Thursday, 23 August 2012
Return - Britain
At the airport they'll wrap my bicycle in plastic. Round and round they'll spin it until it's all shut away and suffocating inside, waiting to be mistreated by baggage handlers on both sides of Europe. My month of pedalling will be undone in just three hours and forty minutes. London will be waiting for me, ready to give me what for and remind me of my other life.
I wrote a book the other year, my story of breaking a world record for a circumnavigation by bicycle. The manuscript is sitting on the desks of publishers all around the city. Most of them, I'm flattered to say, agree with the agents who wanted to represent me... they say that it's an excellent piece of writing. Excellent writing. But. We're not sure how to market it. Nobody knows which shelf to put it on in Waterstones. When I think about it on my bicycle I find myself pedalling faster, my heart beat following. So I try not to think about it. Publishers are like high street banks... they arrive late on the scene and then buy too much. Agents across London are tearing hair out over piles of chick-lit they can't shift for love nor money... all of it conceived of and signed for in a boom... worthless in the bust. As with markets and politicians, publishing waits on the next big thing... only the world is not what it was. In the past a book could not be sold for less than a publisher-set price, council libraries would buy a copy of every book put out by a major publisher, an indirect subsidy to the arts that also kept bookshelves well stocked. Bookshelves. Are not what they were. Council libraries. Are not what they were. I return to that world of safe bets, where our writing, artforms and creativity are presided over by retail trends. The market now does the work of state censors and offices for public morals. In a sense it's democratic... and yet, subjectivity aside, what is popular is not always good, just as what is good is not always popular.
I expected some of what I found during the two thousand and something miles I've just ridden... other things took me by surprise. I never expected Croats and Italians to talk so much of an angrily hopeless younger generation, just as it was the younger Greeks I spoke to who were most venomous about what is being done to their country. It's not only Britain's youth that bristles against the future being carved out for us, a generation told that in modern society all the carrots are gone and only a big stick remains. I didn't expect to hear people in Livorno and Geneva describe their cities as 'livable', two former UK residents who shudder at the high living costs and low quality of life they left behind. In a word like 'livable' you see the brain drain by which the UK economy hemorrhages talent because we mistake 'mean' for 'efficient'. Public holidays, living wages and tenancy rights did not stop Germany developing an infinitely better balanced economy than our own... some might even say these things helped. Most of all I didn't expect to arrive in Istanbul and hear of plans to construct tunnels beneath the central area of Taksim Square, creating a pedestrian space above ground. The idea is a crazy one, and nor does it address the root of the problem, but if a city as obsessed with the car as Istanbul has realised that the twenty-first century requires urban spaces that are about people rather than traffic... this really does leave London as Europe's last city to grasp the nettle. From afar I hear of Boris Johnson's plans to create cycle lanes above the roads, evidence of a mayor who really will stop at nothing to avoid making the roads themselves more civilised. Cycle lanes in the sky will do little to make life safer for people on foot in London... 77 pedestrians were killed by London's drivers last year. In the plan, and as ever, you find a mayor more at home in gimmickry than politics.
Along my road I wasn't surprised to find antipathy towards the EU. Croatians talk of the family dairies and cheese makers who survived civil wars and will now go bust because they can't afford new equipment required by EU standardisation. Greeks talk of seaworthy fishing fleets that had to be scuttled, with new vessels bought to satisfy similar criteria. When you see the corner into which the EU tries to force Greece, with only a political and banking class set to benefit, it becomes hard to argue that the EU is not a sinister imposition upon everyday Europeans. That's not entirely how I feel, it's certainly not what I want to believe. The thing is that cycling across Europe gives a sense of freedom and community in perfect harmony with the ideals of an institution like the EU, but whereas my journey has everything in common with the EU's notion of togetherness, the EU seems to have nothing in common with my journey as evidence that life is all about the everyday people of a country. In the EU I see the ideal of community used as the garnish-come-distraction for little more than the flawed fairytale of trickle-down economics, with shit falling from great heights on the people that I encounter as I ride. I'd be more convinced by the EU's intentions if it made Gini coefficients, or some other measure of wealth inequality, as central to accession as low capital controls and the rights of foreigners to buy land.
Everywhere I went I expected to find markets... to find finance, and if there's any place where such things are most at home then it's the society to which I'll return. Marx argued that the revolution should've happened in Britain and not Russia, that we were the most advanced along the path of capitalism. It's hard not to agree, although I won't hold my breath for the revolution part. London may be the world's self-styled financial capital, but more worrying is the enthusiasm for markets that persists in political dialogue, even as markets go about running amok amongst society. It's not only Britain's rail commuters being squeezed until the pips squeak... bankrupted shops have their windows bricked up and are turned into flats, bankrupted pubs are carved into flats, unprincipled landlords use plasterboard with the soundproofing properties of a rice cake to squeeze two tiny rooms out of one small room. Meanwhile the government sets targets for 20% of housing to be affordable, and even though their definitions of 'affordable' are questionable, more mind-boggling still is why the government would have a target to make 80% of houses un-affordable. I know an independent florist turning his basement into a flat so that he can rent it out to survive. I know an independent bike shop that stayed in business by sectioning off the old workshop and installing a toilet so as to rent the space as an artist's studio. Both are places where the owners help old ladies across the road, will do a bicycle delivery for the local cafe, lend tools to teenagers, or simply be the sort of business around which a community is formed.
If that sounds a lot like society being taken to the cleaners then don't worry... because the market will find the answers. The market already found the answers. The market has the answers if you fancy working in Domino's Pizza for a minimum wage that the politicians who set it would never get out of bed for. And don't worry about feeling the pinch when the rent is due either... because the market provided a payday loans company to give you an advance, and a pawnbroker who'll buy anything of value in the meantime. If you'd like to improve your lot in life then you'll have no difficulty finding a betting agency any more, have a flutter on the hope that maybe it didn't have to be that way, drown your sorrows in a bucket of fried chicken once it transpires that actually it did. They're the answers the market's got waiting for us... my hot tip for the coming years is to invest in plasters and bandages... that's right, home first aid kits are going to go through the roof once all the kids have had their playing fields sold to developers and there's nothing but concrete to fall on. Meanwhile the government gives us a crisis to fear, the threat that things could get worse... well... too late, because this is worse... and after it there will come another worse and another worse until people start demanding something better. Positive examples abound throughout (drumroll) The David Cameron Big Society... but the problem is the government doesn't want to model itself on people-led initiatives, it wants to stick gold stars on their chests and give them a pat on the head as it carries on business as usual.
I really don't think this is about party politics, you can blame the red team just as much as the blue team, but I find it sad that today's Conservatives, the party most comfortable with flag-waving, think so little of our country they can't imagine business or employees wanting to settle in Britain for any reason other than low tax and carefree regulation. Eighteen months ago we were subjected to a fairly routine bluff and told that Barclays bank might leave its London headquarters for New York. The New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, welcomed the idea, but said there'd be no special incentives. His words, to be precise, "I've always thought it doesn't make sense to buy business." It doesn't. Our government has fundamentally misunderstood its role, positioning itself as some sort of broker between business and people... when the idea is they're supposed to be the people. Wherever I've travelled, the things people seem to respect most about the UK tend to be free entry to museums, the NHS, and the BBC... in short, the things that are intended to have a human value beyond some grubby, little price tag. I don't dispute there are inefficiencies within each institution, but the correct way to deal with these issues is to audit the services with a view to the public good, not sell them off to be asset-stripped by a private sector that will only impose its own inefficiencies anyway. Bonuses for failure and bankers getting half-drunk at lunchtime are two examples that spring quickly to mind. The clash between public and private sectors is much more about dogma than rationality, and the excesses of markets are no better than the excesses of states.
Perhaps that doesn't sound like an optimistic starting point... but cycling across a continent has a tendency to make you feel positive about things. In this world there are better ideas and there are worse ideas, and there's nothing like the mentality of a foregone conclusion for letting the wrong ideas win out over the right ones. This is positive... this will end positive, because since I started riding South Korea has decided to tax derivatives, the negative publicity of starving people has seen Commerzbank join other German banks in a moratorium on funds trading agricultural commodities... and the French... god bless 'em... have not only resolved in Paris to pedestrianise urban motorways along the banks of the Seine, but also initiated their financial transaction tax. It's only 0.2%, but its main value is as a precedent against financial institutions profiting when endless speculations create chaos for the 7 billion people on this planet who simply need money to go about their daily lives.
But even without all that, this is positive... because with only my legs I just crossed Europe in a month. I'm still amazed that when I cycled around the world I reached Shanghai in 83 days. 83 days might not exactly be a short amount of time... but Shanghai is the other side of the world. I could never adequately express just how amazing it feels to make your way across maps by bicycle... you see the world as it truly is, whether that's the beauty of descending a summit or the grim reality of a stray dog gnawing off the hind quarters of a roadkill cat. Out there you clear out the smoke and mirrors, the bread and circus is left behind and you remember what humans are supposed to live for... you are reminded that people everywhere are good, and that the everyday people of the world want nothing more than the same simple securities and pleasures. Most of all... powering yourself across a continent or a country like that... you're reminded that things are possible, eminently possible... they're just waiting for us to make them happen.
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