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Cafe Idler

Musings from the Table in the Corner


Gotcha! Triumphalism in The Sunday Times

Gotcha! Triumphalism in The Sunday Times

What lovely people they must be at The Sunday Times, gleefully proclaiming a ‘victory’ for motorists after recent research showed that the numbers of cyclists on the roads was falling sharply – the declining numbers said to be due in no small part to the fact that an increasing number of riders feel intimidated by the speed and aggression of motorists.

            Small wonder cyclists feel that way. Other recent surveys show that as many as a third of motorists do not even regard cyclists as ‘people’ with as many as one in ten motorists admitting to deliberately trying to cut up cyclists on the roads, steering directly into them or trying to pass as close as possible in order to frighten and intimidate. The effect of this bullying – and its all too often lethal consequences – that of monstering cyclists off the roads, is a good thing, according to The Sunday Times; A Victory for Motorists.

             The kindest thing one can say about a piece of crap journalism like this is that it is unprofessional, biased and ill-considered, and not the sort of thing that would pass muster on any reputable publication, and least not in the days when journalism was a respectable profession; certainly it would ever have slipped passed the editors or copy editors of any the newspapers or magazines for which I have ever worked.

            Indeed the reportage is so crass it is hard to know just where to begin, but lets choose the use of the loaded term ‘victory’ as a starting point. For there to be a victory there needs to be a contest, a campaign or even a war, as is the implication in this story – and a war with very real casualties too, virtually all of them on one side. Indeed were one to report on a battle in which one side suffered scores of casualties, horrific injuries, killed and wounded, while the other side – heavily armoured and with overwhelming force – suffered nary a scratch, ‘massacre’ might be the term one would use rather than ‘victory’ and triumphalism in the reportage would rightly be considered to be in extremely poor taste. One thinks of the infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline during the Falklands War.

            Let’s look past that the loaded phrasing and triumphalism for a moment and look at the larger social question. Should the relationship between various road users be characterised as a war in the first place? Is that not rather inflammatory? I guess it comes down to how the editors of The Sunday Times see their roles and the role of journalism – should it be to present balanced coverage, strive for social justice and speaking up for the underdog, or is it to play agent provocateur and pour oil on troubled flames? Someone should remind them that motorists and cyclists both have a perfectly legitimate enshrined right to be on the roads. That vulnerable road users fear for the lives and are increasingly staying home, declining to exercise their rights because they don’t dare is nothing to celebrate. It’s precisely the kind of injustice the noblest of newspaper editors used to campaign against – and should be all the more so today with climate change and carbon emissions being the big news stories of the day.

Spring Forward, Fall Back

Spring Forward, Fall Back

  Long ago when I was growing up in New Hampshire I used to love winter, all that deep snow and astonishing sub-zero cold and tromping through the woods on my snowshoes – right up until about March, when suddenly I would tire of the whole thing and be eager for a change. From then on I would start cheering on spring, delighting in seeing the snow retreat, those first promising patches of bare ground, the piquant smell of damp earth and the liquid treble of meltwater. I revelled in the freedom of no longer requiring snowshoes to go for walks in the woods, but could happily get by in just my LL Bean boots, their high leather tops proof against the slush and mud as I poked along the banks of the brook, surveying my old favourite fishing holes, or re-exploring the beaver bogs after the hard winter, full of jaunty expectancy at the thought that fishing season would soon commence.

            And then every year, sometime in the first week of April, reliable as clockwork, a late season blizzard would blow in out of nowhere, dump a foot and a half of snow, and set the change of season back by another couple of weeks. At least. It always just seemed so gratuitous. It was snow that did nobody any good, a waste, really, of a perfectly good blizzard that would have been treasured in February but in April was simply an impediment, an irritation, a heartbreak. Enough already. Let’s just get on with spring.

            Which is precisely how I feel about changing the clocks for daylight savings time, irritated, frustrated, wanting to get on with the deliciously early summer mornings. For weeks now when I have been going out on my pre-dawn morning rides, I have been taking quiet pleasure in seeing the subtle changes in the sky, the gradual lightening as sunrise came earlier and earlier each day, until this past week I needed my headlamp only for the first half an hour or so, and could enjoy the sunrise as I pedalled along the seafront promenade. But now, as of this morning, we’re back to starlight again – gratuitously, in my opinion, not that anyone is asking. I do appear to be in good company though as regards my dislike of daylight savings. An article I read in the Guardian this week about the EU’s desire to put an end to daylight savings, reported that 82 per cent of British respondents in a poll about daylight sayings wanted to see the practice ended. Alas, it also reported that the British government has shown absolutely no interest in pursuing this. What was good enough for the home front in 1916, when daylight savings time was first introduced, is still good stuff today in their view, so the only change in sight for us is the change back to standard time later this year on 27 October.

Harrumph – With a Vengeance

Harrumph – With a Vengeance

    In a continuation of the Wodehouse-worthy tale reported upon last week, it appears that the redoubtable Lord Winston is not a man to let things drop, even when they don’t appear to be going his way. Having raised himself into high dudgeon over the matter of all these cyclists gadding willy-nilly through the streets of London, unencumbered by the bureaucracy that blights the existence of decent folk, and plainly feeling let down by his fellow peers who are apparently not as consumed by this issue as he is, His Lordship has decided to launch a private members bill that would require that all cyclists be registeredand have license plates on their bicycles.

            In support of his proposed legislation – quod erat demonstrandum – he cites a misadventure he claims to have suffered just the other day at the hands of a cyclist while he was strolling through Bloomsbury (But of course! Where else!) According to His Lordship, he spotted a woman cycling on the footpath and being a forthright peer of the realm, one of the nation’s lawmakers, he marched up to have words with her, tell her what she was doing was illegal and to get off the footpath straight away. Curiously, instead of being grateful to Lord Winston for pointing out the error of her ways, the woman – according to Lord Winston – instead tried to damage his mobile phone, and then kicked him (he doesn’t specify where) before pedalling away. Here, surely, he argues is all the evidence one needs that cyclists are simply out of control and must swiftly be brought to heel.

             In many years as a journalist I have heard many stories, but this singularly well-timed one – the events occurring just when His Lordship happened to be in need of a good personal anecdote to back up his claims about rogue cyclists – strikes me as peculiar in a number of other ways, not just the timing. Me thinks there is perhaps more to this story than Lord Winston is telling.

            For starters, there is the description of the rogue cyclist herself. Lord Winston tells us she was a woman in “her late thirties or early forties” and “clearly well educated”.  

            Now, I have certainly seen rogue cyclists doing hair-raising things on city streets – haven’t we all? – but invariable they have been male, and generally fairly young and aggressive. In all my years of cycling, and assignments that have taken me to cities all over the world, I can’t recall ever seeing a “clearly well educated” (Lord Winston’s words) female cyclist in her thirties behaving like a Lycra lout. His Lordship must have found the only one in existence.

            Secondly, he says she was riding on the footpath when he went up to her to inform her she was breaking the law. This also strikes me as curious. Lord Winston is 78 years old. He must have been striding remarkably swiftly down the footpath for a man his age – or indeed any age – in order to accost her, since even a slow pedalling cyclist will be moving along at eight to ten miles per hour, or rather faster that double-time march in the Army. Well done, Lord Winston!

            Or perhaps she was coming towards him and he merely blocked her way, forced her to stop. I believe the phrase he used was that he managed “to halt” a cyclist – and here my inner humorist conjures an image of a bowler-hatted gent twirling an umbrella and thrusting its tip urbanely into the spokes, although I’m sure His Lordship did no such thing, and does not wear a bowler hat.

            In any event, however, one way or another, he managed to “halt” this female cyclist. And so now we have this confrontation in which, according to Lord Winston, the “clearly well-educated” woman on the bicycle attempted to damage his mobile phone and then kicked him. Being a journalist who is used to asking questions, and teasing out details that are sometimes deliberately left out of the telling of a story, I find myself wondering how Lord Winston’s mobile phone came to play a central part in all this. The more I think about it the more I find myself wondering if maybe he was filming her or taking her photo, or attempting to do so at the time. And when I start my mind wandering down thosepaths, I start wondering how this interaction might have appeared from the woman’s point of view. She may have been pedalling along the footpath, or she may have just rolled up onto it and been gliding to a stop in front of a shop – who knows? – but either way suddenly she has this irascible old man, a total stranger, either blocking her way, or accosting her from behind, taking her picture.. We live in troubled times. If this was what happened, small wonder she grabbed at the phone and gave him a kick, then pedalled away from there.

Whatever the truth of the matter Lord Winston says he decided against reporting this alleged assault to the police. Maybe Jussie Smollett told him it would be a really bad idea. It would be pointless to report it anyway, His Lordship claims, since with no license plate on on the bicycle it would be impossible for police to identify the cyclist in question. Oh he of little faith. Perhaps someone should tell His Lordship that the police are really rather clever at finding crooks who don’t wear name tags when they commit crimes, assuming crimes have been committed, that is. Not to mention all the CCTV around. But hey-ho, never mind. Thankfully Lord Winston’s calls for licenses and license plates for cyclists appear unlikely to be heeded, with most expert commentators dismissing the notion as unworkable, expensive and ultimately a pointless waste of resources. But since His Lordship is like a terrier with a bone when it comes to cyclists it seems unlikely we have heard the last of this.

Daydream on a String

Daydream on a String

  Over the past week or so there has been a exhilarating balminess in the air, not so much in the mornings when I go out on my bicycle, but later on, in the afternoons, when the sun is shining broadly, the flowerbeds are bright with daffodils and crocus, the magnolias are in flower and the sky is a soft pastel blue. Such balmy afternoons never fail to remind me of long-ago springtimes in the 1960s when I used to fly kites. Every kid did back then, or at least they did in the little pocket of suburbia where we lived, an hour or so south of Chicago, in a town called Hazel Crest. Come the warm fine days of spring and every afternoon after school or on weekends the sky would be dotted with kites. It was nothing then to look around and see a dozen of them in the distance, tiny beacons from other streets and neighbourhoods.

            It gave me a quiet thrill to see them. There was at the same time a sense of fellowship connecting these dots and a wondrous suggestion of a great wide world out there, beyond the end of our cul-de-sac.

            It was a fringe sort of suburbia that we lived in so there were still a few open fields scattered amongst the new housing developments, one was just behind our house. It was there we flew our kites, out of reach – usually – of kite-eating trees.  I should add that these were not ‘performance’ kites, those skittish things with a harness and two strings that allow you to dive and swoop and perform loop-the-loops. Our kites were the classic diamond shape made of balsa and tissue, costing pennies at the Five & Dime. To get them to fly straight you’d add a tail made from a few rags from the ragbag tied together. We became quite expert at it. Launching our kites was simple and exhilarating: a short dash into the breeze, then let out as much string as you dared, watching your kite shrink as it rose away from you.  Once it achieved cruising altitude you just enjoyed the simple pleasure of watching it float in the sky. Many pleasurable daydreamy hours passed this way.

            Since these easily assembled diamond kites didn’t cost very much losses to crashes or trees were sustainable. One spring though, when I had somehow accumulated some extra funds, I splurged on a box kite – the cost of these fancier more elaborate models running up towards the dollar mark. I had always fancied trying a box kite – I liked their Wright brothers styling and their jaunty improbability. The one I bought fully lived up to expectations, being not only easy to launch but floating higher and lazier than any kite I’d ever had previously. One flight in particular sticks in my memory. It was a particularly fine spring day, bathed in sunshine; one of those days when colours seemed bright as candy and the air was warm with just a pleasant hint of breeze.. I’d bought an extra large bundle of string – six hundred feet of it – at the Ben Franklin store and went out in the field with my box kite. The light breeze caught the kite perfectly and almost before I knew it I’d managed to let out all six hundred feet and thanks to a just the right puffs of wind my kite was sailing nearly vertically overhead, astonishingly high. To this day I can vividly recall the dizzying sense of looking up at it, and actually feeling a bit unnerved at the steepness of the line and the sight of my tiny speck of a kite way, way, way up there against the hard enamel blue of the sky. I was a little jittery about heights then and my active imagination had no trouble  associating myself with that kite, scarily high up, and suspended by nothing more than light currents of air and held by a slender length of twine. The shivers of vertigo I felt looking up at it were as thrilling as they were unnerving. I loved it. I flew the kite all afternoon, daydreaming at my end of the string while my kite floated effortlessly sky-high at the other. Eventually my mother summoned me to dinner with the cowbell she rang when we were out of sight of the house. I was loath to haul it in, losing all that lovely altitude – six hundred feet of it! I went out again the next day to try to repeat my success and on subsequent days with even more string to see if I could go higher, but could never quite find the right currents of air to get it so precipitously high, or so joyously or memorably, as I did that afternoon, with every inch of string played out and rising as steep as a cliff over my head.  It was perfect.

            It’s been fifty years. Yet another spring has rolled around but nowadays the skies are empty of kites. Today’s kids  do other things. I wonder though if they will look back fifty years from now and recall with similar fondness an afternoon they spent with their mobile phone and an app?

When I am Old…

When I am Old…

As I spin along on my bicycle this morning, exercising my imagination as well as my legs, I find myself bridling over an article I read the other day in The Observer. It was written by a fashion writer named Adrian Clark – a rather stern but distinguished looking man with a silver goatee – who decided to take his fellow fifty-somethings to task and tell us what we must no longer wear and telling us in rather peremptory tones, too. Having recently attained the age of two score and ten himself, he had a Damascene moment about what was and was not appropriate for men in the fifty-to-death age bracket  and being a writer – gosh I know that feeling – he decided to share.

In his opening paragraph, after he establishes his bona fides as one who has – sigh – reached the sobering half-century milestone, he informs his younger readers, those who have yet to have this levelling experience, that despite what they may have heard to the contrary, age is most assuredly not just a number. Fifty, he implies, hurts. Nevertheless he has accepted the new realities with the sang froid of a French aristocrat stepping into the tumbrel, shot his cuffs and retreated from the hurly-burly of London to the coast of Kent in pursuit of a more rewarding and peaceful existence. “As we get older we all hanker for a slower pace of life, right?” he writes, before promptly answering his own question: “Correct.” 

Clearly a man of strongly held opinion. 

As part of this sea change, he cleaned out his wardrobe, with a stern eye to age appropriateness. “Men entering their 50s,” he writes with the conviction of a newly minted 50 year-old, “fall into one of two camps; those who have given up, and those who don’t know when to give up.” For those lost souls who would be guided, he says, look to tweed coats and roll-neck jumpers. As for trousers, ditch the youthful skinny jeans in favour of something with a smart-casual edge, a classic jean made in a luxury fabric, not denim, or ‘a chino that has a careworn vibe’. His tip: a washed cotton twill chino by Margaret Howell, a snip at £165. As for sneakers, he consoles us, they needn’t be abandoned entirely by a man in his 50s, not when he can pick up a quality leather non-branded pair from Harry’s of London. “You can’t go wrong with the Nimble at £295.”

I should ruddy well think not.        

To his credit, he follows his own advice and carries off the style with aplomb, looking far more distinguished in the photographs accompanying the piece, more of an homme du monde than I could ever manage to do. The silver goatee helps, of course, as does the expression of hauteur with which he gazes into the camera lens. I could never pull that off, even if I cared to try.  On me that expression would suggest a touch of gas rather than hauteur, while the recommended haberdashery and the eye-wateringly expensive sneakers would hint amusingly at costume.

But I would not care to try, neither the expression nor the styling, nor at the age of sixty do I feel I ought. Mr Clark may have impeccable fashion sense, and indeed he does, but he misses an important philosophical point. “Turning fifty was inevitable,” he writes loftily in conclusion, “but at least, wardrobe edit in the bag, I can control how stylishly I live it.” Of course he can, and to his own taste, but turning fifty was no means inevitable. Any more than turning sixty will be. Or seventy. Or eighty. Or fifty-one, for that matter. There are no guarantees in life, only the moment in which you are living, and the genuinely inevitable fact that when you have passed your two score and ten, the clock is necessarily ticking louder and more insistently than ever. Surely, if ever there was a time in your life to defy convention, not take yourself too seriously, and give short shrift to those who would tell you what you ought to wear and how you ought to wear it, it’s the back side of fifty.

And so with all due respect I think I shall quietly set aside his well-meant advice and instead take my fashion cues from that gleeful ode to non-conformity by Jenny Joseph: “When I am old, I shall wear purple… with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…”



I read the other morning, over my bacon and eggs, that Lord Winston feels it is high time something is done about all the “hoodlums in Lycra” that are gadding about London’s streets these days causing His Lordship no end of anxiousness when he crosses the street in front of the House of Parliament. In this, apparently, he found ready agreement from his fellow peer, Lord Sharkey who described the crossing of the street in front of Parliament House ‘an accident waiting to happen’ especially during the rush hour and all because of cyclists.  One could be forgiven for thinking this rather quaint-sounding exchange came from an archived story from The Times, circa 1896, or perhaps something from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, but no, it was from the BBC’s news website, reporting on a discussion in the House of Lords this week.

I have often wondered where the Wodehousian world had crawled off to die, and now I know: it hasn’t. How very like an English Milord of popular myth to take matters thus in hand. In a city beset by a wave of knife crime, with stabbings and murders taking place routinely, and police resources stretched to breaking point – the wool-gathering Lordships feel that cyclists are the menace that must be tackled if London’s streets are to be made safe.

Their answer of course, as is their answer to most things, is regulation and plenty of it. They know just  the stuff to give the troops – licenses and insurance, taxes and bureaucracy and vigorous enforcement of this vast new regulatory environment they envision. With three million new bicycles sold every year, that ought to give everybody plenty to do, what?

As Lord Wills noted, in chiming into this feast of reason and flow of soul, of the 38 police forces to hand out fines to irresponsible cyclists last year, 30 of them had issued fewer than five. Twelve had issued none. Surely, he argued, such a state of affairs can’t be allowed to stand.

Leaving aside all the knife crime, the stretched resources and the mountains of paperwork already burdening Britain’s beleaguered police forces, the detail that of the 1800 people killed on British roads each year, cyclists typically account for between zero and two (if it’s been a bad year) seems to have escaped their Lordships’ notice. As does the fact that according to the government’s own research 86 per cent of motorists exceed the speed limit in 20mph zones, 54 per cent exceed the 30mph limit, and more than a third admit to using a mobile phone while driving. To say nothing of the estimated one million uninsured drivers out there, and the estimated 10,000 motorists who are legally still driving on Britain’s roads despite having accumulated enough points on their licenses through speeding and drink driving to (theoretically) ban them from getting behind the wheel.

If one could but summon the nerve, one would like to doff one’s cap, touch one’s forelock, approach the bench and humbly suggest that perhaps there are more pressing matters of public safety and law enforcement out there in that great wide world beyond the Lords Chamber than the odd errant cyclist, and that if, when crossing the street in front of Parliament House their Lordships lowered their snoots a little, raised their lorgnettes to their eyes and remembered to look both ways, their difficulties with cyclists might just resolve themselves. Who knows? Be worth a try anyway.