Monday, 31 August 2009
I have long been a fan of Clive James. First as a songwiter: in collaboration with Pete Atkin, he wrote the lyrics to some wonderful and memorable songs in the early 70s (now reissued on CD and nestling happily on my iPod). Then he wrote a lot of poetry, much of it political commentary, and very funny and accomplished it was too. For a while he was the television critic of The Observer, and his column was the one thing that I absolutely had to read every week. Most people will be familiar with his autobiographical volumes such as Unreliable Memoirs, which I warn you against should you ever try to read them in public. He has such a wicked sense of timing a punch-line that I have been reduced to breathless tears and risked cardiac arrest. He is literate, educated and, to use an unfashionable word, wise.
He is what you could call broadly of the intellectual liberal-left, which makes his latest essay (on the West's, and in particular feminism's, response to Islam and Islamic culture) quite remarkable. It would be impossible to summarise here, but I urge you to read it. It's long, and the subject-matter is hardly the easiest, but it's well worth the effort. From the latest editon of the magazine Standpoint.
(Here's one of Clive with Pete Atkin, just for old times' sake.)
Sunday, 30 August 2009
(As an aside, the whole business of these low-energy bulbs makes me very annoyed. We keep getting free ones delivered, without asking, from various sources, and I am told that 'proper' lightbulbs will soon be phased out altogether. I don't like the low-energy bulbs: they give a very cold and greenish light, they take ages to warm up, and they are full of very nasty rare-earth chemicals that cause horrible pollution elsewhere on the planet. But hey, they are 'green', right, so stop complaining. It's a shame that they are seen as the solution to the problem, as the technology to produce them is dirty, and in any case they are now outdated. LEDs use far less energy, and produce better light more cleanly. I guess they will be sending us free LED bulbs and making us feel guilty again in about 2020.)
Saturday, 29 August 2009
(Actually, this link needs further comment - perhaps later.)
Friday, 28 August 2009
This website makes a few observations.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi did not show his victims any humanity or mercy, so why did Scotland decide to show him any? How can we possibly show these terrorists that we will not be intimidated if we continue to be better than they are?
The bombing of
Iran Air Flight 655 was a courageous act deserving of the Legion of Merit .
And so on. Good stuff.
Thursday, 27 August 2009
Hundreds of holidaymakers were stuck in the Channel Tunnel for six hours in sweltering heat when their train broke down.
The lights went out, the air conditioning stopped and temperatures began to rise towards 30c (86f)  after the train's power failed.
Around 500 passengers, including dozens of families, were trapped.
Sounds like a great start to a holiday! I am not claustrophobic (although I can't stand being in a modern mummy-style sleeping bag), but I have to say I can't wait.
 Don't you love the Daily Fail and its obsession with the 'British' way of doing things? I am a traditionalist in may things, but I have to say that, by now, 30C means a lot more to me than 86F. Who seriously uses Fahrenheit any more - apart from DM journalists? Or needs to have it converted for them?
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
I love maps, with a love that passeth understanding. I could look at them for hours, and frequently do. One of the joys of doing A-level Geography was being able to sit at the back of the room with Phillips' School Atlas on the desk in front of me and just do a world tour in between Maths and lunch. Bombhead chuntering on about the industries of the Rhine at the front of the room, and there I was piloting a steamer round the coast of Novaya Zemlya, or crossing the Nullarbor Plain on an ancient BSA. I'm sure that my fascination with place-names and my itchy feet were conceived at the back of a Geog class somewhere. I once read that a good map contains more information per square centimetre than the entire space programme, or something. I'm sure it's true. I love maps, and feel about as bad writing on them as I would about scribbling in the margin of a novel - i.e. very bad indeed.
But a satellite navigator, well, that's something else. The fact that I can hold in my hand something which receives signals from satellites in orbit above the earth and, using the vanishingly small differences in the time signals from several of them, can calculate my position on the earth's surface to within a few yards, is a source of complete amazement to me. And that's only the GPS part. For the same device to have every significant road, path and track in Western Europe in its memory, and to be able to calculate the best/quickest/shortest route between any two points in a matter of seconds is just wonderful. And then to read the route out to you, step by step, and even draw you a map that changes as you move - well, it's almost sorcery. And it's only as big as a packet of fags. I mean, how clever is that?
(Anna and I were in Italy a couple of years ago, in the wine country just South of Florence. One day, tiring of the main road loop to get us to the village we used for shopping, we just set the village name into 'Jane' and asked for the shortest route. We were taken through farms and down unpaved lanes - places where, without the satnav, we would have backed out of long before. But it got us there. We were on a tiny road between fields, miles from anywhere, and came across a track - no, a path - which crossed our route. A dusty, white path about six feet wide, with no signs of recent use by foot or car. And I looked on the satnav and there it was. And I thought this thing knows.)
The problem with satnav is the same as with any technology. Brilliant in the hands of experts, when the price comes down and less - how shall I say? - competent people get their hands on it, it is almost too good at what it does. A decent satnav will navigate so well that it is very tempting to leave all the decisions up to the unit, and abrogate all responsibility for your journey to a chunk of silicon. So the average Joe gets his £99 satnav and sets off, marvelling at its efficiency and sheer cleverness, and he leaves his common sense at home. And when it tells him to go down a road which is clearly unsuitable, he does as he is told and ends up in The Sun with his Rover up to its windows in a lake, or hanging off the edge of a cliff. Note to Average Joe: Technology isn't perfect. It's just there to help.
There is a kind of de-skilling going on in the modern world which is very worrying, and satnavs are part of it. People don't know how to cook any more, or light a real fire in a grate, or do complex mental arithmetic, or read a map and use a compass. Why would they? It's all done for us now. And when there's too much snow to get to Tesco, or there's a power cut, or the calculator battery runs out, or the satnav freezes, we're stuffed. We literally don't know what to do any more.
Satnavs are 99% brilliant and 1% stupid. If you understand this, and use them accordingly, they are completely wonderful pieces of kit. I feel much safer finding my way in an unfamiliar city with 'Jane' telling me where and when to turn, with my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road, than if had to keep consulting a street map on the passenger seat every 50 yards. And they make long journeys much more relaxing, with warnings of motorway junctions in good time, and something that tells you how far you have to go and an estimated time to get there (not to mention the bing! that tells you when a speed camera is coming up).
But you can't sit on the loo and dream with a satnav.
That's what I am. I've had a sneaking bit of apprehension about this Denmark lark, and I haven't been able to pin down what it is.
The distance isn't a problem. It's a total of about 1000 miles each way, which is do-able. I've almost done that in a single day in a car, and I am planning to do this in two or three. Admittedly, huge mileages on the bike will be a new thing, but since I am carrying my home on my back and I am prepared to stop and snooze anytime, I can't see this is going to cause me any difficulty. Nothing's booked (apart from the Chunnel), and no-one is standing with a stopwatch wondering why I am late, so hey, relax.
Nor is it the foreign-ness of it. I will be passing through France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany before reaching Denmark. Two out of the four are countries I have never been to before. France, I know well and can get by on my just-passable French. I tried to learn Dutch and gave up, but most Dutch speak English, and even those that don't are charming and helpful, so I don't think I will have a problem there (and looking at my route I will be in NL for about four seconds anyway). I don't speak German, but I can understand enough of it written down to get the basics. So the language issue is a pleasant and amusing challenge rather than anything that keeps me awake at night.
No, the problem has been route-finding. Ever since I looked at the map and saw the mass of blue lines (some laid over the top of others) that obliterate most of NW Europe at 1:1,000,000 scale, I started to wonder how on earth I was going to find my way. (Anywhere in the UK I am quietly confident, but on the wrong side of the road, mixing it up with autobahn traffic at 80+ on unfamiliar territory, and mentally converting km to miles and back again, oo-er missus.)
In a car, you can spread a map out on the passenger seat and consult it when conditions allow. And that is assuming you don't have a glamorous assistant to do the map-reading for you. On a bike, your map has to go tightly folded into a map case and strapped onto the petrol tank (mine is in the lid of the tank bag, but same idea). This means that:
a) you can only see a small part of the map at any one time;
b) you have to look down to your navel to see it, and
c) certain combinations of helmet and clothing make looking down in this manner almost impossible anyway.
Certainly, with my eyesight, I would be peering down, ricking my neck, desperately trying to focus long enough to read a road number, when I ran into the back of the container lorry.
I have compiled lists of road numbers, directions and destinations and written them in LARGE BOLD TYPE in black permanent marker on sheets of A4, but they are just confusing.
What I need is a satnav. I already have a decent one - a TomTom GO720 - which I have come to rely on in the car over the years. But of course, it is not weatherproof or suited to the rigours of being strapped to the handlebars of a bike. However, the best solution, a Garmin Zumo, which is waterproof and suitable for operation with gloves on, would cost the best part of £400. I have tried a longish trip with the TomTom strapped to the tank, but it was not wholly successful. Other than that, there is simply nowhere for the unit to go.
On Monday I found the solution. I robbed the windscreen suction mount from the car (must remember to replace it) and screwed it to the bike fairing just below the screen. It looks OK, and more to the point it holds the TomTom right in the line of sight, which is where it needs to be if I am reading the screen rather than listening to voice instructions. The screen protects it, more or less, and I intend to cover it with a plastic bag if the rain starts. The only problem left is finding a way of attaching some kind of lanyard to the TomTom, so that if it vibrates off the mount it won't disappear forever.
So now I can programme in my destination and set off, without the need to faff about with acres of damp paper and runny ink. That has suddenly made the whole thing look a lot more fun.
I also managed to find a place to mount a 12v cigarette-lighter socket to the bike fairing. This is now wired in and working. It's particularly satisfying, as I have wired it in using some existing wires and redundant connectors I had lying around, and it both looks professional and is easily disconnected if I need to take the bodywork off. I can now use the little compressor that I bought for the air mattress.
It's all coming together.
Monday, 24 August 2009
Or how about this: the Walled World? I had never thought about the world in this way before (well maybe I have, but not at this level of detail). The Israeli wall in Palestine suddenly fits into a much larger picture. It's like we in the West are living in a gated community. Not necessarily a bad thing (living in the West is pretty good, I reckon), but when you see the huge spaces outsidde the 'Wall', you start wondering all sorts of stuff. Like 'I want to go there'. Again, click for a better view.
There, that's something else to gobble up your time. Say thank you.
Sunday, 23 August 2009
So the UK Government did pressure the Scots to release Megrahi after all, according to the Sunday Times. Once Mandelson starts denying something, you know there's a story.
Some choice quotes:
Ivan Lewis, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Libya, is said to have written to the Scottish government, encouraging officials to send home Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi. The Sunday Times has discovered that less than three weeks before Megrahi was freed, Lewis wrote to MacAskill that there was no legal reason not to accede to Libya’s request to transfer Megrahi into its custody under the terms of a treaty agreed between Tony Blair and Colonel Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, in 2007. A UK government source who saw the letter said Lewis added: “I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application in accordance with the provisions of the prisoner transfer agreement.” The Scottish government interpreted it as an attempt to influence MacAskill’s decision. A source close to MacAskill said: “That clearly means, ‘I hope on this basis you will feel able to approve the Libyan application’. That’s the only conclusion you can take from it.”
That's the only conclusion I would draw. And it's pretty obvious that, for all his canny manoeuvring on independence issues, Salmond wouldn't allow a big decision like this to be taken without the implicit approval of the UK government.
Yesterday Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, denied any deal between Brown and Gadaffi to free Megrahi. “It’s not only completely wrong to make such a suggestion, it’s also quite offensive,” he said.
Ah yes, 'offensive'. A word usually used in these situations by those embarrassed by the position they are required to adopt. So a complete and categorial denial by Mandelson, then. Someone's lying, and since Mandelson is involved, my money is on him.
The Foreign Office also denied a claim by Saif [Gadaffi's son] that Megrahi’s freedom was linked to a trade deal and a claim from his father that Brown had “encouraged” the release.
A denial by an unnamed source is as near to an admission as you could wish for.
Brown has so far been silent on Megrahi.
Well, of course. As usual, Brown is nowhere to be seen. "It wasnae me!" "Another boy did it and ran away!"
There's a lot more to this than meets the eye. For Britain to risk offending the US by the action of releasing Megrahi suggests that there are huge interests at stake. After all, we got ourselves into an unjust and illegal war in Iraq (probably the most catastrophic foreign policy mistake since the Suez Crisis) just so that Tony Blair could keep his 'special relationship' with Bush. There's something big (and probably very boring, trade relations or whatever) behind this. Making the decision appear to come from some Scottish politician that no-one outside Scotland has ever heard of has all the hallmarks of 'deniability', and gives the UK government some wiggle room, but I'm convinced there is a lot more to come out of this yet. But two things are clearly evident:
1. Brown, yet again, hiding in the woods when some leadership is required, and
2. The British public being lied to, yet again, by their employees.
The Honda panniers are exceptionally good. Not only are they 100% waterproof (I have been through epic downpours and not a drop has got inside, ever), but they have a dinky little clip so that you can disconnect the strap that stops them falling wide open when they are on the bike, and lay them completely flat on the floor. So I laid them open like two huge white clamshells, and started to pile stuff in from the bed. Not organised packing, just dumping things in the right place and seeing to what extend they overflowed.
Well, I haven't got everything yet, but all the big space-devouring stuff is there, and the cases were just over half-full. They aren't massive (compared to, say, Givi cases) but they appear to be big enough for my needs. I might even manage an extra pair of shoes - readers of UKBike note, that's additional to the sandals - and get some of the stuff that I was planning to carry on the pillion seat into the cases and out of the way.
Panniers and tank bag. Note: these are not packed - the stuff was emptied into the general area just to estimate the volume. The packing will be a lot more efficient, I hope. Eagle-eyed readers of a certain age may notice the sticker resting on the middle box. This was an unexpected find out of a pile of old Bike magazines that I was given a while ago. It was a freebie with an issue back in the 80s, when the magazine had an endurance racing team that competed in the Bol d'Or and the like. The GB sticker reads "Bike Invasion Force", and the other says "Team Bike", all in perfect condition. I am debating whether to use them as some kind of nostalgia thing or not. I have already put a blue Euro GB sticker on the left pannier, so maybe that would be too much of a good thing. I'm not over-fond of stickers, generally.
This is the stuff that is coming behind me on the seat. In fact, much of this is redundant since I got the inflatable mattress. On the left is the tank bag rain cover, and then there is the green bag with the tent, the black drybag with the sleeping bag and pillow, and on top of them is a black tube thing which contains one of those neat little three-legged stool jobbies, bought for a couple of quid at a Land Rover show a few years ago. Tiny, and very handy for lazy people who like a nice sit down now and again. The Trangia box isn't coming along, but I am going to try to find room for the flags. One is the Welsh Dragon (no, not a picture of Anna) which I always take camping abroad to stick somewhere as a kind of identity marker. I'm not Welsh, but for the purposes of camping abroad with Anna I might as well be. Plus, it gets you a lot of kudos in Brittany, where the Welsh are regarded as more native than the Paris French. Speak a little Welsh, or even just recognise some words in Breton, and you are treated like a long-lost son. The other is one I found on the web last year. It is a lovely pale blue, with the White Rose of Yorkshire. That will remind me of my original home. It would be kinda cool to have them streaming behind the bike as I enter the campsite in Denmark, but maybe not. They don't take up much room, any way.
Rain today (and work later), so I will spend today hunting down documents. The bike is insured, I am certain, but right now I can't find any evidence of the fact. The certificate I carry around in my wallet ran out last year. Ho hum.
Saturday, 22 August 2009
The old tank bag that I used to commute with has been tested and will fit onto the tank of the Honda - just. The lid will hold a folded map, and folded maps have been purchased (although the one of Europe that I though would be great for overall planning has such a small scale that you can't even detect the individual motorways through The Netherlands, so I'll have to get something that will be some use on the road). Incidentally, the maps were bought through an Amazon independent seller for just over £1 each, brand new and with an RRP of £4.99. Bargain.
A tool kit has been assembled, consisting of a tiny but comprehensive Lidl Special with the addition of a set of miniature Allen keys. The Pan, being a modern and high-spec motor, does not need a major toolkit. If anything goes wrong, it will be either trivial and fixable with a cable tie and gaffer tape, or totally borked and require repatriation on a flat-bed, so a few sockets and screwdriver bits will be enough.
Sleeping arrangements have been finalised, with a good old rectangular sleeping bag (I'll be cold, but at least I won't think I'm part of some weird BDSM thing with clingfilm) and an air mattress with a dinky electric inflator that will plug into the 12v socket I have wired into the bike's electrics.
Cooking is also sorted, with an ancient Trangia maths stove (nothing - literally nothing - to go wrong) and some matches. I am taking along some muesli (good for breakfast right up to supper, at a push), some tea and coffee, and some packet soups. Anything else I will buy on the way. A mug, plate and KFS  complete the culinary side of things.
I have also bought a tyre repair kit, which should make a puncture a temporary setback rather than a major show-stopper. Strangely, there was a bag of odd items in one of the Pan's side cases when I bought it. Assuming they were magical things associated with some weird fertility ceremony, I put them to one side in the garage. Having bought a repair kit, I now see that I had a total of two kits already, so I now can afford to have three punctures. The kits that came with the bike lacked any instructions, so at least now I know what to do. Without instructions, the first two kits would have been useless.
I still need to get some oddments (luggage straps, for one), but things are assembling nicely, and now I have my crossing booked - my first time sous la Manche on Mrs Thatcher's nice Eurotunnel - it feels like it is actually going to happen. Next stage is to get the panniers and top-box into the house and see if it will all fit, or if I need to reconsider what is essential to my well-being. Perhaps the black tie and evening suit will have to stay behind.
More later, as I get stupidly excited about the whole thing.
 A dinky little clip-together set bought from eBay on a complete whim about a year ago - I wonder why?
UK Bike was, as I understand it, a small back-bedroom operation for a number of years until it was bought out by a media company for whom I used to work. The guy who was put in charge of it went by the name of Road Hoover (for reasons which are too long to explain here), who was a great guy, bike-mad and with a lot of experience of the bike business. He was also a great writer of the language; think of a cross between Mark Williams and Dan Walsh without the weary cynicism. He sent a message out to all staff in the company, asking for reviews, stories, write-ups, pictures - anything to add content to a site which had a lot of potential but was very under-developed. I had not owned a bike for over ten years at the time (given it up due to illness, another long story), but I had plenty to say for myself and so I wrote a few things and sent them off to him.
This got me thinking, and soon I was itching to be back on two wheels. They say that someone who quits smoking is never a non-smoker, only an ex-smoker, and the same is true of bikes. The urge is always there, and ready to resurface as soon as the conditions are right. So one day I just happened to walk into my local dealership, and came out with a Yamaha XT660R, which got me back on the road to two-wheeled heaven.
That got me back into the swing of things, and I started posting more to the site and joined in with the forum. In those days, there was a core of about 15 regular posters and possibly double that of irregulars. Not a lot to keep a forum lively and entertaining, but enough to be interesting and useful.
Unfortunately (and I am guessing a bit here), the site didn't make the profits the company were hoping for, and Road Hoover moved on to other things. The site was looked after for a while by someone calling himself Tom, who posted requests for material into every topic on the forum, which is a bit like the party bore barging into everyone's conversation uninvited, and got a bit of stick from the regulars. He wasn't heard of again. Then the site was given to a girl called Binny, who made all the right noises ("I don't know much about bikes, but I'm here to learn from you guys") but seemed to do very little development of the site and was basically invisible.
The number of regular posters had fallen to two or three. I was one, and I used to log in every day, only to find that there were no new posts to read. So it became every few days, then every week. Adding to the problem of lack of postings was the site's essentially clunky nature - slow and buggy, with a design that seemed to have been done by Stevie Wonder while he was asleep. I decided to leave it for good, and posted one last message entitled "Is that it, then?", saying basically that this was my last post, and unless anyone replied within a couple of days I would not be returning. This brought quite a few people out of the woodwork, and we all agreed that it would be a shame if the forum just died without ceremony. So we all started posting again, a bit feverishly, like whistling in the dark, hoping that everyone else would get the message and the forum would be resurrected.
Recently, the site has been given to yet another person, Rob, who has, it seems, been tasked with bringing the site and the forum back to life. He admits he is not a biker, but he has a good background in IT, so at least he is in a position to fix some of the more annoying 'features' of the site's design. He has shown a willingness to listen to the site's longstanding users, and I wish him well, although putting yet another non-motorcyclist in charge of an enthusiasts' website seems a little short-sighted of the company. You wouldn't give 'UK Dogs.com' to someone who'd never kept pets, would you?
However, I am optimistic about the future of the site and the forum, and if anyone reading this has an interest in bikes (not necessarily from the UK, but that is the site's focus), then I would urge you to visit and have a look. The site contains lots of news and reviews, and there are many adverts for bikes and kit. The forum is a nice place to be, with a mixed membership, from old stagers (cough) to youngsters starting out, male and female, all colours of the rainbow, and all with the standard GSOH. We rarely stick on topic, but some of the posts are good value. None of us are mechanical wizards, but there is usually some sensible advice available on technical issues, based on a collective length of experience. Unlike some bike discussion groups, there is no flaming of newbies - in fact, we are pretty polite and welcoming, and our interests cover everything from passing the bike test, through racing and touring, to everyday things like clothing and equipment, and even a bit of thoughtful biking philosophy. All bikes are represented, from scooters and learner bikes through to race reps and tourers. There is currently nothing from the custom scene, but that would be welcome too. If that's your thing, why not be the first?
Have a look, check out the ads, read the reviews, and put a message on the forum. Registration is free, there is no spam, and you might find a community of like-minded people. See you there - I post as Black Dog. Another long story ...
I was worrying about whether I would have to cancel the Denmark trip, but Anna has shown herself to be a complete star yet again by offering to help me out with the fuel bills for the Pan. It's still All Systems Go, but it won't be a no-expense-spared trip. It will, if anything, be an every-expense-spared trip. Fuel to get there and back, minimalist camping, minimalist eating, and freeloading wherever possible.
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Decades ago I discovered a cure for mental health problems. The cure, which I term the Kadir-Buxton Method, has been used on a wide variety of mental health problems. The procedure stuns and resets the brain of the patient, so that the patient returns to a normal condition. The Kadir-Buxton Method is done by making a fist of both hands, and striking both ears of the patient at exactly the same time and pressure with the soft part of the inner hand which is where the thumb joins the hand. The arrow in Figure 1 shows this point for your ease of use. (There follows a 'you are here' type photograph, showing the thumb.)
Read on, because it is preposterous. But he can do other things too, such as curing infertility by - yes - reaching his hand into a woman's Fallopian tubes and clearing out blockages. But it's not as simple as just sticking your hand in, oh no:
When it came to withdrawing my hand we found that the cervix was stretched open. With experimentation we found that tickling the cervix and going round it slowly shut the cervix. This is in itself useful because many babies can be lost when cervixes open prematurely. At present they need a stitch to keep the cervix shut, and this stitch has to be taken out at child birth. Some women, mainly prostitutes, have permanently open cervixes which is a problem in both conceiving, and in carrying babies to term.
And this odd observation:
All blockages that I have found have been dead bacteria, or sometimes lemonade which is a result of a country wide practice of lesbians at Universities.
So now you know. Apparently he also invented 'Economy 7' electricity, can bring people back from the dead by kicking them, advocates the analysis of Mr Spock to increase intelligence, and has a cure for Alzheimer's.
The guy is an utter fruitloop, and makes David Icke look sane. I don't think it's a spoof, as it isn't funny enough. It's bizarre rather then comedic. Read it and weep, for whatever reason.
 I should put a plug for Juliette's blog here. She is painfully self-aware, and her analysis of life and the dating game is perhaps a little jaundiced, but she can be laugh-out-loud funny and devastatingly sharp. Well worth a read, if you haven't read her before.
Monday, 17 August 2009
Today, my boss came back from holiday and approved the holiday request form that had been sitting in her in-tray since the day after she left. Whooppee-doo, I can book my Denmark trip.
I now have a booking on the Eurotunnel train thing (both there and back, that's how confident I am) and have started to make lists.
I have been on eBay and bought an inflatable mattress (funny how a caravan makes you soft) and a little device to inflate it with. I have a waterproof bag to stuff my sleeping bag into. It's black and rubbery and made by Ortlieb, and is intended for canoeists, so I imagine it will keep the damp out of the old sleeping quarters. I have a gallon of oil and a new oil filter, which I will change the weekend before I go (the bike isn't due for a service for another 2000 miles, but a bit of fresh oil before a long autoroute thrash can't hurt).
There are a surprising number of things I still need to get. I have never had a tyre repair kit before, but suddenly the thought of a puncture in the middle of Belgium makes me think that having one around might be a good idea. And tools! How many tools to take? Maps or a road atlas? Take cooking kit, or eat out as and when? And what to wear? I don't mean how many pairs of jeans when I get there, I mean do I wear my leathers and carry a rain suit, or the dull but worthy textile suit with the thermal liners? Leathers are cold when it's cold, and too hot when it's hot, but there's nothing I would rather have around me if things went wrong. Plus they look better. But the textile suit is waterproof and versatile, and it's the really sensible choice.
More rubbish to come. Watch this space.
This man is an utter disgrace.
I'm sorry to have to quote the Daily Mail, but it's the only source I can find for comments he made on Radio 4's Great Lives programe:
Asked by presenter Matthew Parris whether there were any circumstances in which terrorism was justified, Mr Miliband said: ‘Yes, there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective.’
So there you have it. A Government Minister says that terrorism is 'justifiable' (in certain circumstances, of course - that's a nice long spoon with which to sup with the Devil). Well, the lunatics have really taken over the asylum.
Let me say that I am a fairly non-violent person. I've never been in a proper fight, and I have always believed that talking your way through (or out of) things is the best way. Yet even I can accept that there are circumstances when violence is justified. To protect oneself and one's loved ones is a pretty clear example. To defend the weak against the bully. To liberate the oppressed, even. But there is one key factor linking all of these: the violence must be against the perpetrator of the wrong. It is paying them back in their own coin - they started it, but we will finish it, sort of thing. Nothing wrong with that.
If I punch someone who is punching me, or my wife, or my children, that's not wrong. It's not even morally ambiguous - it's the right thing to do. If you hit someone to prevent them harming someone smaller or weaker (as a colleague of mine once did with a rough 16-year-old who had raised his arm to hit a dinner lady - he decked him with one punch, and not even the toughest kid in the school thought it was unjustified), then that is almost a moral imperative. I have no problems with countries going to war to defend themselves - the war against Nazi Germany was absolutely right.
But none of that is terrorism. Terrorism is where you kill the innocent to try to persuade your enemy to see your point of view. The violence is against a third party, with the reasoning that if your enemy has any compassion, he will give in to you to stop you doing any more harm, or alternatively become demoralised by the slaughter and give up the fight. The victims have no defence against you, because nothing they can do can prevent you from killing them. They cannot surrender, because it is not their fight. They may not even be aware that there is a fight. They are bystanders whose lives and limbs are merely counters on the table in a ghastly game that they cannot understand. People who believe that this is a legitimate way of getting the results you want are terrorists. And Miliband thinks it's OK. In the right circumstances.
The IRA placed bombs in pubs and were terrorists. ETA blow up trains and are terrorists. The Red Army Faction shot people and committed arson and were terrorists. All of these people, it could be argued - it could be argued - were fighting against great injustice. And all of these people, had they attacked the people who were the source of the injustice, could have claimed justification. But the IRA killed students in pubs. ETA kill mums with babies. The Red Army Faction killed bodyguards and chauffeurs. Big men, huh?
If you ever had a good and justified cause for violence against an oppressor, you taint, poison and negate it as soon as you attack the innocent. In fact, killing an innocent person to try to persuade someone else to do what you want is the nearest I can come to a definition of true evil. It values human life at zero, and subsumes everything, even babies in another country, to your own goals. It makes my flesh crawl to think that anyone could even consider it.
He added: ‘The importance for me is that the South African example proved something remarkable: the apartheid regime looked like a regime that would last forever, and it was blown down. It is hard to argue that, on its own, a political struggle would have delivered. The striking at the heart of a regime’s claim on a monopoly of power, which the ANC’s armed wing represented, was very significant.’When you re-phrase 'striking at the heart of a regime's claim on power' as 'blowing up people who had nothing to do with it', it starts to look a little less romantic.
But he's wrong. You never make your cause right by killing innocent people. I'll stick my neck out here and say that, if you are oppressed and the only way out is to kill the innocent, then the honorable thing would be to accept your oppression. Personally, I would rather be poor and subjugated but with clean hands, than free and prosperous and know that people had died, people without any connection to my cause, so that I could be so.
There was a time, not so long ago, when politicians would be careful to avoid ever giving the impression that they could sympathise with terrorists. Even when you supported their cause, you would be at great pains to stress that in no way did you condone their methods. But now, it's acceptable just to hint that, well, if something gets the right result (and yes, the dismantling of apartheid was the right result) that somehow it was all OK.
It wasn't, it isn't, and it never will be.
Miliband, you are an arse.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
American guy goes to Europe for two weeks. He keeps his mobile phone switched off to avoid high roaming charges. He tells his girlfriend that he is going, but she either doesn't hear him or forgets he's told her. And it all goes badly wrong.
Thanks to b3ta for the link.
Now, you would think someone who had served a two-year ban for driving while unfit through drugs would be fairly careful when he got back behind the wheel. Not George Michael, though.
Singer George Michael was arrested and questioned by police after his Land Rover was in collision with a lorry on the A34 in Berkshire.
The 46-year-old was held on suspicion of driving under the influence of drink or drugs but released after five hours.
Now the original offence, leading to the ban, was in June 2007. So by my calculation he has been back on the road for a couple of months at the most.
The collision was "in the early hours", which always makes you suspect that the driver was rather more cheerful than he should have been (for whatever reason). The police clearly thought so. Obviously, the chap was totally and utterly innocent (or the police surely would have charged him, ignoring his celebrity status and the likelihood of charges of victimisation from saddos everywhere), but don't you think that after serving a lengthy ban he would have been more careful about driving his silver Land Rover into a lorry in the early hours?
I mean, all you have to do is keep a clear head and point the car in the right direction. Lorries tend to be large and easy to spot. It isn't difficult.
UPDATE: Turns out it was a Range Rover, one of the posh new ones. Phew. No harm done.
Thursday, 13 August 2009
A boy in Greater Manchester has been given a certificate (validated by AQA) for getting on a bus.
You read that correctly.
He attended a Council-run scheme in the summer holidays, and at the end he got a certificate. For getting on a bus. Here's the detail:
A teenage boy, Bobby McHale, has been awarded a certificate from a holiday scheme in Bury, Greater Manchester - for getting the bus. The teenager, from Bury, Greater Manchester, wasn't even aware he had sat the test and admitted he was surprised to be awarded the certificate.
Entitled "Using Public Transport (Unit 1)" it recognised, amongst other skills, his ability to:
*Walk to the local bus stop.
*Stand or sit at a bus stop and wait for the arrival of a public bus.
*Sit on the bus and observe through the windows.
"It just seems really silly to me," said Bobby, who is set for A grades at GCSE. "At first I thought I'd got some sort of GCSE early. When I read out the details to the family we all fell about laughing."
As you can imagine.
Now I know that modern education runs on the principle that nothing happens unless it has a certificate at the end, but this is just beyond parody.
The full AQA certificate reads:
Bobby McHale (date of birth 22.5.94) a student at Bury Youth Service has completed the following unit of work.
Using Public Transport (Unit 1)
In completing the unit the student has demonstrated the ability to:
1. Walk to the local bus stop.
2. Stand or sit at the bus stop and wait for the arrival of a public bus.
3. Enter the bus in a calm and safe manner.
4. Be directed to a downstairs seat by a member of staff (what, he wasn't even allowed upstairs?)
5. Sit on the bus and observe through the windows.
6. Wait until the bus has stopped, stand on request and exit the bus.
Anyone who has worked in education will read this and feel depressed. Not because it is surpising, but because it is entirely unsurprising. It is exactly how things are done by a certain literal-minded body of 'education specialists'. I don't call them 'teachers'. Teachers teach, lead, develop and inspire. Education specialists just bring everything down to the level of tick-boxes and lists. Guess who is in charge these days (and guess why I got out of it all).
Monday, 10 August 2009
Sunday, 9 August 2009
A box van, yesterday.
I believe life is about learning, and when you stop learning, it's all over. I apply the same thinking to motorcycling. I turn over every experience, good or bad, in my mind, to see if there is anything to be learned from it. If there is, I try to make adjustments to the way I do things, so that future unpleasant things are made less likely.
Most folk assume that bikers are vulnerable and are always being taken out by car drivers (and vans, and lorries, and coaches, and the rest). Bikers are the worst at this; it's always someone else's fault. People think that one accident, or close call, will unnerve a rider so much that he/she decides that the risks are just too great, and hangs up his/her helmet forthwith. It's as if the dice are constantly rolling, and one day they will roll in such a way that the real and terrible nature of what you are doing is made clear (provided that you survive the experience), and you pack it all in out of self-preservation. I have a colleague - an intelligent and thoughtful guy - who hardly rides at all, because he is just waiting for something dreadful to happen to him. He's in victim mode before he throws a leg over the saddle.
It doesn't work that way for me. I try to ride to a system where nothing should be unexpected. If I have a close call, I will look at what caused it. This will probably be one of four things:
- Poor bike control (like taking a bend too fast for the conditions)
- Poor judgement (like overtaking where there isn't room to complete it safely)
- Poor observation (like failing to see a junction where a car emerges)
- Poor anticipation (like failing to take account of other drivers' stupidity).
There is no way on Earth I could have avoided that accident
then that is the day I will put the helmet in the spare room, put the bikes on eBay, and retire to a life of Ford Mundaneos and air conditioning and power steering and little pine trees that smell of artificial nature. Everything else is just learning and a chance to improve.
As an example, I hereby admit to having something approaching a close call this week.
I was following a large box van along the main road, with heavy traffic in both directions and not many opportunities to overtake. The van was doing a steady 35, and I needed to get to work. I got a view ahead of the van on a curve, and the road up ahead in my lane was clear. When a brief opportunity for an overtake arose, I did all the checks, and pulled out to overtake. The chance to get by was a bit of a 'pinch', so I accelerated hard. At the same time, the van I was overtaking started to pull out and closed off the bit of road I was hoping to use. No signal.
Bacause I had left plenty of room, there was no great drama, and I braked and pulled back in, then followed him through and overtook him later. No harm done, although my heart-rate was fairly high for a couple of miles afterwards. What had happened was that the van was following (at a distance of a few feet) a slow-moving car, which I hadn't seen. He spotted the same chance that I did, and didn't look in his mirror. If he had, he would have seen a large white motorbike with a large man aboard, right in the overtaking position. But he didn't. He saw me as he pulled past the car, and had the grace to wave an apology.
I made several mistakes here. I should not have assumed that the van was just driving slowly for no reason. I could not see the bit of road in front of the van (or the car it contained) and so I should not have gone, but waited for the opportunity for a better look before committing myself to the manoeuvre. (Cardinal rule - never try to put the bike anywhere your head hasn't been five seconds before.) I could have had my headlight on, which might have alerted him to my presence earlier. I could have just decided to hang back and get to work a minute or so later. In other words, although the van driver pulled out into my way without a signal, by better roadcraft I could have avoided the situation. My fault, then. No excuses.
My philosophy is that other roads users can do anything that the laws of physics will allow, and probably will, and that my safety is no-one's responsibility but my own. If I had crashed as a result, it would have been my fault - maybe not legally, but if you're in a hospital bed or worse, who cares about legally? So I had a think, and built the experience into the now quite large database of Things That Can Go Wrong When Overtaking. Hopefully, I am a slightly better rider today than I was last week.
And so it goes.
If I ever have an experience where, despite all the soul-searching and analysis, I could not have predicted or prevented it, than I will admit that there are uncontrolled dangers out there for me, and I will pack it in. Until then, every ride's a day at school.
Bikes aren't dangerous. Bad riders are.
Nice to see the 'authorities' taking a positive approach for a change. I write in a number of bike forums  and often the question comes up: What is your ambition as a biker? My answer is always 'To die of old age'.
There are a lot of faster riders than I am, and a lot who probably get a lot more thrills and excitement (and possibly even the favours of young and impressionable women) than I do. But so often they either take themselves out of the picture, voluntarily or otherwise, after a few years. And here I am, 55 years old, riding every day, enjoying every single mile, and planning a continental trip with all the anticipation of a kid at Christmas.
Biking is a quality experience - a way of life, even - and if I have to take a few precautions or restrain my more sporting impulses slightly so that I can do it for sixty years rather than six, then that seems quite a bargain to me.
 Yes, I know that should be fora, and at least one reader of this blog will understand what I mean, but this is teh interwebs, where slightly picky arguments about plural forms tend to attract negative comments about exclusivity and elitism, and anyway, Latin's like no-one speaks it, so it's pointless, innit? So I will bite my tongue and use 'forums'. (I still make a useful distiction between 'formulas' and 'formulae', though.)
Saturday, 8 August 2009
- Never been there
- Chance to go abroad on the bike (never done that)
- Chance to use the Channel Tunnel (never done that either)
- Interest in runes, and Dark Ages history generally
- Offer from a local to show me the best bits
- Chance to meet new people (although this is a bit of an aventure too, as I have no idea if they are middle-aged sprocket-polishers or Hell's Angels wannabees intent on shooting rivals using my bike as the getaway vehicle - but the bikes-only dedicated year-round campsite sounds promising)
- European beer, in quantities.
I now have a new tent!
Thursday, 6 August 2009
The project to reintroduce beavers to Scotland was in disarray today after it emerged that one of the animals had vanished, two had gone on the run and another had died. Police are investigating in the first case after wildlife agencies claimed the beaver might have been shot.
So let's have a look at the evidence for this, shall we? Bullets? Nope. A carcass full of shot? Nope. Man seen shooting at beaver (quiet at the back there)? Nope.
A Strathclyde Police spokeswoman said the force had been made aware of the allegations and was investigating. She added: "At this time there is no evidence of a beaver having been shot."
No evidence. So why the dramatic headline: "Police called in amid fears reintroduced beaver shot in Scotland"?
Whose fears? Back to the first quotation:
... wildlife agencies claimed the beaver might have been shot.
"Might" have been shot.
Come on, guys, you can do better then this. The police have found no evidence, but a "wildlife agency" (names, please) "claim" something, and suddenly it's headline news. It's either the silly season, or someone on The Times has a thing about beavers. (Be quiet, Thompson.)
I don't wish any harm to the little furry toothy things, but I regard this experiment as one of the more risible eco-mental experiments of recent times. Beavers died out from the area 400 years ago. It is not respecting nature, or Gaia, or whatever, to replace them artificially. It's just silly.
What next, buffalo in the Yorkshire Dales? There were some there once, I'm sure.
It had been a specific request of Mr Patch, who was buried today after a memorial service at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, that his coffin should be carried by men who were the same age as he was when he fought in the trenches of the First World War.
But as the last surviving British veteran of the Great War was laid to rest, the message was not of military honour, or glory, but of peace and reconciliation, the cause to which he devoted his last years.
For the passing of an old soldier – the Last Fighting Tommy, as the title of his memoir put it – there were always going to be the timeless rituals of military ceremony: the buglers sounding the Last Post, the medals, the salutes.
But there were other touches, too, that spoke of Mr Patch’s earnest belief that fighting can never be the right way to solve disputes. During the service a chorister sang the 1960s peace anthem, Where Have All The Flowers Gone: the order of service said that the song had been chosen by his grandson “to reflect Harry’s view of the futility of war”.
Equally symbolically, the coffin was escorted by six other pallbearers, including two soldiers from the German army. Dr Eckhard Wilhelm Lubkemeier, charge d’affaires of the German Embassy, who read a lesson from the Bible at the service, said: “We really appreciate the generous gesture on the part of Harry Patch because he explicitly wanted his former enemy to be represented at his funeral service.
“It is a great honour for us and we really appreciate the opportunity of being here and honouring a great man.”
A fine and noble ending to a life. Nuff said.
“By a free country, I mean a country where people are allowed, so long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they like. I do not mean a country where six men may make five men do exactly as they like.”
My feelings exactly.
- Four corners of the UK (the complete coastline is either 3,000 or 4,000 miles, depending on how close to the coast you make your route, but the four geographic extremes would be doable in a week)
- Millau Viaduct and back, via a few Alpine passes and some interesting French bits
I had a conversation with Anna and she came up with another idea, which seems to be rather better than either of the above.
Anna knows a guy in Denmark (long story, something to do with games played over the interweb) who is about my age and a stone-bonkers biker. She mentioned my proposed trip to him, and he has offered a place on his campsite in Denmark for a week. Not only that, but he has also offered to take a week off work and show me round the country. How can I refuse an offer like that?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address ...
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
A teenager on her way to collect her GCSE results was killed after she was knocked down by a council refuse lorry without a reverse warning alarm, an inquest heard today.
Esther Bush, 16, died after walking behind the 7.5-ton flat bed truck and into the driver’s blindspot as he was reversing.
Without wishing to add to anyone's grief, it did occur to me to wonder if the reversing alarm had caused the girl's tragic death. Not the alarm which was not fitted to the lorry in question, but the millions that are fitted to others. We get so used to hearing that annoying bleep-bleep-bleep whenever a large vehicle is manoeuvering, that the two become linked in our minds. Could Esther have been thinking "that lorry isn't bleeping, so it's safe to walk behind it"? Equally, could the driver have been thinking "lorries have reversing bleepers, so no-one will be walking behind me"? He might have been wrong in this case, but it's not a hard mistake to make.
Sometimes, 'safety' features can have the opposite of the desired effect. Seat-belts in cars, for example - they reduce injuries to car occupants, but transfer the carnage to pedestrians and cyclists as drivers compensate for the additional feeling of safety they now have.
The world would be a safer place, and accidents like this one less likely, if people had to think things through, instead of relying on 'safety' equipment that is often anything but. If Esther had had to check and see if it was safe to walk where she did, would she have decided differently? We'll never know, but I have a concern that future generations are not learning to assess risks and act on their assessment. They grow up learning that things have warning signals, or barrier fences, or blunt edges, or safety cut-outs, and that nothing is ever dangerous - and if you get hurt, it's always someone else's fault.
Monday, 3 August 2009
Advantages of a French Raid:
- More exciting and interesting
- Fulfils the 'get away from it all' function better
- Strangely, shorter distance (yes, I've looked at the UK coast, and there is a lot of it)
- Crossing the Channel (always liked ferries; chance to try the Tunnel)
- Weather, and therefore camping comfort
- Food, drink, people
- Chance to give the Honda a really good leg-stretch
- Pose potential, before, during and after.
Plus it's tanking it down again outside.
First, a couple of genuine nutjobs:
And, secondly, what happens if you don't Heed De Word Of De Lord and keep it in your trousers.
Click to make them bigger.
It seems crazy, having just ridden to work through some heavy drizzle (interspersed with periods of rain, with occasional showers) on a day which is more like late October than the beginning of August, but I am quite inclined to the UK coast option. Principal reasons are:
- I've never done it, and it would take me to parts of the UK that I have never seen
- I would be closer to home in case of emergency (not necessarily true in the case of the North of Scotland, but it would feel that way)
- If anything went belly-up (major breakdown, illness, just got fed up with it), it would be easier to abort
- No pesky forrin currency issues
- No need for travel insurance - I am already covered by RAC for what I need.
Reasons against are:
- Weather - no comment
- The tent I will be using is untested, but was the cheapest we could find when the grandchildren wanted to camp out (never happened, so it's never been out of its bag) and so is a kind of 'emergency use only' device, and while you can get away with minimal tentage in France, the UK in September may be risking it a bit
- I think the tent was under £20 - it may be in the category of 'festival', i.e. use once and throw in a hedge
- That's it, really.
I've done a fair bit of camping and have a lot of the gear, although the lightweight stuff is quite elderly by now as recent camping trips have been by car, where comfort has a premium over lightweightness.
I'll have a similar think about the France option, and post about that in due course.
Sunday, 2 August 2009
Then all the crappy stuff happened earlier this year, and these plans were put on hold. We have had a talk about it all, and realistically it ain't going to happen in 2009. I have promised her a long weekend away in the caravan, somewhere fairly easy to get to, perhaps in September or October. Then today, wonderful person that she is, she suggested that I should go away on the bike myself for a while. We're at the point where she can be left unattended for a day or two, so this is feasible.
I am very lucky to be married to this person. How many wives would suggest that?
To be honest, I have had cabin fever for months now. The last holiday was a year ago, and it was a bit of a washout, although pleasant in many ways. We've had all these health issues, and I have been put down to three days a week at work, which has let to a lot of stresses and strains there as I try to keep all my plates in the air on 40% less time and 40% less money. Work has stopped being fun, and much of my free time has been spent on sites like Horizons Unlimited or reading travellers' tales in the bike comics, just daydreaming. I have also spent a lot of time fettling the XT - it has needed some work, to be sure, but at the back of my mind I have been making it fit for a journey, possibly a long one, not just my daily 25 miles to work and back.
So you might say I jumped at the suggestion. I felt a bit bad even discussing it, as the most exciting times that Anna has at the moment are hospital visits (she's on first name terms with about a hundred people there) and the occasional car trip to see the sea, and for me to swan off to Le Continong would seem to be rubbing salt into the wound. But the clincher was Anna's observation that next year at this time, it might be me sitting at home and waiting for the District Nurse to call and give me my meds. She thinks I should do it while I am able to.
Now, I am 55 and not yet a complete wreck, but the signs of ageing are there, and I am a firm believer that you should live for today, as tomorrow may never come. So I am turning over in my mind a couple of ideas; things which have been "one day ... " plans for when the time was right.
1. Ride the British coastline, all the way round, staying as close to the sea as possible. Total distance, about 3k miles, but within reasonable distance of home if I were to be needed in a hurry. I would be mainly on minor roads for this one, so the XT would be the bike of choice, and realistically I would need to allow about 10 days. Hmm... I see from this month's Bike magazine that Nick Sanders is doing exactly the same thing on a crossplane crank R1. Damn - I'll look like a copycat. Oh well, at least he admits that the R1 isn't the ideal kit for the minor roads he is on, so the XT would be perfect, and I can surely get some good tips for places to visit.
2. Ride across, and photograph, the Millau Viaduct in France. This would be a quick there-and-back-again trip of about 2k miles. At warp speeds, this would be a day there and a day back, plus two overnight ferry crossings. The Honda is the obvious tool for this option. I could spread the trip out over about a week, which would give me some quality French chilling time, which I badly need. Last summer, we spent some time with British expats in the Dordogne, and for the first time ever I seriously considered moving there for good. I love the French lifestyle, I know enough of the language not to starve, and they have all the sunshine that we don't get here in Wales.
Plus, I always lose weight when I go to France, despite all the wine and cheese and wonderful bread. The food there just suits me.
This would be the object of the trip:
Sleeping will be in a tent, whichever option I choose. My reduced income means that B&B would be unaffordable in either France or the UK, but I like camping, and if I don't leave it too long the temperatures should be bearable.
If I could find some internet access along the way, I could even blog the trip! I've never travelled alone before, at least not for a significant journey like this one, so that will be a novelty too. I'm pretty good with my own company, so I don't foresee a problem there.
Ho hum, lots of thinking to do.
If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free.
Saturday, 1 August 2009
A squid is a young male, who owns a powerful sports motorcycle and rides it as follows:
- Far too fast on public roads 
- Likes to perform stunts like wheelies and stoppies in traffic
- Wears as little as possible, like t-shirt, shorts and sandals with no helmet.
Squid is supposed to stand for Stupidly Quick, Underdressed, Imminently Dead.
This is what happens when you are a squid and don't perform basic maintenance on your bike:
Just thought you'd like to know.
This dude, on the other hand, is just some normal guy enjoying a bit of off-road fun and saving wear on the front tyre:
And NOT a squid.
 I ought to clarify that. When I say far too fast on a public road, I mean 60 through town traffic, or 105 between lines of cars on the freeway. In my slightly anarchic opinion, there is no such thing as 'too fast' - there is only 'too fast for the conditions'. 20 past a primary school at 3.30 pm may be too fast. 150 on an empty motorway may be just 'making progress'.
I can't tell you how angry this makes me. The proposal is to send University leavers who can't get jobs after graduation on a summer holiday, sorry a significant gap year experience, courtesy of the sodding taxpayer. I expect this will sound like full Old Git mode, but here goes anyway.
What is a gap year? Well, it started, in my experience, when kids wanted to spend some time 'broadening their horizons' between school and University. I thought it was a good idea then, and certainly when I was at Uni the first-year students who had done this were noticeably more mature than the rest of us. Although the idea was to work your way around, it helped if your parents were rich and you didn't have to work too hard. A mate went hitching round Europe and ended up getting arrested by the Guardia Civil in Spain for public drunkenness. He got a few odd jobs to say he was 'working his way' round Europe, but really he was supported by two wealthy and indulgent parents. I envied him then, but not so much now. I would have gone with him, but my parents put their foot down and said I should stay in the UK and work here, so I spent that vacation, and every other while I was at College, working as a hospital porter at St James's in Leeds. (Funnily enough, of all the jobs I have had, that is the one I look back on with the most affection, tough though it was.)
Gap years nowadays seem to be a lot more exotic - Spain is just sooooo last-century, dear, and today's Chloes and Sebastians go to Guadaloupe or Puerto Rico or Bali. Not for the parties and drugs and the masses of sexual opportunities, you understand, but to help those less fortunate, and especially little brown children. It makes them feel like world citizens, I suppose, in a way that my generation never had chance to do. Flights half-way round the world cost 6 months' wages in those days. It is significant that a myriad of companies have sprung up to offer these little trustafarians a 'unique and valuable' experience for their gap years, although not so long ago some of the more serious outfits (linked with Oxfam and some other major players) reported that the untrained and frequently uncommitted little darlings liked partying more than helping, and even when they tried to help were more of a hindrance. You see, building schools and getting water to remote villages and teaching little brown children English needs training and experience, which are two things the trustafarians are guaranteed to have none of. They have only just finished their education, for God's sake. Try getting a position with VSO and see how picky they are for jobs that really help. You need professional qualifications and have to demonstrate your commitment before they will even interview you.
So please excuse me if I am a little bit cynical about the very idea of gap years these days. It sounds more like an excuse to party. Nothing wrong with that, but it's hypocritical to dress it up as charitable works. Spend a year serving out soup to the homeless in Manchester at midnight, or wiping snot and other bodily fluids off the floor in a British geriatric ward, then I will respect your commitment to the less fortunate, and believe that you have done something useful with your time.
There's no price tag on this as yet, but it won't be cheap. I always objected to the 'holidays in the sun for youth offenders' idea, as it rewarded bad behaviour with things that most non-offending young people couldn't dream of. This measure is likely to give the generation with the strongest sense of entitlement since the court of Louis XVI even more reasons to believe that they are somehow special, and that the taxpayer (that's the rest of us, slaving away in insecure and mind-numbing jobs) will always support them in their slightest whim and fancy.
After all, they are graduates, aren't they? They deserve to be treated well. Never mind that they are unemployable at the level they think is appropriate to their qualifications. Never mind that they will be unemployed because they are not prepared to take something beneath them, like secretarial, manual or clerical work, and work their way up.
If you are going to send kids volunteering, as they are calling it, what's wrong with some volunteering in the UK? It's not as if there's nothing to do. We have homeless, drug-addicted, under-educated people, and public buildings that need repairing, and worthwhile projects that need manpower here, too. But they lack a certain cachet, I admit. Blustery Birmingham, or balmy Borneo? No contest.
But that would be 'slave labour', in the eyes of the parents. Sending the little darlings off to somewhere sunny, where they can get off their faces in peace and build up their CVs, is much more like it.
Do you remember the Bizarro world in the Superman comics, where everything was the opposite of here? People who made drinks in the TV programmes and sat down to watch the adverts, that kind of thing? I feel like I am living there.
To save you looking, it's a fairly gentle animation about a girl called Suzie who believes in Jesus, and prays for various things. The outcomes are shown to be the result of human work and ingenuity, and the whole thing is a gentle satire on those who believe in everyday divine intervention. It's not harsh, or offensive (unless you happen to be one of those who are offended by the opinions of people who don't agree with you, and hey, that seems to be most of us these days) and is polite, non-sweary and generally low-key.
And yet some muppet has used the 'flag' button to alert YouTube to potentially unsuitable content, and YouTube for their part have agreed to post the warning that the clip may be unsuitable for minors.
In what sense might it be unsuitable? The delivery is very non-threatening, so it must be the message contained therein. And the message (if there is one; it's more like a gentle suggestion to think things through) is hardly controversial or aggressive in the way that Richard Dawkins sometimes manages to be. I can only think that some people prefer that their children are not exposed to alternative world views, or encouraged to think about things. People who prefer indoctrination to enquiry, and dogma to debate.
And aren't these often the same people who condemn Islam for bringing children up with such a firm view of Paradise and martyrdom that they will cheerfully blow themselves up in the cause of Jihad?
Two sides of the same coin, really.
I am reminded of 1970s student politics, and the 'no platform for racists' policy, which assumed that students were so thick and malleable that mere exposure to racism would convert them by the thousand and lead to white hoods and lynchings across the campuses of Britain. The basic premise of this approach runs as follows:
- There are people that we disagree with (let's leave the question of who 'we' are for the moment)
- These people will influence people in ways that we do not like
- Therefore, it is our duty not to allow these people to speak at all.
Certainly, the recent successes of the BNP in the local and European elections gave them a lot of publicity and air time, but in the end I think that will do them no good at all. Many of the things they are advocating (placing British interests before those of other countries, for example) strike a chord with many people, and these are the viewpoints that have been suppressed by the media for a long time, which has made the BNP seem like a breath of fresh air. But you only have to listen to them for a few minutes to realise that the people articulating the views are not all that impressive, and probably fairly unpleasant characters. Do they say some of the things that ordinary people think? Yes. Do they say things that make people feel uneasy? Yes. On the basis of what we have seen, would we want them running the country? No.
Christian parents who truly believe in their faith should not be alarmed if their children meet other, and different, viewpoints. Children are generally resilient and bullshit-proof, and can spot flummery a mile off. If you truly believe, expose your children to every viewpoint possible (including your own) and let them make their own minds up.
The clip suggests that it is mankind who creates all the everyday miracles that 'save' people. I am reminded of an old but pertinent joke on the topic. Apologies if you have heard it.
A Rabbi is on a world cruise when the liner goes down in mid-Pacific. He is cast adrift in a small lifeboat, with sharks circling around him. He prays fervently for deliverance, and soon another lifeboat pulls alongside. "Come on, Rabbi, there's room, climb in the boat!"
"No, I'm staying here. God will save me!" The lifeboat drifts away.
Soon a fishing boat passes nearby, and the captian calls on a loudhailer: "Do you want me to send you a rescue boat?"
"No," shouts the Rabbi. "I am staying in this boat. God will save me!" The fishing boat sails away.
Soon, he hears a helicopter overhead, and a man is lowered down to him on a winch. "Come on, Rabbi, let me strap you onto this cable, and we will rescue you!"
"No, I am staying on this boat. God will rescue me; He has never let me down!" And the helicopter flies off.
Soon, the boat sinks and the Rabbi is eaten by sharks. He ascends to Heaven and is met by St Peter. He asks to speak to God in person, and is shown to God's office.
"Why did you desert me, Lord, when I prayed so fervently to you that you might rescue me?"
"Rabbi, I sent you two boats and a bloody helicopter. What more did you want?"