Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The finer point

Television: on the turntable
After the initial excitement of repatriating my record collection to my house and wiring up the turntable, there was a bit of an anticlimax. Listening to a selection of discs it became apparent that they didn't sound that great. Never mind what Neil Young says, it wasn't a patch on CD quality. It sounded fuzzy, muted and just rubbish really.
The Feelies: they've reformed
I put this down to a few things: the crap quality of the vinyl that a lot of the discs were made of (the Eighties/Nineties was the end of days for vinyl and some albums and 12 inches were practically flexidiscs); the decrepitude of my equipment (sorry dad, but the Sansui and B&W speakers are past pensionable), and the ancient stylus on the turntable.
The last one was the thing that I could do something about. The stylus had never been changed - shrugs shoulders - but who changes them anyway? I can't remember any of my mates thinking it was a big deal back in the day, despite the fact that record shops and chains like Woollies and Boots usually had a cabinet of them. Most of us had crap music systems that we assumed we'd better one day, so styluses were fairly far down our priority list. I didn't even know how to change one.
However, with my little trip into the musical past, I was prepared to give it a go, otherwise there didn't seem much point having the vinyl if it couldn't be played. Can you even still buy them?
Fugazi: turned me upside down
Well, yes you can and it wasn't very hard to track down a replacement for the Sansui FR-D25 turntable. The new stylus was £18 and turned up within two days with an anti static cloth that I added to my order.
After consulting Dr YouTube to find out how to change a stylus, I was in business, and my oh my, what a difference it makes. The old stylus must have been as blunt as a very blunt thing.
Drake: mellow classic
Suddenly I get it. I'm hearing stuff on records like Surfer Rosa, Marquee Moon and Five Leaves Left that I can't remember hearing before. Perhaps there's an element of overcompensation and I'm hearing what I want to hear, but I can't deny that it's great to listen to these discs anew on the format they were recorded for. Even the crackle and blips are endearing - I've got a fair few pre-loved albums, including the aforementioned Television and Nick Drake disc, and they still sound great.
Whether there is really a sound difference, or I'm just enjoying a trip down memory lane, I don't know, and frankly I don't care. I'm not going to repurchase a lot of this stuff on CD, and listening on streaming services like Spotify or even YouTube starts to get a bit like the musical equivalent of fast food. It is flat and invariably you're listening through less that optimum equipment.
UFO: Schenker's on fire
There's also the appreciation of the album sleeves, which I'm posting to Instagram as I work my way through the collection. That £18 could be one of the best investments I've made.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Tough of the Track

Two wheels good
My eldest has been going to a grasstrack racing group this summer, run by a great local cycling club, Colchester Rovers.
Grasstrack - I had no idea either - is exactly what it sounds like. Kids race around a grass track on fixed wheel cycles, which the club provides if you don't have one, which we don't.
It has been great fun and really plays to his competitive side, which is becoming more apparent as he gets older. In recent weeks he's been doing quite well, especially as some of the more established youngsters have been racing for longer and have a bit more track nous, as well as more gear.
There is a little league table and he's been pleased to have been near the top. On Monday night we went and I had to remind him to change out of his school kit into something more sporty. "Why? It doesn't matter," he protested, but changed anyway.
It was probably just as well, as he won two of his three races and now sits at the top of the league table. If he'd done it in school shorts, it might have looked like he was taking the Michael.
It was the nearest I've got to a real Alf Tupper moment, even if he didn't turn up eating fish and chips. He run 'em all!

Crackle and hum


No automatic alt text available.I visited my mum at the weekend and after years of promising, I finally took my vinyl record collection from her garage. It has been there for about nine years, and before that, it had been in my old bedroom since 1988 when I came home from university. Soon after that, the CD age kicked in, and although I moved house fairly regularly in my post-college days, the 12 inchers stayed put.They were played very infrequently after that, locked away in a cupboard in my minuscule room. When mum moved house, I had to box them up and she was kind enough to take them with her. Although I had my own flat in Hackney by then, it wasn't huge, and I didn't have a record deck to play them. They could easily have gone the way of my huge collection of music 'inkies' - Sounds, NME and Kerrang magazines that I would buy avidly in the teens, twenties, and thirties. These were given away after I discovered that their value - huge to me - was not appreciated by anybody else.I was obsessed with music, like many people of my age. There are so many more passions and pastimes for kids these days, or so it seems. Maybe it's just that my two are a bit young to have got the bug yet. I didn't really start to get into music until I was about 12 and moved to England. 
For me, heavy metal was my entry point. Not very cool, I know, although more so now that it ever was when I was a youth. However, it opened up a peer group for me. I was even briefly in a hard rock band with some school friends - initially as timing challenged drummer, and then as singer, the job that no one ever wanted.
After that my tastes broadened quite a bit, and so did my purchasing habits. I noticed that some of the older guys who I admired didn't feel the need to stick to just the one genre, so although I didn't ditch my love of the hard stuff, it wasn't the only thing that interested me.
Albums were relatively hard to get hold of until I got my first jobs - newspaper rounds, milk rounds, cleaning jobs, and the big break, a summer holiday working in the local bread factory. I felt like a millionaire taking home nearly £200 a week (sounds a fortune, but I doubt you'd get away with doing the hours I had to, these days).
With cash in my pocket and albums at £4-5 a pop, my collection quickly built up. I'd listen to them on my dad's old separates system or a small unit in my bedroom, making mixtapes for friends and people I wanted to impress with my catholic tastes.
Our local record shop, Buzzard Records, was a chart return shop, so there was always a stack of cheap singles and 12 inchers to be had as sales guys dropped off loads of free copies to try and hype tracks into the charts. Consequently, I've got a whole subgenre of singles by no-hit wonders who nevertheless produced great little pop moments.
I was obsessed by vinyl at that time in my life. I even took my growing record collection to university with me. It seemed inconceivable that I would leave it behind. Your music collection spoke volumes about the kind of person you were, or so I thought. I remember reading somebody saying that they'd go to parties and if the person didn't have a copy of Psychocandy in their collection, then they'd leave.
I wouldn't go that far, and I do have a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain's first album.
Anyway, I've opened up a the first carton of albums - T-Z, of course it's alphabetised. There's quite a lot of Throwing Muses and Tom Waits, a forgotten diamond by One the Juggler (hang on, that's not T-Z - my filing system has been compromised), Tracey Thorn's lovely first solo album, and a red vinyl copy of an album by former Gillan guitarist Bernie Torme, who I was obsessed with for ages (I once sat listening to the top 40 convincing myself during the countdown to the new number one, that it must actually be him, as his latest single hadn't been played. Of course, it hadn't made the top 75, nevermind the 40).
As well as the six crates of records, I brought back my dad's old Sansui record deck, which still works, although the stylus may be a bit worn. Either that, or the records are just scratched to bits. Maybe after years of listening to pristine CD quality sound, the background crackle is more obvious than it was back in the day. I think we lived through the era of crap vinyl anyway. It was noticeable when you bought an older record. The original copy of Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left I picked up from the record shop on Camden Lock bridge (what was that called?) was move satisfyingly solid than many of the records I subsequently bought new, including the Drake compilation, Heaven in a Wild Flower, that got me into him while I was at university.
At the moment, I feel like the Howard Carter of music, going through the crate and plopping stuff on to the deck. Twenty minutes of music - the length of one side of an album kids - also seems so much more civilised than the interminable tyranny of the unedited CD. We thought it was great to get more value for your money, but really it seemed to encourage a lack of editorial quality control. A side of an album passes very quickly, forcing you to refocus every 20 minutes on what to listen to next.
After a long break from the vinyl, it seems quite hip to be listening to slabs of plastic played with a needle. The vinyl revival is now a big thing, although I can't see myself being sucked back into buying it. This is a little holiday in the past.
The last vinyl record I think I bought was Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? I got it 22 years ago at a release party at Virgin Records where the band played some numbers, and I got it signed by Noel and the drummer (sorry fella, I can't remember your name). As such, it was more of an artefact, especially as I had nothing to play it on. My then girlfriend bought the CD which was what we played.
It might be in one of those unopened boxes, although I've a feeling it may have been lost when we moved house as I think I kept that particular item close for a while.
Never mind (an album I don't have on vinyl). There are still plenty of memories to dig out.


Friday, June 09, 2017

About last night

In his braggadocious march on the White House, Donald Trump boasted that Americans would be 'winning' so often under his leadership that they'd get sick of it.
The feeling has been the opposite for many of us in the UK for the past couple of years. I'm talking about the left here obviously.
First there was the 2015 election win by David Cameron's Tories, made worse by the fact that the Lib Dems were virtually wiped out after shouldering an unfair amount of blame for the sins of the coalition - in my opinion.
Then there was last year's European referendum, which Cameron was bounced into when he landed that unexpected majority.
And, of course Trump. How the hell did that happen America?
I'll put aside various local elections and by-elections when it seemed as if Labour was incapable of pulling out of terminal tailspin.
No wonder Theresa May was licking her lips at the prospect of a snap election to lock in her good fortune to be the leader of the government at a time of such disorganised opposition with a leader who was being lampooned by the press and disliked and distrusted by the electorate. What could possibly go wrong?
There will be plenty of amateur and professional pundits picking over that one for years to come. It's still barely believable that Tess May snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Tories are the biggest party, yes, but with a reduced number of seats, no majority, and now seemingly in bed with a bunch of oddballs, the DUP.
And it is May who must carry the can, although at the minute she seems determined to carry on as if nothing has changed. Whether it was her decision or Lynton Crosby's to focus the campaign on the presidential qualities of May, barely matters now. What is incredible is how unable or unwilling they were to change tack once it started to become apparent that May was a liability.
There were so many cock ups, which could have been opportunities to reset the Maybot and try something new - the regal announcement she wouldn't debate with Jeremy Corbyn; the embarrassingly stagey stump speeches to party members; the robotic repetition of campaign slogans; the inability to think on her feet; the car crash interviews supposedly designed to show her normality (girls jobs and boys jobs, running through wheatfield...), and, of course, the U-turn on the Dementia Tax.
It's surely be an indication of how inbred Tory culture is that in 20 years as an MP nobody seemed to cotton on to how weird she is. She seemed normal to them.
As May became more strange, and the very opposite of strong and stable, Jeremy Corbyn seemed to hit his stride. I'll put my cards on the table and say that I wasn't a fan of him becoming a leader. I didn't rush to join the Labour Party to support him or any other candidate, so this is a purely personal opinion.
His appeal, to me, seemed to be to a group of people who were involved in fantasy politics, and more interested in some form of unrealistic ideological purity than the hard and dull business of winning and exercising power. Having lived through the 80s when it seemed as if Thatcher would never be usurped, my political inclinations are towards the need to compromise and devise realistic policies that won't alienate those you need in the broad church needed to win power.
Mind you, that approach didn't help Ed Miliband, whose 2015 manifesto was so uninspiring it barely stood a chance. The monstering of the right wing press didn't help either.
So while Corbynistas got more and more excited about their man, I harrumphed on the sidelines, much like most of the PLP.
But as the election campaign went on, Corbyn's appeal became more apparent against the strangeness of Theresa May. While she walked around empty factories where Tory supporters were bussed in after the real staff went home, he spoke to people wherever he found them. Both spoke to the converted, but his crowds were bigger, more enthusiastic, and made up of normal people. A lot of the content from Corbyn was old time religion for the Labour tribe, but people lapped it up, and not just party members. While she became more stilted as the campaign went on, Corbs started to find his Mojo, and although he wasn't on the cover of that particular magazine, he made it on to the front of Kerrang! and NME. He sounded normal and like the avuncular, chap that his people had spoken about, whether making self deprecating gags about his allotment, or waxing lyrical about Arsenal to a couple of fans, who obviously thought this old dude was alright.
In some ways, I think Corbyn benefited from having steered clear, or been avoided by, the mainstream media. Lots of people knew little about him, so when his profile began to build, it didn't tally with the increasingly foam flecked efforts of the Hate Mail and S*n to monster him. People liked him.
All of which was all very well, but having awoken enough over the past couple of years to news that your side really wasn't winning, I was cool on Labour's prospects, even as the chaotic opinion polls seemed to show that it was cutting into a Tory lead that had been more than 20% at one point. It could all still change on polling day. Predictions seemed meaningless - anything from Labour dropping to a rump of 150 seats of less, to doing... quite well. Anything seemed possible.
To be honest, I started out not caring about this election. I was angry, and still am angry, about the referendum, which to my mind is a piece of national self harm. I was angry about the people who voted for it and who continue to defend it. And I was angry at the Tories, for... well, reasons.
I was also angry at Corbyn's Labour Party for not getting its act together, and for turning into a kind of self-righteous cult that seemed to have no real interest in gaining power. Everything seemed such a foregone conclusion, what was the point?
But it started to change as the campaign progressed. I don't think that's been unusual. In my constituency, I decided that I was going to vote for the Lib Dem candidate, and four-time election winner in Colchester, Sir Bob Russell. It was a tactical vote. It seemed to be more important to try and limit the inevitable Tory landslide where I could, than vote for a party that I had always voted for.
As the weeks went on, my opinion shifted. There has been a real energy among the Labour people in the town and lots of activity. A poll claimed that Labour had overtaken the Lib Dems - no one was sure how robust it was, so I was still undecided. It didn't even seem to matter that much, as I was convinced that the local Tory candidate would be a shoo in.
In the end I decided as I got on my bike to cycle to the polling booth. My neighbour, who was displaying Labour posters in his window was in his garden and I stopped to chat to find out what he thought was the real state of play in the town. He had been unenthusiastic about Corbyn, but spoke passionately about the people in the local Labour team and how there did seem to be Labour surge in the town, and in the region (well done Ipswich). He thought that Labour had overtaken the Lib Dems, and pointed out that in a growing town like Colchester, who knew what could happen in the years ahead with young people and families making their homes here.
His enthusiasm got to me. He kind of told me what I wanted to hear, so I did vote for Labour candidate Tim Young. He didn't win, but he did come second, and he more than doubled the Labour vote so that they are now near enough to make the Tories sweat. Who knows what could happen next time?
Last night, Charlotte and I sat up doing the Guardian Weekend quiz - we are such cliches - not bothered about turning over to see the exit poll in real time. I wanted to know, but didn't expect much, so the prediction - now fact - that Labour had eaten into the Tories lead, and prevented a Tory majority was gratifying.
As we tuned in, John McDonnell was telling Dimbleby that the Tories had run a campaign based on nastiness and dragging politics into the gutter, much to Michael Fallon's surprise - he obviously thought they were still at the polite chit chat stage of proceedings. That made me laugh, and the prediction made me take a sharp intake of breath.
All day, people like me have had a spring in their step. There were conspiratorial grins from fellow 'saboteurs' on the school run. My neighbour was practically bouncing round the garden as he deadheaded his roses.
Tomorrow there will be a bit of sober reflection. Labour did come second after all. There's a lot that is unclear. Brexit still beckons and there could be another general election before the end of the year. The Tories can't run a campaign as bad as that again, can they?
For tonight though, I'm going to put that to one side, have a beer and feel a bit better. People have voted for hope and an alternative to the Tories offer of more of the same and a seventh year, and counting, of austerity. And in case I haven't made it clear, I have to say that I was obviously wrong about Jeremy Corbyn. The boy done good.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Be kind

Having lived in England for more than 30 years, I still remember how cold the winters could get in Scotland. There was onein the Seventies where our little council estate on the moors was effectively ice bound. The roads were hard packed snow, which made driving on them impossible in today's terms.
The village had a lot of elderly people who couldn't venture out beyond their doorstep. Even the bus that connected the village with the nearest town, Lanark, was not able to get to us.
I was young at the time, but I have a very clear memory of that particular winter. My dad, who worked shifts in a factory in another village, obviously had a sense that something had to be done. He knew that the old folk of the village needed a bit of looking after. He drove his Vauxhall Viva to the local shops and filled the boot with bread, driving round the village and looking in on the auld yins to see if they were alright and if they'd prefer a loaf of pan or plain.
It popped into my mind this evening.
It has not been a particularly good day for progressive parties with the Tories rampant in the local elections and looking to be similarly so in next month's general election.
I don't think there's much I can do about that. The die is cast. From my perspective it will be an awful result, but as a good democrat, I can do nothing more than accept the will of the people... the bastards!
To me, it doesn't seem like we're heading to a good place. Brexit doesn't look like a sunny uplands to me. As a country, I reckon that we'll end up a diminished, more insular, and more insignificant entity. We'll probably not even notice, like the frog being boiled.
But it doesn't matter what I think. The people have spoken and, knowing the pig-headed nature of the Brits, people aren't going to back down now and say that they've made a mistake. We're on a railroad that leads over a cliff/heading for
a prosperous future as a globally facing, strong and stable country (delete as appropriate).
I think we're on a road that will see a lot of people hurting, and there's no quick turnaround. The May Queen will have five years to do pretty much what she likes. Who will stop her? Ironically, the EU may yet be a partial saviour as the energy required to Brexit will distract the Tories from pulling the roof in (spoiler alert - the UK won't be able to do exactly as it wishes in globally connected economy. This isn't the 17th century. The future may not be so glorious).
I think that the May years will be seen as a time when many will feel that their dreams have been thwarted, when we all retrench a bit, and the world starts to feel a bit more scary.
I hope I'm wrong, but the past few years have seen people electing to go down roads that seems further and further away from an idea of community, whatever that means - all in it together, or pulling up the drawbridge.
My idea of community is quite old fashioned and simple. It's my dad with his boot of bread going round, knocking on doors and seeing if people are okay. Community minded action like that wasn't unusual, but it wasn't the be all and end all. The council provided our houses, the kids all went to the local school, and there was one NHS doctor in the village. People valued those services because their parents remembered the time when they didn't exist.
Maybe I'm catastrophising and all will be well. But I have no faith in Tess May's Tories, and I don't think that an alternative is around the corner. I think that Britain, England really, will stew in its juice for a good long time, and people will suffer.
We could agitate, educate, organise... and we must. But we must also be kind. That's what I'll be trying to do over the next five years. I would anyway. It's how I was brought up. Now it seems more essential than ever.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Anyone can write a children's book

I suppose there are worse people to write a book for children than George Galloway. As far as I know Margaret Thatcher never troubled the world with her thinly disguised views on how children should behave. She was too busy explicitly telling grown adults how they should follow the upright path trodden by Alderman Roberts. Of course, there is a revisionist view...

The one time Labour and Respect MP is to write a series of books about an ethical pirate described as a sort of Robin Hood of the high seas. No rum swigging or libidinous behaviour it seems - well, it is for children. Maybe I'm being unfair on Galloway. The old goat has four children under ten, so he's probably already tried out some of his material on them and may be on to a winner.

Mind you, they're not always the best audience. My eldest son used to inveigle me to repeatedly tell a story I made up about a jobsworth parking warden trying to ticket a Martian's flying saucer. He thought it was brilliant. I doubt the rest of the world would have agreed.

Then again, if I had a higher profile, it wouldn't really matter. Do children's publishers fall for the amazingly creative stories that celebrity writers bring to their doors, or simply see them as a more marketable commodity? Whatever else they have, these writers have a level of awareness with the public that will open doors when the book comes out, no matter the quality.

There seems to be a feeling that anybody can write a children's book. Sarah Ferguson, David Walliams, Ricky Gervaise, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard, Katie Price, Madonna, Keith Richards...
actually there are loads of them.

We're all supposed to have a book in us. What convinces so many that it's one for kids? Not all celebrity writers have children of their own and not all of them need the money, although the well off never seem happy with their financial lot. Could it be that it's just a bit easier than writing other books?

I think it is. There are fewer words and more of the heavy lifting is done by talented illustrators who probably don't get a 50:50 split. Thematically and stylistically, it's usually not to difficult to spot an inspiration - a Dahl here, a Dr Seuss there. It's all a bit cosy and obvious. There isn't too much evidence of taking on tough themes or of being especially creative.

"Where's your book, you hater?" I hear you ask. Good question. I have written books, but none for children. I don't think I'm imaginative enough. I could hack out a genre kids' book I'm sure - tales of derring do for boys, whimsical escapism for younger children - but would it be any good? Good enough for home consumption, but for a wider market? Probably not.

Not that it stops the new celeb literati. Do they actually even write them? We know from the examples of Zoella and Naomi Campbell that it ain't necessarily so. It's all about the brand. Never mind the quality, buy the lunch box, T-shirt or action figurine.

Great children's books inevitably achieve an enviable merchandising afterlife these days, but that wasn't the original inspiration for Roald Dahl or Judith Kerr or Eric Carle or Lauren Child. They wrote because they had to - to get something out of themselves or to make a living. It wasn't a nice little extra to add to their portfolio of interests, and they probably didn't expect that they would command an audience by right. That's a difference.

Anyway, good luck with that George!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sporting life

I was listening to Katherine Grainger on Desert Island Discs this week. She probably weighs her Olympic and World medals rather than counts them. Not many of us will ever reach those sorts of heights in sport.
However, we all have our own little golden moments. Today, my son had his first when he entered a cyclocross event organised through his school. Cyclocross is a bit like cross country on bikes. I wasn't even aware it was a thing until last summer when I was doing my homework on road bikes and nearly ended up buying one because it looked so lovely, not realising it was configured for a particular kind of cycling.
Mud, sweat and gears
For the uninitiated, like me, the bikes have off road tyres for better grip, wider forks to accommodate these tyres, more clearance for the pedals, and often disc brakes for better braking.
Anyway, the school wanted to put in a team and I volunteered the lad, who has been on a couple of training session over the past couple of weekends. It was just enough to give him an idea of what it would be like racing over rough terrain and to be a bit more prepared.
Today we headed to Haverhill where the event was held at a local school. The venue led me to believe it would be a few laps round a fairly flat field, but it was quite a bit more challenging than that - rather hilly, windy and muddy. A lot more muddy than we'd practised in.
Jamie had a couple of familiarisation laps, which got him blowing hard, especially as he was pedalling a heavy old mountain bike compared to the sleek cyclocross beasts that a lot of the kids had - complete with cleats (gulp).
His year group was first off. It was only 10 minutes, but it was high impact stuff and the kids were really going for it. I thought he'd manage a couple of laps in that time - the course was probably about a kilometre I guess, but a sneaky little km it was - but he managed three, which was a great effort. All of the kids did really well, and looked thoroughly puffed at the end, and pretty filthy.
I was really proud of him because he gave it a good go and never gave up. That's all you can ask really. Of course, I was quite chuffed that he did reasonably well too - not as well as the more experienced kids on better bikes, but probably better than he thought he would do. It was definitely outside of his comfort zone, and according to his mum he was a bit nervous about it beforehand.
I think I'd freaked him out by trying to give him tactical advice over the past few days - like I know anything! He can be a bit of a worrier when it comes to new experiences, and I obviously hadn't helped. This morning I told him that it was no big deal, not to worry and to just enjoy it.
Retire the 12!
He did enjoy it. I think he really enjoyed it, and that was enough for me, to be honest.
We hung around to watch the other races and see who had won, not really expecting anything. His age group was up first, and the announcer went through the medals in reverse order. They didn't get bronze, which I thought might have been as well as they'd do, and obviously didn't get silver. Hey ho.
They only bloody won it! GOLD!
I didn't see that coming. Cue lots of applause, cheesy grins, hugging and celebratory pictures.
Afterwards he said: "That's the first time I've won anything."
That's not strictly true. He's won competitions, school sports races, and has earned badges at Beavers and Cubs. That's not a brag. At this age, there are lots of things that kids can enter and lots of opportunities to earn and win things.
"But this is the first time I've won a medal," he said.
I don't know why that should have surprise me. I've never been especially competitive myself, but remember clearly a couple of times that I had a little success in sport as a child. I was part of our primary school's 4 x 100m relay team that won a regional competition at Carluke Sports Stadium when I was about 12. It was the first time I'd ever run on a proper track. I was the second leg of a team that included John Hamilton, William Whitelaw and somebody else, lost in the annals of South Lanarkshire athletics history
He medalled
We were a very small school, and that was probably my first medal - presented on a podium beside the track. I think the school may have won the overall cup too. I've got a vague memory of our janitor, come trainer Archie McKellar, holding a cup aloft at the end of the day.
Does anybody else remember this? I doubt it. And as for the unexpected inaugural Rigside gala day five a side competition (real Roy of the Rovers stuff from a team stuffed with the 13-year-old equivalents of journeymen, against the village fancy Dans), I doubt anybody else recalls that. I wish I still had the trophy to be sure that my memory isn't playing tricks.

My son has his shiny piece of metal on a ribbon, but he'll also have pictures to remember it, and a Facebook trail of congratulations that is lengthening as I write this.
He'll remember this. I'm sure he will.





Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mamil in training

I am a cliche in many ways - middle-aged dad, wannabe foodie, aspirant craft ale aficionado, ageing rocker... the list goes on. And I can now add another entry to my list of affectations, having recently bought a road bike.
Day rider: Lycra free on Mersea Strood
My last bike prior to moving to Colchester was a drop handle-barred Dawes racer that I got for Christmas when I was about 12 or 13. I can date it to this age because I remember hearing, from my sister, that my dad had ridden it home from one of the town's bike shops about a week before, and hidden it in the garage until the big day.
I didn't have that bike for that long after he died. It went missing during one of the first summer holidays that I ever took on my own. Well, with a mate actually. Tim Higgins and I cycled 40 miles to Billing Aquadrome with rucsacs on our backs and various bits of camping equipment strapped to our frames. It was the summer of Freeez's top smash AEIOU* and we planned a week away from home in a two man tent before cycling home.
It didn't quite work out like that as both of our bikes were nicked by a couple of other lads. A bit of detective work from Tim ensured that they were soon bang to rights, and for the next couple of years I would receive intermittent cheques for a fiver through the post to cover the cost of my bike, which they'd chucked into the nearby river. After that I was bikeless for years.
On moving to Essex, I bought a second hand bike from Re-Cycle which I've used ever since, firstly to tow a child trailer when the kids were younger, and now they're older and can cycle themselves, on excursions around the area.
Pulling wheels: pre-Mamil set up
There are some great bike rides around Colchester, and Essex generally is a great cycling area - lots of country lanes to get lost in, the coast to head out to, and it's relatively flat too. In the past year I've been exploring a bit on my clunky old hybrid, but I've been eyeing up a racer and recently bought one.
So this is what it's all about. It weighs about half as much as my old bike, and its tyres are about a third of the width. Combined with cleats and that childish conviction that you run faster in new shoes, it has been an eye opener how much more performance you get. I think the turning point for me was when I was struggling up a hill during the summer and a portly chap on a racer breezed past me. Now I'm not the fittest person in the world, but I wasn't having it that his less than lithe frame disguised an Olympian only slightly gone to seed. Lance Armstrong might have pointed out that it wasn't all about the bike, but he didn't have to ride my Raleigh Max.
Now there are no excuses, apart from laziness, and the nights drawing in, and the lack of Lycra...
Actually, there's always more gear you could have it seems. I'm not even in the foothills of Mamilia yet. No Garmin, no Go-Pro, no Oakleys, not even much Lycra to be honest. The bulk of my riding kit has come from Aldi's bike week. No Rapha here yet. Oh well, Christmas is around the corner.
I can see how this can become addictive though. I'm looking for excuses to hang out in Halfords to check out what I might need, or just to chat to the guys who work there - I bet they get a lot of bike pests. It's like that stage in a man's life when you suddenly start to find B&Q to be an Aladdin's cave of possibility - there's stuff in there you didn't know existed, let alone desired.
I'm actually a bit guilty about buying the bike from Halfords as there is a great local bike shop where they are unfailingly helpful and polite. It's also very near me. However, I was swayed by an entry level Boardman - local bike shop didn't have a massive range, and I didn't spot anything that attracted me.
To add insult to injury, I took out a three year service plan with the chain - at £40 it was too good an offer to turn down. Please forgive me god of independent traders. I shall bring the kids' bikes to you for service and repair - and my clunker!
I shall try to get over the guilt I feel as I set my eyes on a challenge for next summer - the Dunwich Dynamo. I've been aware of it for about 10 years, although bizarrely I never saw it set off from London Fields despite living there for more than a decade. Next year I'm hoping to be one of the hundreds setting off into the sunset to cover 200 km overnight towards the Suffolk coast. I'm a  long way off that yet, but a few other would-be Mamils have expressed an interest, which should mean that I don't back out. I want to do this. Just need more gear, and possibly a TUE.

* Freeez's video has some great shots of Eighties London inner city cycling culture. No Raleigh Grifter required.