Countdown

Late one evening in November 1979, my roommate Chris and I returned from the pub to find several of the other students with whom we shared a house gathered around the communal television, watching a man in a spacesuit wandering across what looked (a bit) like a lunar landscape.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Giant steps are what you take!” exclaimed one of my fellow residents by way of a reply of sorts, cleverly referencing the Police single Walking On The Moon which had been released earlier that month.

It was in fact Robert Altman’s 1968 film, Countdown.

I only caught the last ten minutes of the film, unfortunately. But I promised myself I’d watch the whole thing one day and last night, I did.

The events of the years which followed it have made something of a mockery of this film, which concerns a secret backup project to Apollo called Pilgrim, hurriedly put into operation when it’s discovered that the Russians are planning to land a man on the Moon before NASA. One of the Apollo 3 astronauts, a geologist called Lee Stegler (James Caan), is given three weeks to prepare to go to the Moon on the Pilgrim spacecraft, where he must locate a special shelter due to land there a few days before he does. Once he does get there he is to stay put, receiving supplies from Earth every couple of months until an Apollo mission can be ready to come and bring him home.

Since the Moon shelter completes its mission to the Moon either automatically or under remote control from Houston, it’s unclear why they couldn’t just have strapped him into it before take off, to save sending a second spacecraft. He could have sat reading magazines and sucking boiled sweets while the computers and boffins on the ground did all the work.

The first part of the film – dealing with Mrs Stegler’s dread and anxiety, internal politics and infighting at NASA, will he be ready in time, will the Soviets get there first and all that – is actually a bit dull, predictable and overdone. I understand that the British release of this pic was 30 minutes shorter (I watched the original 101 minute version) and I doubt that the plot suffered in the slightest at the hands of the editor’s knife.

Nonetheless I quite enjoyed the whole thing, especially after our hero blasts off for the Moon.

Of course it’s impossible to watch this film without experiencing it as taking place in a sort of bizarre alternative universe, and I don’t just mean the ’60s. Altman’s depiction of Man’s first steps on the Moon is utterly different from the actual event that took place about a year after the film was released, but for me, that only served to make this part of the film more unsettling and compelling.

Stegler just climbs down from the hatch in the subdued lunar gloom and sets off on foot to look for the shelter. No TV camera, no speech, no Buzz Aldrin, no radio contact with Earth. Despite clear shadows on the surface it’s somehow almost dark, adding to the general feeling of isolation and eeriness. He doesn’t actually know where the shelter is apart from its rough location. He lied to Mission Control when they asked him to confirm that he’d sighted it from lunar orbit.

While hiking across the surface of the Moon, Stegler finds that the Soviets did get to the Moon first, when he comes across the wreckage of a Russian Moon lander and the bodies of three cosmonauts, wearing helmets emblazoned with ‘CCCP’. This made me laugh because the surface area of the Moon is about twice that of the continent of North America, and even allowing for the notion that the Russians were aiming for the same general area it seems fantastically improbable to me that he’d simply happen upon them.

Does he find the shelter? It’s quite a watchable film, so I won’t spoil the ending. You can always Google it.

By the way, giant steps are not what you take when Walking On The Moon in this film.

Mice

A couple of months ago I was disappointed to find that a flapjack that I’d left in a frame pack on my bike in the garage had been part-eaten. I was pretty sure it was untouched when I left it there, and I don’t tend to bite through the wrapper when I eat them myself – so the only reasonable explanation seemed to be that it had been “mouse-masticated”, if I may employ a turn of phrase made popular by The Rutles. Or “rodently-chewed”, if you prefer.

I invested in one of these:

I loaded it with four AA batteries, baited it with a small piece of the same flapjack product, left it on the garage floor and switched it on. Sure enough when I returned to it the next day, the LED light was flashing to indicate that it had claimed a victim. The tail sticking out of the little door was a bit of a giveaway as well, to be fair.

I carefully disposed of the electrocuted rodent (a field mouse, I believe) and naively assumed I’d solved the rodent problem in my garage until earlier this month, when I found a pile of what looked like green plastic shavings on a shelf in there. I later realised that an attempt had been made to gain access to a bottle of Lucozade Sport on the same shelf, by nibbling the plastic cap.

I deployed the electronic trap again but also laid out two conventional traps on the floor, all baited with the same irresistible flapjack material. The next morning I was slightly alarmed to find that all three traps had done their deadly business. I had a trio of dead mice to dispose of.

Clearly the electronic trap works very well, but as you can see from the following photograph, which depicts the scene on my garage floor exactly as I found it – the rather less sophisticated mechanical traps seem to be just as quick and effective.

I do recommend these. They’re very sensitive and seem to dispatch their victims quite quickly – and the right-angled sprung bar means that you don’t have to touch the dead mice when you bin them. The bait goes into a sort of recessed cup that forces the mouse to activate a trigger flap surrounding it when they try to get it.

I was encouraged to see that both traps had whacked the mice right across the back of the neck. It must have been pretty quick. Assuming they’re consistently as effective as this I can’t see the point of buying an electronic one, really.

I’ve re-armed the traps and left them ready to do their lethal work for a few days now, but they haven’t done so. It looks like I got them all.

When I lived in a flat in London in the ’90s I had to deal with a mouse problem, and I bought a humane, non-lethal trap. I entered my kitchen late one evening to find that it had been “sprung” – its little door had snapped shut, which I assumed meant that I’d caught a mouse. I drove the trap to a wooded area a few miles away but when I came to release my little visitor, I found that the trap was empty. At one time I never would have used a lethal trap but now it just seems to me to be the easiest solution for everyone concerned, probably including the mice.

Norfolk and Back

Not long after I developed my current passion for cycling, at the beginning of 2015, I set myself a task of cycling to each of Leicestershire’s neighbouring counties and back from my home in North-West Leicestershire. There are seven. Four of them are rather easy, involving there-and-back rides of no more than 25 miles or so. Three of them – Rutland, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire – need 60-odd mile trips to complete. But I’d got the set by the end of the summer that year, so I decided to see how many of the other counties I could conquer with a cycling return trip.

I’d had a plan to ride to Yorkshire and back for a while, and when the weather forecast seemed favourable, I booked a day off work toward the end of August to execute it. But while poring over Google Maps the night before I set off, on a whim, I decided to try for Norfolk and back instead – a somewhat longer route, but I hoped that the endearing flatness of The Fens would make up for it.

It was still dark when I set off, at about 05:40. And cold. I’d resolved to man up and make do with two layers, to avoid carrying an outer layer in my backpack that I wouldn’t use for 90% of the ride. But I was otherwise well prepared – I had a spare tube, a pump that I’d tested properly this time, a useful tool set with a chain splitter on it and even a spare gear cable. I’d uploaded the route to my Garmin Etrex, a GPS navigation device mounted to my handlebars to use in “track” mode, ie follow it as a purple line on the map rather than following turn-by-turn directions. The route to Norfolk that I’d chosen wasn’t that complicated anyway, and the first 30 miles, to Melton Mowbray, were already very familiar.

My bike computer has a thermometer built in, and I was pleased to see the temperature climbing slowly, starting at 10° C when I set off. By the time it hit 14°, over the Nottinghamshire border, I was perfectly comfortable. I pushed on through pleasant B roads through Nottinghamshire and into Lincolnshire, where I hit a delightful stretch of roads winding through sleepy villages. I didn’t see another road user for miles. Not long after that I entered the reclaimed marshland of The Fens, 30 miles out from the target. I knew I wouldn’t encounter a hill for the next 60 miles of cycling – as you can see from the gradient profile on Strava:

For some reason when I planned the route, I’d opted for a left turn to the A17 along a road called “Stockwell Gate”. This turned out to be a mistake; it was a narrow and badly maintained two-mile one lane track with passing places, and I didn’t really enjoy rattling my favourite road bike along there. On the way back I avoided it by bypassing it on the A151, which is what I should have done on the way out as well. I normally plan these long rides weeks or months in advance and would normally have ironed out that wrinkle by careful reference to Google Maps and Street View. However, since I’d only had the idea to do this one at about 10pm the previous night, I hadn’t put nearly so much preparation into to the route.

But after a not-really enjoyable, busy but necessary stretch of the A17 I crossed the River Nene over Sutton Bridge, and a couple of miles later I was in Norfolk. There’s no “welcome to Norfolk” sign unfortunately, so I snapped pic of a sign at a place called Walpole Cross Keys, just over the border. Then I turned back. I stopped at a McDonalds near Spalding about thirty miles later. I used my new ultra-lightweight bike lock to secure the bike and went in and ordered some coffee, fries and a beanburger.

The route passes under the A1 near South Witham and I was dismayed to see that the road had been closed there on the way back. The bridge supporting the A1, just up ahead, was decked in scaffolding. More ominously, a pair of barriers, not present a few hours earlier when I’d passed that way, were stretched across the road on both sides of the bridge. The detour sign directed traffic directly up onto the A1, and judging by Google Maps would have added at least four miles to my journey, which I certainly felt I could do without. More importantly: as Mike from The Young Ones once memorably pointed out, suicide may be a great hobby – but I wouldn’t do it for a living. I was absolutely, emphatically not going to go cycling on the A1.

Civil disobedience seemed to be the only answer. The road under the bridge looked safe enough and it seemed unlikely that something would drop on my head from the scaffolding as I pedalled under it. There was no-one around, so I manhandled the bike past the barrier stretched across the road and continued on my way.

I allowed myself a modest fist pump as I passed the 142 mile mark, my previous single ride distance record.

The weather conditions were pretty good all day – not too warm and mostly cloudy. I had to cope with bit of a headwind coming back but that seemed to die off after the first 30 miles. There was no rain.

I saw a beautiful sunset not long after I arrived back in Nottinghamshire, but after that darkness fell quite quickly and the temperature dropped. By the time I crossed the border back into Leicestershire at Zouch, it was properly dark. I had good lights on the bike but all the same I can’t say I enjoyed the last hour of the ride a great deal, making my way home in the cold and dark. I was also somewhat tired at this point and quite relieved to make it back.

I had cycled 179.3 miles.

 

The Post Office Tower

Last month I did some professional services work for an engineering firm at their premises right next to the BT Tower in London.  I was delighted to find that my desk was situated near a window with a direct view of its base.

The Post Office Tower, as it was originally known, had quite a prominent place in British culture in the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up and has always been my favourite London landmark. I well remember being thrilled to see it for the first time, looking out of a railway carriage window approaching Euston on my first visit to London at the age of 8. At that time it was the tallest building in Britain, and an important landmark of the capital city. Ten years later I visited London again. I stayed in a hotel on Tottenham Court Road, from where it was clearly visible, and one of the first things I did was to walk over for a closer look. I recall taking a few photos of it, though sadly I no longer have them.

When I lived in London in the latter half of the 1990s I went to see it a few times, walking around the streets near its base and taking photos. It can be seen from a few parts of the West End. In its heyday in the late 1960s it had viewing galleries for the general public, a gift shop and even a revolving restaurant at the top. But it hasn’t been open to the public since 1981 and I’ve never been inside.

Below is an image from its 1960s heyday, taken at the junction of Clipstone Street and Great Portland Street, showing the tower in its original form. It was undoubtedly more visually appealing then than it is now.

The triangular horn antennae which were an integral part of of its intended visual aesthetic were joined in the 1980s by a myriad of circular dish antennae, attached as if bolted on at random like headlamps on a mod’s Lambretta and somewhat spoiling its elegant lines. I took the following photo in June 2003.

All of the large antennae have now been removed, as you can see from the following photo which I snapped on my phone last month. Their function has been replaced by subterranean fibre-optic circuits, and the upper part of the shaft looks rather undressed now. Despite this the tower retains its status as a major communications hub, carrying the majority of the UK’s outside broadcast TV material, for example.

The tower was designed to remain as rigid as possible in high winds, because accurate alignment of the microwave antennae which were once an important part of its raison d’être was critically important in order for them to continue to function in all weathers, communicating with other stations, over and far beyond the hills surrounding London. To this end, its design incorporates a sort of “collar” in the form of a bridge deck, to anchor it to the exchange building near its base. The desk from which I worked in London last month had a good view of this, as you can see in the next image.

It’s more obviously visible in context in this following image, which I took from outside:

There’s a pretty good 3D model of the tower in Google Earth, which also shows this rather well:

I was fortunate enough to work on the top floor of One Canada Square at Canary Wharf, at the time the tallest habitable building in Europe, for a few months in 2000 and 2001. But I’d much rather have worked at the top of the Post Office Tower. Still, at least I had a good, if distant view of it from there.

Finally, have a look at this YouTube video, a film made in 1967 about the construction of the tower.


Doctor .. WHO?

As nearly all readers will surely be aware, the BBC has decided, in its rather finite wisdom, to cast Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in its long-running and highly popular science fiction show Doctor Who.

I must say I’m dismayed by this. It’s not that a woman can’t be a lead in an established TV series, or that a woman can’t be a Time Lord. Or Time Lady if you like. It’s just that this particular Time Lord has been established as a male character for 55 years. There is supposed to be a certain continuity of personality and identity. It’s supposed to be the same Doctor, in a different appearance.

My view is that a sudden change of gender rather undermines that.

Furthermore it actually introduces a sexist element that wasn’t previously present. Why, when we now know that The Doctor can change gender in a regeneration, did he regenerate as a man no less than 11 times in a row (12 if you count the War Doctor)?

And isn’t it a bit weird that someone who has lived 900+ years as a male now has a vagina and a pair of breasts to play with?

You’ll find though, that if you raise these objections on social media or other public fora, you’re in danger of exposing yourself as a chauvinist of the worst kind, or a misogynist.

There’s a word that’s sometimes used to describe persons suffering from a particular, indiscriminate, unthinking brand of liberalism; libtard of course. I’m not fond of it myself as I find it a touch crude and inelegant, but it does describe these people quite concisely, these irrational, shallow, juvenile people who think in black and white, look for racism and sexism wherever they can invent it and value virtue-signalling above all else. I must say the BBC’s politically correct Doctor Who initiative has brought the libtards out of the woodwork like no other issue I can remember.

And if they could manage a moment’s rational thought or consistency, these people might see that the BBC discarding a character’s maleness as an unimportant and disposable part of their identity is actually rather misandrist.

Election

I’ll be thinking about a lot of things, no doubt, as I stroll to the polling station tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll try to imagine a politician who can’t lead his own MPs trying to lead our country. A man who didn’t have the personal dignity to resign when they passed a vote of no confidence in his “leadership”.

Or maybe I’ll wonder what a £10 minimum wage, increased corporation tax and uncontrolled immigration in tandem with massive giveaway public spending would do to our economy and society.

Perhaps I’ll think about what it would be like to have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who, like his leader, supported terrorist methods against his own country for decades, praising the “bombs and bullets” that killed British civilians and service personnel. A self-declared Marxist who carries a copy of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

Perhaps I’ll wonder why a man so lauded for his supposed integrity in some parts didn’t have the honesty to say whether we’d leave the EU if he were to become Prime Minister, despite being asked five times in the same interview.

I might be asking myself how much damage a newly-enboldened trade union movement with a government in its pocket could do to British industry and commerce, and how many jobs their disruption and militancy might send abroad.

Maybe I’ll remember the times when all the public services were nationalised under the last socialist government, when there was no competition for your custom and no-one was allowed to sell you a telephone.

Perhaps I’ll spare a thought for the people of Venezuela, a country that Jeremy Corbyn congratulated on finding a “better way of doing things” that led to 800% inflation and hungry people queuing outside supermarkets with empty shelves.

Or I might wonder how a politician who rushes to condemn any military action by his own country somehow hasn’t found the time yet to condemn an attempt to blow up the British cabinet that happened over three decades ago.

I might muse on the stupidity of at least two party leaders declaring that they wouldn’t have the courage to walk away from a bad Brexit deal. With a negotiating position like that, a bad deal is exactly what they’d get, of course.

I’ll reflect, possibly, on socialism’s track record of failure everywhere it has been tried – causing misery for the many, not just the few. Always.

Maybe I’ll think about our nuclear deterrent. Labour’s leader has already told us, and indeed our potential enemies, that he’d never use it. Yet his manifesto has a commitment to spend billions on renewing Trident, purely to appease his backbenchers.

Perhaps I’ll shake my head, thinking how easy it was for an extremist, swivel-eyed reactionary fringe to take over a mainstream political party. Perhaps I’ll wonder what they might do if they took control of the country whose traditions they detest. What restrictions on a free press they might impose. What measures they might put in place to subvert the democratic process, to prevent themselves ever from being dislodged. What might happen to the people of the Falkland Islands, or the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Or Gibraltar.

But most of all, I’ll be thinking about the least advantaged in our society. People who depend on the NHS, for example. The sick, poor and vulnerable. People who cannot afford to depend on a society broken by socialism.

For them above all, I will vote Conservative.

Wales and Back

Last Sunday, 7th May, I got up at 05:25-ish, had a hurried breakfast, gathered a few things together and dressed in the appropriate clothing, then set off to cycle to Wales and back, at 05:52. I’d uploaded the route to a Garmin Etrex some time previously and had it fixed to the handlebars to provide turn-by-turn directions and record the track. I had been planning this ride for months and had researched the route meticulously.

Conditions were a bit gloomy and cold as I set off and indeed they remained so for the first two hours, but I had leggings and three layers on top, so didn’t suffer too much. I made my way into Warwickshire, then pushed through into Staffordshire – I’d done some of these roads on a trip to Stafford and back last year so some of the ride up to that point was quite familiar. The Sun had started to penetrate the gloom by about 8AM and I warmed up nicely, thoroughly enjoying my adventure and the new scenery. Traffic was very quiet, in fact I hardly saw a car on the road for the first 90 minutes or so.

I negotiated the rather industrial dual carriageway section at Rugeley, then out westward into rural Stafforshire again. I stopped at one of those little village shops with a bench outside at a place called Sandon, after about 40 miles. I consumed an egg mayonnaise sandwich there and bought a flapjack for later. I cracked on through Stone, then pushed through a challenging hilly section into Shropshire then pressed on into Cheshire, enjoying pleasant scenery most of the way.

Then at about 12:20, I crossed over the Welsh border west of Whitchurch. Sadly the ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign that is evident on Google Street View is no longer there in real life, robbing me of the photo opportunity I’d anticipated, so I made do with a snap of a tourist information notice at the first layby over the border, and a pic of the bike leaning against a road sign presented partly in Welsh.

I examined my rear tyre, because for a mile or so from the target I’d started to feel the road noise through the seat a bit more sharply than usual – and it was indeed a bit soft. So I unclipped my ultra-portable mini bike pump from the frame and attempted to connect it to the valve. With laughable optimism, I hoped the puncture was slow enough that I’d get away with pumping it up three or four times on the way back.

Sadly the pump clearly didn’t fit, and closer inspection revealed that it was in fact intended for Schrader valves, not the Presta valves fitted to my road bike. I’d never once tried the pump since I bought it. All I’d managed to do was to remove the remaining pressure from the tyre.

But I flagged down a passing cyclist ten minutes later, and he had an emergency sealer / inflator canister which he kindly gave to me. I managed to get decent pressure into the tyre with it, and hoped that the white foamy sealer that it dispensed into the inner tube would do its thing.

So I set off homeward, but within two miles the tyre was starting to be unusably flat again. I have to say that although I was grateful to have the inflator, I wouldn’t bother buying one. The sealer gunge in it didn’t seem to work at all. Anyway the inflator still had a couple of shots in it, and by redoing the tyre and riding standing on the pedals with my weight over the front wheel, I managed to get to a little village called Burleydam, a few miles closer to home, where I stopped for refreshments at a pub with a roadside beer garden.

I was feeling pretty dejected at this point. I reinflated the rear tyre for a few minutes with the last gasp of the inflator, and using the same front-wheel heavy riding technique, managed to get to Audlem, a few miles further on. By the time I got there I’d come roughly 10 miles from Wales, but was still more than 60 from home.

The tyre must have picked up its puncture a few minutes before I arrived in Wales. How unlucky do you have to be to get a puncture within a mile of the most distant point of your longest ever road trip, after going for literally thousands of miles without one? But I have to confess that I knew the rear tyre was well past its best. I reasoned that since it had done several thousand miles without a puncture, it was probably good for another 144. But in reality it was not providing adequate protection for the inner tube.

I sat at a picturesque bench under a shelter in the middle of the town. After a few minutes a kindly elderly man came pootling along on an electric bike, so I asked him if he had a pump. He said that he had a stirrup pump at home and would be happy to go and get it. I thanked him and he set off to get his pump. I could see that his bike’s tyres had Schrader valves (the kind you find on a car normally, not a road bike), but hoped that his pump had a dual head, like mine.

It didn’t, unfortunately.

I decided that my best bet at this point was to swap in the spare inner tube I had with me and wait for another cyclist to come along with a pump. So I did that. I’d borrowed the disposable nitrile gloves I normally keep in the saddle bag a few weeks ago and never replaced them, so my hands got filthy of course. But at least it was easy enough to get the tyre off and on the rim – a few thousand miles of wear had loosened it up. I checked the rim carefully – it didn’t seem to be worse for wear from riding a semi-flat tyre. Once I’d done this I stood the bike up again, fitted the wheel back on and started putting things away in my bag.

I looked at the disposable inflator closely, then smacked my head. It had a Schrader – Presta adaptor screwed onto the end of its nozzle. Just as well I hadn’t thrown it away at the pub in Burleydam once it was finished.

Fortunately the pleasant old bloke with the electric bike and stirrup pump had decided to while away half an hour at the bench, so I borrowed his stirrup pump, fitted the adaptor – and managed to inflate the tyre to full pressure. I thanked him profusely and very happily set off homeward. I was a bit nervous of picking up another puncture, given that the rear tyre was obviously worn down a bit. But after twenty miles or so I started to relax again and enjoy the ride home. The strong sunshine had warmed me up somewhat so I stopped and removed my leggings and one top layer, and stuffed them into my back pack.

I stopped at Stone for a coffee at Costa Coffee and a bought a bottle of water. The rest of the ride remained enjoyable and I seemed to have plenty of energy left, which was a relief. I’d taken a couple of energy gels with me and consumed one with about 50 miles to go. I don’t like them and don’t use them normally but I’d decided I’d need all the help I could get over a ride of this distance. I’m sure it did help. This one (tropical flavour) wasn’t as unpleasant as the first one I tried a couple of years ago (apple). The key to a long cycle ride is frequent and adequate refuelling and hydration.

I made it home seven minutes before sunset, having cycled 144.2 miles. My previous record was 101 miles. I’d added Shropshire, Cheshire and Clwyd (a “preserved county of Wales” according to Wikipedia) to the list of counties to which I’ve cycled from my garage door, a set which previously only included the neighbouring counties of Leicestershire.

I’d fitted my Garmin and my DAB radio with Energiser Ultimate Lithium disposables, and they both lasted all day. Very impressive. The Garmin was actually still showing four quarters on the battery symbol when I switched it off after 14 hours, 45 minutes.

One nice aspect of this particular route is that I had the Sun behind me both ways – travelling westward in the morning, and eastward in the afternoon.

 

I was poorly prepared for this one, I must admit. I’d planned the route properly, had the Garmin set up, had a fully charged smartphone and spare battery (Google Maps is a cyclist’s best friend). The bike was well lubricated. I had a spare inner tube and tyre levers, plenty of money, food, fluids and adequate clothing. I was certainly adequately fit. But I was relying on an untested tyre pump and a rear tyre that I should have replaced about 300 miles previously.

Thousands of miles of incident-free cycling had lured me into a false sense of security. I will not do a ride of any significant length without preparing properly again.

But I won.

Ginger Wallpaper

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. There are quite a few things I could have written about since the last time I wrote here. The dying gasps of the Labour Party, long overdue, for example. Or I could have authored a few pithy comments about Brexit perhaps, and especially the many attempts by elements of the liberal establishment since the referendum last June to defy or obstruct the people’s will.

I cycled 5776 miles last year, an accomplishment I was rather proud of. I should surely have typed a few words to recognise that achievement.

But what finally brought me back here is the following dismal piece of news: nine of the top ten entries in the current singles chart are Ed Sheeran records.

I cannot imagine a more damning indictment of the vapid state of popular music than that. (Well OK, I can. All ten of them could be Ed Sheeran records).

Of course, I’m not exactly part of Ed’s target demographic, I accept that. When my parents were my age, they probably loathed the music of my generation. They didn’t understand it. It was too edgy, original, visceral. It had moved on from the norms with which they were familiar.

But that’s not why I despise the “music” of Ed Sheeran. There’s nothing difficult to understand about it; nothing new or alienating or raw or challenging. No, I loathe it for the opposite reasons – it’s utterly anodyne, bland, safe. Trite to the point of self-parody. So banal as to be completely pointless in any artistic sense. The term “wallpaper music” actually flatters it. It’s not really music at all, just an insipid, vacuous, waste of time.

Kids these days have amazing stuff that I certainly didn’t at their age – portable phones with the processing power of 1980s mainframe computers with access to thousands of online services, hundreds of TV channels, social media, video games with eye-popping visuals.  But we had our own music, and they don’t. Not of any significant worth, anyway.

Ed, if you should by some unlikely twist of fate come to read this blog entry – I promise you, your guitar has more than four chords. See if you can find another couple.

Cycling

In my late ’20s, I bought a bicycle, a Raleigh Routier, from a cycle shop in York. I used that bike quite a bit, most memorably for rides to and from Durham and Bishop Auckland from Hartlepool in 1989, and a 40-odd mile round trip to work in Derby from my house in Markfield, one summer day in 1990. I’d had bikes when I was younger of course, but that was the first one I ever rode over any significant distance.

That bike was stolen in the early ’90s and I didn’t own a bicycle for many years after that, but about ten years ago I bought another bike and started cycling again as a means for getting to and from work. When I started a job at Nottingham University I took my bike on the train between Spondon and Beeston each day. I replaced that bike with a car in 2008 after which I cycled only occasionally.

A bike I was particularly fond of, my Ridgeback tourer, was damaged in a collision with a car in 2010. That brought a halt to my cycling for a while but I bought a new one, a Carrera hybrid in 2013 and went out on it five or six times that year. I don’t think I went out on it at all in 2014.

But at the beginning of 2015, a friend on a music forum started a conversation about cycling, setting himself a target of 1000 miles for the year. Thinking that I should use my own bike more often, I offered to do 500 myself.

I set off on my first ride of 2015 on the 9th of January. I took a wrong turn through a farm gate, and was bitten by a dog, just below the knee. I think I managed about 7 miles on that first outing. Undeterred, I kept going and had reached my target of 500 miles by April. Naturally I moved the goalposts for myself and decided I’d try for 1000 miles in 2015. But I’d hit that by June. Eventually I set my sights on 2112 miles by December 31st, 2015.

I came to find cycling compelling, addictive. It appeals to me in so many different ways.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it undoubtedly keeps me fit. The roads and country lanes of North-West Leicestershire are not flat. I recall cycling home to Derby from Nottingham University one day in 2007, and nearly collapsing once I arrived. Yet the same distance (14 miles) would be an unremarkable run out for me now, of the sort I do every other day.

bikemelbourneThe hybrid, a few miles from Swarkestone Bridge

Secondly, it has been a terrific challenge, at least once I arrived at a suitably demanding target.

Despite being a fundamentally outdoor pursuit, it also appeals strongly to my inner (perhaps outer) nerd. I have taken great and lengthy satisfaction from planning rides using online maps and route planning tools, calibrating my bike computer, making use of GPS devices and preparing spreadsheets to document my progress and provide various statistics. The satisfaction of entering another ride distance into the spreadsheet and seeing the yearly total climb a little further toward the target is a powerful motivation. I sometimes go to sleep pondering the number of miles I need to do in each of the remaining months, mentally distributing them according to the probable provision of daylight hours and decent weather.

I even quite enjoyed learning to adjust the derailleur gears on my road bike.

The quality of construction and design of the bicycle has evolved quite a bit since I bought my Routier in 1989. But even more significant has been the development of tools and accessories that make the cyclist’s life easier. It’s possible to plan routes on an online service (I like the course creator at bikehike.co.uk) that will determine the exact distance, show you a gradient map and export routes to another device if necessary. Much easier and more convenient than unfolding a map, then drawing on it with a pencil, as I used to do 25 years ago.  Frame-mounted GPS units or watches will show the exact distance travelled and even record your route. Take a smartphone and you have a handheld device that will pinpoint your location on a map at any time, as well as providing a camera (all of the photos in this piece were taken with an Android phone, and I’ve used it for navigation purposes more than once). And bike lights, once bulky and powered by heavy batteries the size of small tea mugs are now small, lightweight objects that will give bright light for many hours on a pair of AAAs or even a coin cell.

Cycling has given me an opportunity to explore the area surrounding my home to a much greater degree, over the last year or so, than I had ever done in the preceding five years that I’ve lived here. I’m very fortunate to live in a rural area with a wealth of potential cycle routes through leafy lanes and farmland. I have mainly used a small number of regular routes which I’ve planned or discovered for myself through the early part of 2015, but there have also been occasions, time having permitted, when I’ve taken a random, unknown path quite spontaneously. My favourite ride is a 25 mile route that takes me through Swepstone, Snarestone and Twycross down to Sheepy Magna, then across to Market Bosworth and back through Barton in the Beans, Nailstone and Ibstock. I often do that one on a Saturday when the weather permits, accompanied by a football commentary on Radio 5 Live provided by a DAB personal radio strapped to my arm, pedalling quiet roads in open spaces. Joy.

bikezouch600The road bike near the Leics/Notts border

I have never been so conscious of the weather expected for the following few days, or of the sunset times. I have learned that weather forecasts are generally quite accurate over four days or so, but that even when the next three or four days are forecast to be rainy, there’s nearly always a sufficiently dry interval to get out on two wheels (I am prepared to go out onto damp roads on my hybrid, but not in actual rain. I insist on defiantly dry conditions for my road bike to leave the garage).

Cycling also offers boundless opportunities for retail therapy. In 2015 I purchased:

  • Two pairs of cycle shorts
  • Two pairs of winter cycling leggings
  • A pair of thermal tights
  • A second bike helmet
  • A high-visibility jacket
  • Several front and rear bike lights
  • Three bike mirrors
  • A handlebar extender, for mounting gadgets
  • A seat post camera mount
  • A GPS bike computer
  • Two GPS watches
  • Three personal radio / phone armbands
  • Two pairs of cycling gloves
  • A Boardman road bike
  • Two new (faster) tyres for the hybrid
  • Two bike pumps (one floorstanding, one portable)
  • A pair of wearable reflective strips
  • Two sets of pedals (to accommodate shoes with cleats)
  • Two pairs of cycling shoes (see above)
  • A cycle cleaning brush
  • Various consumables (lubricants, cleaning materials, inner tubes)

 

graph2015Miles per Month, 2015

Most of my excursions have taken place during my lunch break. They often provide a very useful means of clearing my head of the mental clutter of work. But during the summer months I often venture out during the evening as well, making the most of the more numerous daylight hours. On a few occasions I’ve gone out after dark, and that’s a very different experience, but quite rewarding, despite – or perhaps because of – being unsettling sometimes. Out in the country the spaces between villages, perhaps a mile or more from the nearest artificial light save the ones attached to your bike, can be very dark indeed.

I hit my target of 2112 miles in October, and by the end of 2015 had cycled 2702 miles.

But of course, I didn’t stop there. I set myself the same target for this year, 2112 miles. And I’ve already done 103 of them.

road_foreverBecause you see, the road goes on forever.

 

Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, leader of the legendary British heavy rock band Motorhead, died yesterday, at the age of 70. Phil Taylor, the drummer from their classic lineup with guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, died last month.

I first saw Motorhead in January 1978 at a club in Middlesbrough called the Town Hall Crypt – a basement under the Town Hall. I’d gone with two friends from school. We missed the last bus, and by the time my Dad came to pick us up, we’d already walked half way back to Hartlepool. It was their first album tour. They were extremely loud.

I actually learned to play A-shaped barre chords at that gig – I was right up at the front of the stage watching Fast Eddie coaxing power chords from his humbucker-equipped Strat a few feet in front of me. It had never occurred to me to clamp my little finger over three strings at once instead of fingering them individually and to be honest it seemed like cheating.

lemmyTheir next two albums propelled them into the big time and I don’t think they played Middlesbrough again, but I saw them whenever they turned up in Newcastle over the next few years. I was there for the Overkill tour and the Bomber tour. In 1980 I went to the ‘Brain Damage Party’ event at Stafford Bingley Hall, a great big shed where I’d seen Rush twice the previous year. Motorhead were the headliners, but Saxon, White Spirit, Vardis and a number of other bands from the short-lived New Wave of British Heavy Metal were also on the bill.

A few months later I saw them on the Ace Of Spades tour at the Mayfair club in Newcastle, and that was my last Motorhead gig. I tuned out after that, though I’ve downloaded some of their later albums in the last few years.

I met the band backstage on the Overkill tour – Lemmy,  Philthy and Eddie were signing autographs for a few fans after the gig in their dressing room at Newcastle City Hall. Lemmy drew a hat on the photo of himself in my tour book before signing it.

Lemmy’s lifestyle was by all accounts rather like his music – completely unpretentious, utterly uncompromising and arguably a bit excessive. Born to Lose, Lived to Win. We shall not see his like again. Perhaps if he’d indulged a bit less in the typical rock’n’roll excesses he might have had a few more than his three-score-and-ten. But that’s the way he liked it, baby. He didn’t want to live forever.