Category Archives: Journal
Like every other decent person in the world I was appalled to learn of the terrorist attack today on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo which left twelve people dead. Although I had not intended to write a post today, and although this blog is ostensibly about cycling, not politics or current events, as a journalist I very much wanted to join the Spartacus-like chorus that is making the rounds of the social media and in support of the slain journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo proclaim that I too am Charlie: Je Suis Charlie
And while, as I say, my blog is about cycling, not current events, cycling to me is an expression of individuality, personal expression, humanity and appreciation of the world’s beauty and innate goodness and so perhaps I am not so far off topic at that. The mindless attack by those terrorists in Paris was an assault on all of these values that we hold dear.
I figured to get off the mark this New Year’s Day with at least one of my resolutions intact – that of posting on a much more regular basis than was the case in 2014. I didn’t start of the New Year with a ride along the seafront as I had originally intended, mainly because of a few muscle spasms in my back. I was up at four this morning, thought about going out, then decided to brew up a pot of coffee instead and tinker with my novel.
A lucky thing too apparently.
I was stunned to see on the BBC local news this afternoon that a cyclist was killed a little after four ‘clock this morning along the seafront at St Leonards-on-Sea by a hit and run driver, car abandoned a few hundred yards away, no arrests.
Ghastly news and one that strikes unnervingly close to home as that hour, and that particular stretch of seafront, are more or less my own. There are so few of us out at that time in the morning…
I feel horrible for whoever it was.
Something of the innocence of those early morning seafront rides has gone.
To say that I have been remiss at posting this past month would be an understatement, but then again I have been equally remiss about going out for my morning rides and consequently have little enough to post about for a blog that is ostensibly about cycling. I’ve just not been riding. At all. THe weather of course has played a role in all this. We are getting into that time of year when, if you go out in early in the mornings as I tend (tended) to do, you are likely to encounter hoar frosts and the odd bit of black ice on the roads. After my little wipe out two winters ago on a patch of unsighted ice – a heavy fall at slow speed that has given me a dodgy shoulder to this day – I have been quite chary about going on a cold morning. It is kind of sad, because I can remember how much I used to love going out when the air was really sharp with frost and the stars were like bright hard diamonds in a cold pre-dawn sky.
I almost went out the other Saturday morning. It was just such a morning – cold and clear with a white frost on the ground and the grass in the lawn crackly underfoot. I hung fire though, partly because of my uncharacteristic state of apathy and partly because of the thought of unseen patches of ice. To be honest, I used the possibility of ice as my excuse to justify my sloth and reluctance to head out the door. And then felt crushingly guilty all morning, looking out my window at the taut sky and the beautiful winter light streaming through the bare branches of the trees.
I continued to feel guilty all the next day and into the Monday – until I heard from a friend of mine who’d gone for a spin in the north part of London on that very same frosty Saturday morning, and wiped out on a patch of unsighted black ice. Now after surgery and a week-long stay in the hospital he has multiple pins holding his hip together and will be on crutches for the next three months. How odd that this particular friend should have made multiple trips to photograph the war zones in Afghanistan and return without a scratch, only to be undone by Jack Frost here in Merry Olde England.
Now of course, with that edifying example before me, I am even less keen to take my chances on pre-dawn winter rides. My staying indoors and brewing up coffee and tinkering with my novel instead of hitting the road seems to have its foundations in ‘common sense’ and who wants to go against that? Not when your cycling mojo seems to have vanished anyway. How nice it is to sit inside, sipping coffee by the twinkling lights of the Christmas trees, with the downstairs all to myself in those wonderful two hours or so before everybody else gets up?
I am going to have to do something to roust myself out of this sedentary complacency. The new year is approaching fast, the first of January an obvious date for ushering in change and resolution. It also allows me another ten days or so of sloth….
Cold weather is at last upon us here in Sussex after a warm – if sometimes wet – run up towards winter. A couple of cold clear mornings caught me by surprise when I poked my nose out the door at four-thirty, felt the bite in the air and saw my breath in steamy clouds. It was no time to be setting out for rides dressed in cycling shorts and lightweight soft-shell jacket.
I am quite happy to ride in shorts in 7C – that’s 45 Fahrenheit in old money – but much colder than that and I find that it starts to get a bit nippy and unpleasant, especially on the long homeward leg of an out-and-back ride. And so the old winter bib tights have been dragged back out of the bottom of the wardrobe and put back into service, along with my heavier gloves, warmer woollen winter jerseys, fleece cap and my larger-sized cycling shoes (to accommodate thicker socks).
It makes quite a bulky bundle. Now when I bring my riding clothes downstairs to the kitchen, before going to bed, in preparation for my pre-dawn departures in the morning, I feel almost like I am packing to go somewhere. Add to that my light and batteries, camera, lenses, tripod and panniers and it can take fifteen minutes of fiddling to get my bicycle prepped and ready to hit the trail. That said, there is something wonderfully brisk and fresh about setting out on a frosty autumn morning.
I have long been a Joseph Conrad fan – Heart of Darkness, Typhoon and Lord Jim being old favourites. I especially love the opening in the Heart of Darkness. It’s day’s end, not on the Congo but along the Thames, with Marlow and four other men – the Director of Companies, a lawyer, an accountant and the unnamed narrator, all old seafaring men – sitting aboard the Nellie, a cruising yawl.
They are a companionable bunch, quietly neglecting a game of dominos in favour of an appreciation of the gathering dusk. The Thames – “the waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth” – is solemn and still. There is little need of speaking for the men are comfortable in the easy familiarity of each other’s company and shared experience; ‘the bond of the sea’, Conrad calls it.
As twilight settles of the Thames, Marlow is suddenly moved to speech. “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
He imagines what the Thames must have been like in the days of the Romans, a river of marshes, forests and savages and precious little to eat for a civilised man. This train of thought sets him to thinking of his own days in freshwater service along the Congo in Africa. And so begins an extraordinary tale…
I was thinking of this narrative of Marlow’s the other day when I was up in London doing some background research for a story that very much touches on the Thames in Roman times, when this stretch of the river was indeed one of the dark places of the earth. Twilight was falling as I was getting ready to take the train back home to Sussex and with fond thoughts of Marlow, I snapped this photograph.
For some time now I have been meaning to get up to the City to see the poppies at the Tower Of London and yesterday, with time running short, I finally had my opportunity. A need to see some archaeologists for a story on which I am working provided me with the pretext and while I was in the City I made my way over to the Tower along with most of the rest of London by the look of things. I was not disappointed. In fact I would go as far as saying that this must be the most successful piece of public art I have ever seen or even heard of – a perfect combination of art, stagecraft and commemoration that has have captured the imagination of everyone who has seen it.
To imagine as you gaze over the vast field of ceramic poppies that each one of them – all 888,246 – represents the life of a British or Commonwealth soldier or sailor that was taken in the war is to get a vivid idea of the magnitude of such a loss. Numbers on that scale are ungraspable in our minds – six soulless digits, almost meaningless – but to see this mass of blood red poppies and imagine each one as a life, is something else again. The hushed wonder of the throngs that file past is also eloquent, of the brilliance of the concept behind the display. Artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper have much of which to be proud.
One of those poppies, I am pleased to say, is ours. I ordered it way last August, when I first learned about the display – titled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red. Having at least seen the result, I wish now that I had ordered two, or even three, but alas that is not possible. I understand all 888,246 poppies have been sold – great news for the artists and other people behind the exhibition and the charities that will benefit.
As one of the owners of a poppy I am quite happy for the display to continue. I’d be quite happy for it to remain in place right through the Christmas season so that everybody has a chance to see it. I am glad at least that part of the display will remain up for another three weeks – and I wouldn’t mind at all if my poppy was among those that stayed up the extra time. I am in no hurry.
I do wonder though about the calls for a permanent display in the War Museum, and a touring display that will do the rounds of the country over the next three or four years. It is all very well, but it would be good if the politicians and fans of the exhibition could remember that every single one of those poppies at the Tower of London was bought by somebody. I gather there are not going to be any extras made – that much was made clear when the orders were being taken. So I am left wondering whose poppies are going to be delayed several years in the delivery, and who will never receive theirs because their poppies have been expropriated for the permanent display?
I have been off the bicycle these past few days, away from my desk and out to the Isle of Wight, which has long been one of the Smith family’s favourite holiday boltholes – as it has been for a good many people going back to the Roman Days when the rich folks that could built villas put here and paved them with beautiful mosaics. Back then, of course, the Isle of Wight was known as Vectis
It was Queen Victoria though, back in 1845, who put the Isle of Wight firmly on the nation’s fashionable holiday map when she and Prince Albert bought a property called Osborne House, knocked it down and put up the modest little weekender (pictured above), which is also known as Osborne House. It was designed by Prince Albert (with a bit of help from the architect who re-did the facade of Buckingham Palace for the happy couple) in an Italianate style which went well his his Continental fancies and the fact that the view over the Solent apparently reminded him of the Bay of Naples. It became the royal family’s favourite retreat, with its 3000 secluded acres and private beach where Victoria could bathe in the comfort and privacy of her ‘bathing machine’, and a life-sized Swiss chalet as a playhouse for the nine royal children.
Nice for some. The Smith family had to make do with the Travel Lodge in Newport and its all-you-can-eat breakfast, but we did ourselves proud and between visiting Carisbrooke Castle and the delightfully twee old-fashioned tourist village of Godshill managed to swing by Osbourne House (twice!) for ice cream cones on Queen Victoria’s no-longer-quite-so-private beach.
A nip of frost in the air this morning and a dense blanket of ground mist clinging to the marshes made me wish I had dressed a little more warmly for my ride over to Pevensey and back. The mists were dispersing by the time I was passing Cooden Beach, on my homeward leg, and with the sun just about to rise I stopped to photograph the luggers coming up from the low tide with their shovels and pails full of lugworms. I often see their lights bobbing along the water’s edge when I am out riding early in the morning, and the tide is out, and I have been meaning to stop and get a photograph of them as a part of my visual chronicle of my bicycle rides – and today’s scene at Cooden Beach just seemed to be the one.
How nice it is to see something made in England for once. A press release lobbed into my in-tray yesterday proclaiming the news that the English clothing firm Lavenham – best known for its quilted jackets for the equestrian set – has teamed up with London’s trendy Look Mum No Hands cycling café to design what appears to be a rather stylish (and quilted, naturally) cycling jacket and gilet.
In looks and design both the clothes and collaboration appears to be taking up where Rapha left off – a sort of gentrified urban chic, with a generous dollop of English country squire thrown in.
Unlike Rapha though (unless Rapha have changed since I bought my classic softshell from them ) the new Horringer jacket and Withersfield gilet are actually made in England, at Lavenham’s workshop in the Suffolk village of the same name.
Both jacket and gilet are made of pure English wool whose quilted outer surface has been coated to make it water resistant. The jacket has raglan sleeves, tailored for a comfortable range of motion on the bike, and ribbed cuffs to keep out the breeze. Cutaway slightly in front, and long in the tail it is designed to drape well over your back and give you good coverage from the elements when you ride. It has three utility pockets and reflected piping around them – vital, one would think, given its navy blue colour. It has stud closures up the front.
The gillet is cut along a similar pattern, but with two utility pockets, piping and a zip front. It, too, is navy blue.
You can see them both here
At £250 for the jacket and £185 for the gilet, they are hardly budget apparel – but then they wouldn’t be, given they are made of pure wool and made here in England. At that their prices compare favourably with Rapha’s softshell classic (£260) and Transfer Gilet (£150), both of which are made in Asia (I believe) and practically giveaways compared with Brooks line of made-in-England John Boultbee clothing (Blackwell jacket €550; Criterios jacket €1000)
There are no reviews on the Lavenham website yet from purchasers of the jacket or gilet, so I can offer no independent analysis of how they actually perform. They look rather elegant though, and would go particularly well with a classic bicycle. Indeed, if Purdey made bicycles instead of shotguns, this or the pricey Brooks numbers would be what you’d wear.
Breaking news … the sun rose over the English Channel right on time, the tide was out just as predicted and the whole scene was rather pink and pretty from where I stood along Cooden Beach on my way back from my morning ride. Sure such events might not seem like ‘breaking news’ in the traditional ink-under-the-fingernails, press-card-in-the-fedora journalistic sense, but as a former newspaperman watching the ‘breaking news’ label being applied to just about anything and everything these days on media websites (BBC, CNN, Guardian etc) I am starting to feel as though I am not getting my fair share of great 21st century scoops.
Journalism has certainly changed a lot in the time I have been practicing it. Over the past few days I have seen the pulse-quickening ‘Breaking News…” label affixed to the casual utterance of a minor health official over the possibility of further cases of Ebola in the West at some point in the future, and a several-years-old story of a St Louis family that found their house invaded by poisonous brown recluse spiders and were obliged to move out. Since the family apparently moved out two years ago, the decision by editors at CNN to describe their troubles as ‘Breaking news…” (as I saw on the Guardian website as well) seemed just a trifle overstated. Apparently the ‘breaking’ aspect of this story was that after standing idle for two years the house was being fumigated this week. Breaking news? Really? I mean, I could see this being a news story if it was the White House we were talking about, but a suburban bungalow in St Louis? And ‘breaking news…’ at that?
Such breathless – indeed ridiculous – headlining does no one any favours, least of all the media organisations who practice it or the profession (dare I call it that?) of journalism. I remember the first time I ever saw a breaking news banner (it said ‘Bulletin’ actually) was the 22nd of November 1963 when WGN TV interrupted Bozo’s Circus to inform its watchers that President Kennedy had just been shot.
And now we have – as I also saw not long ago – the ‘breaking news’ banner being trotted out for breathless reportage of a politician’s trite observation that ‘banks put profits before people’.
Someone needs to tap somebody on the shoulder and remind them that just because we can report everything on the instant, and worldwide, it doesn’t make it ‘breaking news…’ Otherwise journalism becomes about as shallow as the film of water coating the low-tide sands on Cooden Beach.