Thursday, 26 July 2012

Left turns - France

France is exactly the same. Completely different. With the Tour de France just over for another year, you can sense the national respect for cycling in the distance with which cars overtake, the patience with which they wait for safe passing opportunities. In France, a citizen remains a citizen even on a bicycle, you have to unlearn the mentality of road vermin that becomes engrained in London. I buy my pastries in the boulangerie, walk next door and eat them at a table with the coffee I buy from the cafe. It still makes me happy each time a cafe owner assures me that of course this arrangement is fine. You see it in the big, blue elephant that advertises the national car wash chain, in the tractor magazines on sale in the newsagent, and in the shabby, lived-in countryside a million miles from Britain's increasingly gentrified villages, where house prices skyrocket only to lie empty when the new owners are not on holiday. As I cycle slowly up a hill, a white van pulls alongside with the window winding down. In London this tends to be a bad omen, in France the driver starts to shout 'allez... allez... allez'... pumping his fist in the air like a directeur sportif with his rider going under the flamme rouge. As always, France seems to have a little more of its innocence intact.

I know how all this sounds. Orwell always made fun of the British middle classes for their ability to feel patriotic about almost anywhere but Britain. He has a point. Ten days ago I was cycling through Suffolk, rolling my eyes at the Union Jacks fluttering above lawns. I knew then that in not long I'd be riding through France, completely at ease with the tricolor in every town. And yet I'm comfortable with my preference; republics and equality strike a chord with me that empires and kingdoms never will... the British establishment will have to meet me in the middle if it wants a little more of my patriotism. It goes without saying that France is far from perfect... an 18% showing for Marianne Le Pen underlines an uglier side of the traditional, in the seaside town of Dieppe teenagers ride scooters with loud exhausts that piss off everyone but the rider. The outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his last ditch election effort to court far-right votes showed that France - like anywhere - knows exactly how to betray its founding ideals. When you're only pedalling through, however, all this has a habit of feeling like someone else's problem.

It is not surprising that the election of Francois Hollande still dominates the political landscape - the new president remains an unknown entity. From Britain's arm's length you could sense as much in our own election coverage; before the election we had Hollande the unassuming 'pizza boy' who insisted on riding his scooter to the office, promised to take a pay-cut, and who had a journalist partner dubbed 'Twittweiler'. It was easy to create the personality, but now the invented personality of likable underdog needs elaboration. It was depressing that the first step in painting a picture of the man was not political scrutiny, but a look at Hollande's messy separation from former presidential candidate and leading socialist, Segolene Royal. The fractures that this might create within the French left have made for pretty irresistible political gossip.

The French seem little more certain about him than the British. A woman in a suit sits down to the next table outside a Paris cafe, just off the metro from La Defense, Paris' finance district. She shrugs as she tells me "the French think the crisis will never come... they will do the ostrich and bury their heads." In expensive clothes and a well-paid career she seems to overlook the resentment of people being told that the party is over, when the majority feel they were never invited to begin with. As ever, it's telling to note her apparent remedy to the crisis - cuts and 'streamlined' job losses - are the very things we are told to fear the crisis will bring. In a bar in Pigalle, a young graduate tells me he's happy Hollande won, "he'll be good for France's social divide." But. And he confesses. "I voted for Sarkozy... he's the man to save us from the crisis."

Sarkozy certainly didn't fail to bolster this image on his way out of office. The symbolic but noble "in this together" move whereby Hollande and his cabinet took 33% pay cuts was met with accusations that the increased size of his new cabinet would eat-up any savings. The big government boogeyman remains an effective weapon in the free market arsenal. Hollande maintains that deficit reduction is a priority, but even his supporters question the wisdom in his kept promise to restore a retirement age of 60 after Sarkozy had done the hard, unpopular and dirty work of getting it down from 62.

Perhaps it's this issue that sits at the heart of Hollande's election victory. Of course there is no such as a free lunch, but should twenty-first century lives really be so nasty, brutish and short? If deficits are the most important thing in public policy then there is a case to be made for 62... 65 ... 70. If there is more to life than that - and cycling through France certainly makes it feel like there should be - then 60 means something more than two years, it's like a tiny kick against the End of History, and leftists far from France will be hoping this election is some sort of Reaganomics watershed. This week's meeting with Labour leader Ed Milliband, and talk of a European summit of the centre left, will do nothing to dampen these hopes. It's no shock that the markets have been proportionately unimpressed, dipping as trading resumed the day after Hollande's victory. It's a measure of our Stockholm syndrome that despite general consensus that the unfettered powers of financial markets are ruining our societies, we still hang on those same markets for signs of their approval. You can't escape slavery without upsetting a slave master, and the French deserve credit for refusing to return a brash, unpopular president who threatened financial brimstone without him. Hollande must now hold true to the ideals for which he was elected, and his public must resist the very human tendency whereby we make politicians scapegoats when they cannot be panaceas.

Over the course of a week I ride south, away from the rains of a summer no better than Britain's, though the French don't seem to share our certainty that we have been cursed by the weather. The road starts to kick upwards as I pedal out of society for a while, first into the Jura, with the Alps waiting on the horizon and Italy just beyond. In the picturesque town of Cluny a woman summarises her take on French politics from outside the laundrette. She tells me that she got to a comfortable life from humble beginnings, and with a smile and gentle uncertainty her words cut to the chase of much debate. "I recognise that you can't just help people all the time, but people need support when they can't help themselves... and for this the state is necessary."

Friday, 13 July 2012

Riding out of the summer like no other

“Neo-Victorian boom.” An expression that started to appear around a year ago is becoming something of a feature in writing about the city of London. The FT have gushed about “the world's leading city” as if it were an official contest or accolade, a recent issue of the Economist showed London at dusk, above a headline of “precarious brilliance". So long as the Olympics go off without too many G4S-style glitches, it’s hard to imagine them not strengthening the modern myth that London is developing for itself. Neo-Victorian boom. Apparently.

Look a little closer and all is not so well. In ever more bars, cafes and clubs you find increasingly stern advice to watch your belongings and use the bag hooks… thieves, it would seem, are operating in more and more areas of a city with the highest rate of wealth inequality in the developed world. Boris Johnson, newly returned as Mayor by only 15% of the total electorate, was last month tending to self-promotion in New York, loudly repeating his old pledge that London will not be sterilised. As still more private sector developments lay claim to public space, each with a now-familiar range of prefabricated franchises, Johnson seems to have confused an opposition to sterilisation with affection for London’s stunning inequality.

In all this, there’s an awful lot of newspeak to cut through for those who want the truth. The now well-heeled borough of Hackney was recently celebrating a reduced rate of poverty amongst its residents. The town hall is quieter about the likelihood that this has been caused by a displacement of poor residents who can no longer afford to live in the borough. Across the city the boast of “recession proof” continues to linger like a bad smell. London property prices have indeed remained buoyant, but it’s a moot point that a 7% climb in areas like Marylebone have been enough to bury the stutters in the likes of Dagenham and Romford, London’s emerging banlieu.

The Shard has become a newly popular metaphor for this gulf. London’s latest tallest building waits impatiently for its insides to be wired up, towering over the once low-profile south bank as it does so. Qatari-owned, the Shard has come to represent not only the brash arrogance of the financial sector, but also a tendency towards a city owned by those far away, people whose only concern for London is as an enduring cash cow. The most telling thing, in both name and design, is that the Shard seems remarkably comfortable in appearing outwardly mean. Cycle safety campaigners have highlighted the staggering rate of casualties caused by the Shard’s endless construction traffic, Simon Jenkins fumed that the Shard "has slashed the face of London for ever.'' Mercifully… “forever” is a long time, as is evident in the crumbling ruins of London Wall, the last Roman infrastructure project, completed in the second century to hem-in the city. The wall's ivy-strewn remains are a heart warming evidence that empires bigger than the Qataris have come and gone, together with their monuments... but still… it’s worrying when you have to find comfort through such a long view of history.

In short… and what I’ve been meaning to say all along… is that that it’s time for me to leave. I’ve always traveled by bicycle… around London, around the world, and a handful of times across Europe. It’s across Europe that I’m escaping this time, a ride of some 2500 miles to Istanbul, a route that I last took as a new graduate five years ago. With a financial crisis and a eurozone crisis separating now from then, I’ll go back to my familiar politics by bicycle, slow travel through nations that still wait to either enter or exit the European club, or who try to beat a new path inside of it. As the UK’s attention turns from Leveson and a corrupt media, and looks anew at Libor, HSBC, and a corrupt banking system, I pack my panniers and pump up my tyres, and return to watching Europe from the vantage point of a beat-up, leather saddle.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Quick instructions for a better world

I've hit the road again, probably quite some time later than I should have done so too. Panniers are packed and my Tout Terrain is rolling as reliably as ever towards Istanbul. There's a series of blog posts on the way, a little insight into Europe from the roadside in 2012, before that though, I just wanted to share some more practical thoughts and requests.

I remain unashamedly not for charity, long-standing/suffering readers will need no re-introduction to my ideas on the subject. In short, I know few ways of life more enjoyable than cycling places, the idea that it's a hardship suffered for a worthy cause just doesn't hold true for me. That said, if any of you are looking for worthy causes to give some of your hard-earned to, I'm involved with an amazing charity, cmap, who provide art projects for disadvantaged children in Latin America, and who are now fundraising to get some projects off the ground in the UK too. That cmap are an amazing group of people doing amazing things is pretty unrelated to my cycling away from a wet English summer and Olympic lockdown, via the coast of Croatia, but if you're on the lookout for a charity then they're well worth a punt.

If you personally want to make a difference in the world... I recommend either writing a letter to your MP and (with a few notable exceptions) telling him/her to pull their finger out, switching your energy provider to Ecotricity , or consider Moving Your Money away from the banks that will take us all to the cleaners. Aside from that, try to vote with your money whatever it is you're buying, and don't click on news articles that really shouldn't be in the news.

Anyway... enough of me telling you what to do. Stay tuned for the coming posts, circulate them widely, enjoy the summer.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


 Twenty years ago they needed a legend… needed a myth… something to help get it off the ground. They said that couriers had started it, drinking after work on a Friday night, daring one another to ride until they hit the water, until they reached the sea. They had cycled all through the night, and then, with the sun rising they had come to the water at Dunwich, 110 miles away on the Suffolk coast, a place that ten centuries ago had been a booming hub of the wool industry. Like I said… they needed a legend, needed a myth… it’s not true. The guys responsible for the Dunwich Dynamo are not couriers, they never were… I’m proud to count a few of them as friends. They’re a group of guys with their hair starting to thin out on top, with no claim to rock and roll beyond knowing what’s good for the human spirit. They’re the sort of people who seek no credit for their idea, no credit beyond the desire that people enjoy themselves. It was twenty years ago that they created that courier myth… and although it still endures, there’s no need for it any longer… the Dynamo has a legend of its own now. It needs no embellishment.

As the dusk lands you leave London Fields, begin to pick your way from out of the city. Don’t go too soon, it’s easier to follow others through those turnings in the night. You ride out, out through the north eastern sticks of the city, out through the trees of Epping Forest… all two thousand of you with the evening just falling and all the night ahead. At that point it’s just a ride, it’s still only a ride, pedalling through the coming grey, the stop-start traffic and receding concrete.

It’s the night, it’s the night that does it… the road comes alive… a dragon, a dragon takes up the road, and if there’s any one thing that any person riding Dunwich will always remember it’s the trail of lights, that flashing red that winds away in front of you, blinking and flickering and glowing as the darkness comes down. They light lanterns… those friends who started it all two decades ago... they go out in front, leave London hours before the rest of us, tiny jam jars with candles inside of them, glowing yellow, glowing white within the night to mark the turnings you should take, the flame guttering as the wind pushes over the rim of the glass, blowing a sound into the silence. It pushes you on… invisible hand style… the wind is always favourable it seems, coming up from the south and blowing you on along the road. In cycling they say that there are no such thing as tailwinds… only headwinds and good days. Riding to Dunwich happens mostly on good days.

We ride… we all ride… all together, you’re never alone on that road, a whole legion of strangers that you’ve got all the right things in common with. You hear their snippets of conversation as the bats flutter frantically above the road, their serrated wings cutting at the moonlight as you hear the conversation. The bicycle… it sure brings out the best in people… “the thing to do is toast the mustard seeds in a dry pan for a few minutes before you get started” … “it’s really interesting the way the road slopes like that”. Cyclists, people riding bicycles… whatever you want to call them… they sure pay attention to the little things, the tiny bits of nonsense that make a life worth living.

The road comes to you, takes you under the crumbling, crestfallen towers of old churches, takes you down through the hills and into the village of Sible Hedingham. Each year the village hall it stays open all through the night, the villagers serving up soup and flapjacks… flapjacks… damn but after Dunwich you don’t want to see another flapjack for a long time. The hall is packed, lycra and waterproof from wall to wall, some of it crawling inside a sleeping bag, others hunched over a styrofoam cup of soup… you get in the queue, wait your turn, wait your turn… get to the front, the flavours are red or yellow… they call it minestrone or vegetable but the reality is that it just tastes bad, pick your favourite colour and enjoy the warmth on its way down the throat.

After the hall it changes… the sleep comes… comes to take you away, off of the road and into some space above the tarmac… the stars float by above you, tearing the sky apart as they trail like tiny comets back down the road. The other riders they pass you by, packs of them, the road crews… real chain gangs, skintighter than tight… they ride in enfilade, jaws rolling above the handlebars and you hear them coming, the deep rims that dust themselves free of the night like a broom upon a stone step. You hear the hum, the pur of the tyres, and looking down there move your feetyourfeetyourfeet… the wheel ahead and the road rolling under it as the night looms ever onwards in front of you. It takes all kinds… Dunwich draws us all in, every type of rider… each year there’s a man with a large Labrador and an even larger basket… the Labrador curls in the basket and the man drives him through the night, the dog turning round on itself every now and then, sometimes sitting up to yap at the passing bats. You see a girl, a pair of denim shorts and riding a pink Pashley with a wicker basket… her boyfriend puts his hand to her back and pushes her into the incline that’s hanging over us. Let me tell you… if you meet a girl on the Dynamo, or if you ever find one that’ll ride it with you… keep hold of her... she’s special.

It’s the sleep, the sleep is what does it… you don’t get tired in the legs so much as in the head, you start swimming… the lids get heavier and the vision melts. Some of us break from the road, crawl onto a soft lawn of Suffolk and sleep under a tree. I stay awake for the silhouettes… always the silhouettes… I’m a real sucker for the silhouettes, the white moonlight that cuts black shapes from the high stalks of dandelions, cow parsley and bramble thicket… I could look at silhouettes all night long, and as the dawn starts to break and the sky cheers from black to blue it gets better still. You pass out of the final woods, the guard of honour formed by the trees, cracking their branches together like quarter staffs above your head. The countryside opens , opens wide… lets out a yawn and then… and then… there it is, glowing at the end of the road, a giant, warbling ball of red, crimson, warbling and turning like a baby’s mouth screaming at being woken for the new day. The sun screams down the road, flashes by the trail of flickering red so that the chill of the darkness passes and there comes the warmth of the day to takes its place.

Hours of half-light pass slowly, the lanes of Suffolk begin to twist, a central reservation of dusty gravel, kicked up by the tyres ahead so that your eyes sting once with fatigue and twice with the mist of debris that you move through. The day rises, grows bright, and there you see the sun shining through the flowers that line the walls of those roads, high banks of mud cut directly from the hills… cut directly from the hills and lined perfectly with poppies and poppies and poppies, the sun coming through those petals as the flickering lights of the cyclists are switched off and instead we follow that trail of poppies to the sea. The heather of the heath is last of all, that pale purple, the same colour as those burst veins in the legs of the middle aged cyclist, snaking like Alpine switchbacks about the calf and down into the ankle. You move over the heath, the wind dropping for the coming day, a warm smile resting somewhere just behind your lips.

In time it comes. You reach Dunwich a whole lot faster if you set out simply to ride through the night. You just keep riding, that’s all you have to do, forget about the 110 miles and just ride in the company of friends, or in the company of yourself. The beach comes, shingle pulled from the seabed and thrown back down, crashing over on itself as the sun glints off of rims and reflectors and spokes all thrown down on the beach… a sea of bicycles washed ashore from some better place, the tired limbs of all those cyclists stretched out and resting upon the stones. You take off your clothes, step down to the waters, stones pressing on your soles. You jump in… you have to… you have to jump otherwise you’ll never go past the waist. Cold is a state of mind… it’s not cold, it’s euphoria… and beneath those waves, somewhere just above the shingle with your head beneath the waters… right there all life is waiting for you.

This post appears in issue 10 of Boneshaker Magazine

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