Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cycling Again

I’ve been a keen cyclist most of my life. I got my first bike aged eight; it was my vehicle of freedom until I became sixteen and bought a Vespa Sportique scooter (along with Ben Sherman shirt, Levis and a parka). I turned my back on cycling for a further sixteen years, then I went on a cycling holiday around the Ring of Kerry and became hooked again. For the past thirty years I’ve always had a bike.

First I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was my trusty steed for fifteen years and took me on tours of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain. Then I branched out to a Bontrager mountain bike (which I modified into a lightweight touring bike), a Dawes Sardar for laden touring, and a Dawes Audax for faster day rides. Over the first decade of this century I cycled avidly, visiting every county of Ireland by bike as well as undertaking cycletours of Southern Europe, Sri Lanka, Southern China, North Vietnam and Southern Chile. I also completed a number of endurance events, including the Wicklow 200 and Maracycle.

Then I got cancer, had major surgery and didn’t get on a bike for several years. Two years ago I tried some gentle rides and by early last summer I was cycling regularly until my knee injury in June. After this I had the best part of a year of treatment and inactivity during which I developed breathing problems. In April this year, very tentatively, I tried the bike again. Riding along the towpath from Scarva, I was very pleased to find that neither my knee nor my lungs were a significant limitation. I began to venture further and before too long I was riding to Newry for lunch at Grounded, then returning to Scarva (some 25 miles). Later I carried on up the towpath to Portadown, before returning to the car. Later still I extended my ride beyond Newry to Warrenpoint and Rostrevor.

What I love about cycling is that sense of freedom: the wind on your face, the country roads, the natural world all around you. I love exploring a new area or country by bike. You are travelling at a slower place and are more inside the culture. I avoid cycling in built up areas, always preferring to take the bike on the car to a rural place and head off into open country. Happily I have plenty of backroads right from my front door; the only problem is the hills. The drumlins extend all the way to the Mournes and then you have road passes through the mountains, the highest of which is Spelga at 1350 feet. In the old days I would cycle up there for the challenge. I hope to be able to do that again one day.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Outage, Adaptability and Migrants

I returned home from a couple of days away to find the phone line completely dead. This had happened before but had only lasted for an hour or so, presumably due to repairs taking place at the local exchange. On checking next door, I was surprised to find that their line was still working. I rang BT to report the fault and got an Indian call centre. They were polite, but told me I wasn’t their customer anymore. I’d transferred my line rental to my broadband provider a couple of years ago. I rang Plusnet; they got me to do some simple tests then ran a line check.

The problem lies somewhere between the local exchange (a green box in the next village) and your house, they said. Okay, I replied, but how long will it take to fix it? We have to contact Openreach, they said. In the privatised UK, the phone system is just like the railways, one company maintains the network and other providers rent space on it. The unwelcome answer came fairly quickly - an engineer would be sent out within three days. I remonstrated, but it did no good. I’d have to manage for the coming days without the phone or internet.

Day one: I looked at my diary and all the things I’d pencilled in to get done for the rest of the week. Most of these required the internet. I sat at my desk in the house and stared at the unconnected screen of my desktop, feeling very resentful and frustrated. I picked up my mobile (not internet connected) and made some calls and sent some text messages. After that I thought I’d take some time out, and watched Wimbledon and the Tour de France on TV.

Day two: I began the day as usual, sitting at my desk to check my messages. Without the internet, these were just a series of texts. I got frustrated quickly and decided I’d go out for the rest of the day. I took my bike on the back of my car to Scarva and cycled to Newry along the towpath. After a late lunch at Grounded cafe, I cycled back up the towpath to Portadown, then returned to Scarva. I was tired in the evening and made calls on my mobile and watched some TV.

Day three: I broke my habit of sitting at my desk in the office. Instead I sat at the table in the lounge and read. This felt better; first I read long articles from broadsheets, then I picked up a book. Suddenly, there was a row outside. What are next-door up to now, I wondered? I put down the book and went to the front door. There was a white van parked in the driveway with no-one in it. I walked around the side of the house and found a burly man at the top of a ladder hacking at the phone cable with a knife.

What’s happening, I shouted. I fix phone, he said in a heavy East-European accent, continuing to hack away with the knife. Okay, I shrugged, and went back inside. It didn’t look promising. Five minutes later, he banged on the front door. You check now, he smiled. Sorry, my English no good, he added. I got the phone and tried it; there was an odd regular bleeping but no dial-tone. I handed the phone to him. He listened then smiled, okay, I check. He sat in the cab of his van, picked up a tablet computer and began to enter stuff with a touch-stick. A couple of minutes later he said, okay now. I checked the phone again; there was a dial-tone. I grinned and thanked him. He beamed and proffered the tablet with touch-stick to me. You sign, he said. I obliged. I fix temporary, he said. Must new line, he said, pointing to the nearest telegraph pole, I order now. Thank you very much, I said. He winked and reversed the white van out of the drive with a cheery wave.

When I began this piece, I thought I would end up commenting on my own difficult adaption to the loss of my phone and internet connection. But there is a much more important issue to do with adaptability here. Many migrants have made their home in NI and plenty of them do skilled jobs in essential services, such as utilities, healthcare and education. We need our foreigners. They are not a drain on our resources; they are a useful and welcome addition. Correspondingly, bigotry and hate-crime is always wrong - whoever it is directed towards. Surely people who have grown up here should know that better than most.

Images from Belfast