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Isolated Incidents #∞ - Protect and Survive (end of year thoughts on C*vid, belonging, Englishness and cycling)

I remember the last time we were all going to die... it's a bit like Groundhog Day of the Dead

My feelings of impeding doom are entirely different to the last time there was an apocalyptic global threat.

> Jo Burt: I don't know where I'm going

Being of a certain age I can vividly remember the Cold War and the constant dark menace of potential mutually assured destruction. There was the perpetual fear that someone would say the wrong thing, rattle the wrong sabre, somebody could just make a stupid mistake or there might be an 8-bit computer glitch the button would be pressed and we’d have four minutes to say some prayers, hug the cat, do whatever took a teenage me about that long to do or hide in the fridge. Looking back it feels over dramatic but I distinctly remember feeling there was the real chance I wasn’t going to wake up in the morning and I wouldn’t even see the blinding flash. I was in the midst of working towards summer exams and some days it didn’t feel worth the bother to do any work at all. Or maybe it was a handy excuse to not do any more revising.

That tummy-aching sharp sicky fear from 'something over there overhead' from over 30 years ago has now been replaced by a worldwide menace that’s a thick, heavy, invisible fog of suspicious worry that swirls around everything everywhere. It is, however, less of a threat if we behave like decent human beings and have more personal control over it; well, more control than putting a CND poster up ever did over a general with an itchy trigger finger. Ironically constructing an underground shelter would be a far more effective solution to surviving the current crisis than any nuclear war, even hiding under a den of old doors and mattresses with a few week’s worth of food and water seems like a valuable endeavour now, indeed being holed up in the corner of a room for months has been the fate of many.

I am still thankfully largely unaffected by the pandemic. My mostly hermity lifestyle has finally paid dividends, but it’s impossible not to feel the crushing impact of the reintroduction of the recent harsh restrictions on the population as a whole. Combined with the other shenanigans crowding the news space, there’s no real temptation to emerge from the safe room and venture into the wider world; instead, there is the overwhelming desire to escape. Every opportunity has been taken to jump on the bike and ride away from everything whenever and to wherever is possible. It’s a pressure release valve I’ve been relying on for years, but there is the nagging urge to extend that escape plan further; and it’s not just with longer bike rides. I love where I live, it is much more than where my house is. It is my Home, it’s where I belong, my connection to this place between the sea and hills is deep set and lifetime long... but I don’t feel I belong here any more. I love England the country; but I’ve always found it convenient to distance myself from any English people en masse, be that at home or abroad, where I’ve felt the need to apologise and be embarrassed about where I'm from far too many times. I’ve always casually looked in estate agents' windows when away, and the casual late night internet browse of places in the mountains somewhere else is feeling a little more serious... and it’s not just for the nicer roads, better weather and fine cycling. I know nowhere is perfect and places on holiday are different to the same places day-on-day, but I’m concentrating on an area that I’ve been to so many times I forget, has always felt like a second home and has an interesting heritage of being somewhere people go to quietly disappear in the folds.

> Isolated Incidents #7: Feeling Empty

Aside from the daydreaming, there is now just the basic 'getting through winter'. Even without all of everything else, this is always a tough time of year to negotiate; although I always hold back a sizeable chunk of reserve for February. The temptation to think things will brighten up after the triple whammy of hope that is Christmas, New Year and the turnaround after the shortest day is always strong; but the initial months of the new year can punch hard and low, so I never relax or get too optimistic till at least March, which itself can play a few unpleasant cards.

The usual winter coping mechanisms are in place; sneak out in the weather windows wherever possible, and face into the sun at every opportunity. While others are happy to get their riding fix indoors - understandably forgoing the cold and wet drudgery and endless tedious washing and cleaning involved with riding at this time of year, I have the need to 'Go Outside'. Cycling isn’t about hours in the saddle and heart rate and stats for me, and I don’t need to look at a screen for any longer than I need to. Feeling the wind on my face is a vitally important piece of the reason I ride a bike. If that wind stings a bit it’s all the better; I rely on all that is tactile and visceral to keep me alive and happy, even if it’s miserable for a bit. But it’s harder than usual now ,because there isn’t even the lure of treats in the future to look forward to and drag us through. While tentative plans have been made, they’re only written down in pencil and not fat permanent pen. Whether they’re going to happen is vague at best, but I’m good at clinging to possibilities. My heart seems to thrive on longing.

Just last week my postponed big ride goal of 2021, the TransContinental, released an adapted route after this years cancelled race. It’s one that’s been forced to bow considerably to whatever the will of the pandemic might be come the height of next summer. It’s a completely revised and shortened route with added pandemic rules that keeps countries and border crossings to a minimum; a choice that’s going to be welcomed by any British competitors too with their hard-fought-for freedom of movement. Ordinarily I’d be all fired up by this and pawing at maps, taking notes and making lists, but it seems so distant in both time and reality that I might wait until I’m allowed to ride further than my county boundary to get excited. Although, I should try to fit as much riding in as I can within those boundaries just in case.

As I’ve mentioned before, this whole thing has come relatively easy to me. I work from home, I’m happy to ride my bike on my own, and I am gregarious only in very short bursts. I don’t need to go to the pub, and mooching round the shops is not something I confuse with something to do. The festive season has been far less of a bother than normal, with no cramped public space anxiety or enforced fun issues, but I did for a brief moment miss the cosy drinking of three pints with a few friends, and the fuzzy, contented pedal home. And a beer with crisps, I haven’t had crisps in ages (I should get some crisps). I've also missed the motivation and stupidity of doing a cyclo-cross season, but I haven’t missed the cost of it all: the entrance fees, the travel spend, the bits of tea and snacks you buy on the day, and the gradual replacement of parts. This all adds up over the weeks, and the casual tearing up of cash that dragging a bike through mud entails has been pleasing by its absence. In fact, the general draw on finances of being sociable on a bike ride has also been noted: the lack of meet-up coffees, halfway cake, and maybe a post-ride drink or two that we can’t do now have all had a beneficial effect on my bank balance, so that’s more money to spend on, ummm, when we’re allowed out again.

While I may have a tinge of sorrow over missing the slide and parry of racing, there have been a few Sundays when I’ve been glad to been able to stay inside, and isolating isn’t much of a problem. And while we’re clinging to the positives, I’ve not had the usual annoying cold that traditionally snuffles me a bit sideways and cancels riding, plus more than one race weekend. Maybe face masks and more hand washing will become the habitual future for the winter months, and I was always right about interacting with people this time of year being a bad idea. Swings and roundabouts!

I go to sleep now knowing that at least I’ll wake up in the morning; but that the day is going to be much the same as the last, with nowhere to go, which is a death of sorts...

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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TheBillder | 3 years ago

Well written and thought-provoking. But worth remembering that the shortcomings of other countries' people are never so obvious as your own. We tend to know the clichés and not the reality. Every country has its own stuff, as it were. Alistair Cooke said of the US: "Nothing that you say about the whole country is going to be true".

For every gammon / charlatan politician / vapid anti-vaccine person who gets their news and science from tiktok, there's a local hero like Pastor Mick in Burnley, or a well-known person like Marcus Rashford. Only a few of them get the same publicity as the Farage / Ferrari lot but they are there, and can refresh your view of what English people can be.

The challenge is to make a nation that doesn't need so many local heroes. Fortunately the young people I meet seem to understand this far better than I did at their age.

markysparks | 3 years ago

Thank you Jo for a thought provoking article that has struck a cord with many of us. I was still quite young during the ‘Protect and survive’ era but I do remember being frightened by it. My mother was German and as I’ve grown up I’ve realised that I definitely feel much more German than English. Often I find attitudes and ways of working in this country difficult to understand. 

I’ve cycled in Scotland, Germany, France and Italy and love these countries and people for different reasons. My brother works for a French company and moved to the South of France many years ago - they love the lifestyle. Being a single bloke you’d think I could easily move to a different country (getting older now and would prefer sunshine and warmth). 

The thing that stops me moving - I have a really good friend (who is a like the son I never had) who lives just a mile away from me on the Essex coast. I’ve watched him grow up, have a family with two amazing little girls who are now like my unofficial grandchildren. I can’t bear to be apart from them and as much as I get upset by other things going on around me, I know its the best thing in my life and not something I want to move away from.

EddyBerckx | 3 years ago

Great read. It's weird as I looked up 'threads' and 'the day after' on YouTube only the other day! The early 80's were really a scary time for a primary school child, especially in London which would be the first to go (and yeah, I lived a couple of miles from the epicentre I a council flat that would probably have collapsed if not vaporised) I used to hear what I thought were air raid sirens during the night and it would terrify me...let's hope we never go back to that.

we have receded badly in the last few years though. I always felt we were progressing as a nation towards being a more tolerant, liberal nation. We can be again. The current mess feels like it's been built by the racists and bigots of the 70's who have found their voice again. They will die out/lose momentum and the young will take over. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long.

In the meantime, bikes are there to be bought and ridden 😉

Compact Corned Beef | 3 years ago

As someone too young to worry about the prospect of nuclear vaporisation, the fear that the world as it is might end in a flash seems quaint - now we're all on one of those airport travelators with each passing metre getting a little bit shitter and no prospect of getting off soon. And some complete bastards are hurrying us along waving flags that say 'hands off our fish' or other such bollocks. And I'm at home self isolating after a positive test in our household, so I can't even ride my bike. I know that I'm comparatively fortunate - still have a job, no-one really close has died - but I think I might well apply for that Irish passport next year.

Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago

Jo's piece seems to have struck many a nerve including mine.  I didn't realise that comparing nuclear targets was such a common past time in the 80's.... I remember the utter despair when I realised there were 3 RAF bases within 15 miles all on the primary target list.

I too feel despair at what this country has become - I do wonder if this is what residents of late 20's early 30's Germany/Austria felt like.  I grew up and learnt to cycle in the rolling hills around the Ridgeway and whilst I still feel a deep connection to the landscape the sense of alienation of this thing called England only grows stronger as I get older.  Oh for the "simplicity" of the Cold War.

Sometimes its only the bike and the family that keep me sane.

kil0ran replied to Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago

Cycling has connected me to my local area like nothing else. As soon as you head off road you immediately see it in an unfamiliar, unengineered way. I love taking a cross-country route and discovering how local areas linked up in the pre-motor vehicle days. That makes it difficult to leave - I was born here, it feels familiar. As Neil Young would sing "All my changes were there" 

But, then again, I'd find those connections if we went somewhere else, I'd go native, I'd blend in, I'd disappear (to paraphrase Indy) 

Completely agree that all that's kept me on a reasonably even keel this year is (immediate) family and the bike.

David9694 replied to Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago

It's so long ago now that the active threat of nuclear war receded, but the bad dreams have only recently stopped. Always that lingering sense of everything and everyone warm and familiar cut off, lost, or about to be. 

I reflect that I've been pretty fortunate - both gainfully employed and well, over the past nine months, and an end to it beginning to hove into view. I've lived a simpler version of my life since March.

We have a saying in our house, coined this year: "that's all there was", in response to a query about some nonstandard grocery purchase - the shelves have remained stacked, the trains running and the lights on. Remarkable, I often think.  

My late father always went on about Sunday drivers - I've become one, and so soon.  Being told I could only go out once for exercise made me do a lot more - long climbs in holiday Exmoor that seemed out of bounds we now tackle. 

For 32 years, 5 days week, in an office, in a suit - will I ever go back to that? As a middle manager wherever I am, I always keep my little team briefed, I help them understand what top management are doing.  

Morons have of course continued to be morons, of course and with this issue some seem to have redoubled their efforts. People don't seem to have a sensible reference-point in their lives and can go off on all sorts of nonsense, verging on superstition. It feels quite volatile at times. 

I am also fairly fortunate with cycle routes around me. When I'm not riding, I refurbish and I build. Planning a new bike from a battered 531 frameset - combining available parts, ordering new ones, annual wheel build, trying out rattle can colour schemes.  After several years of this, I am now the cycling equivalent of a cat lady. All the delivery men know me. 

For winter nights "in", we often watch re-runs of Michael Portillo's travelogues on the Yesterday channel - every European city looks elegant and civilised, with bikes gliding about car-free streets and squares. The people have an integrity - that we only seem to only have in black and white now.  The trains are pretty swish too - watch a British episode and he's often slumming it on a Northern Trains Pacer or Sprinter.  
My wife has assured me that I'd make a terrible expat, but boy is it tempting. 



Freddy56 | 3 years ago

First winter without a flu in years too!

ktache replied to Freddy56 | 3 years ago

If you really are that succeptable, I suggest getting a 'flu vaccine.

£10 from most pharmacies, though sometimes getting hold of one early enough to make a real difference can sometimes be tricky.

Cragrat1 | 3 years ago

A thought provoking piece as usual, thank you. I'm a bit older than you and my view of the impending cold war apocalypse was more cynical. The powers that be need to spread fear and hate to maintain control a job the popular media are only too willing to endorse. It used to be the USSR but when that subsided it became Europe and immigrants and refugees. A few years ago we moved to the west coast of Scotland for a better quality of life. It has exceeded our expectations. Between the sea and the hills the cycling is excellent. The roads are quiet and the drivers generally less aggressive. I generally ride alone but occasionally like to meet up with others for a ride and a coffee or enter an audax or the local annual veterans 100 mile ride. There were other non cycling events  we enjoyed through out the year. The pandemic has changed everything. In Scotland the restrictions have been tighter and all our plans have had to be cancelled. We are left with a sense of loss and longing. I've been luckier than some as I trained for and then cycled LEJOG with a group this year but now what? 

Daveyraveygravey | 3 years ago

A great read, suspect I'm a similar age too. I grew up in Loughborough which didn't have much going for it apart from train building, but being in the middle of the Leicester-Nottingham-Derby triangle, we always thought we'd cop three lots from less than 15 miles away. Never saw the point in trying to survive that one, there would be so little left to crawl out of your homemade bunker for!
I've had to keep working, the company makes medical devices so is essential, which the 70s type management we have were very happy about. There are 4-500 people there, the majority of whom don't wash their hands after going to the toilet, so it's a surprise to me we haven't become a local super spreading hotspot.
Brexit is depressing, I have never met anyone with a single valid reason to leave, total chaos heading our way. I got some compensation from an accident years ago, and bought a lovely town house in Abruzzo with it, the best decision the wife and I have ever made. The summit of the Blockhaus mountain is about 30k away, the Adriatic around 20k. The roads vary massively; if the Giro has been by the Tarmac is the blackest, smoothest you can imagine. Some of the rural roads are hard on a full sus mtb. But the pace of life is slower, a coffee and croissant stop us €2-3, and I haven't tired (mentally 😅) of the sea-to-summit bike ride yet! We enjoy driving down, it's 20 hours behind the wheel so we usually make a 2 or even 3 night trip of it, have found beautiful places to stay in France Belgium Luxembourg Germany Switzerland Austria northern Italy. I don't know how much harder that will be thanks to Brexit, if Covid is ever a thing of the past, and clearly the dream of living there 6 months of the year has gone, but we won't give it up without trying everything.
I used to be proud of being English, and hated how the flag had been stolen by football nazis, skinheads and many other knuckle dragging monsters. Now it's embarrassing, you just can't explain it, especially to people in Europe.
I've ridden as much as any other year, it's nice to see other people enjoying the great outdoors more, but the cyclist hating media hasn't got any better. I love the challenge or adventure of getting out on the bike in the winter, it isn't something even some other cyclists can handle, never mind ordinary folk. I don't understand riding indoors, it isn't for me, it just isn't the same thing, like ebikes.

BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP replied to Daveyraveygravey | 3 years ago

I do that drive reguarly - to Umbria. And for much the same reason. The drive won't be much more difficult (obvouisly insurance will go up) but other things certainly will. I have changed my nationality and the children's so that, like my wife, we are all EU citizens. When I first worked in Italy in the early 90s just before the EU (when it was the EC) I had to register with the local questura in Rome. I was a stranger, (cash in hand) in a strange land. From then onwards (after the advent of the EU) I worked in the Netherlands, Belgium, many years in Italy as a European citizen with equal rights and access to benefits as any other EU citizen. I was paid, had the equivalent of an NI number and could come and go as i pleased. I could invest freely, the children could study through Erasmus, I could do what ever - as long as I was an EU citizen. I don't see a single benefit to Brexit and I've yet to have one explained to me beyond the usual vapid innanities 'we want our country back . . . . '. What is especially sad is the myopia and solipsism behind Brexit - I have friends and colleagues all around the EU and they don't understand the self pity and sense of victim the English have. The EU was never out to get England, or be a dictatorship, or tell England what to do. Even a cursory check of the voting patterns in the EU Council would prove that thesis wrong. But as we know, facts mean nada. The UK was respected in the EU - a strong, reliable, honest partner. But over the past 20 years a narrative of oppression by an 'outside  body' was sown by a cabal of middle aged, white, privately educated, rich men. And half of the population fell in line with the false narrative. Surprisingly only half - considering the media onslaught of lies and misinformation targeted at EU citizens and institutions. 

Daveyraveygravey replied to BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 3 years ago

But but but we were going to be made to join the European Army weren't we?!😉 I still get angry about "Project Fear," how about that for the the best bit of spin ever?
When we bought our place in Abruzzo, we were offered citizenship, but we dismissed it out of hand. We would never need it, and back then we couldn't realistically lived there permanently.

mike the bike | 3 years ago

Thanks for that, enjoyed it.  And such a change from the usual.

msackman | 3 years ago

Nicely and poignantly written. Thank you

kil0ran | 3 years ago

We must be of a similar age, because I recognise the sentiments. Anyone under 40 really has no idea of what it was like - I remember getting compasses and drawing out blast radiuses for likely targets/megatonnage to work out how crispy I'd be and how quickly. Being less than a mile from Southampton Docks and Fawley Refinery it was a somewhat pointless exercise. And having watched Threads at age 13 I was pretty happy with the instant vaporisation option.

I also recognise the feeling about England. I completely love where I live but that doesn't extend to many of the people in it and I no longer have any idea what it means to be English. Struggling I think for a sense of identity and have done for a number of years, which is why I was content with being European. I can love frites, Belgian beer, and steak and kidney pie, right?  I'm not sure being English has ever been something to be proud of but I'd rather fly almost any other flag than the Union flag or the Cross of St George.

It hurts even more that everything I love about where I live is tainted by what we've become as a society and if I was single I think I'd be elsewhere - I'm fortunate to have a job I could do anywhere in the world, and, more importantly, would get me a visa almost anywhere too. But where? Canada is too cold and/or wet, Australia is no better for reactionary jingoism than England, Scotland is too cold, RoI is too wet, and so on. Maybe NZ, but it's not great for cycling. Majorca maybe, Amalfi coast maybe, Canaries maybe. Actually - that's probably it - Gran Canaria would do - right timezone, great for cycling, varied climate, far enough from the madness, mountains and sea.

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