the orange snout sniffing out trouble, engines whinged, rotors sped and the Helicopter became a fading dot in the sky. But that’s not the terrible thing. No, when I looked around me to see what your average Londoner would make of our little vignette of Patriot Games, there was a real shock waiting.

NOBODY looked. Not even a glance. Just me and the tourists excitedly waving their middle digits. Really? I mean really? What passes for normal around here? Do Transformers have to rampage through the city and rip out buildings before anyone feigns interest? And only then because it’ll just give the bloody tube a reason to be delayed. I wanted to grab the nearest too-cool-for-school sharp suited nutter and demand ‘Am I hallucinating or did some sodding great helicopter just swoop between those buildings?

But I didn’t. Because I’m English and it’s this kind of quiet reserve that’s served us so well in Love and War. Sort of. Anyway I couldn’t get away fast enough, and it was only as the train put some distance between me and that massive edifice of insanity could I give it some more thought. And that thought was this – whatever the reason, whatever the prize, whatever they tell you, stay well away from London – it’s stacked full of loonies and aliens.

Honestly I’d rather spend time in Birmingham. And on that bombshell, the defence rests.

* but not people who you’d trust with matches. Boris Johnson for example.

** Whoever said ‘if you win the rat race, it’s important to remember you are still a rat’ made the point somewhat better.

Class Bore

There is a point in your life when one must take a stand. Even if this is from a sitting position. In a league table of misquotation Edmond Burke’s* “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing” is second only to Marie Antoinette never saying let them eat cake. But I like it anyway because it’s justslightlyless pretentious than Voltaire’s I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it**. Both are which are far less pretentious than pseudo intellectual quote derivation pretending to be clever. Ahem.

I like to think of myself as well balanced – directly resulting from a chip on both shoulders; the first a bonafide working class upbringing terraced between steeply clustered houses each with a coal cellar, and the second a hand-ringing liberalism, mostly a Pavlovian response to the horror of my Dad casting off those credentials and voting Conservative of his own free will.

The fallout has left me with a healthy disrespect for authority, a delusional belief in meritocracy and a worldview mostly baselined by the assumption the world would be a far happier place if 1% of the population didn’t own about 90% of it. It’s also given me a passive hatred of those born into entitlement who fail ever test I’d ever set; Cost versus Value, Altruism versus Self-interest, Friends versus Possessions. And yet there’s a little bit of me than envies a life kickstarted by a silver spoon projecting young Henry/Henrietta into the cultural stratosphere without ever passing any test that wasn’t audaciously skewed in their favour.

The physical manifestation of this unjust hegemony tends to drive me to deeds beyond any normal bravery and quite some way further outside of decorum and good manners. I feel a representative example would be instructive. Travelling to London on Birmingham’s finest express service sandwiched me between two estate agents, and a multiple of that from the legal profession. When I am elected world dictator there shall be no draconian policies regarding trains or mobile communication except when the two intersect. At which point, the scorpion pits awaits.

Some of this is my fault. Okay, let’s get it out there, all of this was my fault as a middle-aged inventory malfunction had me awash with a thousand songs but no way to play them to myself. This English reserve not to bother my fellow man was clearly unfelt by my carriage companions. The brillcream boys behind me were trilling their latest deal at high volume to an audience who were clearly as uninterested as I. An assertion validated by the short call duration and a desperate ‘who shall we tell next?’

But for all their shallow look-at-me fuckwittery, they barely register on the ‘I am going to kill you now‘ meter which the lawyer-clan boosted beyond ten, beyond a Spinal Tap 11 and off the fucking scale. My upper-class-arsehole bingo was already mostly populated with ‘braying voice‘, ‘pain barrier volume‘, ‘snorting laugh‘ and ‘pompous self satisfied smugness‘ crayoned in at about a thousand PSI. First tosspot#1 led out with his hackyned ‘How I saved Roy Keane from Bankcrupcy‘ story before he was trumped by dickhead#2 giving it the big one about some ‘a-list celebrity‘ who’d retained his tosspotness by denying the cheap seats access to what coke-snorting looks like when filmed from a dodgy mobile phone***

And then as my head was one millimetre from smashing into the seat in front, dickweasel#3 launched into a story of his six year old daughter, pausing only to remind the smug collective that his family had been in the vanguard of grammatical correctness for 400 years, who had returned from school excited to tell ‘DaDa‘ – a term of endearment for which murder feels appropriate – that the new teacher was quite nice but *forced laugh, shark smile* failed to ascertain the difference between ‘fewer‘ and ‘Less‘. ‘That’s my girl‘ he triumphed. Poor bloody kid.

Readers, I cracked. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to be me. Maybe this stuff isn’t important and it’s absolutely okay to acquiesce to a race where money and power means you get a head start. Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway, I shovelled work papers into my rucksack, stood up and made that stand. Venturing out into the corridor, two steps had me level with the table of cleverly amused laughter at the lower races. I stared them down and met their silence with ‘If you used fewer words, you’d be a lot less fucking annoying‘.

The silence extended awkwardly so I filled it with ‘you know, if you were so bloody important, surely you shouldn’t be sharing the carriage with the standard classproletarians‘. I probably could have done quite a whole lot better had more thought been given to my repartee. As it was, the unnatural quietness passed beyond anything I felt comfortable with, so I haughtily headed off to a seat not peopled by those who paint a grand vision but see nobody in it.

That seat was part of a four filled with the crumple suited ordinary Joe’s who pretended to be centered in an informational tornado aggregated on their phones, but were really just playing candy crush. My kind of people.

Come journey’s end, weary bodies levered themselves from uncomfortable seats to try again with public transport on our capitals finest mass transit underground system. I failed to move because the white heat of righteousness was still burning strongly. Let those who believe the class system holds strong cross me now and offer rebuttal, insult or possible court papers for slander.

They passed alright, but failed to reward my bravery with even a glance. Not because I had bested them, but because I was beneath their contempt. I still felt this was about a draw though – the industrious and clever will one day oust the privileged and inbred. That I lived in a country where what you did was more important than where you started. And the currency of experience has infinite value whereas that of exchange is merely transitory.

So then I walked into a bar, wall-to-wall filled with normal looking people happy to pay£5.50 for a pint of beer. At which point, it cost me quite a lot of money to forget that you must deal with the world as it is, not the way you want it to be.

* or possibly someone else. Or different words. This is what viral looked like in the 18th century.

** He didn’t say it. I’m trying to make a point here. If you can work out what it is, please let me know.

*** Which had me despairing about the shit we think is important. Followed closely by the thought I probably need to get out more.