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For years I’ve been an armchair cycling fan, following the Grand Tours on ITV’s excellent coverage, and everything else through a terrific range of podcasts including The Cycling Podcast (hosted by proper journalists) and Velovoices (run amazingly by passionate amateurs).  But for the last 6 weeks I have been the proud, obsessed, small-boy-excited owner of a spiffy new road bike. I have become a MAMIL.

Cannondale Caad8

My new favourite thing. No, not the chair.

Where’s the Harley?

Perhaps this is the third phase of my ongoing midlife crisis, which started with this blog just as I turned 40. I try not to think of this blog as a slightly crosser version of my teenage diaries, but with a name like What I Reckon and my built-in tendency to rant, I realise I’m not fooling anyone. The middle phase perhaps started with my fitness/weight loss drive a couple of years later, which then morphed into occasionally taking part in Obstacle Course Races. That has now become a more esoteric and possibly fair-weather pursuit along the gorgeous lanes of the Cotswolds.

As a brilliant spoof article exclaimed, midlife crises ain’t what they used to be. Instead of a boozy trip to Vegas or the guttural roar of a sports car or motorbike, I’ve instead opted for losing 2 stone (and keeping it off), sessions of circuit training and paying for the privilege of getting filthy and knackered, and now Sunday morning outings on a very expensive, but beautiful piece of engineering and design.

Just set up a separate bank account…

Perhaps in an earlier century, middle-aged middle-class men would have sought outlets for their angst in the arms of younger women (OK, I’m thinking of Roger Sterling from Mad Men). Nowadays we’re still finding ways to spend our money, just in more family-friendly ways. There’s a lot of kit involved. Having not really cared too much for my gym/obstacle course appearance (we all look the same when we emerge from a filthy swamp), I now find myself getting very choosy about colour-coordinated tops and bib shorts, even socks and sunglasses… there’s always new tyres, gears, brakes, shoes to consider, not to mention the branding.

It appeals to my inner statto

While I’m less obsessed about the telemetry of my bike (give it time, I’m still a newbie), the whole process of planning routes and measuring my ‘performance’ really brings out my geek tendencies, and there’s no shortage of technology to help me. Apps like Strava are heavenly, measuring segments of rides where I can compete against myself or others. It’s like I’m 16 again, doing the scoring for the school cricket team, looking at patterns in bowling performances or great batting statistics (have you read my posts about cricket!?) .

A bit of self-awareness

Just a few weeks of being a MAMIL has made me more self-aware and aware of others on the roads. I’m understanding how I enjoy climbing hills for the challenge, but also regaining my exhilaration at speeding downhill (just not so much on the steeper, twisty, narrow, sandy lanes…).

When I’m driving I find myself much more aware of potholes and the state of the road surface. I’m more considerate of cyclists, but also more frustrated when they occasionally ride poorly (3 abreast on a busy road, really?).

It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster…

These words of wisdom were offered to me recently, after I had remarked that I could already feel I was improving after just a few rides on my new bike. I’m smoother in my pedalling and gear changes, maintained momentum better on rolling roads, and I haven’t got my shoes stuck in the pedal clips and fallen over while stationary for at least a couple of rides now…

…but last Friday my growing confidence was truly put to the test in the Tour de Creston, an annual event organised by my company’s ‘parent’ group. About 60 of us set out from our offices in Bristol to ride 57 miles to Amesbury (near Salisbury). This was easily the longest ride I’d attempted, and it also included the longest and steepest climb I’d ever encountered.

For the first 2/3 of the ride I was doing just fine. I took it easy to start with, I felt great on the long climb, I enjoyed flying downhill at every opportunity. As we climbed up onto Salisbury Plain, the terrain got lumpier and more exposed, and in 80º sunshine we also faced a breezy headwind that really made me understand what is meant by “leg-sapping”. It was harder to maintain 13mph in the afternoon than it had been to ride at 18mph in the morning. I rode with four colleagues who were both patient and brilliant at pacing This Old Man up the hills. I was broken as we rode into the finish, but my memories of the day are hugely positive. I want, I need to get better at this…

Tired. Happy.

Tired. Happy.

And now the 2015 Tour de France has started. There goes my productivity for the next 3 weeks. I’d better get route planning for their rest days…

Thank you.

Thank you to the people who read my last post about my daughter’s experience and response to being bullied.

Thank you that none of you commented on Facebook’s wonderfully inappropriate choice of photograph to accompany the post. I deliberately left the post without any photos. But I assume its algorithm couldn’t help itself, and alongside the opening line “my daughter has been bullied“, appeared my WordPress blog avatar, a gem from a long time ago…

TwoThumbsUp

Thank you to everyone who liked or commented or offered gestures of goodwill, solidarity and love, who expressed their respect and admiration for her, and who reached out with human kindness to support her and us.

Thank you to those friends and colleagues who revealed their own personal history of being bullied, who offered us their own personal evidence that it can and will and does get better. Thank you especially to the person who wrote her a letter, despite having never met her, recounting their own experiences from decades earlier, encouraging her to look to the future with hope and optimism.

Thank you to everyone who shared the post, so that your own friends and networks could read it. We’ve received the kindness of strangers in the last couple of days. It has been at once humbling and heartwarming, but also heartbreaking to learn of so many other stories of bullying. It is not a new thing. It does not seem to be going away.

Thank you for moving me to tears repeatedly over the past few days. I was quite capable of doing it myself, but now I have you all to help me. You are helping us move forward with positivity and hope, with drive and enthusiasm.

Hannah celebrated a fabulous 13th birthday on Tuesday. She starts at her new school in 10 days’ time and almost literally cannot wait to get cracking. She seems two inches taller than she was a few weeks ago. We’ve not miraculously transformed from misery to happiness, but we are on our way.

Thank you.

I want to talk about my elder daughter. She is 13 years old today, and she’s probably the bravest, most resilient person I know.

For a host of complicated reasons and many depressingly simple ones, she’s suffered with persistent bullying at her secondary school, for a good deal of her time in both Years 7 & 8. When issues have come to light, we’ve raised them with the school, who have responded quickly and supported her outside of these actions. But the bullies keep coming, and are seemingly never short of new ways to intimidate and demean her.

I don’t want to talk about the details of what she’s had to deal with, or my concerns about the ineffectiveness of some of the school’s responses, or that there may be a bullying culture within elements of her year-group. I don’t want to talk about how this has affected Rachel and I, or even how grateful we have been to many friends for their support. I don’t want to talk about how a few of her class-mates ‘found’ and followed me on Instagram, seemingly intent on looking for pictures of her (she doesn’t have social media accounts). I don’t even want to talk about the obscene, pre-meditated, coordinated text messages that led the school to recommend we involve the police.

I want to talk about my daughter. Throughout all this she has been amazing. Young in her year, she can lack confidence in social situations. She often seems more comfortable talking with adults than her peers. She withdraws from situations or people she finds difficult or uncomfortable. And yet, despite the regular undermining of her self-esteem, she rarely (if ever) stopped being enthusiastic about going to school, about learning and discovering. She continued to have singing lessons, has been an active member in the school a capella choir, performed in drama productions, wanting to be involved in the school. Three months ago she picked up a saxophone for the first time, and last week she took her Grade 1 exam.  Her academic progress has been good; none of her teachers have remarked about any change in her attitude or performance. She’s shown more inner resolve and strength than I imagined possible. She has been a credit to us and to her school in the face of ongoing taunting and intimidation from both boys and girls.

When she was asked by the (brilliant) local police officer what she wanted to happen to the culprit behind most of the text messages, she wasn’t bitter or vengeful.

I just want it to stop…

If only I could have been so level-headed through these last few weeks, during which the full extent of the bullying has gradually and horribly become clear. I’ve been through pretty much the full grief cycle, including rage, despair and guilt. I’ve felt ashamed for not protecting her, angry and frustrated at myself and everyone else for the wrongs she’s had to endure.

But we’ve taken steps to make it stop. We’ve worked with the school to ensure the offenders are left in no doubt that their behaviour has been, is and always will be unacceptable. Irrespective of that, she is moving to a new school. We believe she needs a fresh start, and we believe she will only get it in a different place. We want it to stop too, and we’re helping her build her confidence to step outside her comfort zone in the social life of a (much larger) school. We hope she can believe that she’s better than the bullies in every way imaginable and re-start what we hope will be the best years of her life (so far, anyway). Because she’s worth it.

At the end of May we made our now annual pilgrimage to the Jurassic Coast. At once inspirational and calming, this has fast become one of my favourite places in the UK. We camp at the Golden Cap in Seatown, just a few minutes walk from the pebbly beach, the SouthWest Coast path, and the fabulous Anchor Inn, with possibly the best beer garden in the world…

Sunset Golden Cap Seatown Anchor Inn

We were only there for 3 days, but we managed to enjoy a lot of things, namely…

  • 2 breakfasts at the Watch House Café in West Bay
  • Watching the children somersaulting down the steep beach at West Bay
  • Having a whale of a time at the brilliant West Bay play park – far too good for kids
  • Walking up Thorncombe Beacon for lunch at the fabulous Down House Farm café
  • Having salted caramel icecream and making sand castles on Lyme Regis Beach
  • Stovetop coffee in the quiet of the early morning, sat in the sunshine, revelling in the view
  • Making s’mores on the Barbeque. I’m not a fan of marshmallows, but toasted and squished between homemade oat cookies, I’m prepared to be converted.

Perhaps best of all is the experience of  Wessex FM – which we perhaps cruelly rename Toilet FM. It’s the background music in the wash blocks and communal facilities, and it’s completely predictable. It seems to be set about 15 years ago. The playlist below pretty much sums up every tune I heard in the 3 days we were at the site. Disclaimer: I have left out Uptown Funk as the only current track.

Let’s hear it for the boy
You can’t hurry love (Phil Collins)
Candle in the wind
A view to a kill
Always on my mind (Petshop Boys)
We built this city
Sex Bomb
Don’t leave me this way (Communards)
A kind of magic
Wake up! (Boo Radleys)
Holiday!
Hungry like the wolf
There she goes (The La’s)
Oh what a night!
Get into the groove
You give love a bad name

And what’s not to love about that?

Just a month ago I was reeling under a triple whammy of family and friends succumbing to debilitating ill-health. I’m delighted to report that things are brighter (if not fully resolved). It’s a wonderful manifestation of the human capacity for recovery, for mental and physical strength, and (sort of paraphrasing BUPA’s long-running ad campaigns) how f***ing amazing we can be.

The scan results are clear…

To continue my referencing of advertising in popular culture, Carlsberg don’t do phonecalls, but if they did…

The surgeon’s fears after removing Dad’s cancerous bladder were without foundation. Dad is booked in for a follow-up scan in 6 months, but otherwise the prognosis is very good. Even better, he’s feeling and looking fitter than he has done in a long time. The lost weight has gone back on, he’s (probably doing too much) back in the garden and even talking about going swimming again, for the first time this year. All the little things that became apparent while he was ill seem to have faded away, and he’s well. And I won’t take that for granted any more.

Solid Food…

My younger work colleague isn’t quite so recovered, but after months of delays, transfers and confusion, he finally has a diagnosis. And this week he ate his first real meal of solid food in more than 2 months. He is on his way to getting a medical plan of how to manage his condition which finally has a name.

Similarly, my other friend seems to be coping well with her chemotherapy. I can’t comment on what that actually means, but she’s cheerful, resilient and refusing to become defined by the disease.

No promises…

Of course, none of us live with the misplaced beliefs that everything will all be all right on the road to recovery. All three of these people have endured setbacks even getting this far, but their spirit has been inspiring. I hope and trust I can call on such strength if ever I need it.

So, that’s two elections in a row that I’ve been left disappointed. Except this time it was much more surprising. The opinion polls were unanimous; it was neck-and-neck between the Labour & Conservative parties. Until it wasn’t. Or maybe the Labour voters just turned out in areas where they didn’t change the outcomes. Or maybe their campaign was flawed from the start with a leader who isn’t even the most statesmanlike in his own family.

Anyway, it was pretty depressing for a bleeding-heart liberal like me this morning. A Tory Government (technically a coalition) took over in 2010 promising we’re all in it together, but in reality passed swathes of swingeing cuts that hit the disabled, the single parents, the young and the poor disproportionately. Meanwhile the rich seemed protected under the guise of incentives while those receiving benefits were stigmatised. If you weren’t hard-working,  you were a shirker or a skiver.

Yet after 5 years they increased their share of the vote, command an overall majority in Parliament, and despite receiving only 37% of a 66% turnout, can most likely act as they please in setting legislation for the next 5 years.

But, as a colleague suggested to me this morning, “we live in a First World country… we’re not starving, we’re not under military law…” So I’ve been trying to keep things in perspective, and look forward with optimism. And I recall this piece I read yesterday by Simon Ricketts, which I Reckon is beautifully written. I can’t speak for anyone else’s voting intentions, or what shapes their thinking. But this is what shaped mine, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Here’s the thing I’ve never quite got. When I vote, I don’t vote for me.

I don’t vote for what tax cut, what pension benefit, what fuel price freeze, what VAT adjustment will benefit me.

I never have.

When parties promise me things, I can’t help thinking they are pointing at the wrong person.

I’m not rich – in accepted UK terms. But I’m not poor.

I’d love a bit more money. I’d love to be able to pay my rent without first checking that I can. It would be great to be able to pay for a restaurant bill without freezing momentarily when my card goes in the machine,

But generally, I can eat. I can survive, I can feed and clothe my cat. (Shut up).

Thousands and thousands can’t.

I never vote for me. I only ever vote for those who don’t.

I vote for those who never watch Newsnight, who have never heard of the IFS, interest rates, annuity funds, oil prices, deficits, retail price indicators.

I vote for people who need help. People who are much too busy feeding their kids to worry about what colour tie that man is wearing, what clever line that person has rebuffed, what apparent howler that person has been caught on video saying.

It seems simple to me. Vote for the people less fortunate than you. In every situation.

Vote for the people who aren’t looking up. Vote for those who are looking down.

The alternative seems so absurd: “Vote for the person who will enrich me in tiny ways for a little bit, and make sure the other person gets less.”

When my time is up, I can’t imagine happily thinking “I wish I’d grabbed a little bit more for myself.”

But I would be happy to think: “I tried to do something. For people who have less.”

There is to be a General Election in the UK in 5 weeks’ time, and it could be the most complicated vote and aftermath in a long time, something that makes my misplaced optimism of 2010 look even more naïve.

It seems likely that no one party will command a majority of seats, just like in 2010. But since 2010 there have been two significant shifts in the electoral landscape, namely the (in my mind, more-than-slightly depressing) rise of UKIP and the astonishing surge away from Labour towards the SNP in Scotland. Add those to the grim slow-death of the Liberal Democrats since their unholy deal with David Cameron’s minority Conservative Government, and you have a mess, where even broadly ideological coalitions will struggle to govern.

UK election 2015 power share forecasts

See? Simples..!

No points for second place…

I’ve railed before about how my vote has failed to count in 5 out of 6 previous General Elections. In fact, if I’m being all Russell Brand about this, it probably didn’t really matter in the other one either, as the winning party won a massive majority anyway.

When I’ve voted for a ‘losing’ candidate, he (and it has always been a man) has always gained between 29% – 36% of the votes. That’s certainly a long way from winning, but it’s not insignificant. In all of these constituencies and elections, the winning party has barely won an overall majority, and at least a quarter of the electorate (usually more than 1/3) didn’t vote.

The Electoral Reform Group have long campaigned against this system, where so-called safe seats make up almost 60% of the entire House of Commons. But asking MPs and parties who rely on this for most of their power and influence is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Really… Brian May?

And so, in the midst of this confusion and godawful 24/7 reporting that I won’t even go into (remember: just 5 more weeks…), I may have found a most unlikely new political beacon.

Dr Brian May, astronomer, badger-lover, and one of my musical heroes since I was about 8 years old, has launched a new political website and grass-roots campaign. In all honesty, it’s a bit of a mish-mash of his different concerns, but he’s speaking from the heart, and putting some of his money where his mouth is.

I like quite a bit of it, I recognise and connect with its optimism and desire for something better.  I admire its activism. Most of all, he’s (nearly) convinced me that there is a potential to shake the ‘safe seat’ system, even just a little bit.

In all of the safe seats where I’ve voted over the past 28 years, at least 28% of the electorate didn’t vote, which was (usually considerably) more than the entrenched majority at the polls. It’s often the case that people don’t vote because, like me, they’re depressed / annoyed / apathetic at the whole process; either because they knew it wouldn’t affect the result (either as a winner or loser). Well, I Reckon that the more people think and act like that, the more it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My Cotswolds constituency has elected a Conservative (or equivalent) candidate since its creation in 1918. At the last election the sitting MP won a majority of around 20,000 votes. But more than 24,000 people didn’t turn out. Now I don’t think for a moment that those people would all vote the same way, but I’d wager they could make things a bit closer.

Make it count. Make them count you.

I shall be voting for Paul Hodgkinson on 7th May. I’m no fan of the path taken by his party since the last election, but I’m even less of a fan of the Conservatives, and the Labour Party have seen fit to abdicate responsibility for our constituency by selecting a candidate who has never lived in the constituency (and it seems has barely visited it until recently). It’s as if they can’t be bothered, and seems either complacent or patronising at best. I hope and trust that the Labour candidate is a good man, but why should I vote for him on purely party-political lines?

I Reckon we should all vote. Vote tactically if you want to, spoil your ballot if you want to. But the only sure way to ensure your vote even begins to matter, even starts to count just a little bit, is to actually make your vote be counted, by turning up on 7th May and making some kind of mark. It might not change the result – in fact, it probably won’t. But I Reckon our inactivity breeds complacency and apathy among our politicians, and we deserve better.

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