Saturday, 5 January 2019

Deeds not words

Graeme Archer published a lovely piece in UnHerd yesterday called 'This age of semiotics is breaking us' (I urge you to read it if you haven't already - link here), towards the end of which his father features, in a very positive light. 

It got me thinking about an aspect of my father's life and character too.  As well as Graeme's piece, I was also reminded of it when I walked past the new statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in St. Peter's Square, Manchester, and specifically the inscription behind the statue...

Now, this is not because my father was a early-adopter male feminist (he died in 2010 aged 75, so this would have been very unusual for a man of his age, still less believable once you read on....), and the context of the suffragettes' use of the motto was different to his, but nevertheless he adopted it as his own, and it became a lesson that's stuck with me. 

During the 1970s my father had two quite separate lives outside the family home. By day he was a lecturer in agriculture, working at Reaseheath College (of The Archers fame, and beyond) for nigh on 40 years. That was what paid the bills.  By night and by weekend he was a Special Constable, rising to become a Divisional Commander in that branch of the police.  That was his true love.

As most people know, most parts of the British police in the 1970s weren't very enlightened, particularly in their treatment of pretty much any minority group. Like many other towns, Crewe (our home town) had a reasonable size Afro-Caribbean community, members of which were known as 'NWCs' by the local police, a term my father picked up and started using. I won't explain it - it's composed of some very bad words, and I suspect you can have a shrewd guess at them anyway.

So that's how my father referred to black people at home. Even in the mid-70s, we kids knew there was something suspect about it.  Then something happened slightly out of the blue.  Reaseheath gave some places on residential agriculture courses to a group of Nigerian students.  After the language used at home, I expected my father to be somewhat hostile to this development; to teach them if required, but little more.

That wasn't what happened.  He wasn't needed to teach them in their first term as things turned out, but he heard that they were struggling to adapt to aspects of life in the UK, pastoral care in those days being a bit less developed than it is now. So in his own time, he took groups of them to a local bank, introduced them to the branch manager, and sat with them while they went through the formalities of opening accounts. "Poor buggers had no idea how to get cash or pay for things" he explained. A simple, if time-consuming deed, that materially improved the lives of those Nigerian students.

And that wasn't a one-off. Whether through his work as a special constable, or mentoring GCSE-age school kids in local secondary schools after retirement, or taking the 'old biddies', as he called them, in his street to the supermarket (he was 74 at the time), he regularly did things for no reward. And while his language and attitudes moderated considerably as he got older, he could still be judgmental of other people's lifestyles and attitudes - in private.  The point, however, was though he may have been judgmental, it didn't appear to lessen his humanity; it didn't stop him doing good, to use an old-fashioned expression.

I think we can draw on that.  Too much do I sense these days - particularly from the left - a view that if someone holds a particular opinion then there's no hope for them, they're morally bankrupt, they're in the basket of deplorables.  Simple courtesies, let alone acts of kindness, become out of the question. That seems a shame, to put it mildly - it's probably a vain and naive hope, but at the start of 2019 it would good to think we could start treating each other with a bit of humanity again, regardless of our views and affiliations.  Let's pay a little more attention to people's deeds, and slightly less to their words.

Friday, 28 December 2018

My Brexit

Two years ago I went, as usual, to my work Christmas Party.  We’re a peripatetic bunch at my place, so we normally convene somewhere in the Cotswolds, at one of the many rather nice country hotels in the Cirencester-Malmesbury-Stroud triangle. That year I had the pleasure – not meant sarcastically – of sitting next to the boss’s wife.  The conversation on our part of the table drifted on to the Brexit vote of a few months previously, as it did in those pre-walking-on-eggshell days. Now, we’re a small management consulting firm operating almost exclusively in financial services sectorally, and London geographically (though I live in Macclesfield, Cheshire). We’re not posh, but if you want to judge us by our shopping habits we are, for the most part, probably more Waitrose than Aldi. So it was perhaps no surprise that the general tenor of the Brexit-conversation was “yes, extraordinary result….complete clusterfuck of course….who are these people who voted for it?” It was the latter question, posed rhetorically, that shook me out of my pre-Christmas, slightly-sozzled reverie.  That assumption, that sheer disbelief that anyone present would have a different view – I couldn’t let them go. “Me, I was one of them, I voted for it” I blurted out.  There was a slightly stunned silence around the table for a few seconds, before said boss’s wife, doing the mine-host bit to smooth over the awkwardness, said “oh Stuart, I thought you were such a nice boy” (I was 50 years old at the time).  Cue much ah-ha-ha-ha-ing around the table, and a quick change of subject.

But it rather stung.  It was the moment when I realised a few things – the depth of the divide between those on different sides – and the surprising fact the dividing lines weren’t where I for one had assumed them to be; the complete lack of comprehension by some quite posh Remainers why some less well-to-do folk might have voted differently; but most significantly, the different factors that drove people’s votes. These realisations triggered a curiosity that’s been hanging around since, and which I think I can only resolve by writing.  So this is my Brexit story, and my Brexit analysis.  I’m not a politician, a political journalist nor a commentator, just an ordinary bloke who’s spent quite a lot of the last 30 months in a state of bewilderment.  I need to try to explain to myself why people whose work I’d previously thought quite sound (e.g. Andrew Adonis) appear to have had personality transplants, but more particularly why Brexit continues to dominate so much of our national discourse when frankly, there’s plenty of other shit to worry about.

Let’s go back to earlier times though. I’ve always been right-wing politically, ever since I read the Tory and Labour general election manifestos back in 1979 as a slightly precocious 12-year-old.  I was never a ‘headbanger’ about Europe though, or rather the Common Market/European Community/European Union as it progressively became.  It irritated me slightly, and looking back I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it didn’t seem sufficiently grateful for Britain’s contribution, or perhaps it was because of the diet of ‘interference’ stories that we were regularly fed by the British press, slightly unfairly I suspect – for every EU piece of nonsense I suspect there were actually many perfectly sensible directives on a variety of subjects. Reflecting back to 1985, I think the main reason was my limited understanding of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which I studied as a first-year economics student at Cambridge. It was clear that CAP was blatantly protectionist, clearly designed to maintain a particular version of rural French life, and frankly, in its British guise, was a licence to print money for all but the most inefficient farmers. It just bred a cynicism in me. But as I say, the whole thing didn’t really keep me awake at night.

Fast forward to the general election of 2015, the Conservative outright victory, and Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum.  The question of Europe still wasn’t one that detained me a great deal.  And that remained true in the early part of 2016 when Cameron went off to see the EU in search of a better deal.  Hard to believe looking back, but at this stage I was genuinely neutral between In and Out – while I had my prejudices against the EU, I thought the hassle of leaving probably outweighed  the upsides, and some of the opt-outs the UK had against ‘ever closer union’ insulated us against the worst of the EU project.

But then two things happened. First, Cameron basically said to the EU (or at least this is my interpretation of what he said): “look, give me a few minor concessions to work with. They’ll be enough for me to win the referendum, that’ll shut up the headbangers in my party, and we can get on with business-as-usual”.  Those minor concessions didn’t materialise, however. Whether the EU didn’t believe Cameron, or didn’t understand the tide of sentiment in the UK, or genuinely believed no part of their agenda could be sacrificed, what Cameron came back with was the thinnest of thin gruels.

Second, even then, I’d have had sympathy with Cameron and been prepared to listen to his recommendation had he been honest.  That honesty should have taken the form of either or both of refusing to present the EU’s ‘concessions’ as a triumph, which he did initially, before being engulfed by a tide of “you’ve got to be joking mate”, and saying “these aren’t significant changes by the EU, but overall, the benefits of membership still outweigh the downsides of leaving, and I still recommend we stay”.

But neither of those things happened.  The overall impression created – at least in my mind – was of a democratically-elected prime minister behaving as a supplicant to a variety of unelected EU officials, who were either so blind or so arrogant that they refused to see where their intransigence could lead, and then that prime minister returning to the UK and behaving so disingenuously that not only did it shake the faith of those of us who’d already voted for him twice, but sowed major seeds of doubt in our minds as to whether we could believe what he told us in future.

But still it wasn’t too late for Remain as far as I was concerned. I was still a swing voter when the Referendum campaign cranked into action.  But at every twist and turn the Remain campaign managed to alienate me.  Let’s be honest – the overall quality of debate on both sides was pretty low, with a few honourable exceptions (Daniel Hannan for example).  But the idea that Leave voters swung that way because of ‘lies and misinformation’ from the Leave campaign is just ludicrous.  Yes, they existed, but my goodness, they were dwarfed by those coming out of the Remain side.  Quite with whom the final decision to invoke ‘Project Fear’ lay I don’t know – maybe it was Cameron himself – but the decision to campaign negatively for Remain was another massive strategic error.  For four reasons: first, some of the stuff that came out of the Treasury and the Bank of England was just so outlandish it broke the trust in those institutions. Second, some of their predictions were counter-productive (“House prices will fall by 30% you say?  Well as a 32-year-old on an average salary and no immediate prospect of getting on the housing ladder that sounds quite attractive thanks”).  And third, if the government, the Bank of England, all major political parties, the CBI, the BBC and so on are all saying the same thing, the British public detect a whiff of conspiracy, which they clearly don’t like. And fourth, again within the public I suspect there’s an element of bloody-mindedness that recoils against perceived threats: “bring it on then, and let’s see, shall we?”

But even as the Remain campaign cranked up the doom-and-gloom, I was undecided.  While my heart and emotions were reacting strongly against the Remain, I still hadn’t definitively decided to vote Leave. All three options were still on the table – In, Out and Abstain.  I decided that the best way of making my mind up was to try to ignore both sides of the mainstream debate, and think things through from a few basic principles.

The conclusion I came to, after reminding myself of a) the bodies that make up the EU (the Commission, Parliament etc.), and the structural relationships between them, and b) exactly how the EU had conducted itself in Greece, was that the functioning of the EU was not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic – and there’s a difference.  It might reasonably be argued that the EU approach to making legislation is merely undemocratic, as the European Parliament reviews and amends new laws, rather than initiating them, which is the role of the Commission.  But it goes further than that; I think it’s anti-democratic.  Look at “ever closer union” as an example. It’s a stated aim, and EU policy drives that way, but it just hasn’t been voted for explicitly by any major population within the EU. And in fact, has been actively voted against in referendums in Ireland and the Netherlands.

So I don’t sense that the EU’s fundamental aims are aligned to those of its peoples.  While I think that on mainland Europe there is a much stronger sense that mingling across borders is normal than in the UK, talking to nationals from a number of EU countries, I also don’t detect any reduced attachment to national culture or the right to self-determination.  There’s an absolute acceptance that people in different places are not so different and it’s great to be able to trade and travel freely, but that sits absolutely comfortably alongside a determination to preserve and celebrate national cultures and national self-determination.  My suspicion is that for many in the upper echelons of institutions like the EU, both parts of these feelings are understood perfectly well, but they both ascribe the second set to ‘populism’, and completely fail to understand that for the majority of ordinary folk, they co-exist perfectly happily, and without any internal contradiction, in their minds.

We’ve also seen time and again now, either via the re-running of referenda, to the treatment meted out to Greece, to the interference in the democratic affairs of nations like Poland, how the EU has its own set of values and priorities that it will seek to impose whenever and wherever it deems it needs to in order to further ‘the cause’.  And because the democratic link is broken between what/who people vote for, and what actually happens as a result of their votes (nothing), there’s no safety valve.  If there’s no safety valve, then sooner or later the EU will explode under the pressure caused by its own democratic deficit.  It’s possibly too simplistic to say that all empires eventually collapse, and the EU will be no different, but on the other hand I find it hard to escape that logic.

When the EU does collapse, ran my logic back in 2016, it won’t be pretty.  I’m not suggesting for a second there will be war – I think we’ve come way beyond that – but I suspect that what we’ve seen via the gilets jaunes protests in France recently will be reasonably indicative of what will happen – street violence and resistance toward governments who are still seen to be supporting or at least acquiescing with the EU project, and a surge in support for parties who are against it.  And many of those parties could be new ones, non-establishment ones, like has been seen in Italy recently.

If all the consequences of the EU’s eventual break-up were to be felt within nation states, however, there would still be limited logic in seeking to exit the EU now.  I don’t think that the consequences will be limited to internal states however.  It seems to me that the EU is something of a King Canute when it comes to the ongoing process of post-industrialisation.  It has no idea to react either to the multinationals that dominate our online world (beyond fining them) or how to stimulate and nurture the small businesses that are vital in all developed economies.  It understands and can accommodate large national corporates through regulation, which those corporates are perfectly happy to go along with as the regulation represents pretty significant barriers to entry in many cases, but that’s about it.  So when the EU breaks up, there’s going to be a large policy vacuum around competition, regulation and taxation that national governments are going to have to fill.  It’s going to be messy – they’ll all be figuring out their own policies around how they want to run themselves (and many of the smaller EU members are going to be simultaneously working out how to fill the holes on their coffers), and interact with the rest of the world.  It will be a time of turmoil and unrest.  And I think Britain is better off pre-empting all that by going through its own turmoil now.  It’s for that reason that I’m implacably opposed to Theresa May’s deal – I’m not actually that bothered by the question of the backstop (I just don’t feel that strongly about the status of Northern Ireland, though I recognise that many do, on both sides), but I am very bothered indeed by the fact the deal ties us to the EU in many very real ways in perpetuity.

So going back to 2016, about a month before the referendum, I reached my decision – I was going to vote to Leave, which I duly did.  I didn’t expect, however, to be on the winning side.  I thought it might be very close, but I thought that when push came to shove most people would take the same approach as my wife – there’s nothing that wrong with the state of the world, so let’s vote to keep the status quo.  How wrong I was.  I lay in bed in France on the evening of 23rd June 2016, and remember listening to Radio 4 in a combination of joy and astonishment as it’s 10pm news announced the likely result.  I then had to stay awake for another hour just to make sure.

If the result itself surprised me, that was as nothing compared to how astounded I felt to the reaction to the referendum.  The insults, the vitriol, the accusations.  They poured out.  It was a strange and weird feeling – being part of 17.4 million people who’d won a democratic vote, yet being vilified, scorned and dismissed; almost being made to feel shame. “Justify yourself!” seemed to be the implicit – and quite often the explicit – demand from Remainers, and that hasn’t changed in many cases over the course of the last two and a half years.  Well – no, I won’t.  Not anymore.  I’m not going to criticise, insult or mock Remainers, but neither am I going to get stuck in an endless re-running of the arguments.  Not least because, though we’re yet to know all the practical details, as the owner of a house in France, and travelling frequently between there and the UK (and with pets), Brexit actually has the potential to add a reasonable amount of administrative hassle to my life.  Arguably, I voted in a way that is at odds with my personal, short term interests – so no, I won’t be justifying my decision any longer.       

Back in 2016, however, I was so taken aback by the reaction to the referendum that a week later that I wrote a blogpost called “Seek first to understand…”.  It’s here (, and I stand by every word of it.  But while I was exhorting other people to look at the reasons for why there were so may Leave votes, over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to get my head round why the Brexit division has been so deep, and the two sides in many cases so irreparably far apart. Here goes with my explanation.

It comes down with which set of factors mattered most to you when you voted.  I think there were three broad criteria people voted on the basis of.  They were:

Economic – by which I mean a combination of your view of the economy generally, and your place/success within it.  If this was the prime determinant of your vote, then my suspicion is that if things were pretty ok for you, no need to rock the boat, you’d have voted Remain.  If, however, you felt that you weren’t where you wanted to be – whether through lack of disposable income, whether you had a meaningful job at all, or whether you had a decent place to live – then you voted Leave.  In this case, you didn’t necessarily directly associate the EU with your lack of fortune, more that it represented the system, and that system had failed you. Going back to an earlier point, seeing the government, the Bank of England etc, i.e. prime representatives of ‘the system’, pushing Remain, just reinforced your view and your vote.

Political – by which I mean your view of democracy and governance, and the relationship between the UK’s government and parliament, and the EU’s various bodies.  My suspicion is that this was the main determining factor for very few Remain voters.  For the most part they just didn’t see it as an issue, and for those to whom it did matter most, they were probably entirely comfortable both with existing arrangements, and for the move towards ever-closer-union, representing as it did the leadership of technocrats and social democrats, compared to the messy outcomes that democracy can bring, and the risk of populist parties.  Governance by those most qualified to govern in fact.  On the other hand, for those to whom this subject mattered most, it mattered deeply.  There was/is an almost visceral attachment to the principles and ideals of democracy; a tie that stems perhaps in part from a genuine belief that democracy is the best form of government, but also from a strong sense that it’s this system that sets the UK apart.  Our democratic tradition has grown and thrived as the franchise has been extended, and for all the peculiarities of our first-past-the-post system, it’s created and maintained a remarkable stability over the years. It’s how we do things, it’s what makes us ‘us’, and the EU and its direction of travel represent a major, existential threat to that.  It’s why this group voted Leave so heavily, and would do so again, almost regardless of what economic counter-arguments are presented.

Social – by which I mean a combination of several things:
  •         Your self-perception: are you (little ‘l’) liberal?  Do you see yourself as progressive, open-minded, a citizen of the world?
  •         Which tribe do you belong to?  An extension of the above – which way are PLUs (people like us) voting?
  •        What’s your attitude to immigration?  Is it a good thing, to be encouraged, or do you see it as one of the sources of your troubles?

Again, my suspicion is that was the prime determinant of voting patterns for a large proportion of Remain voters, and a surprisingly small proportion of Leave voters.  To explain – for whatever reason, the Leave argument came to be associated, for many, with Nigel Farage, intolerance and definitely not People Like Us.  Even if you harboured doubts about the EU’s objectives, and even if you thought that the economic impacts of Brexit would be pretty neutral, there was no way on God’s earth you would ever have voted Leave; it would have made you a heathen by association.  For these folk, Brexit was a test of personal- and national morality, and one which was failed miserably on both counts.  It’s this set of factors that has created the depth and duration of the division over Brexit in my view, as it speaks not just to a rational (or otherwise) assessment of political and economic factors, but values – people’s own view of who they are.  Those that voted Leave, on the hand, didn’t see the vote as a judgement of their values, or if they did, they were comfortable with the answer.  Yes, of course, I’m sure there were some that voted Leave primarily to reduce immigration, but I simply don’t believe that old-fashioned racism motivated more than a few thousand out of the 17.4 million; for the most part, resistance to immigration was caused by a perception that it led to worse social, health, employment or educational outcomes for the indigenous population in areas with relatively high numbers of immigrants.

All the above is, of course, an over-simplification, and very few people probably analysed things in the way I’ve described.  I also think that there’s been a certain amount of co-opting of arguments on both sides. For example, Remainers who saw the vote primarily in social terms have suddenly become uncharacteristically concerned with the long term prospects of widget exporters from Coventry.  And Leavers who find it hard to be convincing about what ‘taking back control’ actually means now point to the sunlit opportunities that will come our way once we’re out of the single market and customs union (if indeed that’s where we end up).

Bringing the story up-to-date, I sense that the reason we’ve ended up with Theresa May’s ‘deal’ is down to the misinterpretation by essentially Remain-thinking negotiators as to Leavers’ motives.  They think that by achieving an end to freedom of movement and a reduction in annual payments to the EU, Leavers will be accept any conditions that go along with that.  That’s now proving to be a disastrous miscalculation, on both the part of the UK government and the EU.  Those things only ever mattered above all else for a tiny proportion of people.

The rest of us just wanted out of the EU political institutions.  Whether for essentially negative reasons like mine (the whole thing’s going to come crashing down eventually, and we’re best off being long gone by the time it does), or more positive ‘take back control’ reasons, many Leavers just wanted the feeling that the UK was clearly in charge of its destiny.  In my case, until recently I would have swallowed all manner of compromise to achieve some degree of exit, including a variant of the ‘Norway’ option, which I accept that only really loosens the hold of the ECJ over us, and very little else.  I was prepared to accept that leaving could be a process rather than a one-off event.  But no more.  What’s on the table and will be going before Parliament next month is manifestly a terrible deal – Remaining on existing terms would be better.  But I sense, and hope, that weight is shifting behind No Deal.  It’s been painted as a terrible outcome – ‘crashing out’ is the loathsome cliché used constantly – but it needn’t be long term, and with the right set of policy responses by the UK government.  Of course our trade, aviation and travel are governed by complex sets of treaties and agreements that need re-negotiating once the UK becomes a ‘third country’, but with the right will, it can be done.  We need to have the confidence that the UK is fantastically placed, as evidenced by its top placing in the recent Forbes survey of the best places in the world to do business.  I confess that back in 2016 my vote to Leave was primarily determined by political considerations, as I’ve described, and I thought the economic impacts were something to be managed and tolerated.  I’ve changed – I now think Brexit could be the catalyst to let Britain loose economically.  There’ll be a small reduction in our trade with the EU probably, but that’ll be offset by the continuing investment inflows in distribution, IT and life sciences, among other things.  We’ll be fine. We’re flexible. (Oh, and both the UK and the Irish governments will miraculously find a way to avoid a hard border in Ireland).  I now really hope No Deal is the way we go.

So what of my journey?  Well, I refuse to buy in to the commentary that what’s been going on in Parliament for the last month or so is a sign of weakness or chaos, or something to be derided.  Sure the proposed deal is a heap of manure, and I can’t ever remember having less faith in our front bench politicians, but what we’ve seen is our democracy at work, and for that we should be eternally grateful.  For every European newspaper mocking events in the UK, I bet there’s tens of thousands around the world wishing that’s how things were addressed in their country.  I also think that despite the general cynicism that surrounds politicians, there are still significant numbers of MPs who want to do the right thing, and whose views are honestly held.  Not a majority perhaps, but enough to mean we’re not lumbered with Mrs May’s deal.  So if we get No Deal, I shall champion it. I’ll certainly refuse to apologise for it.  And if anyone suggests that my Leave tendencies mean that I’m not ‘nice’, I may be tempted to point them in the direction of France, Italy or Greece, and say that I prefer being right to being nice.  

But am I any less bewildered as a result of writing this?  Yes, I think so.  It comes down to that values thing.  Those of us that want Brexit don't see that preference as indicative of either stupidity or a lack of moral rectitude; lots, though not all, on the Remain side, do.  Fair enough; it's time to shut up and let history play out.

Saturday, 8 September 2018


I've always thought that people who complain about their bottoms during/after cycling to be a bit, well, hopeless. Lightweight, dissolute, moaning minnies.  I now realise I've been totally unfair, and in fact there's really nothing very fun about having to spend 8 hours sitting on what feels like a medium-sized garden bonfire. 

I'm not really sure why it happened to me during Cent Cols ("a hundred cols" - a Col being a pass between two mountains). It certainly didn't in 2009 when I cycled Land's End to John O'Groats.  But in those days I was a regular cyclist, winter and everything, whereas now I'm not only a fair weather one, but a fair weather one only in France.  So maybe the 25 hours or so of road riding that I'd done before my trip down to the Pyrenees wasn't enough to harden up my nether regions.

Other afflictions during our 10 days of cycling up and down mountains all day included:

  • Dehydration headaches
  • Leg cramps
  • Horsefly bites 
  • Bruised palms
  • Sunburned nose
  • Uncomfortably chapped lips
  • Struggling to peel contact lenses off eyeballs after hot days
  • Being horsingly drunk after consuming just three Grimbergen beers in 40 minutes after one ride
  • Insomnia
  • ...and that general constant feeling of exhaustion - "how the hell am I going to do that again tomorrow?"
Looking back at that list it occurs to me that it's not that different to one a summer music festival goer might come up with, flaming bottom aside - and with the state of some festivals' lavatorial facilities, who knows, perhaps that one too.

But ask a festival goer whether it was all worth it, and the majority - I assume - would say "hell, yeah."  And the same was true of our merry band of 14 riders.  Five New Zealanders, three Englishmen, a Scot, and Aussie, a Belgian, and American, a Canadian, and a German woman pedalled their way through the Pyrenean mountains until we could pedal no more.  What made it worth it?
  • Er, the Pyrenees. Varied, gorgeous, challenging, fabulous. If you haven't been, you should go.
  • The comradeship. It was too tough to be competitive. It wouldn't be true to say lifelong friendships are formed - the nature of these trips is that a group of strangers comes together, they're mutually supportive, and then go their separate ways at the end. We might end up with a couple of extra Facebook friends, but that's it. On the road, however, we look out for each other.
  • Going down hills very fast.  It's basic, it's (arguably) childish, but there's something about descending 15-20km of mountain on 2 square centimetres of rubber at speeds of up to 90kmh that's totally exhilarating. The 15 odd km mean that it's not just a momentary high, but one that can last up to half an hour at a time (and there's no cold turkey or hangover when it stops). It's like skiing but without the cold, expense and idiots.
  • NOT the challenge. But it's reassuring to know you're still fairly resilient.
So there we are. It's a simple story really; we suffered, but we had fun.  Many thanks to my superb chum Mendip Rouleur for encouraging me to go after I tore my hamstring doing a marathon earlier in the year, for enlightening me and others regularly with obscure and arcane facts and knowledge, and being a more-or-less tolerable roomie (much less snoring this year. 👍. Or maybe deeper sleep on my part) and dinner date. 

Finally, some of the final-night-of-the-tour conversation revolved around the best moments of the trip. Apart from the undoubted and unexpected treat of seeing Mendip Rouleur's saddle sores when he bent over to inspect them in a wardrobe mirror, for me it was the moment when we arrived at the top of the 2200m Col du Tourmalet, for me the definitive Pyrenean climb), decided as a group to get some lunch, and so ate steak and drank beer 7000 feet up in the air and out in the sunshine, knowing we'd already worked off the calories many times over and there was nothing to follow but 18km of downhill to a hot shower. Here's the evidence (of the event anyway, steak yet to arrive):

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Here I go again...

He's beaten me to it, young Mendip Rouleur: I know what's coming

..but I was planning to write something tonight too.  The fact we're both doing it makes it feel like our valedictories, of the sort soldiers in the trenches might have penned the night before a planned storming of enemy lines, with the ensuing and inevitable carnage.  Yes, that's a ludicrous and overblown comparison, but then again, what we're about to do isn't trivial, as you might want to have a read here:

Cent Cols

The hills themselves hold no fear for me. I know what it's like to ride a bike up a sodding great mountain for anything up to two hours. And then do it again. And again.

But I do have plenty of other fears: managing my euphemistically-termed 'contact points' so that it doesn't feel like small bonfires are burning all across my body; eating and drinking enough without feeling like I could use it all to decorate the side of the road; 10km descents in the wet with the brakes fading like AM radio reception in the '70s; a screaming lower back when we start another big climb; a broken chain in the middle of nowhere, which is where we're going to be mostly. There's more, but they're enough.

10 days riding, 1540km distance, 37000m of ascent, give or take. I really ought to have removed the "Shut Up Legs" slogan from my crossbar, and had it replaced with "Bloody Enjoy It".  Because the latter may be hard to remember at times.  Equally, at other times, cresting a Pyrenean col with blue sky above and the scenery stretching out to infinity below, it'll be very, very easy.

Anyway, let's see what happens. With the exception of Mendip Rouleur, I don't yet know who my fellow travellers are - that'll be revealed on Saturday afternoon - but to them all I say 'bon courage mes braves'.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Those Magnificent Men In Their Driving Machines

My good friend Neil has owned his Lotus Sunbeam for 18 years. For those readers not acquainted with the wide variety of slightly rubbish British cars of the 1970s and 1980s, this was actually a half-decent version of the otherwise iffy Talbot Sunbeam (with apologies right at the start to all Sunbeam owners who might read this. I’m sure one of the brethren I’m about to write about is even now saying to his screen, “aye, but it managed 2000+ miles round Europe without missing a beat did it not?!").

When I say half-decent, clearly that doesn’t extend to aircon, power steering, ABS, or any other driver aids, but with 199 horsepower on a car weighing unless 1 tonne, there are compensations.  

Anyway, in Neil’s 18 year ownership, and the car’s 37 year existence, it had clocked up the not-very-heady sum of 35,000ish miles at the start of the trip I’m about to describe – but not as a diary, don’t fret. That’s obviously less than 1,000 a year. It – and it is an it, not a ‘her’; no anthropomorphism here – covered 2,300ish in a week on our trip.  A trip organised by ‘ASOC’ (the Avenger & Sunbeam Owners Club) that I became aware of last summer, when Neil invited me to join him. And I love a road trip, so, I thought, why the heck not?

In the end, there were five cars on the trip. Well, five at its peak. Four at the start, due to a late joiner, five for 1 glorious day, and then back to four when a catalogue of problems forced a withdrawal. Three were Avengers, two were Sunbeams. A quick namecheck for all the participants: your correspondent, Neil, Mike, Roy, Russell, Catherine, Phil and Alison. Fair to say that of the seven participants, six had a greater interest in the cars than me. Not that I had none – a small part of the reason for saying yes to Neil was that I spent a happy summer (1983) driving Peugeot Talbot cars between their dealerships, including said Sunbeam.

So while I like a roadtrip, normally I like to trip in vaguely reliable, vaguely comfortable cars, which these, compared to modern cars, most assuredly were not (cue more protests from their owners). It was inevitable, therefore, that I had to ask all the owners the question “why?”. Why do you own these things, why do you spend money on them, and why in God’s name are you undertaking a multi-thousand kilometre trip round Europe in them?

The answer appeared to be straightforward in most cases: it’s the car of my youth/that was the first one I owned/that I passed my driving test in. And yet I think there’s a bit more to it than that, and the pattern of our days gave me some clues as to what those extra bits were/are:

Day 1: Zeebrugge to Metz, via Spa motor-racing circuit
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly a fabulous 3 hour visit to Spa, where as well as a guided tour of all the bits you see on telly (podium, pits etc), we got to do 2 laps of the deceiving hilly circuit in our vehicles.  But it was our tour guide at Spa that gave me the hints as to why my lot loved the whole car culture so much. We never did know his name – even his email was just (or something similar) – international man of mystery, ageing lothario, ex-racing driver, current-louche, possibly couch-surfing, probably never washing up, and trying to kill himself with fags as the racing had spared him.  Anyway, his tour captured the history of the place, with its danger, glamour, money and excitement. There was a heroism about motor racing in its early days (even Hemingway said “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games”) that doesn’t feel present in the modern era, and owning a classic car goes some way to reminding you of that glorious era, when racing turned the mundane into the marvellous.

Day 2: Metz to Weesen (Switzerland), via Le Cite de l’Automobile (Mulhouse)
Apart from a wonderfully nostalgic run up the Ballon d’Alsace, which became the first mountain pass of any note I’ve both now driven and ridden my bicycle up, the highlight of the day was undoubtedly a trip to the literally incredible Cite de l’Automobile museum at Mulhouse in France.  It has hundreds of vehicles, and from all eras. Its earliest cars aren’t really cars at all, they’re horseless carriages, and it has everything from then to the present day, with the latest Bugatti Veyron being an example of that. Ah, Bugattis – they’ve been an unusual sight on the roads through the years, but this place has dozens and dozens of them. The most expensive is allegedly worth 10-12m€, and all of them are worth comfortably more than 100,000€.

But these were not the cars that provided the day’s insight to me as to why so many people love their cars – their old cars – so much. And nor was it the F1 cars exhibited, nor the Porsches, nor the Ferraris. It was the Citroens, the 2CVs and yes, the Rolls Royces. In a world of undiluted maleness, these were the cars that made it ok for blokes to be a little bit starry-eyed and romantic about the past. Their flowing lines, their moulding of form with function, their downright character – all made it ok to be slightly irrationally attached to a car, and sowed the seeds for the modern day love affair with outdated machines.

Day 3: Weesen to Turin (via the Klausenpass, Lukmanier Pass, Lugano and the outskirts of Milan)
This was our difficult day. It was the day one of our Avengers broke beyond roadside repair, that we had traffic jams, a missed appointment and a very late finish. It was the day the satnavs played up, roads were closed for no apparent reason, vegetarian food arrived adorned with lumps of ham the size of small boulders, and general tiredness occurred.

And yet, and yet….the first half of the day was utterly glorious. Getting a two hour headstart on our fellow travellers meant Neil and I got to drive up and down the Klausenpass (Neil) and the Lukmanier Pass (me). More than that, we got to appreciate them. Klausen was, in particular, fantastic. It had only been open two days, and the snow walls at the side of the road at its highest point were over 8 feet tall.  We had coffee and almond croissants just after its peak, and I can confirm that thin air does nothing to diminish their deliciousness. We saw marmots in the bushes and kites in the sky. We saw things other people will never see…

…but equally, we saw things that we might not have done had the motor car been invented, and with it the passion and skill to build paved roads where they’d been absent before. I’d look up at a mountain last week, as I do when I’m about to ride up them, and I think “how the hell am I going to get up there?”. But thanks to the work of hundreds of visionaries, engineers and labourers in decades past, I manage it, in car or on bike. Both of them, but for many lacking the mental and physical fitness to pedal up, the car give the mountains, and many humdrum things besides, an accessibility previously lacking. Cars gave us news and views we hadn’t had before; another reason the old ones provoke such dedication among their owners – they were pioneers.

Day 4: Turin to Dijon (via the St. Bernard tunnel and Lausanne)
I didn’t enjoy Italy.  Its superfast wifi and peerless coffee didn’t compensate for the rubbish road surfaces, the three idiots who completely ignored give way signs to nearly consign us to oblivion, the never-ending search for 98 RON unleaded fuel needed to keep a high performance engine going, and the high proportion of fantastically self-regarding Italian males. (I of course completely exempt the two completely delightful Sunbeam owners Steve and Andrea who we met on Friday. They were – there’s no better expression – top blokes). But we left Italy on Saturday morning to head back first into Switzerland, via the St. Bernard tunnel (rather than pass, which was, disappointingly, still closed following winter snowfall), for a most agreeable lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva, and then into France.  Mont Blanc and Verbier were the day’s scenic delights, and rural roads through France the day’s driving highlights.

So what was it about today that was great? Comradeship, companionship, and bonding. Poor old Roy had the day from hell on Day 3 trying to keep the stricken Avenger on the road, and we were determined he wasn’t going to suffer alone again on Day 4. So we travelled, for the most part, as a convoy.  That presents some challenges when trying to navigate short cuts with large scale maps (sorry all), but gives that sense of shared mission that perhaps we’d been lacking on the previous days. It was fun, it was good, and it made the end-of-day beer taste bloody excellent. Talking of which, who’d’ve guessed a modest Ibis hotel restaurant could provide a) such tasty food (including snails; respect to Phil), and b) such a convivial occasion – improved, it has to be said, by the constant footage on French TV of the Royal Wedding and the subsequent analysis thereof. Though I have to say I was reminded of the company I was in when the biggest debate centred around the merits of the floorplan design of the E-type in which Harry drove him and Meghan to their reception.

Day 5: Dijon to Le Mans (via Michel C, near Orleans)
A pretty boring day on the roads, being 90% motorway, a fabulous day in most other ways. We were treated to French, monied hospitality at its finest, an immersion into an incomparable private collection, and a glimpse of the sweaty masses leaving a Moto event at Le Mans.

We arrived at Michel’s house at 2pm. I say house, as that what it looked like from the front, but it hid the kind of semi-rural paradise with its manicured gardens and impeccably chosen adornments that the French do so well. Two hours of linguistic difficulties, tasty amuse-bouches and chilled rose, but no little entente cordiale, were the prelude to a look at Michel’s private collection of cars. Half Rally Sunbeams, half other treasures, he was clearly and rightly proud of it. Even to a semi-enthusiast, it was awesome. Though it did include a mint 1972 white 2CV, which is more my bag than a red and rude-looking Maserati.

We asked Michel why, as a Frenchman, he liked these comparatively unknown British rally cars so much. Apart from the exoticness of their foreign-ness (and I’ve never heard anyone talk so reverentially about Coventry before), it was the fact the team was small, the budget smaller, but the talent and character large. It was a monument to a time when skilled amateurs could take on the professionals – and win. Again, the car was the vehicle (pun intended) for trying something new and different, and all the romanticism that entailed. Less romantically, we also helped him compete SORN forms on the DVLA website, for which he was hugely grateful. And amazed that you could do it both on a website and on a Sunday. Bless the French.

Day 6: Le Mans to Le Millet (via 2 TGVs)
Not much to report. My car-conveyed miles ended mid-morning, when I swapped Lotus Sunbeam for something even faster – a French TGV. And then another. I was back home before you could say “sorry I haven’t validated my ticket”, leaving my travelling companions various lengths of journey home. I think some are still going.

It was, even looking back only 48 hours later, an epic trip. It was certainly one that’ll always bookmark 2018.  We saw sunshine, rain, hail and snow. We saw good driving and bad driving, and had great conversations and awkward exchanges. But best of all, we had fun.

Thanks to Neil for the organisation and route-planning, and to all the rest of you for being such good sports. I hope you all enjoyed to something like the extent I did.  I'm sorry I haven't captured every incident, every challenge, every plate of food and every conversation - but hopefully those things will live on in your minds.

But the last word goes back to the theme of this – why some of us love our cars so much. Because they’re evocative, practical and exciting all at the same time. Because they’ve changed how we live our lives in ways unimaginable 150 years ago.  And because the good ones are just so damn sexy.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Mo's Story

Warning: not my usual kind of blog, but it is me really, I promise..

I saw a tweet recently that said something like "I got a dog because I thought I wanted to receive unconditional love. I now realise I wanted to give unconditional love". Animals stir that kind of  emotion in you sometimes (well they do me, anyway).  Apart from our own stable of furries, the latest example for me was Mo, a Turkish Van cat (we think), who belonged to t'eldest and lived in Manchester. Not that he always did, and he was such a little character, it's worth telling him story.

It was last July when Mo, as he became, appeared at our house in France. It was a summer of waifs and strays, dogs mainly, one of whom also came back to the UK. But Mo was the only cat, and a shocking sight he was too at first - skeletal, thin and wispy fur, bloodied ear, folds of belly skin hanging down. Being completely honest, I wanted to have nothing to do with him, and to see him on his way. But he was a persistent little bugger, with a penchant for climbing on to the shoulders of anyone and everyone, and purring loud and long. I still wasn't impressed, but some of our summer guests took to feeding him scraps and morsels, and he began hanging round even more.

Then in August the Kinsey offspring came across for their annual visit to Le Millet. Georgina has always been a bit of a Cat Whisperer, and she and Mo (named by her and her siblings) bonded instantly. He slept in her bed at Millet (rather her than me at that time, it has to be said), generally went wherever she did, and there were one or two tears when it came for them to fly back to the UK.

I can't remember the exact point when we first mooted the idea of Mo coming back to live with George and boyfriend Tom in Manchester, but whenever it was, it was enough to get us both looking after him. He couldn't come inside; our own cat is not a good mixer. But fortunately we had our spare house, to which he could retreat and spend comfortable, safe nights on an old duvet. H fed him cooked and raw meat (which he loved), and he was soon putting weight on.

But he didn't seem particularly well or healthy. We didn't know his history at that point, but we struck a deal with George - we'd bring him back to the UK if we got him checked out medically, and there was nothing to prevent him getting a pet passport. So we did just that - or more to the point H did two 140 mile round journeys to a cat charity vet to do just that, and to our surprise and relief, there wasn't any reason why, with the right shots and pills, he couldn't get his passport. So on 27th September last year Mo became an English cat, coping admirably with his 14 hour journey from Brittany to Manchester, via Macclesfield.

Again, I forget exactly when we worked out Mo's history. It turned out that he'd belonged to a French family who lived about half a mile away, and who, when they moved out after a marital breakdown, just left Mo behind. This isn't uncommon in France, unfortunately. That was over a year previously - Mo had lived on the streets for a year. Or more accurately, in farm buildings and hedgerows, but never straying too far from his original home. Worse than living on the streets, however, he'd been badly abused by the children of the family before that; I'll spare you the detail.

And that was what made Mo so remarkable. Having been not only let down by humans, but actively mistreated, he remained so open and pleased to be around those that showed him even the slightest attention. He was fun, playful, and a gentleman. He never lost faith that some of us could be nice.

All went well in Manchester from September to February. Apart from having more toys and cat equipment than he could possibly use in a week, let alone a day, he put weight on, his fur thickened and became lustrous, and he looked well and happy - as he deserved to be, given the gourmet diet and level of attention he was receiving.

In February he began to lose interest in food, and to cut a long story - including two stays and many tests in veterinary hospital - short, he was subsequently put on a cocktail of drugs, and George had to feed him by syringe directly into his stomach, something which has been taking four hours a day in the last few weeks.

Through all this, Mo stayed Mo. He never stopped purring and nuzzling the vets and veterinary nurses who were treating him, even during some fairly invasive and unpleasant procedures. They too fell in love with him.

But it latterly became obvious he wasn't a well little fella. His stays at the vets confirmed hyper-thyroidism, though it was probably the also-confirmed feline HIV that caused him to really go downhill. I saw him last Sunday, and he still just about had the energy to come and sit on my knee, and purr, paw and nuzzle one last time. George took the brave decision on Tuesday that his quality of life was deteriorating quickly to the point where it was kinder to end that life than prolong it. And so Kerry the vet went round to their flat this afternoon, off-duty and a home visit - neither sanctioned by her practice, but another testament to how this cat got all everyone's skin, to see Mo on his way.`

I FaceTimed Mo and his humans last night, and I'm glad I did. It was lovely to see his little face. George and Tom have given him fantastic love and care throughout his all-too-brief stay with them, including George working at home the last three days of the week to just be with him. I'm so pleased that the little cat with the big personality knew warmth, comfort and company at the end of his life. He deserved it. Off you go little man; there's not many like you.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Mind the gap

Generally, I don’t feel my age. Who does? Apart from, for those of us over 40, when an evening of over-indulgence takes until the next evening to recover from, compared to mid-morning in our youth. That said, I’m frequently reminded that neither am I a young person. The latest is this week’s goings-on with the Australian cricket team.

Well, next not just this week’s. It’s long struck me as just plain wrong that in a sport that’s essentially non-violent, like cricket, banter has long since descended into outright personal abuse and threats. It’s troubled me that England get up to this nonsense, but by all accounts the Aussies are the true masters of the petulant and the profane.

What I can’t comprehend the approach that thinks this behaviour is ok. I’m not being naïve – I’m amazed I wasn’t sent off more frequently than I was in my footballing career, and in the heat of some very hot moments, bad words may have escaped my lips. But to embark on a systematic pattern of abuse and intimidation; no, I don’t get it.

What I get even less, however, is firstly the blubbering emotional collapse we’ve seen today by the (now-ex) Australian captain, Steve Smith, when caught doing something he shouldn’t have done, and secondly, the chasm of a contrast between the macho, arrogant mindset that drives one set of behaviours, and the childlike behaviours in that collapse.  Maybe a psychologist could explain to me how they’re closely related.  Perhaps they’re both borne of deep emotional immaturity. But I can no more imagine bleating about in public about how I’ve let my parents down than I can setting out to emotionally destroy someone.

But Steve Smith isn’t the only example. I can’t be the only one of my generation who winces a bit when Princes William and Harry talk about the need to be more open about our mental health, and blokes in particular. I’m not suggesting depression isn’t real or something to be taken seriously, but in common with characteristics that drive the current hideous identity politics, I worry that for some it’s becoming a badge of honour – something that marks them out as special. Because we’ve all got to be special in these days of the selfie and Instagram, even when we’re manifestly not.

You might think I’m wandering from where I started. I’m not. The point is that I just don’t understand or relate to many of the emotional responses of under 35s. I don’t think crying in public is a virtue – I think it’s embarrassing. In my world, it’s like getting drunk; something to be done in private, and while there are times you can’t help it happening, it’s not something to be proud of. I generalise of course – I’m sure there are plenty of under-35s who aren’t emotionally incontinent (e.g. my kids; of course) and there’ve been plenty of examples of middle-aged men blubbing when they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t, but the generalisation feels valid to me.

And there’s the rub – perhaps it is just me. I am, after all, someone who never goes out without a handkerchief in his pocket, would never wear a suit with unpolished shoes or go to work unshaven, and when walking side-by-side with a woman has to be the one closest to the road. I don’t think that children can or should be friends of their parents (though that’s not to say they shouldn’t have a close, healthy, unique relationship), and that age and achievement does buy a degree of respect from kids that’s sometimes lacking.  And I would never think it ok to play my music out loud or have a noisy conversation in a packed train carriage.  I do know how all this sounds by the way.

All this is a bit like looking back at 80s music – was it objectively better, or does it just it feel better because of the time in our lives it happened?  Similarly, will the public-crying, emotion-spilling 28 year olds of today will mature into buttoned-up misanthropes like me?

If they do, there’s hope yet. 

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