Sausage counter at Bowketts of Oldbury
The first time I cycled outside summer was with my friend John Richfield in 1993 or 1994. It was either early October or early November - probably the latter. Leaves had fallen. It was a chilly, grey Friday afternoon turning into a dank evening. Somewhat gingerly I got out - unearthed from summer storage - the old Raleigh I'd bought for under £50; pulled on a second jumper and wrapped myself in scarf and beanie.
John'd chivvied me into joining a late afternoon critical mass involving a group of cyclists who wanted to make a point about their right to cycle with the rest of the traffic in Birmingham city centre - England's motor town. John lent me a luminous tabard and we set off from Handsworth, the mile and a bit into St.Philip's Square where there was a gathering of about fifty other people on bicycles. It was exhilarating to ride with the herd, enjoying the strength of the convoy, occupying spaces I'd never have risked using on the inner ring - like the Queensway and the road that runs beneath the city centre library that leads to the top of New Street, then up via Smallbrook Queensway to hideous New Street Station and on to a pub on the canal at the top of Farmers Bridge Locks where someone I knew, vaguely was inviting involvement with protests against the Newbury bypass.
Something clicked. We'd lived in Bagnor - a decade before it went metropolitan - though we'd started that 'rot' - as my stepfather put it pithily when I asked him innocently about a new neighbour 'doing up' his house. I'd grown up in a hamlet, during long holidays from school in London. We'd lived in Bagnor since 1948. Jack had seen the way the wind was blowing long before. Delivering imprecatory asides about the Tragedy of the Commons, with a passion he'd never use on television, he'd had us decamp for deeper countryside in Hampshire in 1960. I'd known in the 80s, from my home in deep Birmingham, that one of our new Bagnor neighbours, Michael Horden, had been campaigning in the conventional way against the new road. I'd written a letter to the local MP and later to the Minister Brian Mawhinney - along with thousands of others. Futile - in a land in love with cars on a roll from predict and provide and Thatcher's 'great car economy'. Apart from present harem, this bypass would drive through a childhood idyll. Jack, by then living in Dorset, wrote me that the project was inevitable. He was disinclined to rage. Privately he'd written '
But I was angry and - as the Japanese say - to be angry is only to make yourself ridiculous. So we will live out our days in the cracks between the concrete. And then they will pour cement on top of us.'I was ripe for engagement - and became with other green Brummies a supporter, a weekend warrior - in the Third Battle of Newbury, a series of marches, confrontatory conversations, direct action including lock-ons, the occupation of trees and many noisy meetings. There would be no victory for those opposing the bypass. Strategy, such as it was, involved the orchestration of a noisy defeat without violence, and so it was - a prolonged symphony of shouting and crying amid the buzz of chain saws, the roar of cherry picking tractors and crashing of high trees and astute public relations that turned a local defeat into a pivotal event that changed road building policy across the UK and made a career for the clownish Jeremy Clarkson and his laddish sidekicks. Lin and I are even casual fans of Top Gear - TV entertainment that, like many life choice programmes, makes drudgery fun.
Within a couple of years Lin and me were no longer delayed at Newbury on our regular drive to catch the ferry from Southampton or Portsmouth to enjoy twenty years of summer holidays in Brittany. I'd become a cyclist with attitude, the man who loved bicycles, interstitial living. Still am - but tempered by cycling's pleasures. Motoring has become a loveless marriage, and cycling so embedded in central and local government policies that now and then I yen to have a car and drive it places - a Morgan? Not really but...The pleasure I get from being in the open air all year round has changed my attitude to weather. I no longer value being insulated from it. It's a return to an infant impermeability when rainy days signalled things to do. A car can even feel claustrophobic. I embrace the Norwegian maxim - or was it Billy Connolly on Scottish weather - "there's no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes". All edge has gone from my tediously enjoyed moral superiority, an aura around some cyclists that doesn't only reside in the paranoia of fuming motorists. How could I claim such a thing given the flying I've done? And now my daughter's just married Guy who sells Fords in Sutton Coldfield - very well. I share the road, enjoy the company of others in the city - cars, buses, trucks or motorbikes and people walking - all traffic. I thread the city traffic, especially in London, weaving wet city streets past bright shop fronts, crossing the Thames, commuting between the mainline stations on my way to other places or to work in the capital, navigating canal towpaths, river banks and linear parks snaking alternative ways through the urban landscape. Psychogeography - bring it on! It's been a privilege to be lent or to hire bicycles in great Australian cities and to ride through the back streets of Corfu town. I enjoy most weather, embracing the Gaelic word Dreich - a condition and mood I can name and dress for; certainly part of blessed Corfu's repertoire - as winter mist glides between cypress tops ascending the ravines of Trompetta.
Dreich weather above Ano Korakiana
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My comment about the celebration of Ionian enosis quoted on page 3 of the June Agiot - newsletter from Agios Ioannis, but on the wider contemporary stage Teacherdude, English citizen journalist in Thessaloniki, captures street reaction by Greek citizens to their government's policies on Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
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The news in the world - narrow'n'broad-cast is full of Israel and Gaza. Sometime in 2007 I wrote that ...
I'd been playing a tennis court witness between John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt's book The Israel Lobby and Alan Dershowitz's rebuttal Debunking the Newest – and Oldest – Jewish Conspiracy. All these authors have a case and so I am for the moment intellectually paralysed - my normal condition - except when humour enters, but this matter is remorselessly devoid of humour. [The letter cost but then...]This morning G emailed me:
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Simon...if you owe yourself one big treat it has to be a movie called Lebanon. I saw it last night. It's Israeli-made and (to no one's surprise) won the big prize at the Venice Film fest. It's the first day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in '82. The action takes place entirely inside a Merkava tank. The rookie crew, four guys, are shit-scared. The atmosphere reminded me of the best of Das Boot. It's hugely claustrophobic and the exterior narrative unfolds through the lens of the aiming optics. The tank ends up in the recently flattened ruins of a township in South Lebanon, surrounded by Syrian commandos. The battleplan has gone seriously off-piste and I won't ruin the rest of it for you except to say that I've never seen a better war film: graphic, credible, ghastly, and deeply compassionate. The irony, says me, is that this could have been made by Robert Fisk. Yet it comes from Israel, made and co-funded by Israelis, which I guess says something about the ever-deepening puzzle of the Middle East. A truly astonishing piece of work. Unmissable. G
Cavafy's arrived - a newer translation with Greek on one page, English the other