Missing the Point of the Smiths

People who have watched both US and UK TV programmes will know that there’s a fair bit of difference between them. Most obviously, in the fairness of face of the actors (and especially actresses). UK TV tends to be more ordinary, full of people who don’t sideline as models.

There’s a similar effect in UK music. Nothing to do with looks, but rather smoothness. UK bands tend to produce records that are slightly rougher, and rawer, while US bands get their albums polished to within an inch of their lives. This is, of course, an egregious exaggeration, and I probably deserve to be ignored for this unforgivable episode of stereotyping, but you know what I mean.

But I digress. The point of this is that whenever I think about this sort of thing, once I’ve worked my way past Madness, I think about the Smiths. Because ever since they were recommended to me nearly 17 years ago, and I bought their Best Of album, I’ve never quite been able to understand quite what they were on about. If they were a US band, I don’t think they’d ever have made it big. Their melodies are just too monotonous, they don’t seem to have much cohesion, and their lyrics are bordering on the inane (“Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to“). They’re crying out for a bit of polish like the guy in 127 Hours needed a hand getting out of a tight spot.

Ok, I’ll grant you that “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a bit on the catchy side, but is there anything else out there that doesn’t leave you feeling along with “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”? The songs are usually disturbingly morose, with bland tunes and melody lines with two or three notes to them that develop like a stream of consciousness and are nearly impossible to sing along to because they never develop into anything of any structure whatsoever. The one positive thing about their music is that it tends not to stick in the mind, so you’re not subjected to it for any longer than you’re able to keep it playing.

However, I know there must be more to it than this. They’re so highly rated by the average music commentator in this country, and phrases like “one of the most important bands to emerge from the British independent music scene of the 1980s”, or “the one truly vital voice of the ’80s” are common. They split up over 30 years ago, but still get significant airplay. Which just leaves me feeling like the Jazz newbie who doesn’t quite ‘get’ John Coltrane, and if I only listened to them some more, I’d suddenly twig what it is that they’re doing. So every now and then I go through the painful process of subjecting myself to some more of them. “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”. No, please, make it stop. “Driving in your car, and I never never want to go home, because I haven’t got one any more”. I never never want to hear you sing about that again.

I can only think that their impact was in a counter-revolutionary sort of way. As an anti-statement, against the standards and norms and structures of eighties music (whatever those were). A protest, saying “By making the worst possible music we can, and getting it played on radio, we’re showing just how artistically bankrupt the music industry is.” “Hang the blessed DJ, because the music they play constantly says nothing to me about my life.”

Alright, so I’ve put myself out in the open here, so if you’re a fan of the Smiths, please, I’m begging you, educate me as to what it is that is appealing about them.


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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cyclist

No Borstals were harmed in the writing of this post… 

A few weeks back I wrote about long term cycling  goals. I probably finished it up a little too early, because there was something I wanted to say, but just ran out of energy and time to expand. Shortly after that, though, I went on an Audax ride, which changed things a little bit.

Audax is, in its own words, the “Long Distance Cyclists’ Association”. They run a large number of long cycles all over the country, throughout the year. ‘Long’ usually means at least 100km, ranging all the way up to totally ludicrous events such as London-Edinburgh-London (1,400km). There are two types: calendar (organised on a specific day, where you do it with a load of other cyclists); and permanent (where you just get the route, and you do it on your own, or with a group you organise yourself).

I did one of the latter. 200km, starting a few miles away in King’s Norton, and taking in Tewkesbury and Ludlow as the two points of a triangle. Like this:

SaracenMap Clicking on the map should take you to the activity on Strava. 

Now, I’ve done a long ride like that before, but it was organised, and involved about 100 people (the CFC Stratford 150 mile Sportive). The route was arranged so that you passed the start point at 100 miles, giving you the option to bail. So this one was an entirely different experience.

Firstly, there’s the fact that you’re on your own, tens of miles from home. Nobody to come fetch you if something goes wrong. I haven’t felt the thrill of that anywhere else besides swimming in deep water.  You’re also bereft of the assistance of other cyclists, or feed stations, or . On the CFC ride, the first 30-odd miles were in the company of a bunch of semi-pro guys, who dragged me along at an average of 22 miles an hour. I was also in a group of around 7 that helped each other do the last 40 or so. It makes a huge difference.

Secondly, there was no real point to this. I wasn’t raising money for charity, or getting a medal at the end, or anything like that. I just decided that I should do it, and so I did. I took a day off work and disappeared. I’ve never done that before. It’s just a little bit intoxicating, and I yearn for a chance to do it again.

But anyway, the realisation I got from this is that as much as I’ve developed the people-facing part of my personality over the years, I’m still an introvert at heart. Dealing with people is the only tiresome part of my job. But I only spoke to two people that whole day – one at a pub to order a drink, and another cyclist to tell him I didn’t know whether there was a bike shop in the town. With only myself to talk to, I had the chance to work through all the issues I don’t generally get around to thinking about. Normally, I find my weekly Saturday morning cycle to be like a battery recharge, but this was like a complete spring clean. In fact, I said more to these chaps while passing than I did to humans all day:

Sheep in the road

Sheep in the road passing by Hollybush

And so, getting back to those goals I mentioned at the start. I now have two. One is to join the Audax club next year, and do a few more of these rides. The other is a lot longer-term: to get my Eddington number to 100.

To those who don’t know, Eddington is the number of times you’ve ridden that distance in miles. Mine is currently 52, meaning that on 52 days, I’ve ridden at least 52 miles. This doesn’t sound too hard, but in spite of all the cycling I’ve done this last year (just over 5,000 miles), I’ve only increased that from 48 at the end of last year. To get to 60, I need to ride over 60 miles 17 times. To get to 100, I need <cough> 88 more. At my current rate of about 5 or 6 a year, I’m looking at nearly 20 years to get there. So yes, a long term goal. I’ll let you know how far I am when I retire…




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Long term goals

I wrote, in early January, about trying to fill in the gaps in the exploration of the area around me. Of trying to get to every part of the countryside, to colour in the map, and find new places to go to and discover.

Over the course of the year so far, three things have happened.

Firstly, Veloviewer changed the way that they determined whether you’d been through a square or not. There used to be a 100m error margin, which meant that you’d sometimes get credit for going very close by the edge of a square. This was the case with about 4 of mine – and when they did this, I dropped from a 17×17 square back down to 8×8. Mortifying! I called it the squarepocalypse, and spent the next two weeks going on rides to pick up those squares again.

Then, they introduced a new way of measuring your exploratory footprint. Instead of just the max square, they brought in max cluster – which is the group of squares that are  surrounded on all four sides by other squares you’ve been to. It gives you credit for exploring in a rectangle, rather than a square, and also is more merciful of single squares you can’t get to.

And finally, I managed to get to my 20×20 goal for max square. My map now looks like this:


The blue area is my max cluster, while the blue outline is the max square. The red squares are ones I’ve been to, but don’t contribute to the max cluster.

I feel like such a geek, all of a sudden. Does anybody out there really care enough about this to actually read to this point? I hope so, because when I look at that picture, I have an insatiable desire to fill in those little gaps in the southern area (yes, I already have a route planned to do just that). Not to mention the three or four squares in the centre of Birmingham that would extend the max square upwards (as much as I hate cycling into the centre of town, I’m actually considering this). And what is it about Hagley that has left me avoiding it thus far?

By the way, if you think that the map above is even in the vaguest bit impressive, think again. My cluster there is about 650 squares. The UK leader has over 5,000, and results in something like this. (Click on the middle red square button under the map (to the right of the word “Explorer”) to see what I mean.)

So, now that I’ve got to the year’s 20×20 goal, I’ve got to set a new one. 25×25, perhaps? Or a bit more optimistic at 30×30? Or should I skip that and just focus on Eddington numbers or do a spot of Everesting. Ah, the choices…


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Vélo Birmingham

When news came out last year that there would be a new Sportive on the calendar in Birmingham – a huge, 15,000 rider, closed road affair, I got rather excited. Until the price came through (way more than double the usual amount I’m willing to fork out for this sort of thing). So I reluctantly left it unentered, and went on my merry way. All was fine for a few months, until the day of the event neared. Quite a few of my colleagues and friends had entered, and the more talk there was about the upcoming event, the more jealous (and regretful) I became.

However, two weeks before today, a friend passed me a link, which got me in on the cheap, and thus, this morning found me shivering in the cold on Broad Street, waiting for a delayed start (talk filtered down to us of a problem on the course, which was a bit ominous, given the news over the previous few weeks). You see, the problem with a closed-road route of 100 miles is that this covers a large area, and results in a large number of people that are inconvenienced. Those inside the loop can’t get out, and there was a fair bit of resentment at that. Threats of tacks being strewn on the roads weren’t uncommon, and there was a bit of not-entirely-jocular speculation at the delayed start about protesters burning tyres in the streets.

However, once we had actually started, there were no problems at all (at least, that I witnessed). In fact, there was only one village (Belbroughton) where a number of signs had been put up: “NO 2 VELO. Cyclists: Yes. 15,000: No!” Which is a fair concern. That many cyclists is a lot. There will inevitably be litter (mainly empty energy gel sachets) and a lot of inconvenience on the day. Here’s the view behind me at the start line (bearing in mind there were 4,000 riders in front of me too, and that bunch behind went on for nearly a mile):
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But the overwhelming response I got was support. In every village (Belbroughton included!), there were people lining the streets clapping, and shouting support. One man had set up a “Free Drink!” stall outside his house with jugs of squash. In Bewdley, the ancient bridge over the Severn River was lined on both sides by people shouting and whistling, and generally going mad. I’ve never felt more like either a celebrity, or a participant in the Tour de France. It was absolutely fantastic. I don’t know what the grumpy naysayers were doing (sitting indoors writing lengthy green-ink letters to their local newspapers, no doubt), but the vast majority of communities were out and about, enjoying the lovely weather, and taking it as an opportunity to do something together. One even had music playing on the village green, with bunting flying, and a fair on the go.

So yes – I admit that it did feel a bit selfish having all the roads to ourselves (It changes things completely – the speeds were faster, especially through intersections, and being able to use the whole road without worrying about cars makes it a lot safer.) I’m genuinely thankful to those who had to put up with a fair bit of mayhem so that we could have our day. And to all those who came out and supported us: a HUGE thanks. From those in pyjamas eating breakfast on the pavement, to those having tea and cake at 11, to the crowds lining up at the finish: I’ve never seen anything like it in any of the rides I’ve done, and if this goes ahead next year, I’ll be signing up again for sure. It’s worth the high price all the way.

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Commute, revisited

A while ago (ok, a long while ago), I made a post about my commute in to work. I thought it about time that this was updated, largely due to the fact that I’ve left my central Birmingham job and am back at the semi-rural location I was at previously.

Now, of course, I’m more into my cycling than I was previously, and so instead of just taking the same 3.5 mile route every day that I used to, I try and vary my route to get a bit more countryside under my belt either side of the hours in the office. So here’s an example trip (with apologies for poor quality photos – taking snaps on a phone while cycling isn’t a recommended technique). This was 12 miles long, so probably on the long side, but scenery like this is accessible within 500 metres from my house, and even less from my office.

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Leaving Dickens Heath, past the new development



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Cleobury Lane 

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The highly recommended Red Lion pub. Their dessert sharing platter… 

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Passing Earlswood lakes. 

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Cottages on Malthouse Lane, Earlswood. 

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Farm just south of Earlswood. Perfect opportunity for some Piggery Jokery. 

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Fowlers Cheese – makers of fine Warwickshire Truckle and other cheeses.  

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Poor sods commuting to work on the M42

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Wood End, on the outskirts of Tanworth in Arden, where the houses are big and the people are rich

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Up Seafield Lane, which goes past farms and woodland. 

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Like this one – sleepy cows in a field. 

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Back across the M42, with Eastbound traffic gridlocked. Twits. 

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The old mill at the top of Weatheroak Hill. Previously featured here.

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View going down Weatheroak Hill. I tend not to notice this due to hurtling down here at 40mph. The view to the left was much better as soon as I passed that tree, but didn’t feel like stopping again for another photo. 

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Broadcroft Farm on Watery Lane

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Back up the hill on Lea Green lane. The top of the hill is covered in woodland, so you don’t get a good view from there. So this will have to suffice… 

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The Peacock. As good as it looks. 


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London Revolution 2017

Some rides are good because they’re tough, and challenging (Fred Whitton, I’m coming for you someday). Some are good  because they’re sociable. Some are good because of the route, or the scenery, or the sense of achievement. And then some are bad because of the weather, or the route, or poor organisation.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the London Revolution. But it turned out to be a mixture of all of those. Some good, some bad. Some challenging, and some easy. Some good routes, and some bad. And a lot of good people.

There are a few reasonably long and steep climbs – two on day 1, and another on day 2. The challenge is rather in doing 85 miles the day after doing 100 on the first. I hadn’t done that sort of thing since LEJOG five years ago.

Parts of the route were terrible – rough, potholed tar that shook the bikes, and resulted in a number of broken spokes (fortunately not for me). Steep descents on wet, debris-strewn roads that really should have been rerouted given the forecast of rain overnight. Sections going through busy parts of London, where the traffic is annoying, and the traffic lights more so. But, just like the girl with the curl, when it was good, it was very good indeed. Winding through the wooded hills south of London, on narrow lanes. Up and down the Chiltern hills, with beautiful vistas left and right, fields, and chocolate box villages. I’m still surprised by the extent to which I’m still surprised by the beauty of the English countryside. It’s just unfortunate that being so close to London means that you’re close to hordes of people. I started to dread coming to a junction, and finding that I’d left the peace and serenity of nowhere behind, and was once again surrounded by the swarm of civilisation.

Part of the experience that was new to me was camping overnight on an organised ride. When you have over 1,000 people to house in small two-man tents (now there’s an industry that needs to buck up on its advertising standards), the result looks something like this:

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That doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It felt like it went on forever. Of course, given the seemingly endless number of possibilities, the guy who snored the loudest had to be put into the tent next to mine. So there I was trying to fall asleep at 3:30 in the morning, with rain falling above, and The Snorer, slowly, with each breath, building up  in volume, intensity and exertion to climax in a cataclysmic pulmonary explosion of flailing membranes and phlegm. And then, for a few seconds, bliss! silence!, until his Sisyphean onslaught began again. Miraculously, I managed to make a dash for it during an interlude, and escaped to dreamland in an impressively nimble fashion.

I could go on about the queue for the showers (I missed it, coming in a couple of hours before the rush), or for breakfast in the morning (waking at 5:30 does have its advantages (no, just one advantage)), but you get the idea – there’s a lot of people here.

And it’s the people that I think will be the lasting memory for me. Because this wasn’t a ride where you feel the need to push yourself and compete. I took it relatively easy on Day 1, and finished in the top 2%. This is a ride for the experience, to enjoy, to savour, to talk to and meet others. Like Dave, who I met in the car park before anything had happened. He’s only got one leg, and has severe burns on his upper body. I helped him get his arm warmers on his left arm, because his right one doesn’t work properly. But he did the whole ride. Or another guy whose name I didn’t get, but has a rare blood disease. He’s on drugs that temporarily maintain his current state of health, but at some point any day they’ll stop working suddenly, and he’ll just keel over. He just did Day 1, but will be doing a London to Paris next month, raising money for the Bloodwise charity. I get a thrill out of hearing about people like that, never mind actually riding with them.

So all in all, though – a memorable experience. It’s slickly organised, well supported, and is definitely worth doing. Just use wider tyres, take it easy, and interact. This is a sportive which is definitely not a race – if it’s treated as a couple of day’s riding with mates, you’ll get the most out of it.


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Alternative Time Lapse Photography

My ride this weekend was hill training. This involves finding a half-decent hill, and going up and down it numerous times until I either hit some sort of goal, get bored, or run out of steam.

My closest hill that qualifies is Scarfield (yes, the name has a bit to do with my choice). It starts in a village called Alvechurch, and heads west. There’s a steep bit first (Bear Hill), then a flattish bit, two small bumps as you cross bridges over the railway line and canal, and then a nasty steep bit of around 7-10% gradient for the last half a mile. It takes me between 5.5 and 6 minutes.

But all that’s not really important. Because what came to mind while going up and down, and up and down, was an observation on how this village wakes up and gets going on a Saturday morning. It’s like a time-lapse photograph in slow motion. Each descent brings you back into the village for a minute or two, at ten minute intervals.

The Warburtons truck arrives, then it’s half-way through unloading bread at the local convenience store, and then it’s gone.

The becapped old men walking to pick up their morning newspaper are either on their way out, empty handed, or on their way home, folded paper under their arm. Sometimes I see them twice – once in each direction. Sometimes they’re gone by the time I get back.

The bright yellow van that looks exactly like the one the awesome Dean Williams used to own is parked near the canal for the first five passes, and then it’s gone.

The jogger in luminous pink is stretching up against the walls of the old pub on the corner. She’s halfway up the hill as I come down, and then I don’t see her again.

The view from the top changes as well – the early morning mist covering the village and surrounding countryside in a smother of opacity is gradually worn away by the rising sun. And the light grows brighter, the scenery looks greener, and I linger a little longer at the top to take in the view.

And then there are the few cyclists who gather at the bottom as a convenient meeting place. When, on my sixth trip up, I overtake five of them, I decide that I’ve had enough, and go in search of more beauty in places I haven’t been to for a while.

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