Saturday, December 29, 2007

Making plans on a beermat.

Writing a list of goals for the year is a bit of a tradition in our family. It began one New Year's Eve, in a bar in North Wales, when I tore the back off a beermat and wrote, Things to do this year: Get Divorced, Get Married... I did both, which means it must have been 1991.

Every year since I've written what's become known as the beermat, though more recently they are kept in my notebooks rather than cardboard squares. Most years I'm able to tick the best part of the list by the following December. I've been told that simply writing down your goals increases the chances of success; I guess it focuses the mind, though probably nothing much beyond; certainly, I won't have any truck with those who claim some sort of spiritual connection.

But in fact the main reason I write lists is not so much to plan ahead as to look back. I like to remember what I hoped for, relive the days that worked out, and maybe reconsider those schemes I'd thought better of by the time it was snowing in February. I have kept nearly all my beermats; they are as good a summary of what has mattered to me as any.

I like making other lists too; a favourite is a 'Best and Worst of the Year'. Interestingly, the highlights never quite align with that year's beermat, reminding me that while planning is good, serendipity often shapes our happiest moments. This year was no different. In August as the sky pinked over the Irish Sea, we watched two seals playing in the harbour at Abercastle. At a dull business dinner that I'd tried every trick to avoid, I drank a sublime Puligny Montrachet and suddenly it wasn't quite so bad to be labeled an Executive. In a rare gap between June's showers, we visited Hidcote Gardens and I loved the eccentricity and sheer extravagance of it all. This autumn the badgers came to snuffle on our lawn by moonlight. Only yesterday, we huddled on Abereiddy beach as billows of foaming spume covered the rocks and the onshore gale reminded us how small we are...

And this year's beermat?

In no particular order of preference, I'd like to:

  • Make a self supported journey – doesn't have to be long, three days perhaps, but somewhere remote and with a reference to my past.
  • Read at least 20 books
  • Take the railway from Swansea to Shrewsbury, because I love the sound of all the station names.
  • Go cycling in France
  • Snatch a weekend away with J. and without the kids.
  • See Michael win a medal at the cycling championships
  • Complete my advanced writing course
  • Renovate the upstairs of our cottage.
  • Climb at least one new mountain
  • Drink no alcohol in January and less than usual thereafter
  • Spend more time with Daniel
  • Catch a fish that isn't a mackerel!

I could add more, but too many would mean there are no real priorities. I also like my plans to be 'dooable', and not simply a wish list in the sense that it's nice to dream but they're never going to happen. I notice there's nothing about my work or career, or any of that crap they call 'personal development' (there never is). I suppose too, a lot of it is quite self-centred (typical, some would say). Maybe my list is nothing more than a way of carving out some time in what seems a very busy life; if so, that's no bad thing.

Whatever the underlying reasons, I think having goals matters and it seems right to record them - even if that's only on the back of a beermat.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Filling our heads with rubbish

A colleague of mine had a go at me about my piece on composting. You're just being obtuse, she said, everyone knows composting is good and landfill is terrible.

'I never said composting was bad,' I pointed out. 'I said that I didn't understand why it got so much attention. My concern is that it diverts us from taking more significant action and frankly, I think most of the stuff we read about landfill is tosh.'

'There you go again,' she said. A friendly row followed...

The sentiment around the landfill issue is almost universal: landfill is ugly, landfill is smelly, landfill is deadly and lasts for ever - just think of all those nappies and plastic bags - if you think otherwise you're just being obtuse.

Actually I agree with most of this. I suspect, however, that our dislike of landfill is far more to do with aesthetics and a guilty conscience than any particularly detailed reasoning about its impact on carbon emissions. And importantly, my agreement on landfill, doesn't mean I'm prepared to forgo critically assessing anything vaguely connected to it - like composting, for instance.

The problem with sentiments that become generally accepted is that it's near to impossible to have a reasoned conversation about the underlying facts. Much worse, it's open season for absurdities posing as truth. The other week I read an article which claimed that within a few years there would be no room for any more landfill - all the countryside would be a rubbish dump. Just think for a moment about the full extent of that claim - all the countryside a rubbish dump! Really? And yet people seem to believe it.

Similar 'no go' areas for any critical reasoning are subjects like nuclear energy, GM foods, the Queen Mother when she was alive... If any of this strikes a chord, there is a great little book you might like by James Whyte, 'Bad thoughts: a guide to clear thinking' - a wonderful expose of the nonesense we accept from the media.

But perhaps there is potentially more importance to sentiment than I'm allowing? Anyone close to the stock market knows its power; sentiment makes and breaks companies, inflating and reducing stock prices for little tangible reason. The property market is another example; the transition from property slump to property boom and now property crisis was in large measure driven by sentiment - not an unimportant issue for the hundreds of thousands of young people wondering if they'll ever afford a house.

So perhaps there is benefit in composting after all? If it changes our collective sentiment maybe it will lead to more significant action. Perhaps I'm not ready for what needs to be done and composting is a way of preparing me? Maybe the fear of landfill is an easier sell than asking us more directly to reduce what we consume? Just maybe someone more in tune with these things imposed the targets and delivered my plastic bin for precisely that reason?

I wish I could believe it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Can anyone tell me what all the fuss is over composting?

In my town it began with a brochure from the council, quickly followed by the unsolicited delivery of an oversized compost bin, whether your house has a garden or not. Soon after there were leaflets explaining why we could no longer put grass clippings in the wheelie bins. Then posters appeared at the tip, the library, the garden centre... For some people, it’s become a quasi moral crusade; the other week I met a woman who actually described herself as a ‘composting guru’. She told me that recycling had given her a meaning in life.

Making matters worse, some of my greener friends appear to regard my lack of enthusiasm as a serious character trait. Admittedly, she wasn’t exactly a friend, but the compost guru felt it entirely acceptable to publicly chide me for throwing away a tea bag, promptly rooting in the canteen bin to dig out any vegetable scraps she could find.

None of this is a big issue in itself; in fact I quite like the idea of the occasional free bag of mulch. My problem is that despite all the publicity and the right-on pressure, I truly don’t understand how composting my veg and cardboard is supposed to save the world – or even a tiny little bit of it.

Let me not be deliberately naive. I have no doubt that central government has imposed a bunch of targets on our local council, which probably accounts for the publicity and the delivery of the black plastic dalek. And I can see too that the idea has a certain feel good factor which might appeases guilty consciences over the amount of ‘stuff’ we consume. But that’s a far cry from tangible evidence that this will have any real impact on global warming, even if we all went composting crazy.

In simple terms what I don't understand is this: if the stuff we’re composting decomposes quickly, then what’s the problem with land filling it? What’s so special about my garden that means we help save the world by improving the soil in my flower borders and not that of the local tip? I thought one of the problems with some landfill sites is that the soil is so poor thereafter.

I’m sure my green friends would point out that composting saves on bulk and reduces the weight on council vehicles. But given the amount that most of us compost it can’t be much, and in any case we could save just as much fuel by more efficient logistics. Even if there were clear benefits I can’t believe they are proportionate to the amount of effort that’s gone into persuading my corner of Wiltshire to save its potato peelings.

Virtually all environmental scientists accept that we need massive - no, really massive - reductions in emissions to stop global warming. In which case why are we faffing about with tea bags and banana skins? Frankly, it can’t be significant to the big picture. The odd thing is that those in power are arguing the same logic as the normally more militant green warriors; if we all make a little effort it will add up to a huge difference. Well let me tell you, it won’t.

In fact the ‘we should all do a little bit’ approach can be hugely counter-productive, Where I live the recycling centre just happens to be five miles out of town; yet on Sundays there are queues of middle classes families in estate cars smugly unloading last week’s wine bottles (New World of course). I wonder how many of them know what happens to recycled glass – do they think it get turns into bottles again? Road surfaces, actually.

I despise tokenism, even more I despise misinformation and crap logic. If there’s a genuine reason why we need to compost can someone please explain it to me? And can anyone tell me why decomposing my peelings in landfill is so environmentally bad; my local council can’t, and neither can anyone else I’ve asked.

More importantly, can someone explain why the promotion of composting should take precedence over, for example, a proper and reasoned debate on nuclear power, or implementing policies that would seriously change consumption patterns for the better, or imposing real and meaningful targets on businesses, or investing properly in technology solutions to reduce global warming, or riding a bike instead of taking the car? I could go on.

The truth is, much of what we’re told on green issues is nonsense, collapsing under a little critical assessment. It seems to me that those peddling this well meaning rubbish rely on a combination of people’s natural deference to authority and a general reluctance to face the real issues. Taking a step back and seriously assessing if it makes sense to sort your organic scraps before jetting off on yet another foreign holiday is, for many people, just a little too uncomfortable.

Composting doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things; it’s just an example of the tosh we’re asked to accept as Gospel. Green issues are riddled with misinformation, poor logic, appeals to sentiment and blind faith in gurus – is it any wonder that for some people saving the world has become a quasi religion?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Great Cyclist’s Caff

The subject of good caffs, or rather the lack of them, was in the air at my cycle club the other week. It's all supermarkets now was the cry, and they're not proper cyclist's caffs are they?

This got me reminiscing about the great caffs I've known, and being in a philosophical sort of mood, to thinking exactly what it is that makes a proper cyclist's caff.

For starters, you notice that I've used the word caff; not café, or tearoom, and certainly not coffee shop - all a poor substitute for the real thing.

A proper caff must have:

  • Formica tables with wooden or wipe down chairs
  • Big mugs of tea, preferably served from a huge pot
  • Serve greasy English breakfast and bacon butties
  • Open on a Sunday, and
  • Be situated on a cycling route

Equally, it mustn't have:

  • Customers that look as if they're going to a craft fair
  • Lace tablecloths and fancy menus
  • Carpets
  • Self service counters
  • Cream teas

Your definition might be different to mine; it's a bit like good art: hard to pin down, but you know it when you see it. But if defining the perfect caff is tricky; finding one is altogether more difficult. Do any still exist, and if so, where are they?

The far north still has many good caffs, but that's a long way to ride for a cup of tea. A little closer, there are some good ones in the Peak District: Lovers Leap caff at Stoney Middleton takes some beating, as does Grindleford Station caff, tucked away under Froggat Edge. Both of these are climber's caffs, but this makes little difference; climbers, kayakers and cyclists are much the same – except cavers, who are very dodgy in my view, but that's a different story.

Wales also has some excellent caffs too. Pete's Eats in Llanberris even gets a mention in some good food guides. They used to offer a prize if you could eat all of the Big Breakfast - another free breakfast! Just up the road in Capel Curig is the Pinnacle Cafi ( Welsh for Caff); I once saw a cyclist there wearing shorts and a string vest when there was three inches of snow outside – he asked for a glass of orange squash.

In fact, my all-time favourite caff is in Wales. It's in Bala, renowned for its lake, its fair, and as a place you couldn't fail to score on a Friday night unless you were very, very ugly. In the middle of the High Street, just down from a hardware shop that displays most of its wares on the pavement is The Cyfnod. It is a shining beacon in a town without any supermarkets.

As soon as you walked through the door you could sense The Cyfnod was special. Its tables were pale yellow Formica, contrasting with the red leatherette benches that were screwed to floor so you had to slide between table and chair. On the walls, pictures of the Bala Women's Institute, circa 1971, (sitting proud and bandy legged in Welsh knitted tweeds), were placed side by side with photos of old Bala that looked much like the High Street outside. The serving counter was one of those glass chillers with a Frigidaire logo and the whole place doubled as the local chippy in the evening.

The smell of tea and sizzling bacon hung in the air as you waited for your breakfast, passing the time by trying to lift the vinegar bottle using only its spout and the tips of your fingers. (Never played this before? You've missed out on hours of fun) Even the waitresses were pretty.

The Cyfnod may have changed by now. But I hope not - for it was a Mecca to those of us who appreciated the finer things in life. In fact, I think I'll make a pilgrimage soon.

Friday, December 7, 2007

I have always loved bikes

I have always loved bikes.

My mother bought my first from the bin-men; I’d spotted it hanging from the back of their cart as they passed our house. She paid them ten shillings and told me to share it with my brother. It was purple and red with a step-through frame and a white sprung saddle. I learned to ride with stabilisers, removing one, then the other a few weeks later. When I first rode without them, I peddled straight into the back of a parked car and knocked myself out.

That bike gave me my first taste of freedom. I’d cycle down our tree lined road, turning right into Etal Avenue, then left to the cul-de-sac by the station, where I’d watch the children on the other side of the line, laughing as they sledged down the railway sidings on wooden boards.

Later I was given a green Hercules that had been standing outside for years. I spent days taking it apart, scraping off the rust with brillo-pads, polishing the chrome. It had a three speed Sturmey Archer hub, but only two gears would ever work. Not that it mattered; to my eyes it had a cross bar, thin wheels and, most important of all, drop handlebars. It was a racer!

I soon learned, that my Hercules was no racer at all, and that Sturmey Archer gears were the stuff of derision amongst the cognoscenti at school. Ten speed derailleurs were the right stuff; Raleigh Choppers were acceptable too – they were best for giving ‘backies’ and were popular with the kids from the council estate.

You’d find it hard to buy a junior racing bike nowadays, though the Chopper is making a comeback, re-launched as a retro alternative to the mountain bike. My boys don’t see the appeal. ‘One wheel’s smaller than the other. It’s like a girls bike,’ they say. I think it’s marketed at Dads – like those, who years ago, longed to ride on the other side of the tracks.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Don’t like; don’t do; don’t get.

'Have you noticed,' I was ranting in the car the other day, 'That people don't dislike things anymore; they don't 'do' them.'

'They're not the same thing at all,' my eldest son corrected me. 'There are lots of things I don't like, but there are only a few I don't 'do'.'

'And there are some things I don't 'get,' piped in my second boy.

This seemed like an interesting idea, so I probed a bit.

Disliking things was straight forward. My boys took the opportunity to reaffirm that they really don't like sprouts; neither do they like their French teacher, and for that matter they don't much like girls - at the moment anyway. For my part, they reminded me, I don't like Harry Potter, visiting castles on rainy days, or being disturbed at the computer. We each had our own list that took some time go through.

Not to 'do' was something quite different. Not to 'do' means not only that you dislike it, it means active avoidance. More than that, in some cases it means you won't even contemplate the idea. 'I don't do pizza,' said my second boy, 'there's nothing that would make me eat it.' And after years of cajoling, subtle persuasion, bribery even, I can agree: he doesn't 'do' pizza. Our lists were shorter this time; Christmas shopping was pretty high on mine.

But not to 'get', it turned out, was different again. Not to 'get' means that no matter how hard you try, you simply can't comprehend what the attraction is. 'So it's not like when you don't 'get' the answer at maths?' I asked. Not quite, they told me, it's more that you don't know where to begin; you don't understand how anybody could possibly like it. 'Give me an example,' I said. Opera, they replied. Good choice boys.

I liked their distinctions and I liked it too that our lists got shorter as we went through each one.

We all have our dislikes, they are commonplace, they express our preferences (or at least one side of them) and to some extent they help define our personalities. If we liked everything, or if we all liked the same things, the world would be a less interesting place. And sometimes it's fun to list them; think of Room 101 – oh, there are so many things I'd put in.

As for not 'doing' things, I think it's a useful concept. All but the most bigoted and limited can see the value in new experiences, and hopefully we give things a fair try before passing judgement. Those who turn their nose up at anything new, or back off at the first sign of unfamiliarity, limit their choices and ultimately their enjoyment in life. But to plough on regardless is equally daft. So there are things I don't 'do' and I think I'm happier for it. Thankfully, there are not many, but having a few non negotiable seems no bad thing – especially when it comes to dancing.

I'd like to think there is very little in which I can't see any attraction at all. Musical theatre comes close; laddish banter defeats me; my wife says I don't get empathy (I can't understand what she's on about). If I tried hard I could list some others; obscure poetry perhaps, synchronised swimming. I'm not saying these are bad, it's just that try as I might, I simply don't 'get' them.

The good thing, is that this is the smallest of lists. I want to make choices, and I want my boys to make theirs, based on an appreciation of all that life has to offer. No doubt we'll dislike a fair amount of what we try; we might even choose not to 'do' a few; but hopefully, there is very little that we simply don't 'get' at all.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A hierarchy of sports

I see that voting has started for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year; it's one of those years when there's no obvious candidate. Not that it would make much difference, because such is the perversity of the British public that anyone driving a car is almost certain to win. I'm certain Damon Hill won it the same year that Linford Christie took gold in the Olympics - what were people thinking?

To my mind, if it's got an engine it's not a proper sport - a gross exaggeration of course, but broadly I'll stand by the basic idea. To me, sport at it's best is about running the fastest or throwing the furthest; it's about athletic endeavour and individual skill; it's not about piloting some super-tech engine designed by a team of boffins to give no one else a look in. This, of course, is my own prejudice, but it did get me to thinking about a hierarchy of sports...

Top of the pile are the pure athletic sports. This is the 'running the fastest' stuff I was talking about before. At their purest these sports have a simple objective measurement and involve minimal or limited equipment. It's the athlete that wins not the technology. As well as athletics I'd include sports like swimming, rowing and cycling.

Next comes competitive games: football, tennis, rugby, basketball, badminton - you know the sort of thing. Athletic ability is important but it isn't enough as these sports combine physical fitness with skill and coordination - always they involve a contrived set of rules with the aim of beating an opponent by scoring points - luck can play a big part as can the judgement of referees. Often, but not always, they are team games.

An odd category next: subjectively measured sports. These sports can be just as physically demanding as pure athletic sports, but they differ by including a subjective judgement of 'style' as key part of the competition. There are not so many of these around these days, as increasingly the governing bodies favour more objective judging. Ice dance springs to mind as a good example, as does the floor routine in women's gymnastics (remember Olga Corbet and those marks for 'artistic interpretation') - and I've never understood why ski jumpers get marks for 'style'. What does it matter if my jump is plain ugly, so long as I can travel further than the next guy? Beats me.

Of lower status to my mind (showing my prejudices again) is the category of skill and accuracy. Not much need for athletic ability here; it might help a bit, but it's not the main ingredient. Sports in this category include golf, snooker, shooting, perhaps darts (though I'm not sure if the Sports Council even recognises darts). I once had a row with someone who told me you had to be very fit to play golf at the highest level and gave the example that most top golfers runs every day; get real, I say.

And last, piloting sports. The idea of these is to steer your 'craft' round a course to victory. Your craft might be a car, motorbike, boat or even a horse. The problem to my mind, is that in many cases, the object being piloted is more important than the pilot: even the best drivers won't win many races in the third best car; the same principle applies to jockeys. At their worst, these sports are all about the machine and hardly a jot about the person - think Americas Cup.

You can have some fun with this list, working out where your favourite sport might fit. For example, I think of boxing as a competitive game, but you could make a case that it's somewhat subjectively measured (though not, I'd argue, on the basis of style); cricket is another sport on the cusp - competitive game (probably) or skill and accuracy? Mike Gatting wasn't exactly super fit was he?

And finally, on the basis that all sports featured on Grandstand should be capable of finding a home, we need to add an extra category:sports involving no humans at all. This will allow for greyhound racing, and I reckon are a few greyhounds who'd be just as worthy winners of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

November reflections

Where did November go? I seem to have missed it this year.

November marks the end of the cycling year. As the nights close in the racing schedule gradually dies away and evening rides become ever more snatched. By the time the clocks go back the racing season is all but finished. Only a few diehards turn out the peculiarly British torture that is the round of autumn hill climb championships, a simple activity that consists of riding up the steepest imaginable hills in the shortest possible time, usually in driving rain. Thinking back, I once won the Tandem Club’s championship for doing just this up Horseshoe Pass, assisted by a partner with an crude indiference to pain.

And for those who really don’t know when to stop, I suppose there is always the cyclo-cross season, which requires much the same indifference, except this time, to sanity. For cyclo-cross is all about riding rough shod bikes through muddy fields until you are head to toe in muck and the whole contraption - usually body and bike together- breaks down.

But for most cyclists November is for sitting down with the latest edition of Cycling Plus, scanning the rehashed articles on winter lighting and reflective clothing - Be seen; Be safe - and the hearty encouragements to keep you riding through the depths of winter - Your Ten Step Guide to Winter Training. November isn’t so much about riding; it’s about cleaning the club trophies and electing the Committee; it’s about old pedants proposing absurd resolutions at the AGM which nobody cares about but lead to a row anyway. Most of all November is a time for winding down and reflecting on the year just gone.

In my case it's been a paradoxical year. I've cycled less than at any time in the last decade and yet I'm probably more involved than ever before. After years of avoidance I joined on the dreaded Committee, organised a packed youth programme and spent the best part of the summer chasing round the country taking my son to races. To keep track of it all I had a colour coded year-planner on the wall of my study; at one time there wasn’t a free weekend all summer.

For my son it was meant to have been a year of transition. The previous year he'd won all but a handful of his races. This year he had moved up a category and was racing against older and more experienced riders. 'We’ll take it easy this year,' I’d said, and see how he gets on. My wife knew better, ‘So you’ll be off every weekend then.' As it turned out we were both wrong.

His first race was in March, it was sheeting hailstones and we huddled in a shelter as he rode round some godforsaken airfield to finish ahead of only a handful of competitors. He found the new category difficult at first but by the early summer he was racing well, getting reasonable results in the national events and riding particularly well on the velodrome. Then in May he broke his jaw, falling off a BMX bike on an evening which was meant to be fun but became, in a single slip, one of the most frightening of my life.

He recovered quickly, but in a way it was a wake up. I realised I was becoming one of those parents who, living vicariously through their children, lose all sense of perspective. We backed off after that, skipping most of the major events. By the last weekend of the season we choose to ride locally rather than trek up to London for the last of the national series.

This year has also been about the riding the track. I realised yesterday that we had made the ninety mile round trip to the velodrome over a hundred times. It’s ridiculous of course. But to watch him, circling the boards with effortless grace, is one of my greatest pleasures