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 maintain the pretence 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 single article 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 after I accidentally strayed into the fundermentalist universe where the plots of Star Trek apparently represent some people’s reality.

The final two were employees of Chiltern Railways who felt 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 eviscerated by 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 before passing into print where us literary wanabees are desperate to see our words.

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 be a 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 a throwaway comment on driving 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 father castigating 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 a narrative woven tight through pencil sucking blocks and much rewriting.

I had no idea how to respond so finally I just didn’t. Which makes the fact I can’t leave this alone 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 work is. Especially your spelling. And lack of verb conjugation. Hah that’s showed you

Which is stupid because the critic doesn’t provide an alternative. It’d be nice if they offered something 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 until some smug arsewipe  reads one sentence before informing the world there’s no point reading any more. Do me a fucking favour and plough through the rest of it. I know there’s a lot of stuff out there making me cringe, but there’s also quite a bit less representing the best words coming from this side of this keyboard.  I appreciate it’s  not E.M. Forster but it’s the best I can do. At least read the bloody thing before telling the world it’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 lesson of ‘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, so strangers 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’t have 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 entirely superfluous 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 after that, 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 irony observing Internet forums where some hapless poster receives advice in the vein of  ‘this is probably a good time to have a sit down and consider where 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 be counted in desperate steps towards an unreachable destination.

I have reached an age where life has imparted two immutable truths; 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 understanding of ‘how life works‘ is merely a continuum of ‘buggered if I know‘, but at least there is an emerging clarity 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 ritually suggesting celebration but physically marking further mental decline. 47 is close to the life expectancy a mere 100 years ago, so an audit of what’s still working is more of a damage report: I’m not quite fifty yet and that’s not a number even 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 has gravitas entered my life. I don’t feel wise, but blimey I’ve failed to learn from a litany of mistakes.  I’m far less certain than thirty years ago because what 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 Tannhauser Gate, but nevertheless on the wrong side of mildly perturbing.

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 stuff you’ve made or the toys you own? Is the life equation a sum of what 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 greed and the short-termism?**. What I see is middle class angst against hacked out forests thousands of miles away missing a rather more pressing local prerogative of feeding a family. Protesting against wars that cannot hurt us salves a moral conscience that maybe we should be doing something more. Not throwing a 50 pence piece into the hat of a homeless person on 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 who you 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 moves ever 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 of a fantastic partner who deals effortlessly with my inability to get interested in 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 a middle class indiscretion around caravan ownership or stone cladding. To a crowd-sourced hive-mind fully invested with keyboard warriors, logic-free utopianism and a stratospheric moral high ground. Good luck with that.

** And I’m very much aware 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 getting over 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 managed today, inspite of displacement 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 on the 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 heavy with 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 fuelled masochism – because chucking yourself off stuff ignites the 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 arms and screaming head-thoughts, the actual event is blanked by muscle 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 exercise in 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 immutable truth 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 reinforced my 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 just slightly less 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 class proletarians‘. 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.

God, already?

It’s traditional at this time of the year for the long suffering hedgehoger to suffer just a little more. In three special little ways:

  1. I have updated the ‘posts most read’ page.  In our increasingly connected world where cross posts merge with social network surfacing*,  the simple old page count becomes increasingly irrelevant. Which is as good a metaphor for this blog as any. I didn’t write anywhere near as much this year, which was properly rewarded by people reading less. It’s good to know that even if I haven’t got anything better to do, other people have.
  2. I have also updated the ‘bike’ page. Every year hope receives a couple more mortal wounds as the portal to the Shed Of Dreams revolves at ever increasingly velocity. One January I shall triumphantly declare ‘No Bikes were damaged, abused or sold in the making of this page‘. It won’t be January 2014.
  3. I rage my own internal debate – because let’s be honest who else will be interested? – about continuing to ramble in my idiotic way. What’s the point of it all eh? It’s vanity stuff mostly about me, and there’s lots better on the Internet at that. Justin Beiber for a start. And if you can’t even stack up your own self worth against that vacuous nonse and come out at least equal, may as well close the door quietly on your way out. So after eight years, a thousand posts and a million words, might be time to embrace Web 2.0 and simply take amusing pictures of my lunch to share with the world. Nah, not going to happen. I can’t afford the therapy if I stop writing. Sorry 😉

I might write different things. Although inertia and precedent suggests more of the shame kind of shit.  Until them, it’s always a pleasure to signal a further earthly cycle into moral and physical decrepitude by wishing my dwindling readership a Happy New Year.

* I just made that term up.  Time to front up the CV with ‘Social Media Export available for immediate hire’

Kneed to know.

Thank Christ for low res phone cams in 2006

All of us believe there’s certain light conditions*, camera angles, heroic stances, etc which firmly represent our ‘best side’. That’s my knee in July 2006 after an impromptu slice and dice involving Chiltern Flint, over-confidence and stupidity. It’s not the my best side,  it’s not even my best knee. Some seven years later a neat scar scribes a line between something that aches in damp conditions and a few mm from leaving hospital in a wheelchair.

Sobering stuff. But not terribly statistically significant. Since 2002, a conservative calculation suggests more than a thousand rides in all sorts of dangerous places have been completed without major injury**. Crashes aplenty, occasional hospitalisation and many, many morning afters where the the memory of the crash is vivid except for the bit where you’ve clearly been hit by an articulated lorry. Because falling off your bike can’t possibly hurt that much.

Transitory for the most part although a body inventory counterweight suggests lasting damage has been done. A shoulder that creaks, clicks but fails to properly articulate after a hand out/hard stop in Swinley forest many  years ago. And an ankle that’s a funny if not amusing shape having been reforged on a spiky anvil of rock. A wobbly nose remodelled on a not-so-handy tree stump, a thumb tattooed by a bar end and full of broken bits, and a little finger that fails the tea drinking Debretts test on the grounds of extreme crookedness.

All of which tediously triggers the ‘price of entry‘ defence. A means tested ends justification argument that is espoused by wheelchair bound protagonists and the rest of us siding with Dylan Thomas and his raging against the dying of the light. And behind that lies a dirty secret; it isn’t  that the price we pay for throwing ourselves in pointy geography is more than compensated by the ‘if you have to ask, you’ll never understand’ reward. Because that’s just pub talk hiding the rather less heroic mindset that it’ll never happen to me. 

I am too skilled/too careful/to calculated/too clever to make that kind of catastrophic mistake. The line between endorphins and endings is well known to be. The difference between a little bit brave and quite a lot stupid needs no explanation. I’ve paid my dues and earned my stripes. I’ll back off a long time before I fall off. Crashing fits with my risk envelope but serious injury doesn’t.

Which is a paragraph of delusion, Embracing and accepting risk is the difference between living and being alive. Mountain biking is a sport of many variables of which we are in control of very few. You can hurt yourself by trying too hard or not trying hard enough. By committing or not committing. By being brave or considering cowardice. By peer pressure or testing yourself. There’s no ‘risk management’ strategy here: a situation where braking may send you over the bars is perfectly balanced by riding an obstacle at full speed which may end better, worse or the same.

We make our choices but we barely influence the outcomes. I smashed my knee up on a familiar trail in perfect conditions at middling speeds. 99 times out of a 100, it’d been nothing more than a few grazes and some piss taking. The next three days were spent with a ‘stupid stupid stupid’ mantra racing around my head while my body was static in a hospital bed. But with the benefit of hindsight that entirely misses the point; 99 times out of 100 I had somehow got away with it already.

Looking at that picture socially network’d to my inbox earlier today, it’s flooded memory banks with long forgotten anxieties. Physically it took a while to recover, mentally it probably never will. At least I can turn left now, which wasn’t the case for the next two years when I nearly tossed the whole thing in as being too damn hard and nowhere near as much fun as before the accident.

Seven years later tho, I’m still riding mountain bikes two or three times a week. I worry less about losing a summer through a nasty crash and more about how many summers are left. I strap my knee pads on and make cowardly choices when faced with danger. Occasionally tho I’ll surprise myself with an act of bravery conquering some obstacle that even in, what’s laughably known as, my prime would have given me pause for thought.

Now that thought is something pretentious like ‘if not now when?‘.  And that’s probably the only question that has any relevance in this extended navel gazing. An inch either way and my mountain biking future would have been limited to observing as a limping voyeur. And that feels pretty terminal  for a man whose life is far too defined by wondering when he can next ride a bike.

Thanks Andy. You reminded me of the futility of trying to work this stuff out.  Tomorrow I’ll pedal my bike, take some inappropriate risks and lie to myself about the possible consequences. That feels like a pretty sound way of running your life 😉

* although in many cases, this is of course ‘pitch black

** Unless my liver is included in the ‘book of damage’. In which case, I’d suggest the knee got off lightly.

About that book…

Reminds me of a vaguely amusing anecdote. An author was being all a bit luvvie and woe-is-me on writing her new book so announcing ‘well I’ve had to move to Cannes to try and get this book finished, it’s been three months now‘ which was superbly riposted by ‘Yes, it takes me a while to read a book as well

I’ve been talking about writing a book for multiple decades now. Ideas are not short but actual chapters are. On earlier efforts, the only comment is to congratulate my pretentious younger self on password protecting the terribly self indulgent pap, so thereby saving innocent browsers from extended therapy. Even as a man with dignity long stripped by endless pratfalls, there’s nothing here I’m prepared to share other than the THIRD sentence which included the ohgod-please-remove-my-spleen-with-a-blunt-spoon phrase ‘my world was ill tuned to the discordant harmony of others‘.

And I’ve never touched hard drugs. Really, there’s no excuse.

Then there was a rather slick plot device which I felt very clever about right up until the point of someone far more capable actually turning into a proper book, and making a shitload of cash. Pass the matches, might as well create a bit of warmth in the funeral pyre of that idea.

Clearly actually creating something other than a few lines and a vague direction of travel was not going to make a book make. So instead I looked at a million* words on this blog chronologically sequenced from 2006 and honestly believed there might be 100,000 which’d make people laugh. And more to the point, pay. This was not so much an idea more of a total rip off from my mate Dave Barter who had successfully e-published something similar albeit it with proper grammar and better jokes.

Desultory would be the honest way to describe my efforts to mirror Dave’s success. I wrote a great intro, chopped a million words by a thousand and sweated over linking paragraphs. But while the stuff made me smile, it wasn’t a book about cycling. It wasn’t a book at all if we’re being honest. I do think a few people would have bought it** but it failed to actually answer a rather more simple question.

Not is it going to make me any money, but is it the book I wanted to write? Ah well. Here’s the thing. It’s easy to take stuff you know that makes the odd person laugh and throw it out there apologetically. Live off a few favourable reviews and worry not the elephant is still in the room. And sat squatting over fading manuscripts all terribly worthy and failing to answer the question that does really quite matter to me. Can I write something for an audience other than a bunch of bike geeks who will buy MBUK so clearly are right in the slot for the shit I produce. Courage of convictions and all that.

Comfort zone is now a bed of nails. Stop being narrow and try being wide. if it’s not about making money – which it absolutely isn’t, however self obsessed I am even I can see this isn’t a career change, it’s an indulgencey  – so don’t bloody well die wondering. I have these conversations with myself all the time. Mainly because – quite rightly – no one else gives even the tiniest micro-gramme of a shit. But suddenly it’s important because a spark lit some paper talk and I lost hours writing stuff that made me laugh and made me realise there’s a whole book there desperate to get out.

For the first time in many, many months I started writing stuff because I wanted to, not because the blog felt lonely. It could still be total shit of course. But it’s going to get done. And done in less than twenty years. Mainly because each spare minute is spent desperately tapping to capture the giggling insanity of what passes for real life. I am blessed by intersections of awesome comedic merit almost every single day. Once you tap into into the reach narrative seam, this stuff writes itself. In my head anyway.

I’ll be asking for a few kind souls to gently remind me that not everyone sees the world as I do. Especially when it comes to apostrophe’s. But before anyone assumes proofreading duties, I can at least share the title: “Shooting Horses“. Which is at least the one laugh out loud idea in the book. I stole it from somewhat at work. Some things never change.

*really. there is. Thank God for the Internet. Not a single tree died in the making of this production. I may have lost a liver tho.

** because i have pictures of them doing stuff with goats that really isn’t appropriate for polite society.

Back to the future

 

 

 

If the Welsh Tourist Board had a brief flirt with accuracy, the slogan’d pretty much write itself: “Come to Wales, bring a waterproof. And a mountain bike“. While accepting this may reduce the size of western charging cohort, it perfectly fits my view of this rather brilliant if incessantly  moist country.

Key attributes of any ride in Wales; a) you will get wet b) you will carry your bike c) your tyres/shoes/eyeballs will be full of sheep shit d) you will get amusingly lost and e) outside of the poo creators, you’ll see no other mammals for the entire day. Obviously these rules apply only to proper riding, not that FC ghetto Scalextric nonsense harvesting a bumper crop of sheepy sign-post followers.

Unexpected early October sunshine had three of us piling into Matt’s rather natty demo van* and heading into the wilds of mid Wales where the hills are steep, the views inspiring and the people few. Such was our keenness, even the traction beam of an early morning pig ‘n’ chicken butty was mightily resisted as we assembled three bikes representing all the current wheel sizes currently being hawked by evil MTB marketeers.

Assuming you’ve taken my previous advice not to read the bottom half of the Internet, here’s a summary of where such idiocy takes us; the tallest of us rides at 26 inch bike, the  shortest a 650b and the middling one a 29er. We all use to ride 26s, and Matt (tall) was the fastest downhill, Dave (shortest) was second with me bringing up the rear.  After spending *ahem* a few pounds on lovely new builds, our slavish adherence to our own ‘best‘ standard has changed absolutely nothing in the pecking order. Other than opening up entire new motherlodes to be mined by rich piss-taking.

So having efficiently arrived at our start location in the lovely town of Rhayader, our attempt on a classic old school XC loop was put on pause while some similarly classic dithering over if a certain individual needed a wee took a while to resolve. Prostrates satisfied, off we span on leaf splattered trails in sight of the River Elan. Synaptic resonance reminded me of the last time we’d tackled this route in a snowstorm. And the time before than in a thunderstorm. I couldn’t help but glance warily at blue sky and wonder what precipitation lay in wait for us this time? Maybe a falling satellite?

3 kilometres in and we were lost. Not exactly lost, as the three of us could confidently identify our current location. Which was at river level when the route called for some proper climbing into  brooding hills mocking us from our lowly position. Double back and double up on a steep climb surfaced by first a worn out road and latterly by a rocky track which provided a Welsh warm up of gaining a couple of hundred metres in not much distance.

The already dog eared guide notes** suggested the next section might be a carry. Optimism in print there as we shouldered bikes and discovered exactly why this stunning pocket of densely packed hills was picked to provide clean water for the brummies. Even after a dry summer, it was still boggy underfoot with little used trails  packed full of stingy vegetation. We’d picked a route from a guide book some fifteen years hence which enthusiastically catalogued a ride of endless awesomeness with two of the best descents Wales could offer.

And fifteen years ago, you could imagine mesh helmeted riders clad in purple spandex poking themselves with bar ends and bouncing uncontrollably down rocky descents by the hundred. Not so now with all sorts of magpie shinyness attracting the contemporary mountain biker to the path of least resistance. We shouldered bikes and un-glooped ankles from un-gentrified bog, while they bought macchiatos and compared carbon composites. Their loss.

We topped out close to the stunning view at the start of this post. Opening up a  a gully of rocky steepness requiring 100% focus entirely lacking due to an eyeball dragging juxtaposition blending man made reservoirs  with lines of endless hills. I had to stop and take pictures giving me ample time to arrive at the crux already cleaned by Matt. He shouted that my line was all wrong – no change there – before hiking back up to show me the way. I decided ‘the way‘ was way above my pay grade and walked down mocked by those ghostly hardcases of old who’d made up for their lack of bike by a dollop of skills.

No matter, fun all the same which wasn’t quite the case on the climb out of the valley mostly completed with a nose on the stem, arse giving you the full ‘D-wing in the showers, reaching for the soap‘ experience. Lungs on fire, legs weakening by the pedal stroke, massive vistas putting the boot in your self-worth, this feels like proper mountain biking. Hard, uncompromising, potentially unrewarding but God what a privilege to have this to ourselves on a perfect day.

Back on top at 500m above sea level, we abandoned the route guide and headed for a half-remembered plunge down the ridge on a trail nothing like singletrack but everything like giggly fun. Fast, open and apparently without danger right up until the point a deep bog nearly ended it for me. Lost now, we pushed quietly through a dilapidated farm yard clearly modelled on Deliverance, and dropped onto the old train track built to take hard men into the mountains to build the stupendous engineering masterpieces of the Elan dams.

Dave – much broken from a horrible road crash last year – lobbied for the flat way home around the mountain. We talked him out of it promising only one more climb and a fantastic descent to finish. Selling job complete, we skirted the reservoir and pitched upwards onto a climb I remembered as being fairly lumpy but reasonably short. I was half right with the soft grass under-tyre adding pain to an overdose of lactic acid. Ten minutes later it was done leaving me on a bleak summit surrounded by 360 views and bugger all else.

I dumped the bike and stood there for a while. As close to being at peace as I ever get with none of the daily compromises foisted by life in general and work in particular. For a second or so, as a chill wind whistled through what’s left of my hair, I was tempted to use the word ‘spiritual’ at which point a tanker rumbled into view on an unseen road  putting paid to that pretentious nonsense. Dave and Matt then put up with my insistence to ride through ‘that bog again‘ for the digital soul stealer before a final road climb topped us out on a double track full of puddles and anticipation.

The first kilometre was flat but fun dropping wheels into ‘how bloody deep is that going to be’ small lakes before gradient triggered dropped seat posts and grin inducing velocity. Nothing on this track was scary but it was fast and steppy so perfectly suited to popping off drops and drilling rock gardens. Modern mountain bikes may flatter the lightly skilled but by Christ they are stupidly good fun on tracks like this. And it was a track that went on for approximately ever. Time was marked by Dave’s freewheel right up my chuff and the chain slapping the swing arm as lumps turned to jumps.

Done if not dusty, we rolled back into town and straight into the pub. Where we talked about bikes, things we’d done and things we were going to do. We didn’t talk about wheel sizes or shock configurations or tyre pressures. We didn’t talk about how our lined complexions suggested a raging against the dying of the light. We didn’t talk about what happens when this all stops.

And that’s not just displacement blindness. It’s a recognition that while we can drag our ageing bodies into high places, the reward will be a million times greater than the effort required to do so.

Go to Wales, you get to see this kind of stuff

* which – if I was tended to the selfish – he’d best buy for our trip to the alps next year. Short of adding a drinks cabinet, it’s damn close to chauffeured mountain biking.

** Navigation via my GPS was discounted on the not unreasonable grounds that – despite it’s obvious efficacy in all things finding places – it was in gloved hands of an idiot.

Evil Eye*

it’s about more eyeballs” was the passionate refrain from a man with a ‘digital vision‘ and a poor choice in ties earlier in my week. Somebody, who shall spent an eternity in hell, had  furnished this ‘digital native‘ with novelty neck wear, a copy of powerpoint and an hour of my time to expound barely-baked theories on exactly how the world was going to work and – if we took his breathless advice – our place within in.

Two problems. He was twenty years plus a bit past those who have an understanding of any of this shit – so therefore entirely irrelevant, and I wasn’t listening. Not because i wasn’t interested** but rather my attention was on the blurry audio visual experience which was more modern hieroglyphics than any discernible text. Still ever cloud and all that, I didn’t actually have to read it. Sadly my ears still worked.

This wasn’t the surprise that a man waking up missing 10% of his vision would suggest.  Earlier that week I was put very much in mind of one my favourite Pete and Dud sketches where Cook interviews a one legged Moore for the role of Tarzan and declares ‘I have nothing against your right leg Mr Spiggot, nothing at all. The problem is neither do you‘. I tell you this because my appointment with the head eye poker at Hereford hospital followed a similar script. Only it wasn’t quite as amusing.

Visual assessment predates any proper medical advice. I rocked up with clean looking eyeballs and an air of confidence. Which rapidly eroded when the right eye delivered a chart reading performance in line with a man last seen with a harnessed labrador. Top Doc wheeled me in and shook my hand in the manner of a professional having recently been forced to attend a ‘customer interaction‘ seminar.

Awkwardness passed, soon I was seated – chin on rest, lights dimmed, bright lights and barked instructions on where to point the eyeballs before a frankly worryingly extended examination where the full gamut of humming, tutting and teeth clicking left me in no doubt the breezy ‘you’re all good, vision of a twenty year old, darken not our towels again‘ of my optimistic construction wasn’t actually going to occur.

I like your left eye, your left eye is very good, your right eye however...’ –  a scan of the notes suggested a new infection was stalking my already ravaged eyeball. Although this was a matter for some dispute as the 21st Century cutting edge diagnostic history manifested itself as a wobbly circle with a dot randomly pencilled in. It was like a fucking wombles naming ceremony.

Having seen three different masters of eyeball in my three previous visits, some confusion about exactly where this dot might actually be took a while to resolve. And quite a few people. I’m here to tell you there is no shortage of doctors and nurses in the NHS. Really just when the last management consultant*** performed a headcount, they were all in a room with me. Not that I could see them of course – glasses off it’s an impressionistic blur hiding concerned expressions. Suits me, that’s my kind of displacement activity, shame I hadn’t smuggled in a hipflask.

So many people were eyeballing my eyeball I began to feel a bit like a medical experiment. Half expected a copywriter to come in with a camera and the outline of a textbook entry marked  ‘if it looks like that, best recommend some audio books‘. Eventually the entire medical cohort for all of Herefordshire were shooed out and I was left with a man who gave me half a smile and about the same level of explanation.

There’s is an infection still there. It’s very close to the area of prime vision. The loss of clarity might be scarring because you are healing too quickly. Still it might also be too much coffee, lack of sleep or feeling tense. Are you feeling tense?’‘. Since I was arranging my face into a heroic/stoic fascimilie of a bloke who could ‘take it’ when it came to bad news I entirely missed the opportunity to shout ‘what do you fucking think? I’ve spent the last twenty minutes being prodded by a pantheon of increasingly worried looking people with doctor in their title

I am beginning to form an indelible impression that the medical branch of Ophthalmology is more of an art than a science. Let me furnish you with a representative example. The doc again ‘ your eyes are healing really well. But too fast. The body has only one way of dealing with cuts and thats scaring. So your lack of vision may be scoring of the cornea. We can treat that with steroids but I don’t want to prescribe too much’ / ‘oh why’s that, more is better, just give me something I can inject with a piping bag’ / ‘Ah well no we can’t because there is a side effect of steroids. And that side effect is scaring’.

While I was trying to find a some rationale or logic to work that out, he followed with ‘so are you feeling more reassured’ / ‘that what? being told I’ve lost a chunk of vision and it might be permanent or it might be because I’ve just swigged a latte? Not really or – to speak from the heart – not. at. fucking. all.’ He wondered if I had any questions, most of which would have started ‘can we start again but this time without the crowds‘. But there are times when not knowing the wrong answer is all about not asking the  right question. So I didn’t. That’s how cowardice works.

Anyway they clearly like me because they keep asking me back. In fact they actively encouraged me to return before the next appointment should I feel any discomfort or concern. I’ve passed so far on the grounds that self medication with a decent Merlot is a far better approach. Come Monday tho, I’ll be back amongst the sick people memorising the eye chart and pretending all is well.

Between then and now, I’m beating myself up testing the eyeball to see if it’s improved. Mostly by covering the good eye and squinting at number plates to ascertain how blurry the bad eye receives that image. This isn’t a good idea both in terms of ongoing disappointment, and the simple fact there may be other road events of which I am completely fucking unaware as blurry stuff passes by at sixty miles an hour.

Still mustn’t grumble. Prescription glasses arrived which instantly triggered bikes being ridden. And that was soul food for the starving. I hardly noticed the glasses – even if they are a bit Joe 90/Bono – but God I noticed how much I miss riding my bike. I’ve been like a bear with a sore arse all week snapping at anyone with the temerity to enquire on my wellbeing. It’s all gone a bit single issue and that’s a shitty way to run your life.

So tomorrow we’re on a quest to find Jessie a bigger bike and – if that goes well – I’ll get to ride with one of my kids. Sunday I’ll find an excuse to ride again because this kind of  thing is a prism of focus. There’s much that is important and none of has anything to do with nine to five.

* driving home the shuffle algorithm through up tracks of this name by both Ash and AC/DC. That’s serendipity right there. Based on what passes for my musical tastes, I feel you have got off lightly.

** there was a bit of that obviously.

*** I’d just like to clear up a peripheral point here. I am not a management consultant. Never have been, never will be. I’m just a bloke with a set of skills people buy because you;d never want to employ someone quite that arsey. I’m comfortable with interim, contractor or even mercenary. But not consultant. Thank you for listening 😉