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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Noblesse Oblige

It is, of course, very easy to get very, very , very angry at Politics. Indeed, just yesterday, I became incandescent with fury upon reading the news that Prince Charles letters to Government MInisters were not to be released (under Freedom of Information Legislation) but were to be kept from public view to protect the Prince's future ability to do his job as King. For those not familiar with the story, HRH Prince Charles has,  for many years, been writing -unsolicited one presumes- to various Government ministers, expressing his opinion on varius matters. Under the non-constitution that the UK has, HRH's role is supposed that of a neutral figure head, "above" politics, an icon of Britishness showing us all what we should aspire to and wherein the values of the country  are vested (Elizabeth is still head of the Protestant Church), if of course, it is possible to 'vest' values, although I would argue that it is possible to divest oneself of values and therefore the opposite should be admissable. Because of this neutral position, the Crown - by a sort of agreement/convention/unwritten rule - is not supposed to meddle in politics. Its actually a very British arrangement: it looks a bit muddled, antiquated, quaint, somewhat charming and represents 'something' about "old values", something thats "good old fashioned....." . The '.......'  you fill in yourself. Under this apparently shambolic, cute and good old fashioned traditional set of arrangements,  clever monarchs such as Prince Charles's mum have spent their time making what she calls "The Firm" (her family and the monarchy) much, much richer, and it has 'worked' for over a thousand years (Elizabeth can trace her ancestry back to Alfred the Great).

Fortunately, since this news broke, the second US Presidential debate has occurred and this diverted my anger. Many people say that there is not - in real terms - much between the candidates, and in effect-on -ordinary , there possibly is not much difference in how American lives would be immediately affected whoever wins. But my instinct is that if I were to offer Romney and Obama an imagined future in which their heirs and descendants formed a dynasty that lasted for a thousand years as rulers, my guess is that one would readily welcome that dynastic vision as a good thing, upholding of  the natural order - there are some people who are 'born' leaders and some families where that trait is passed on genetically. This would be the Mormon perspective. The other, I would guess, while wanting to establish his family materially and socially, no doubt, is probably not quite as messianic. It is admittedly an obscure reason for voting, but if I were allowed to vote in the American election, I would vote Obama on the grounds that if I could vote for him, it is unlikely,as a result of that vote,  that in a Thousand Years  a Princess Michelle will be interfering with road building

Monday, 8 October 2012

All's well that's Kettlewell

As readers will recall, once a year or thereabouts, I plan, design and execute an audacious cycling expedition, usually through one or more of the rural counties of England and usually in the company of the other half of Cheek to Cheek, a chap who will be referred to here only as Skarra. Previous expeditions have taken in the England Coast to Coast along Hadrian's Wall, the chief features of which were total  wheel and brake failure nearly resulting in death caused by a pre-ride servicing in Hull which far from improving the functionality of my bike, instead turned it into a death trap. This same year, we were also refused access to the train on our pre-booked train tickets ("pre-booking bike reservations is not a guarantee of taking your bike on the train that you are reserved on"), experienced two wierd hikers who hated eachother and yet were bound to another five days in eachother's company  and argued incessanty about determinism. This was "The Ride of Hope 1: Bringing Hope to Ancient Archeological sites and nearby locales".

The second ride, having seen what we saw, and having experienced what we had the previous year, we returned North for our second ride to the Scottish/English borderlands of Northumberland where we narrowly avoided being shelled after riding onto a military practice range, witnessed the worst Blues band in the history of music and argued incessantly about evolutionary psychology and historical determinism. We also suffered near catastrophic and fatal bike failure because I not only returned to Bob's Bikes for my pre-ride service but also persuaded Skarra to take his bike there as well, we and invented the new sport of Extreme-Mountain-Biking-with-Full-Panniers-on-Road-Bikes. This was "The Ride of Hope 2: Toward a Paradigm of Hope  - with Panniers".

This year, as I announced earlier, a ride was planned. Various locales were scouted via Google Earth, especially Scotland and we decided on a theme for our ride quite early in the process, enabling us to come up with branding for this year's ride ( in the hope of attracting corporate sponsors ) quite early in the process. Thus "The Ride of Hope : A New Hope (but not like what's in Star Wars Episode IV for legal reasons)"
was born. Unfortunately, various events throughout the summer scuppered our plans. The first of these was the various conferences that both Skarra and I had to attend. The second of these was my need to complete my Masters/PhD dissertation/ literature review upgrade (I'm still not sure exactly how to call what I have done but I have produced a long document that only I understand,  which I think is one of the principle requirements of a PhD) and the third of these was money which has become increasingly problematic for self as the recession (AKA Intensifying Global Economic Meltdown) has deepened, widened, internationalised and intensified across Europe [NOTE: Just because a lot of us, and the media have gotten used to it does not mean that the current economic disaster has gone away - far from it]. In the long run, by the time I was ready to Ride, it had become impossible for Skarra, and it had also become October. I proposed that I do this years Ride of Hope anyway, but with the jealousy and rivalry that has blighted the career of Cheek to Cheek so far, and thus delayed the release of our seminal debut album "To Cheek", he threatened to sue if I used the formula "The Ride of Hope:....." or anything like it.

In short, I could ride but not with hope.I even had a route. But devastatingly I did not have a title for this years ride. Fortunately,  I also had a new riding partner, my younger,  and taller,  brother and in him I found salvation. This is because he is now operating as a kind of consultant. Thus, unlike self and Skarra, he is acquainted with the world of corporate affairs,  marketing and the brilliant concepts of thought leadership which is principally concerned with making up catch-phrases and saying absolutely nothing. Accordingly "Aspire: The Ride" was born, whose ambitious plan was to ride the Yorkshire Dales Cycle Route (145 miles) in three days with full panniers.

As I sat at the head of Langsthropdale Chase last week, the horizontal rain pin-pricking my eyes driven by 50mph gales of wind,  my fingers past blue and rapidly turning black and gasping for oxygen, I have to admit to a Moment of Doubt about the wisdom of riding these hills in Fall. Fortunately (for the Moment) it was not alone, as it had been preceded by The Hours of Doubt while we climbed up the valley of Bishopdale and before that The Morning of Doubt which started when I got up that morning and saw the bucketing rain, and read the weather forecasts at the local Youth Hostel in Hawes. The Morning of Doubt had been proceeded by the Day of Doubt as the previous day had been exactly the same. One result of this is that a substantial proportion of the time, what we saw as we were riding was something like this.
[At this point I should briefly diverge form the narrative to note that regular readers will be aware that the usual photojournalistic report consisting of original photographs by yrs trly are missing. This is because our ride coincided with another week of torrential rain across the UK and my trusty camera was thoroughly wettened (making it unusable)  the first time I attempted to take a photograph.]

Thus I cannot, with any veracity, claim to have really seen the Yorkshire Dales on this ride, or at least most of them, and cannot verify the claims for beauty made on behalf of them. Wensleydale, Wharfdale, Langsdale and Coverdale may all be extremely beautiful but my memories of them, this year at least are "up",  "wet" and  as I will explain, "oh dear".

The "oh dear" arises because one (perhaps the joy) of climbing up valleys is, of course, that you get to go back down them. This year, I eagerly looked forward to these descents not least because I stopped using Bob to perform my pre-ride bike service. Instead, I found a mobile, qualified bike technician  - John - who comes to your house and services the bike very cheaply at your residence. This enabled me to have some assurance that spokes were not being loosened when they should have been tightened, that rusty old chains were not being applied in place of the new one you had just purchased,  and that rims were not being hammered to 'make them fit'. It may have been  slightly irritating  for John to service the bikes in my house, as I watched every turn of a wrench and very tightening of a bolt as he worked, questioning each decision he made, but previous experience had made me cautious and when he was eventually finished I was very satisfied with, and confident in,  the bike's rejuvenated performance. I remember thinking " I will not die on the descent".

However, due to conditions on the ride, I had to modify this to " I will not die because of an incompetent servicing of my bike" and often descents were more tiring and dangerous that the ascents. They also took longer. Usually, when descending the on road speed you reach is immense. On one of the good, rainless days, we clocked our downhill at thirty five  mph. This may not sound fast but on a bike on narrow roads it is a recipe for sheer exhiliration, especially with panniers: the bike gains not only downward momentum,  but also performs very differently going into corners and want to throw you to the outer side of any corner you approach. Stopping is difficult. The skill is more similar to mountain bike riding in that while every instinct screams "Brake" , that is very often the last thing you should (or possibly would) do: instead you have to trust the momentum and concentrate on staying reasonably upright. However, in the conditions of this year's ride, the rain and the wind change the equation completely. After several attempts at recklessly plunging downhill which ended up against walls and on one occasion in a field, we found that we could'nt descend at more than a snail's pace. The roads were too wet and slippery and at a certain speed the sheer volume of water on the road made the bike start aquaplaning, giving you no steering at all. Thus, after exhausting, freezing - cold then overheating, zero-visibilty  two hour ascents, we had to creep downhill with our brakes locked, getting colder (because we were not pedalling) and with worse visibility (because we were both sitting up, desperately trying to see the road ahead).

At the end of each day, we would arrive in a Youth Hostel, get called "mad" by the hostel warden when we told him or her where we had been, then have a hot shower. And there were some days of good weather. We also saw Malham Cove, an incredible feature whose grandeur and size is at odds with my perception of the UK as a smallish (albeit attractive in places) landscape. My younger brother has promised to send me photos form the good days, which I will post as soon as I receive them from him.