Saturday, 24 December 2016

2016 - relativism vs. absolutism?

I've grown tired over the last few days of hearing and reading things like "what a terrible year it's been", "I can't wait to see the end of it", "next year can't be any worse", blah blah.  For all those who've suffered personal setbacks or tragedies to prompt you to say those kinds of things, fair enough.  But for the media types, from whom I've heard this bilge pour forth, what they've really meant is "Brexit, Trump, populism in general, tut tut."

Well, in Scrooge mode, I say suck it up guys, because there's plenty more to come. I don't necessarily like or agree with it all the manifestations of 'populism', but I like and agree with it a heck of a lot more than the self-satisfied politicians, bankers, lawyers, industrialists and diplomats around the world for whom their world is very cosy thanks. It works for them. It doesn't work for millions of others - the homeless who I saw in their multitudes in Manchester the other night, the low paid workers who despite working hard for 40+ hours a week, still need the state to top up their pay, or the young professionals who can't afford to buy their first house. I've never thought of myself as a revolutionary, being essentially right wing, but things have got to change - we do need more equality, but not of the sort that the Labour party espouses, which takes a few more quid off middle earners and transfers it to the welfare budget. We need the sort of equality where people don't build up massive asset bases through government monetary policy of the day, or where the free market in housing isn't restricted by central and local government planning policy.

Anyway, all that's not the point of this post. The point is the people who are saying 2016 has been terrible are, in my estimation, largely those for whom the world has been pretty cosy. It's been relatively poor for them.  By many other absolute measures, it's been fabulous, which might seem a strange thing to say after writing the last paragraph - I'm not going to quote sources, as it's Christmas Eve and there are many things to be done - but, in no particular order:

- there are fewer people in absolute poverty than at any point in our history
- inequality between rich and poor countries has never been lower
- the incidence of wars (despite Syria) is still very low by historical standards
- transfers of power still happen peacefully and smoothly in many countries
- ISIS is on the wain
- access to technology is easier, cheaper and more life-changing/enhancing than ever before
- etc etc.

...and these trends will probably continue. So in absolute terms, I'd say 2016 was a pretty good year - and next year will be even better. Your personal graph might ebb and flow, but overall, the world's is on an upward trend, and long may that continue.

Have a very Happy Christmas, and a terrific 2017.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Strictly Come Trumping

Slightly embarrassingly, I like to watch Strictly if I'm at home early on a Saturday evening. Forgive me, but it's fun. Anyway, here's this week's unlikely hypothesis...there was an aspect of last week's edition of the programme that directly explains why Donald Trump won the US election this week.

OK, bear with me - clearly it's not the only reason Trump won, and maybe I've already drunk too much Desperados Red (beer, tequila, guarana, cachaca - how ironic that I'm drinking a Mexican-inspired beer and writing about Trump huh?), but it's certainly part of the explanation.

So, Strictky, you know the bit before each participant does that week's dance live in the studio, there's a pre-recorded couple of minutes telling the story of "their week in training". Well, last week no matter how sweaty, how energetic, how early, how late or how difficult the training routine, they and their professional partners were wearing a poppy. It just wasn't realistic.

But of course they were wearing their poppies - because the BBC is terrified of being accused of being disrespectful to the whole Remembrance thing, which in turn is because Remembrance and what goes with it is an Acceptable Point Of View (APOV).  More than that, it's the ONLY Acceptable Point of View. As it happens, there's only one version of all APOVs.

The Remembrance APOV is quite unusual, in that its associations with the military give a slightly militaristic, patriotic vibe, which normally wouldn't feature. But because it's an APOV, which by definition if you're not "for it", you must be "against it", it grates with me. Don't get me wrong, I respect and admire the sacrifices made down the years by our armed services, but I'm damned if I'm going to be judged for not visibly expressing that support. So I don't wear a poppy, because I'm a bit contrary like that. But I do put money in the Royal British Legion boxes. And as it happens, I completely understand those who feel discomfort with the poppy's symbolism, given that we're now encouraged to see it as a universal emblem of the contributions made in all conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan? Despite my general right-wingery, I'm very uncomfortable with us throwing our weight around overseas).

But I'm straying away from the main point - which is that on an enormous variety of issues these days, there's a single, universal APOV. And if you happen to even question, let alone openly disagree with it, among a large section of the left-leaning, liberal population, you're deemed beyond the pale, irredeemable, disgraceful, one or more of a range of bad things that normally end in 'ist'. Certainly not one of us. And most definitely not someone to be argued against, debated with, to seek to change their opinion - other than in shrill moralistic terms.

This is the phenomenon that at its silliest, most puerile, leads to 'safe spaces' and 'no platforming' on university campuses (do grow up you delicate little snowflakes), and the election of an individual with an apparent basket of personality flaws to the office of President of the United States.

Why? Because the debate, the press coverage and the commentary became about him, and the fact he didn't hold APOVs. But the reaction was not to take on or challenge his views from first principles of decency and treating people equally and with integrity (let alone actually examine the viability of his policies) - it was to wail and shriek about the despicability of the individual and anyone who expressed support for him. You're irredeemable!  You're disgraceful! You're stupid! You're in the basket of despicables! And guess what happened? That wailing and shrieking entrenched his support, not undermined it. The psychology ain't hard to work out.

But whether it's the more extreme of the Remainers in this country, or those fools burning the flag on the streets of US cities, they still don't get it. It's not about you any longer, losers. Democracy's happened. Stop whinging about how you don't like its results, or trying to overturn or reverse them, and particularly stop telling the people who created the results how despicable and stupid they are, and get on with arguing with us - because here's the thing: a lot of us have got surprisingly open minds.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Lesson Learned

Last winter I spent every weekend, and quite a few weekdays, training for an event that because of a knee injury, I had to withdraw from. It was like a pro cyclist planning his whole season round the Tour de France, and then crashing out on his last training ride.

For a pro cyclist it would be livelihood-threatening. For me, it was merely disappointing; I really wanted to do my first competitive ultra-marathon. And one day, I will manage it - but that day won't be any time in the next few months.

Partly because of the disappointment earlier in the year, partly because it's just damned hard to get enough miles in when you're away from home as much I am to contemplate ultra-events, and partly because - if I'm honest - I seem to have lost the urge to do unusual things (at least in the UK), I've resolved to train less, and compete more. What's the point of training on your own for hours on end?

And so it was that I entered and ran the Gawsworth 10k today, after no more than a few pootles round central London, and one run longer than 10k since I finished my summer cycling. Unbelievably, given that it's the shortest event I've entered since I was at school, I had the old butterflies just before our local MP set us off at the start. Which were justified, as the 45 mins and 58 seconds of half-road, half cross-country slogging, hurt. It's not a fast course, so my time was enough to place me 36th out of 215, and 14th of the over 45s.

Most importantly, however, I loved it. It helped that the weather was perfect - sunny, and a not-too-warm 16c. In the queue for the loo before the start, I ended up talking to a 78 year old, who must have been the oldest runner out, but who, bless him, came in only 27 mins after me. He looked comfortably 10 years younger than his age, and had a real twinkle in his eye - if that's what running and competing does for you, well...

...I need some of that twinkle. Macclesfield Half Marathon online entry form, here I come....

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

It's over...

I’m back in France 24 days from now, but today is the end of my four month stint over here….time for some reflections as I watch St. Malo disappear into the distance.

Well, first, I was going to write that it’s time to go back to reality, but I’m not sure that’s right. There were times when I was messing about with the wiring on my second hand trailer, or wheelbarrowing five tonnes of gravel from the front to the back of the house, or mixing concrete, or struggling to work out the French for ‘spark plug wrench’, or…you get the idea…well, those times felt very real indeed. What won’t be nearly as ‘real’ will be paying £440 for a return train ticket to London next Monday, and then sitting in a stuffy office for 10 hours a day charging a client silly money to redesign and implement some processes that no-one really cares about.  I’ll say more about work in a bit.

Second, I’ve done most of the things I set out to achieve when I landed here in April. Those include: knocking the back garden into shape, getting some good cycling in (particularly a week in Normandy with Mrs M, and another week in Provence with Mendip Rouleur), and generally just feeling like I was living in France properly, as opposed to being a visitor. I haven’t made as much progress with the language as I’d have liked, but I think that’s a good thing – if I was proficient in it I genuinely think I’d never want to come back to the UK to live permanently 

Highlights – there are always moments or days that stick in the memory particularly clearly. This summer’s are going to be:
  • Most of the week cycling with Mrs M, but particularly our stop in a tiny seaside village called St. Suliac in the Rance estuary. It was chilled, beautiful, stereotypically French in a good way, and we had a lovely evening to eat outdoors with a proper mixture of locals. And then return to our idiosyncratic digs, run by the friendly but strange Rudi, International Man of Mystery, who had the disconcerting habit of appearing like a ghost wherever we were (thankfully apart from the bathroom)
  • Again, most of the week in Provence. Ascending Mont Ventoux three times in a day to join its ‘Club of Fools’ was special of course, but really, there’s nothing like a road trip with a good mate. 700 miles there, 700 miles back again, and the best part of 400 hilly cycling miles during the week. We laughed (a lot), we cried (involuntarily in the mad Ventoux winds), we got on each other’s nerves, and being politics geeks, we played Prime Minister FA Cup. Wartime Winston beat Cameron in the final btw. It was a great trip, possibly the best of the 7 or 8 we’ve done together, though that’ll be decided definitively at some future point by an edition of Monmarduman & Mendip Rouleur Cycling Trips FA Cup. J
  • A slightly surreal ride through France the morning after the EU Referendum. Surreal partly because I’d had so little sleep and so had that disconnected feeling you get when you’re sleep-deprived, partly because the result was so unexpected, and partly because everything had changed, and yet, in rural France, nothing had changed
  • The ongoing kindness of the French, this time captured by the moment at the Dechetterie (council tip) when I was unloading that week’s 200kg worth of grass cuttings from my trailer with a rake, and a Frenchman approached me to enquire why I was doing the job with such a pitiful tool, and I must borrow his specially-designed extended and 90 degree-angled fork immediately. So I did – whilst he waited patiently for 5 minutes and his grandchildren giggled at me from the car window. And it was a marvellous tool indeed, cutting the unloading time by half, so marvellous in fact I now own one, thanks again to the sterling work of Mrs M at one of the many Vide Greniers (‘Empty Lofts’, i.e. car boot sales) she finds on Sunday mornings
  • Talking of Sunday mornings, my early morning walks with the mutt that day, which more often than not turned into nature rambles; him trying to kill ‘nature’ (squirrels, hares, stoats, mink, cats), me – successfully for the most part – stopping him killing it
  • And finally, the pleasure of walking round the garden in the last few weeks, having done what needed doing. I know that’s an unspeakably middle-aged thing to write, but who doesn’t love spending time in a sunny, nice place they’ve helped make that way?

Final reflections:
  •   France is a great place in terms of overall quality-of-life, but it’s fair to say its customer service ethos lags the UK’s by a few years. That’s not to say individuals don’t try to be helpful or accommodating, but they’re often stymied by internally, rather than externally-focused systems and rules
  •  I’ve also missed friends, family and work colleagues, but I guess that’s not exactly a big revelation

So it’s back to the UK and back to full-time employment, having spent the last 32 months in self-employment. It’s not a big change in one respect – I’m going back to the firm I worked at before, and through whom I’ve done most of my self-employed stuff – but it is in another, in the sense I’ll no longer just be a gun-for-hire, but a director of the firm, required to lead client projects and bring in business.  That should be a bit daunting, but it doesn’t seem it – maybe four months of 'real life' has done the trick…

Monday, 18 July 2016

A Week in Provence

...well, five and a bit days in Provence, and one and a bit driving to and from it, but that wasn't as catchy as adapting the Peter Mayle book title.

Yup, me and Mendip Rouleur had a boys' cycling-cum-road trip down to the south of France. I'm not going to tell the tale of each day's riding, nor try to describe the views, the smells or the heat. We've posted enough pics on these Facebook albums (Idiots in Provence and Cingles du Ventoux) to start to do that.

What I am going to do however is make 10 observations about a photograph that isn't on either of those Facebook albums, because it was taken by a professional, and I paid for it. It's this one:

  1. It's me, last Friday, nearing the top of my first of three ascents that day of Le Mont Ventoux, known as the 'Giant of Provence', which rises out of the Provence plains to a height of 1911m, or 6210 feet. The three ascents in a day meant that we successfully attempt joined the Club des Cingles du Ventoux (the Club of Ventoux Fools)
  2. The pic was taken two days after the 49th anniversary of the British rider Tommy Simpson's death on Ventoux, and is geographically a couple of hundred metres after the point on the road he expired through a mixture of heat exhaustion and amphetamines
  3. Knowing this, I'd saved my Peugeot replica jersey - very similar to the one Simpson was wearing - to be worn for the first time up the climb
  4. Unfortunately, because it was so windy/cold up there, by this point in the climb I'd had to don a gilet over the top, so the effect is a bit spoiled...
  5. ....and the aesthetics are further ruined by having a rucksack on my back. I'd never ridden with a rucksack before, but knew I'd need several layers of clothing to survive 14 mile, 45-50mph descents, and plenty of food to get me through 138km and 4400 metres of climbing. It turned out to be a good move - everything, and more, was used, not least because when we started our final descent at 7.30pm, it was 6c at the top of Ventoux with wind gusts of 80kmh
  6. The photograph is not deceptive - it is that steep, and it feels it, especially when you burst out into the moonscape that is the the final 6km of the climb to the top...
  7. ...which is the bit the Tour de France riders didn't ride this year, as the organisers had deemed the wind too strong. The "Froome runs up mountain without bike" incident happened about 7km further down the hill than where I am here
  8. I'm riding a steel bike, made by Rourke's of Stoke. I like that. I'd also like to know if any other Rourke owners are among the 9000ish of us now in the Club of Ventoux Fools. There must be, surely
  9. My water bottles are empty. That was me taking a calculated gamble - I'd drunk plenty on the way up and didn't need any excess weight at this point, but things could have gone wrong if I'd punctured and had to stop
  10. The sky really was that colour - all day. There's not been any enhancement. It was just one of the many things that made it a totally amazing, awe-inspiring day on a bicycle. It's too soon after to be definitive, but possibly my favourite cycling day ever, and there have been a few to choose from. Time will tell
Oh, go on then, just one more that shows Ventoux for the unique place it is (and a roadsign that hints at the challenge of riding up it....)

Thursday, 7 July 2016

No politics, just riding

That's the theme of this post, for next week I shall be riding my bicycle in Provence. It's probably not the theme of next week however, as I'll be riding with someone who was so displeased with the outcome of the referendum he's since joined the Liberal Democrats. Still, with two 600 mile car journeys, and plenty of time on the bikes together, it's good to have some topics of conversation. I think.

It promises to be a good week, providing ferries, roads and cars behave themselves, and neither of us fall off on our final rides (mine probably today; a few hours spinning round a finally-summery Brittany). The weather is set fair, the Tour de France goes through the village we're lodging in on Bastille Day (en route to Mont Ventoux), and we're planning an ascent of Ventoux itself, plus plenty of other visits to picturesque Provence villages, where we will drink coffee in delightful cafes and try to talk French to each other if we hear other English voices, unless they're also on a bike or sound interesting. Childish of course, but isn't that the point of blokes being away together?

That's it really. The Di2 is charged, and the suncream is bought. Just need to do a bit of gardening and help pick the zillions of ripening blackcurrants before I go. Report in 10 days or so.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Seek first to understand...

A week before the EU referendum, I wrote on here why I was voting Leave. A week after the referendum, I'm going to reflect on the result, why I think it happened, and what happens next.

I'm not normally a fan of American-written management textbooks, but one in which I have found quite a lot to admire over the years has been Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". (NB - definitely not claiming I'm 'highly effective' here; would be happy with 'moderately useful' frankly). His Habit Five is "seek first to understand, then to be understood". The gist of this 'habit' is pretty clear from its name, and the theory underlying it focuses on what it calls empathic listening - listening not just to the words people use, but their underlying messages. I have to say that among all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth I've seen from Remainers in the last week, there hasn't been much empathic listening, just explanations of why they're so right. Why is this important? Because if they - and more importantly those that aspire to lead us in future - were to do this, they'd get a much clearer idea of why the vote went the way it did last week, and the objectives they need to pursue now.

So let's clear one thing up first. I don't regret the way I voted last week, far from it in fact, despite the fact that I, in common with many of the 50+ age group who voted Leave, find myself nominally worse off financially as a result in the decline of some asset values.  I still believe that the EU is fundamentally not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic, and unless it changes radically (which last week's vote may just encourage it to do, in which case the UK will have helped rescue Europe from a big mess for the third time in a century), it will fall apart in a very bad way indeed - just like most other autocratic empires - making the events in the job and financial markets of the last week look like tea at the Ritz in comparison - and we'll have had chance to position ourselves outside that mess comfortably in advance.

Concern for democracy is the most popular reason it appears from post-referendum surveys for people voting Leave. Good, that's right. Does it mean that I and others don't think the EU has done some good things over the years, that it's staffed by bright and well-meaning people, that in its original form it does much to stabilise post-WW2 Europe, and that choosing to leave isn't going to be difficult process with some upheaval? No, it doesn't. But does it mean that I, and seventeen million, others, are terminally-stupid, culturally-closed, foreigner-hating fools who want to turn the clock back? An even more emphatic No. I can't believe I'm even having to write these words, but such is the level of vituperation of the last week directed by the minority towards the majority, it feels necessary.

So what happened last week? Were all of the seventeen million of us who voted Leave seized by high-minded ideals of democracy and representation, choosing principles over pragmatism? Probably not. But one thing united us - we chose not to take the advice of the government of the day, the official Opposition, the parties of devolved government in Wales and Scotland, most big businesses, the Bank of England, and the actors, journalists and activists who between them seem to propagate the morally acceptable opinions of the day (and by implication, create the morally unacceptable positions of those who disagree). Mixing my eras and media, the Leavers were a mix that included Sir Bufton-Tuftons, Vicky Pollards, Hyacinth Bouquets and Andy Capps. In other words, Left and Right, old and young, thick and intelligent. Probably not unlike Remainers.

But they all rejected something. Why? There'll be different reasons and combinations of reasons for everybody of course, but let's take Hyacinth as an example, as I think I know a few Hyacinths. She has never voted Labour, apart from 1997 when she nearly voted for that nice Mr Blair, and probably never will, certainly while that funny man who looks like a geography teacher is in charge. Her life in retirement is pretty comfortable, though she's a bit irritated by how low interest rates are on her modest savings. But a couple of things really get her goat. First, she doesn't go to the doctor often, but when she needs an appointment, it seems to be so much harder than 20 years ago, and the queues when she gets there! Second, while she quite likes it that her house is worth so much, she just doesn't see how her grandchildren are ever going to be able to afford to get on the housing ladder. She just thinks that if there were fewer immigrants here, these things would be much easier.

Hyacinth isn't racist; in fact she really like the Singhs who live next door but one. But she's profoundly mistaken in her analysis of why she can't get a doctor's appointment, and why her grandkids can't buy a house. In the case of the former, it's a complex web of reasons that include the various NHS re-organisations over the years, the continuing imbalance of producer interest versus patient outcome, and the misguided withdrawal of other support services in recent years. In the case of the latter, it's patently the result of an artificially-constrained supply side. In both cases, the level of immigration has got virtually nothing to do with it, and in fact with the NHS, the situation would probably be worse without immigration.

But Hyacinth doesn't see that - she reaches for the answer that appears obvious in front of her eyes; immigration. She may be wrong, but her view is that the 'deal' she thought she had with successive governments is broken - word hard, pay your 'stamp', get access to state-provided health and education, be able to buy a house; all that just doesn't seem to apply any more, and hasn't for some time. She'd never vote Labour (or Lib Dem, or Green,or anything else) to protest, so last week was her big chance.....and she took it. As did Andy Capp, who's seen his income as a manual worker decline in real terms over the last 25 years (despite that being as much to do with the general effects of globalisation as immigration, and despite him helping elect three successive Labour governments that should have been "for him"), as did Bufton Tufton, who "didn't serve in the Army in the '50s to see Britain's laws handed over to Brussels". These people didn't vote for the outcome recommended to them by their natural political party, because their view is that their party has let them down in recent times, and last week was a good chance to protest about that.

So the politicians that are truly worth their salt should see this. They'll understand that many, if not most people, haven't got a problem with immigration or immigrants per se, it's their perceived effects; that being able to travel and work freely in the EU isn't worth a candle to them if they haven't got a job or their family can't afford a house; and that the stock market going down a bit just isn't on their radar. Those politicians will then understand what deal needs to be put in place with the EU, but more importantly, much more importantly, what also needs to be done in policy terms for those people to be prepared to listen to the political classes again.

But those politicians, whatever the colour of their rosettes, will need to do some empathic listening first, not just mouth platitudes about 'listening to the voters'. They've been saying those things for years, but the sentiments haven't been supported by action, and look where it got them - ignored. They'll need to seek first to understand, before they can then be understood.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

I voted Leave. Here's why.

We're a week away from the EU referendum. Having a postal vote, I've already voted, and as the title of this suggests, I voted Leave. Let me explain why.

First, let's go through the reasons that didn't influence me. They include the economic arguments. Economists, frankly, are pretty bad at forecasting anything even in clear circumstances with a limited time horizon, so the idea that any of them can be clear what might happen under either outcome of the referendum, and certainly ten years from now, is laughable. That said, I have found the Remain side's suggestions as to where the economy might go to be the more ludicrous.

Next, it's not because I'm a 'Little Englander', or "a little bit racist", or any of the other more insulting accusations from the Remain side (I choose to live abroad for some of the time for goodness sake; I also choose to work in a job that necessitates spending time in possibly the most multi-cultural city on the world). Let's lump immigration into this as well. I have no problem with immigration, it's part-and-parcel of our history. I do have a bit of a problem with the selective immigration that the EU entails, and the fact that there's a total disconnect between immigration policy and public sector planning systems, particularly for health and education, but that's as maybe - one of the Leave side's arguments that I find most spurious is the one that net immigration can be reduced significantly simply as a result of leaving the EU; it probably could be, but not without a) accepting that we wouldn't have unfettered access to the Single Market, and b) radically reforming our social security policies.

I also didn't vote Leave because I'm overly concerned about the sovereignty of the British parliament. It seems to me that on the things that really matter (how we tax and spend, whether we go to war, etc.), we have plenty of autonomy - even if the EU does create an unnecessary bureaucratic burden for small businesses, which is what the anecdotal evidence does suggest. So nope, that's not it either.

There are two related reasons why I voted Leave: democracy and history. Let's take democracy - despite the fact we have MEPs and a European Parliament, I believe the EU is anything but democratic. There are several examples of this, ranging from how it creates law, to how it's managed the problems of the euro. On the former, unlike regular parliamentary democracies, where parties are elected on a manifesto of proposed policies and laws, all our representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg can do is review, amend and block proposed legislation that is created by the Commission - it cannot create its own. The constitutional position is not exactly the same as the House of Parliament/House of Lords in the UK, but it's not a million miles apart either.

But there's more to it than just the EU's structures and law-making process - it's the approach and attitude of the people that run it too. Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2015 "there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties", and that, for me, says everything; no choice about the continuation of the euro currency, no matter what hardships that creates, no choice about ever-closer integration, despite the clear will against that even in traditionally strongly pro-EU countries, like France, where I write this, and no choice about...well, who knows what else, which is part of the problem.

It's all very well taking a noble view of whether the system is democratic or not, but it would be quite reasonable to question whether that's really more important than the long term prosperity of the UK, and everywhere else for that matter. It is - and history tells us why. And it is that among countries who have a reasonably well-established history of democracy and the rule of law - and you can count most of the longer-serving EU members in that category, to a greater or lesser extent - powerful governmental institutions that aren't rooted in democratic principles, and especially ones with an expansionist agenda, will eventually fall, or be overthrown, or be fatally ignored. And when they do, they leave a heck of a mess behind them. I don't quite know what that mess will look like, though at its best it'll be severe economic trauma, of the kind we've already seen in Greece, and at its worst, well, perhaps best not to think about that... I believe that will happen to the EU sooner or later, and when it does, the UK will be far, far better placed if it's had some time on its own in the world, creating its own new set of alliances, treaties and agreements.

The argument that I found most persuasive in favour of Remain was put forward by the owner of the consulting firm I work with. He, a 50-something, generally right-wing, small business owner, said that while his head told him to leave, he feared that doing so would bring about the demise of the EU, and he didn't want that on his conscience, so he'd be voting Remain. I see his point, but I think the UK's exit will merely accelerate, rather than cause, the EU's disintegration, for all the above reasons.

So there we are. I don't think leaving will mean the UK is 'turning its back on the world'; I want it to do precisely the opposite. I want it to forge a new identity and a new way of being that still includes lots of people coming to our shores from abroad, in a way that makes it the best place in the world to live, work, be ill, be healthy, be creative, and do business. We have got it in us.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

A leap into the dark...

No, not a blog about the EU referendum (though that might follow tomorrow), but one about the potential perils of press-ganging a spouse into doing something that's not her usual tasse de thé.

Yes, this week me and the long-suffering missus spent four days riding our bicycles round the borders of Normandy and Brittany in France. We were racking our brains to try to think of the longest ride she'd ever done before. 16 miles up and down a pan-flat canal towpath was our best recollection, though her more regular trips are the 2.5 miles into town and the same returning. So to plan to do 130 miles in 3.5 days over - at least initially - undulating terrain was quite ambitious. How would the sit bones cope? Would cramp ensue? With panniers on the back would we end up walking up every incline? And then there was her to consider...

Well, the fact I'm sitting here writing this means she didn't kill me. There have been a couple of kilometre-long hills when murderous thoughts could have been occurring to her, but she kept schtum, popped it in a low gear (taking my "spin, don't grind" advice fully on board), and emerged triumphant at the top. Day 1 turned out to be 40 miles, 2200 feet of climbing in temperatures of 22c plus, with reasonably full panniers - a sterling effort for a first 'proper' day in the saddle. Especially when added to a morning bee sting on, erm, her front panniers shall we say.

It helped, however, that we were, as usual, in some gorgeous French countryside. Very quickly, Day 1 was Combourg to Ducey, a lovely small town just to the south-east of Avranches; Day 2 was Ducey to Dol-de-Bretagne via the coast road round the Bay of Mont St. Michel, and included a trip onto the Mont itself, braving the tourist hordes to do so; Day 3 was Dol to Saint Suliac via lunch at the lovely fishing (and gastronomic heaven) port of Cancale, and Day 4 was Saint Suliac back to Combourg. I'm not going to tell you anything about Saint Suliac or else you might want to go to one of the officially Plus Beaux Villages de France, and that would never do. It must stay a hidden gem, just for locals...

There were no days as hilly as the first, though 44 miles, no lunch, and higher temperatures on Day 2 meant the only unplanned "Right! We're stopping here!" moment. The weather was good throughout, apart from 30 minutes light rain on the final morning, we stayed in some nice places (both places and lodgings themselves), and we ate well, and lunch on Day 2 aside, often. We had no punctures, mechanicals, or offs. And we had, of course, French lanes on routes that I'd planned quite carefully, with all their sights, smells and characters. Cycling on French back roads remains my favourite thing in the world to do, ever.

So, a really good week. Will we do it again? Too early to say I guess. At least next time it won't be a leap into the dark.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Simple Pleasures

So I've been living here in rural Brittany for just over seven weeks, bar a quick four day visit back to the UK, and it feels like a good time to send a postcard. Without pictures. I certainly can't do a "what life's like in the French countryside piece", as I've made no effort whatever to try to live a normal working, socialising life. My bad; I know this is just for a short time, till I have to go back to work.

What I have done, however, is spend a lot of time outside, riding (not enough yet), walking the dog (about right), and sorting the garden (more than I expected). I've not really sought Nature, but it seems to have found me anyway. The things I'm about to describe make it sound like sort of bucolic heaven here. It's not - we live adjacent to two working farms, with all their attendant doings (pig smells when the wind's in the wrong direction, tractors past the front window, and an arrogant French farmer [the other one's very nice]).

However, that hasn't hindered....

...this part of central Brittany feeling like the deepest jungle the last couple of nights; as dusk has approached (which is about 10.30 here at the moment), thick banks of cloud and mist have rolled in, keeping the night time temperature high and the humidity higher. Combine that with the crickets that have already fired up their nocturnal chirruping, and well, it just doesn't feel like here...

...bumping into a black mink this morning on my and muttley's morning meanderings. Daft thing ran down the road to greet us like long lost pals, not realising that I was risking a dislocated shoulder saving the damn thing's life (yes, the dog went mental on his lead). I've seen white mink round here before, but never a black one, which is Quite Interesting (to me, if no-one else)...

...watching a pied wagtail hop to within 30 centimetres of the nose of a very asleep dog on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon. It was on its own, with its mates still in the trees. It was like they'd said "go on, dare you, see how close you can get before he wakes up and chases you". Which he did of course, but didn't come within a mile of laying a glove on his feathered friend

...being treated to a fine display avian acrobatics the other night as the sun set. Now this was special; as the sun was disappearing over the horizon a squadron of swifts seemed to be practising their low level flying manoeuvres in the field at the end of the garden. The barley in the field is still green, but it's got its distinctive ears, and the swifts were just grazing them with their wingtips, before they swooped up and back down, ad nauseum. Brilliant.

Hares, kestrels and, a bit more prosaically, cows all feature regularly on our outings, and Mrs M claims to have seen a red squirrel too. But then she has been drinking quite a lot of Prosecco. If you think, however, I'm turning into some bumpkin who'll be forecasting the weather next based on which way the vetch is lying, think again - I was in Manchester a week ago yesterday, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was quite a lot of wildlife there too, and not all of it aboard the England football team coach that we saluted as we sat drinking Belgian beer in the Northern Quarter. But all that's a different story...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

If you think you can, or if you think you can't.....'re right. I've no idea who came up with that bit of sagacity originally - I think I heard it first back in the mists of time on one of those irritating "developmental" courses you go on at work - but it does have the merit of having a grain of truth to it.

Until the last couple of weeks for example I had no idea I could do woodwork on the hard shoulder of a motorway. This wasn't by choice, should that need pointing out. 

I'd bobbed down to Brico Depot to pick up some timber (among other things), to replace some that's rotting round the borders in the veg plot. It only came in lengths of 4 metres. No worries, thought I, I'll tie it on the wooden frame of my trailer, which is 2 meters long, and the other 2 meters can extend above the back of my car. Up to 30 mph, this worked just fine. At 60mph however, my planks were generating so much lift I thought I was going to have to call French Air Traffic Control (it was one of the rare days they weren't on strike), to let them know that a BMW estate and trailer would shortly be ascending to 15,000 feet.

It was at this point that I realised I'd been a plank about my planks, aided considerably by some helpful hand gestures and pulled faces from fellow motorway travellers. So about 100 meters before a viaduct known for its crosswinds where things could have become even more, ahem, interesting, I pulled in to the side of the road to improve the safety of my load, as it were.

I had, in a miraculous act of foresight, popped a saw in the car before I left, which meant that the obvious solution was to saw the damn planks down to a more reasonable size. Eight of them, in fact. I - rather coolly I thought - remembered to don my hi-viz jacket so as not to unnecessarily attract the attention of the Gendarmarie, as I got to work measuring and sawing for 15 minutes. Though to be fair a man in a British-registered car doing woodwork on the hard shoulder may have caused them to glance twice, had it not been a day when they were otherwise occupied policing a strike by some other part of the French civil service. (The farmers are done for this year. They've had their smoky, smelly motorway protests during the winter so they can focus now on the things they need to do to get the juicy CAP payments rolling it).

So there we are. It all turned out OK in the end. If you'd have asked me on Thursday morning whether it was feasible to untie eight planks from a trailer that were secured by a series of ridiculous homemade knots, measure and cut them perfectly to size while traffic passed a couple of metres away at 60 mph, and not feel particularly flustered, I'd have said you were joking. But I thought I could, etc.....

Friday, 15 April 2016

French Sabbatical Week 1: Lessons Learned

Here we go, in no particular order, in a handy bulleted list because I can't quite get work out of my system...

  • Throwing petrol on a bonfire is a lot of fun, brilliantly effective, and not nearly as dangerous as you might think (I only singed the hairs on my forearms) - I won't be using any of that wimpy barbeque lighting fluid in the future, I can tell you
  • When cleaning out a hen coop last used three years ago, check which way the wind is blowing before you throw all the doors open and start chucking bleach and water around, else you'll end up with a faceful of liquid hen shit. Hope it's good for the complexion
  • If you buy a second hand trailer off some dodgy English hippies, accept you're in for a period of angst. One of the lightbulbs was out. 'I can mend that no problem' I thought. The iffy connection in there meant I blew a fuse in the car, which I couldn't find because the towbar fitter hadn't put it in the fusebox in his infinite wisdom.  And then having finally tracked down the location of the blown fuse and its type, going into battle with French websites, which seem to be explicitly designed to stop you actually buying anything.  They probably see online shopping as another evil Anglo-Saxon invention that should play no part of Liberte Egalite etc..Still got to sort the buggered wheel/tyre that loses 5psi a day as well yet
  • If you do a nancy-boy office-based job most of the time, and you spend a week in the garden you'll break your hands, no matter what gloves you wear. Mine have got blisters, cuts, scratches, splinters and ingrained dirt, and are now rivalling my feet in own personal Ugly Extremities Competition
  • Understand how hard it is to not drink beer at the end of every working day. Dammit, I've been outside labouring all day, I DESERVE it
  • BBC4 can be a useful source of practical advice - I dismantled a shed and needed to move its parts 40 yards down the garden. It was too bulky and heavy to lift conventionally.  Aha! I remembered watching the porters on the Indian Mountain Railways, and how they bent double, then levered large items onto their back. I tried to do the same - it only flipping works, doesn't it?! Even if you do end up looking like a madman attempting unpowered flight
  • If you need to trap a ginger-and-white feral cat that's terrorising your own cat, make sure you know the difference between that one, and your neighbours's ginger-and-white cat (I don't). This one's still playing out. Let's hope when I catch it and deposit it a good few kilometres away I'm not depriving our French friends of their beloved pet
So there we are; week 1 in France. I've got another week here on my own before Mrs Monmarduman turns up, then I can start on the properly dangerous jobs....

Friday, 8 April 2016

So where were we?

Ah yes, being quite smug about my abilities to recover from a long run. Not so smug now though, heh?

Yes, things didn't quite go according to plan in the lead-up to my long-planned 75km ultra-marathon on Easter Sunday. It wasn't a surprise to me. I've always been one of those people whose successes (such as they are) tend to be the result of working and playing by the rules. The training rules in ultra-marathon training are, respectively, do a lot of miles, increase weekly mileage by no more than 10%, and increase the distance of your weekly long run by also by no more than 10%.

Well, I didn't play by the rules: my mileage was erratic, I didn't always do a lot of miles, and I lurched up to running 34 miles one particular Sunday - which was when the dreaded knee problem came on. Seems I have a very small tear to my medial meniscus, nothing that stops me running a few miles, but enough to cause anything upwards of a half-marathon to be excruciating.  Ho hum.  Time to repair it, do some cycling, and try again next winter.

Strangely, however, while I was disappointed I had to withdraw from my Canalathon, I wasn't devastated, probably because the withdrawal coincided with finishing work for a while, and soon afterwards (that being yesterday), coming across to France for an extended period.

Yes, I did it - I've made myself unavailable for work until the start of August, and I intend to spend as much of it as possible in France. The plan is the same as the one I hatched earlier in the year - manual work, cycle and learn a bit of French.

There are two cycling excursions planned - one to Provence with Mendip Rouleur for an attempt at joining the Club dec Cingles du Mont-Ventoux (that being 3 different ascents of the great mountain in a single day), plus some very civilised cafe-based riding besides, and one to Normandy with Mrs M for a spot of gentle cyclo-touring.

Right now though, I'm even more excited - rather sadly - to get stuck into some Bloke Stuff, most of which I've no idea how to do right now.  Quite a lot of it will involve Bloke Tools too. I've already bought a trailer for picking stuff up at Brico Depot (B&Q) and getting rid of it at the dechetterie (tip). There are steel toe-capped work boots in the garage, overalls, and best of all - I think I might need a cement mixer. Ten years ago I used to covet other men's bikes; now I sneak furtive looks at their tool shed.

What's the cause of all this Blokery? Three-quarters of an acre of unruly and disintegrating garden, that's what. There are fences, sheds and greenhouses to be taken down, other fences and roofs to be put up, and digging, seed sewing and weeding to be done. Not to mention power washing, mowing, strimming, hedgecutting, and bonfires...ahhh, lovely bonfires.

So, there's going to be a lot of outdoor time. I've done one day so far, and my hands are already red and chapped, I'm so soft from the last few months of keyboard-jockeying. Tales from French France and - hopefully - progress that doesn't involve loss of limbs or too much blood to follow.

Saturday, 6 February 2016


...nothing much of interest in this post for non-runners, though I guess cyclists might be half-interested...

Now I'm not saying I've been doing my training runs recently at any great pace, but they have at least been quite long - marathon plus in a few cases. And amazingly, I've not had any DOMS the day after, and been comfortable running again two days later. I don't know whether or not this is the down to the following regime, but in case it is, I share it in a spirit of not wanting to see old men walking on a Monday like they've had an accident in their underwear.

So, when finishing long run / ride and enter the house, I, in order, and starting the moment I've said 'hello' to anyone who's around:

  • Drink a pint of water to top fluids up (having taken electrolytes whilst exercising)
  • Lie on my back with my legs in the air, resting against a wall or chair, for 5-10 minutes
  • Have a hot shower - not sure it contributes to recovery, but it feels good. Don't have a bath, unless it's a cold one, and who wants that?
  • Eat some quality food, including some protein - eggs, whey powder, or similar
  • Later on, take lots of ginger - a cubic inch or so - in whatever form it can be stomached; I like soya milk, apple and ginger smoothies
  • Sleep within 90 minutes of finishing exercise - doesn't have to be much (30 mins will do), but it just seems to kickstart recovery
  • Consume as little sugar as possible - I still have some lovely dark chocolate, but it's tempting to shovel cake down your neck after hours of exercise; the less you do, the better you'll feel
That's it; nothing funny, nothing more. Just shared because I seem to have stumbled on something that works.
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