Monthly Archives: August 2011


I don’t know whether it’s ironic or not – it feels like there’s a certain irony to it – but mere days after posting about how “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” types alone won’t prevent future civil unrest, I’ve been made to feel a little like a Daily Mail reader, because someone has vandalised our allotment.

Some context. We applied for the allotment about a year ago, and waited nine months to get one. Over the three months we’ve had it, we’ve done nothing but dig and build and weed and clear, because our plot, a ¼ plot, hadn’t been tended to in a year as the previous occupier had been unwell. We’ve built raised beds, sown grass seeds, eradicated every trace of seven-foot-tall parsnip plants, which had not just gone to seed but beyond seed and out the other side. We’ve planted no crops yet, because the allotment simply wasn’t ready to do so. But it is now, and after three months of toil we’re planning what to plant and when, so we can start to reap what we sow, in a very literal sense.

Last Thursday, a month or so after ordering it, our shed arrived. It’s not a big shed; just enough to keep tools and a chair and spare off-road tyres for my bike in. It’s my first shed. On Sunday, with a little help from Emma and Peter, I built it, atop the concrete slabs we’d lain down a couple of weeks ago in anticipation. It took us a couple of hours. On Sunday evening my arm started to hurt, and on Monday morning when I got up I couldn’t move it, and went to A&E. Building my shed had inflamed a muscle in my shoulder, and I needed to rest it completely for a few days, take ibuprofen, and let it heal. No more shed building, no more digging, no more cycling, for a few days. But that was OK. I’d be fine for the weekend, and then we could paint the shed.

At lunchtime today I got a phone call from Bev, who runs the allotments. Someone had broken into the allotments overnight and vandalised people’s sheds. Some sheds had had their windows broken. Our shed is too small for windows. We’d debated whether to padlock it, but decided not to – if someone wanted to break in and steal our fork we figured it was cheaper to jus buy a new fork than to buy and build a whole new shed if they decided to kick the door in to get at what was inside.

Whoever broke into the allotments opened our shed door, saw what was inside, and decided not to steal my chair or my tyres or our tools. But they did decide, as you can see, to take our paint pot, and throw the contents over the shed door. We were going to do this ourselves on Saturday anyway – a little more carefully, granted, with less paint on the concrete slabs and the door hinges – so in some ways they’ve saved us some effort. But they’ve also cost us £15 for a new pot of paint, and the effort of cleaning the slabs, and the spatters of paint that have landed elsewhere, and getting some white spirit on the hinges, and the effort of dealing with the mental weariness that hits you when someone vandalises your property, more than outweighs the fact that we don’t have to paint al the door from scratch now.

Exeter is a nice city. There are no real areas of deprivation. There are no areas of the city I would not or have not cycled through, even if there are areas I’d rather not live in. There are no racial ghettos, no generations of kids without hope and identities who’ve been caught in a system that doesn’t care for them. There’ve been no incidents of the police shooting local people in dubious circumstances. This allotment vandalising is not the result of decades of pent-up social problems. It’s dickheads out to cause mischief. They’ve not acquired anything, not sent any messages, not made anyone in power aware of their plight. They’ve just undone months upon months of hard work by people who like to grow their own fruit and veg. I can almost understand theft as covetous act; I can almost justify graffiti as an expressive act. But throwing someone’s paint over their shed, smashing someone else’s shed windows, trampling a fence… this is just wanton idiocy.

The police have taken the paint can to check it for fingerprints. I hope they find who did it. I hope I get to speak to them, get to try and make them understand how pissed off I am about what they’ve done to my shed, to everyone’s sheds. Somehow I suspect I wont, though.


After the August Riots

I didn’t expect to find myself agreeing with Peter Oborne, flagship right-wing Telegraph columnist and opinion-spouter, about the August Riots and what caused them (and who is to blame), but I do, and very strongly.

I have a dark feeling that Britain may respond to the August Riots by shifting to the right, by punishing the active criminals, the rioters, looters, arsonists, and thugs, who torched the streets last weekend, and ignore the social causes of the discontent, anger, and disenfranchisement that brought about the riots.

Let me make a distinction here, that I have gleaned from Bill Tupman; the shooting of Mark Duggan and the Tottenham-based unrest that followed is what occasioned the August Riots, was the spark to the powder keg. Years – 30 or more – of political policies that have encouraged greed and discouraged social responsibility (remember Thatcher’s infamous “there is no such thing as society; only individuals” quote), that have rewarded avarice, and that, in recent years, have failed to (adequately) punish expenses-fiddling politicians and risk-taking, economy-shattering bankers, and which have created a society where we celebrate, and reward with untold riches, attention-seeking celebrities and footballers, are the cause.

Don’t get me wrong; every single person who smashed a window, lit a fire, threw a punch, stole an item from a shop, is a criminal, and is responsible for their actions in the same way as I am responsible for my actions, and should be held accountable for them and be punished for them via due process of the law. I am not excusing this behaviour or condoning it; but if all we do, as a society, is punish the behaviour that we saw last weekend and earlier this week, and not seek to solve the problems that caused it, then all we are doing is leaving festering social wounds that will cause more violence in the future.

We live in a country where the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is a self-confessed teenage arsonist (apologies for linking to a piece by Victoria Cohen – it was that or The Daily Mail); where the mayor of London and the Prime Minister belonged to Oxford University’s notoriously destructive Bullingdon Club, a circle of wealthy, privileged young men who routinely trashed restaurants during epic booze binges. (Sure, they paid for their destruction in cold hard cash at the end of their debauched evenings out, but money does not paper over the cracks of an absent morality. Or it shouldn’t.) These are the people who set the example for the rest of the country to follow. Privileged they may be, but they are still arsonists and rioters of a sort.

25 years on from Clegg burning down an academic’s life’s work, from Boris and Cameron rioting through restaurants, is it any surprise that the people they now govern over, having seen footballers, bankers, politicians, royals, and a host of other people who are meant to be our social elders and betters behaving without morality, taking what they want, when they want, with avarice and greed and wanton destruction, paying for their crimes not with remorse or penitence or punishment but with what is to them mere spare change, is it any surprise that the people who have the least in society, have acted in the same way, on a grand scale, all at once, as a violent reaction to this? If a politician wants what they can’t afford, they put it on expenses. If a banker wants what they can’t afford, they gamble someone else’s money for it. If the middle classes want what they can’t afford, they stick it on a credit card. If those who cannot garner credit want what they can’t afford, what do they do?

The Thatcher and Blair governments (with Murdoch’s help) have spent the best part of 30 years courting the interests of business over the interests of society. Social groups have been eroded, culture has fractured, and all the things that offered a sense of belonging and identity have been broken down into ever smaller and more fragile and less valued parts, from religious groups to trade unions to youth clubs and beyond. Contrary to the befuddled idiot David Starkey’s opinion, this is not about race, or even just about class – the fact that we’ve seen middle class students, teachers, and more culpable of rioting and looting proves that, by showing that idiots of all class can and do behave despicably (also, there were no riots in the North East or Cornwall, the most socially-deprived areas in the UK) – but it might just be, at least in part, about removing responsibility and belonging from people, and replacing it with greed at all costs. You could, and some people have and will, blame the cultural products, the music, the films, the video games, etc etc, but let’s remember Marx’s base & superstructure theory; the economic and political base of a culture informs and shapes the cultural product it creates. The two are intrinsically interlinked, symbiotic. You cannot blame one and not the other.

I’m not pretending to be some social or political expert; I don’t have answers to the questions I’m raising here, but if I, in my flat in Exeter, can see that punishment alone is not going to cure the ills that caused the August Riots, then surely the government can? But the problem there is that the government now is made up of people like Michael Gove, and David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, who don’t need research, and reason, and evidence, because they just know what is right, and what is wrong, and what causes problems, and who is to blame, because they are the ruling classes and the ruling classes are better than the rest of us. This week we also found out that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s community allotments can halve antisocial behaviour; if people have focus, and drive, and connection to the products of their labour, and positive interaction with other people in their community, then communities can and will grow and flourish. If people have nothing, they value nothing.

Who’s in control?

Early Sunday evening the police helicopter was loitering noisily above St. Leonard’s, the area of Exeter, very close to the city centre, where we live. Aware that London was experiencing more than a little strife, and with natural human curiosity, we scoured Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone knew what was going on. We found a couple of references to trouble on Cowick Street, a less salubrious but by absolutely no means underprivileged area of the town. The word “riot” was used.

It was absolute bollocks. A couple of people had been suspected of stealing from a building site on the grounds of a school somewhere near us. Ultimately it turned out that they hadn’t done anything wrong, and the Exeter police helicopter blog (so dull I shan’t link to it – you can google if you want to) stated they’d been given “some words of advice”, or suchlike.

Tonight, after work, we drove to B&Q to buy some compost for our allotment. In traffic at Exe Bridges we saw about five Police vehicles, lights on, weaving through traffic. The police are jittery in Exeter. One of them pulled into B&Q carpark in a hurry, did a loop, and drove out again. B&Q was quiet.

BBC News 24 is reporting that rioters are attacking fire crews. On FiveLive one reporter was audibly shaken because his cameraman had been attacked. My father-in-law is in Baghdad at the moment on business. He’s probably safer there than in Basingstoke, where he’d normally be during the week. They don’t attack cameramen in Afghanistan, do they? Not deliberately?

To someone in Devon, the riots are strange. We’re often isolated from nationwide news down here; London, Birmingham, and Manchester are all far away. Things occasionally creep to Bristol. News is like tour itineraries. They don’t reach Exeter most of the time.

Twitter has kept us feeling involved, to an extent. A friend is a policeman in Manchester; he’s reported tonight that he’s in full body armour and “heading into the warzone”. But Manchester have sent a swathe of their police to London to help out there, and tonight Manchester seems to be kicking off. The Manchester police are asking people via Twitter to “dob them in” if they know anyone involved in the rioting.

This is obviously about way more than Mark Duggan’s killing now. It’s also about way more than Theresa May’s repeated mantra of “sheer criminality” that she wheeled out again and again on the radio this morning. It’s about more than Diane Abbott’s “recreational looting”, a descriptor which feels, to me, to get closer to the heart of the matter than May’s soundbite; still not close enough. It’s about more than austerity measures, too, I suspect. I’m not qualified to say what it is about, but it seems to me that, though the individual acts of rioting, looting, violence, pyromania, and idiocy may not necessarily be political in nature, the culture that exists, that has existed for several years, if not decades, which has nurtured this sense amongst the rioters that it is OK to lash out, to steal, that it is necessary, that there is no other way, that no one and nothing cares about them, is political in nature, in that it is the job of politics to try and nurture a culture, at every social level, which does not condone violence and unrest, and which does not feel as if no one and nothing cares.

There’s an audio clip doing the rounds where a young girl exclaims that this is about “showing the rich people that we can do what we want”, complaining about small business owners as if they were the bankers who tipped this country into recession rather than people struggling with the aftermath of it. Whose cars do they think they’re burning? Who do they think they’re demonstrating against by tearing up the shops that make up their own communities? How are even big companies like JD Sports or Currys the enemy? I guess that’s the thing – they’re not the enemy. They’re the holder of objects that people covet, and they’re smashing them apart to get hold of trainers and iPods and so on and so forth. Because it’s about a fight, and an opportunistic theft, and about not having any fear of recrimination. Is it even about that? I don’t know. I’m sitting in a flat in Exeter, gazing over quiet rooftops, drinking tea, typing on my expensive Apple laptop. I’ve just been at my allotment. Last night I went out for a ride on my nice new bike. I have no idea what these people are rioting for. I don’t understand economics and I don’t understanding recreational looting. I don’t understanding raiding Cash Converters or breaking into Oxfam shops.

I do understand that the warehouse where PIAS keeps all its stock has burnt to the ground in London, that everything inside was incinerated, obliterated, that all the people at all the independent record labels that PIAS work with have had years of work and potential livelihoods destroyed, from sales reps to label staff to the musicians who recorded the music on the CDs that are now so much smoldering lino. I understand that all the copies of Patrick Wolf’s fourth album, The Bachelor, that aren’t in shops or bedrooms or livingrooms were in that warehouse; it’s not a big album, it’s a couple of years old; will it get repressed? Is it worth the bother? It was self-funded with donations from fans. How many other albums melted in that warehouse wont get repressed? Can’t afford to be repressed? Will be lost forever? It makes me sad. Maybe that’s solipsistic of me to think like that about records, but it’s something I love, an industry I know a little about and identify with. It’s just one aspect of one industry affected by this though. The furniture shops, the restaurants, the electrical retailers, the clothes shops, the flats above the shops, the houses next to the shops, the people who work in the shops, who live in the flats, who lived in the houses, who don’t have shops and jobs and flats and houses anymore. Heaven forefend, who might not have lives anymore if things get worse.

There aren’t many of these people, in the scheme of things, who are rioting, looting, setting fire to things. In a county of 60 million people or thereabouts it’s probably only a few thousand, maybe 0.01% of the population. How have we got to this point? I keep thinking about the Arab Spring; is our culture as oppressive, in its own way, as those of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain? Is this crowd of Blackberry Messenger-ites seeking democracy and opportunity, or do they really just want trainers and iPods and a fight? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.

Discovery riding

I hit a pothole on a Devonshire back lane at about 25mph yesterday morning; a proper, 3-inch deep crater presumably caused by a tractor (it was amid serious farm territory around Thorverton), and I was instantly grateful that my new bike was a cyclocross and not a straight road bike – the vibration-absorbing thingamabobs on the front forks and the slick, resilient Gatorskins I’ve put on the wheels saved me from jarring my wrists and blowing my front tyre, which would presumably have seen my face end up slamming into dirty Tarmacadam at pace. Nasty, potentially. Instead I carried on as if nothing had happened – because nothing had.

I’ve had my new bike for 19 days so far, and I’ve ridden over 390 miles on it, almost all of which has been on Devon back roads. I chose the bike with those back roads in mind, because they’re the roads I’ve most enjoyed riding on. Since I picked up the bike on July 20th I’ve smashed pretty much all my previous personal bests, from quickest mile to quickest 10 miles, most miles covered in one hour, quickest 20 kilometres, quickest 50 kilometres (I’ve not done a single 50-mile trip on it yet, to measure that, but it’s coming). It’s not as quick as a pure road bike would be, but it’s pretty damn close, and to be honest I don’t want it to be – riding, for me, is about discovery; geographical rather than self discovery, though I’m not averse to the idea.

This is why I rarely have a route planned when I go out on the bike. I often have an end destination in mind, or a target distance or time I’d like to cycle for, or certain places, landmarks, or stretches of road I’d like to pass through or avoid, but I seldom if ever plan anything closely with a map. On a couple of occasions on longer rides with friends, when routes have been asked about, I’ve deferred or delegated any kind of planning to somebody else in the party.

This can be problematic on occasion – when I accompanied Rob and Tom on the second day of their epic Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle, just a few days after picking up the new bike, if I ended up leading the pack I would almost always fire past whichever turning we were meant to take, hear a shout, skid to a halt, turn around, and have to catch up again. Likewise when I decided, after 25-30 miles in their company, that it was time for me to peel off and head southwards and home, I had no idea of the exact route I should take. After a couple of miles headed in vaguely the right direction I consulted the maps app on my phone at a crossroads, but somewhere way east and a little north of Thorverton signal was in short supply and I was left a little discombobulated. Luckily a gaggle of roadies pedalled passed me and one of them pointed me in the direction of Talaton – from there Aunk was a short jaunt, and I just had to climb the hill between Aunk and Westwood and I was back to Broadclyst and practically home.

Normally I ride alone, but I’d rather have company. My aversion to planning routes, and a habit of getting up and out very early indeed (6.45am is a pretty common start time for weekend rides in summer) means I’m not great at facilitating riding partners though, so I’m often left with nothing but my bike or, occasionally (if I’m on long stretches of cyclepath), a pair of headphones and a playlist for company. I’m not sure what I think about when I ride; I’m not sure I consciously think of anything other than the road, the bike, my bum, my knees, my average speed. In company, as usual, I talk a lot, but otherwise it’s like driving – conscious brain switches off to a degree and the task becomes who you are as well as what you’re doing for a while.

There are very few more pleasurable things to do than roll for 40 miles through Devonshire hills on a gorgeous sunny day, turning down any lane you like the look of, slogging up a hill and then hammering down the other side of it – Upton Pyne to Brampford Speke, Little Silver to Exminster (I capped a mile in 2:16 there this evening), out of Sidmouth over the accursed Peak Hill towards Budleigh (I’ve tried it twice and not made it up without stopping yet). But this is all better when you have company. Pete and I did 30 miles together in glorious sunshine the weekend before last, and we both agreed that mornings like that made us vaguely regret all the mornings wasted with hangovers in our more hedonistic years. I’ve been steadily receding more and more from that kind of behaviour over the last decade anyway, having been an occasional monster at university, but it’s no coincidence that these days I rarely if ever have more than two drinks in an evening, and even then no more then two or three times a week. I can’t remember the last time I had a hangover.

These days I’m beginning to find the tribalism of cycling amusing; with a ‘proper’ bike and a couple of proper cycling jerseys now I’m beginning to understand the culture(s) of it all a bit more. These days the roadies wave at me and say “hi” when we pass, like drivers of the same model of classic car, even though I’m definitely, defiantly, not quite one of them. The tribalism I feel is good humoured though; I jokingly refer to mountain bikers as disgusting savages and proper roadies as scumbag ponces. As for ponderous, pottering weekend cyclists, three-abreast on the cycle path and oblivious to all…

My mum and dad, and my wife, and a guy I know on the internet, have all referred to me as obsessed in the last three weeks, as my cycling has ramped-up a level with the new bike. It’s Rob’s fault; I’m jealous of his end-to-end epic. I want to do it myself. I also want to cycle to Portland Bill, camp, and return the next day. I want to do the WWW loop up from Exeter to Willand, Wellington, and Wiveliscombe, back through Tiverton, 75 miles in a day. I want to do London to Paris in 24 hours on midsummer’s eve. I want to cycle back lanes in glorious sunshine, see a turn-off I’ve never noticed before, feel intrigued, head down it, and discover a piece of countryside I’ve never seen before.

And I think that’s why I haven’t written anything on here in the last six weeks. I’ve been writing a lot at work – ghostwriting blog posts for academics, editing interviews, writing copy for websites, but I’ve had no time, and no impetus, no will, to write anything for myself. In keeping my writing diary I’ve realised that I don’t really plan my writing; I often have a point I want to get across, an impression I want to make, or a word count I want to hit when I sit down, but most of what I do is discovery writing; making it up as I go along. For now, at least, discovery riding has taken over.