October 06, 2015

In the hi-fidelity first-class travelling set

I'm beginning to understand why people have cars.

I say this even as a former car owner, and as a motorbiker who's never entirely sure that a motorbike is really the solution. But first we have to do some sums. Most people I know didn't buy their car through paying by instalments, they bought it outright, so sometime down the line, several years at least, the cost is sunk and depreciation is largely academic. Fuel, VED, insurance, MOTs and servicing are the ongoing costs, and only fuel is the daily cost, the cost we think about when contemplating a long journey. After all, the car is already there so we may as well use it. Whether we make just one long journey in the year or many, the other costs are about the same. Of course, high mileagers will want to shorten the service intervals a touch, perhaps two or three in a year rather than one (or none, if you rely on the MOT to tell you what's wrong with your car).

When I started this analysis, diesel was £1.11 per litre—now it's £1.09 per litre. It hasn't been this cheap for months and months. A nice small car, say something with a VAG 1.6 litre engine, will return about 60mpg on a run. Maybe 55, maybe 65, depending on the wind direction. And we're going to drive to Wales. This is easy enough to do in a day: take the A701 from Edinburgh to Moffat, jump onto the A74(M) and thence the M6, take a right at junction 20A and follow the M56 for a while, then take a left onto the M53 and later bear right to follow the A56 into Chester. Distance: 232 miles, and doable in four and three-quarter hours including a stop for lunch at Tebay. And you probably don't even need to stop to fill up because you only used about 17.5 litres of fuel. We'll need that much again to drive home from Chester, so that's 35 litres, but we're actually planning to finish at Carmarthen and go home from there. Carmarthen to Chester is also easy enough by taking the A40 to Llandovery, then the A483 to Crossgates and the A488 to Craven Arms where we join the A49 to Shrewsbury, then the A5 for a bit and then back onto the A483 to Chester. About 165 miles, and a bit fiddly in places, so we'll be pessimistic and say 14 litres at the most. £55 doesn't seem very much for 630 miles.

Our sightseeing itinerary runs from Chester to Pendine, in a coastal extravaganza of about 300 miles. Since much of that is made up of A roads and B roads taken at slower speeds, our fuel economy will be worsened by fiddly town and village driving, but improved by B road meandering in which we need only tickle the accelerator in 3rd gear. So to be pessimistic again at 50mpg, which is entirely doable if you remember all of the things the Energy Saving Trust taught you in your FuelGood driver training, we might expect to burn another 27 litres of diesel. Including all the outings to buy food from the supermarket a couple of miles up the road, and going the wrong way from time to time, and occasionally going for a look at something else nearby that looked interesting on the map, it might be 30 litres, or another £33.

Perhaps the car does 7000 miles a year, in which insurance is £250, VED is £110 and not £30 because the car is a few years old and only just scrapes below the 130gCO2/km emissions bracket; the MOT people want £70 a year, and so far not too much is wrong with the car, so servicing is £200 a time. That's an annual cost of £630, or 9 pence per mile. Of course if we only drive 3000 miles a year, the cost shoots up to 21 pence per mile. At 55mpg (combined cycle) we'd also be spending £640 or so a year on fuel, sometimes more, sometimes less, but about 9 pence per mile. At 3000 miles a year, the fuel cost drops accordingly, while the cost rate stays the same. But we already looked at fuel costs for the trip.

Our little holiday to Wales and back by car is therefore expected to cost £88 in fuel plus, at a generously low 9 pence per mile for static costs, £83 for the pleasure of having a car available for 930 miles. Total cost is £171, and of course we have a car to use as we like for the rest of the year anyway.

Suppose that we decided not to use the car that time but took the train instead, and cycled from Chester to Pendine to the station at Carmarthen. The return ticket for Edinburgh to Chester is about £100 and Carmarthen to Chester is £27. Easy enough. A train is a train is a train.

For the touring part, I'll use my Lightning P-38 with my panniers stuffed to the gunwales and a tent strapped to the back. The bike cost in the region of $2900 or £1700, and so far has covered just shy of 9000 miles in eight years. The cost per mile is therefore about 19 pence per mile. But in that time it's also had a new chain (£35), a new bottom bracket (£45), front and rear rims (£80), two gear shifters (£50), a new front hub (free, because I bought it years ago for almost nothing), four pairs of brake pads (£40), and four new cables (£16). It also had a complete respray earlier this year to deal with some rust, and disc mounts added at the same time, but I will discount those because they weren't essential to the functionality of the bike. So consumables add £270 or thereabouts—not all that much compared with the original cost of the bike, and in fact somewhat less than I had thought, when one winces at the cost of even a good rim—and so the cost per mile to date increases to 22 pence.

The touring therefore adds a rather shocking £66 in running costs. Shocking, because bikes don't cost anything to run, do they? They do when you don't ride them enough, or insist on buying quality components.

Our little holiday to Wales and back by bike and train is therefore expected to cost £127 in trains and £66 for the pleasure of having a bike available for 300 miles. Total cost is £193, and of course I have my bike to use as I like for the rest of the year anyway. Ah, the car was cheaper, it seemed. But not by all that much, I'm relieved to find.

The cost isn't the only issue. Driving 930 miles means eating at motorway cafes (actually, I'm being terribly unkind to Tebay and Killington Lake, both of which are lovely places to stop by while taking a turn on the M6), and that kind of distance does come with an element of risk. Worse though, sitting still means getting no exercise. With 644 miles accrued by train, drinking overpriced watery hot chocolate and scoffing baguettes and treacle waffles, I would at least also have 300 miles of riding my bike and sweating and swearing my way up hills, getting cold on hillsides and burning off all my body fat as a consequence. If we're honest though, using the car does save you money because you don't find yourself emergency-buying waterproof pannier covers or that Rab eVent waterproof hat that you spent an hour choosing in the shop.

In a textbook example of saving money by spending more, in August I put my bike on the train to Chester, and the day after that I pedalled out of town, bound for the top left-hand corner of Wales – and beyond – and two weeks of solitude and glorious uninterrupted sunshine.

Sunshine. In Snowdonia?

July 08, 2015

Move among the crowd

Much as I like to take photographs, document the heck out of the subjects and share them with the wider world on Flickr, for the last couple of years I've had the feeling that too many of my adventures were being lived out there, not here, with my blog going oh-so-quiet. Flickr, of course, was a social network almost before the phrase was in common usage, and the well-documented changes to the user interface—the user 'experience'—that led to protests such as Flickr Black Day have been mostly ironed out. The protests were never going to be massively successful. While a comment thread garnering several thousand similar complaints, about squished-up information panels or infinite scrolling or loss of white space, sounds impressive, and indeed felt impressive if you were among those making the comments, it was small fry compared with the total userbase of many millions of individuals. Most of those are hyper-connected people for whom Flickr is more of a repository, to be uploaded to and linked to. This is really a reflection of the fundamental increase in hyper-connectivity that makes it convenient to do so. Flickr is much less the home now for what you might describe as the photographically erudite community, many of whom departed for other image hosting sites like smugmug, ipernity and 500px.

I stayed with Flickr, indeed I still use it, but my mood has certainly changed. It's been a gradual shift, brought about in part by reduced interaction from other users. Perhaps they're feeling much the same way. The trouble is that spending hours researching on old maps, for example, and probably twenty different other sources, doesn't guarantee any feedback. It's commonly said that 90 percent of the content is produced by 10 percent of the people, which means that 90 percent of the people are just hoovering up information—consumers, not manufacturers.

And in fact, the move to reflect hyperconsumerism is evident even in Flickr's own identity. On the way out is the quirky blue logo with pink accents, replaced with a streamlined version in pure white. It's as though we don't have time anymore to pause and reflect and reciprocate in kind: we just consume and move on. Hyper-connected humans are just locusts on an information feeding frenzy.

The groundswell ban on selfie sticks is not unrelated. Some cultures nowadays are not interested particularly in taking the time to experience something. One might go to see a new film, view the Grand Canyon, see Buckingham Palace, but it becomes a quick-fire visit–photograph–leave process. I was there! We were there! Then we went here! And then we went here! Alternatively, go to any concert now and try—just try!—counting how many mobile devices are held aloft to record the whole event. All of those people are watching a small screen to keep their shot steady and aimed just right. You know, there's a great big thing called a "stage", with great big loud things on it, and actual moving people, whom you helped pay to be on that stage in the first place. And all you can do is hold up your fucking phone because you're caught up in a perpetual cycle of digitising and sharing everything in your life, instead of taking in the experience and committing it to your memory using your eyeballs and your ears.

Flickr has been consuming too much of my time for too little feedback. In a way, I kind of liked my old website that was all hand coded with thumbnailed images that I inserted myself, sparingly and relevantly. Image sharing should be an adventure, not a chore, and certainly not a throwaway convenience that, for anything other than documentation of something, devalues the content.

So to turn to writing again. I had intended to collect my thoughts sooner, but for a musician whose untimely death affected me really quite deeply. And as usual, this post has taken three days to put together.

The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling has been and gone, last month's news. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bike Week, too, is last month's news. I thought long and hard about what to wear to this year's Women's Cycle Forum. Last time, I wore padded shorts because I was riding my Brompton, but wore baggy shorts over the top because I didn't want to look too "cyclist". And I remember steaming down to the venue because I was going to be late, and thus arriving in a hell of a state. This year I wanted a nice relaxing pootle over to Teviot House: no pre-event shopping, no last-minute mending of flat tyres or adjusting of gears. And as it turned out, I ambled my way out of the house thinking I had loads of time, and en route convinced myself I was going to be late. So I steamed down the road and through the Meadows, and arrived in a hell of a state, my just-washed hair turning frizzy at the ends and my pink merino betraying my super high efficiency cooling mechanism. I can't even remember why I ended up rushing. Perhaps it was the indecision of clothing.

The irony was that I wasn't late at all. In fact, I was perfectly comfortably on time. I had thought offhandedly about bring the velomobile, because last year there was an Urban Arrow parked magnificently outside the Ukrainian Club and everyone had asked me, 'Where's your velomobile? I was looking forward to seeing it!' A Saturday evening outside one of the buildings in the University of Edinburgh wasn't the kind of environment I looked for in velomobile parking facilities. It was far easier to ride my Brompton and take it in with me.

Caroline greeted me at the door, complimenting me on my encouragingly rosy complexion. I might have objected a wee bit but she was having none of it. Sally Hinchcliffe and Suzanne Forup, the mainstays behind the WCF, said hello as I went through, and I placed Henrietta Brompton neatly alongside two others, then wandered around looking at the tables. Each was set up with a different theme about target audiences, for this WCF was more biased towards action. One table was about one campaigning generally, one was about engagement with women specifically, one was about people with impaired vision, and a few others I can't remember. But I still didn't feel I knew anyone, and so sat down at a rather empty table.

I changed my mind quite quickly, because the theme didn't excite me too much, and found the engagement table. Serendipitously, also at my table was Lizzie, previously chair of Leeds Cycling Campaign, now I think Belles on Bikes in Glasgow. Even more serendipitously, Irish-accented Louise arrived and sat next to me. I realised before long that this was Urban Arrow Louise! – the same lady who starred in many photographs from Pedal on Parliament because of her impossibly stylish Victorian outfit complete with straw hat loaded with flowers, tweed coat, long flowing skirt and leather boots, sitting on her shiny black, and impossibly English, Pashley Princess bicycle. In fact, her children, in the Urban Arrow piloted by her equally well-attired hubby, had been wearing leather helmets and flying goggles. And not just because she was a customer of Laid Back Bikes but because she wasn't afraid to be a bit different—or possibly completely different—and pull it off with aplomb, I liked her immediately.

We had an engaging and relevant presentation from Ceris Aston, who'd been behind the No More Page Three campaign. She spoke far better than she thought she did. Carol Botton, standing in for Alice Ferguson, talked candidly about the Playing Out campaign, the movement to return our streets to a community-owned shared place for children to play in, rather than our streets being purely somewhere for driving through and for parking vehicles in. Also at my table were a few other interesting people whose names I've completely forgotten. At other tables we had Jan Brereton (Bikes Breaking Barriers—disability stuff including vision impairments), Claire Connachan (also Belles on Bikes), Brenda Mitchell (disarmingly uncyclist-looking normally but the powerhouse behind strict liability and cyclist lawyering), and I didn't get much of a chance to meet Katja Leyendecker from Northumbria University, or Briana Pegado from the University of Edinburgh, or Abi Wingate, a tough looking mileage monster of a touring cyclist and officer from Heriot-Watt University (yay!). Sara Dorman popped by our table for a bit, talking at a hundred miles an hour, and Sally came along for a bit too.

The output was a carefully arranged matrix of actions, our "Build a Better World Bingo Challenge" (or as the ridiculously specific hashtag #BaBWBingo).

And no, you don't get points for actions that you've already completed.

Eschewing beer for bed, I rode home a bit of the way with Suzanne and Louise, then enjoyed the comfort from having opted to wear my mountain biking lycra shorts (to hell with trying not to look "cyclist", even if the perception of the necessity of looking "cyclist" is part of the turn-off of someone wanting to ride a bike in the first place).

Have bike, will festival At any rate, I was able to deploy maximum cyclist technology the next day for the third annual Ligfiets Zondag. I brought my velomobile down to Laid Back Bikes and mingled with a dozen or so other deviant bikes and their riders. David and Irene were of course on their mighty Nazca Quetzal tandem; Angelo was on his Nazca Fuego; Audaxer and TV star Dave Crampton brought along his ICE B2; Peter was on his Nazca Gaucho; 'firedfromthecircus' on his Catrike; Chris was on his fat-tyred ICE trike; a John Byrne lookalike who hails from Rotterdam and whose name I don't know was riding his vintage Roulandt; 'scoosh' mainly of the Cyclechat forum but occasionally of our CCE forum, and whose name I don't know, was riding his Nazca Fuego; Kim (of the EdFoC) was onboard the EdFoC Urban Arrow, and Louise (and children) was riding her own Urban Arrow; 'tarmacjockey' whose name I always forget was riding upright and mostly wielding his camera; and Liz was riding her Ridgeback tourer. We also had a man called Bjorn come on the ride; he was doing a camping tour of Scotland, having ridden his M5 CHR (carbon high racer) from his home in Hamburg!

Promenadorama As in previous years our destination was Cramond promenade, there being plenty of space for mucking about on bikes. Alas the modernist cafe at Silverknowes was under new ownership and still being outfitted, so there were no bacon rolls or veggie sausage sandwiches to be had; instead we frequented a cafe at Cramond, pigged on scones and jam, and basked in some rare sunshine. The return trip took us through some surprisingly good segregated infrastructure in Granton—the kind Edinburgh builds when it has lots of space to play with—and back to Laid Back Bikes and the Argyle Arms for drinks and conversation.

The following evening was the quarterly meeting organised by Spokes, the Edinburgh and Lothians cycling campaign, about bikes on trains. Des Bradley from Abellio Scotrail had drawn the short straw and was rather in the firing line from much of the audience.

The evening after that was an event I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to, like when you have a job interview the next day. Last year I took the top spot in the Biketrax Brompton folding competition, my own technique flowing far more smoothly with a brand new bike than it does with my mine (3000 miles nearly in its hinges). It's all just a load of fun, what's not to love? Ah, but STV Edinburgh was going to be filming the event this time! The alternative was to go to the hillclimb competition on Kaimes Road, a gruelling ascent half a mile long and (according to OSM) 124 feet of elevation gain. But, really, I couldn't not go to the Brompton thing, could I? Not with a record to try to uphold. The time to beat: 10.82 seconds.

I showed the presenter how one folds the bike, and I did a piece to the camera explaining how one achieves a fast folding technique. Looking back, I almost felt content with my voice. My years of practice in public speaking paid off nicely, compared with poor Robin Williamson who wasn't nearly as fluid or fluent. Some friends came along, too—Ewan and Eric from Bromptonites—and someone called Richard who seemed very very serious about folding times. In practice, getting used to the official Brompton timing clock where you hit the green plunger for "Go!", fold-fold-fold, and hit the red plunger for "Stop!", I invented a newer technique that seemed worth trying. My first few attempts at speedfolding were laughably uncoordinated, not least because I had to remember to fold the pedal as well, but I just had to find my rhythm. Another piece to camera saw the presenter go head to head with Ewan and Richard, and I had to wade in at the last minute to help out when he became all tangled up.

Then came the main event where we all did solo qualifiers against the clock to get the top three. Eric preferred to spectate; Robin and a couple of the other guys from Biketrax turned in times easily below ten seconds, but as employees they were forbidden from winning anything! Going forward after the shoot-outs were Ewan, Richard and me. I somehow speeded myself up just enough and edged out Ewan in the race to fold the bike and lift it up (to show that it was properly folded). And that's someone who's owned more Bromptons than I've owned recumbents. Richard was fast, very fast, though as Eric and I noted earlier it was all in the marginal gains of preparation: clamps not too tight, cranks casually aligned just-so, crouch and hands at the ready, Le Mans-style. I played to the spirit of the competition and set my bike just as if I were about to ride it away. Three…two…one…go! as Robin pinged the starter's bell. Loosen those clamps, smoothly, don't rush…lift and fold and drop, get that saddle down, tighten the lever, remember the pedal!…and lift!

I looked across and Richard's bike was in the air at the same time. What? Of all the results to have, we scored a dead heat, and we had to go again!

OK, bike unfolded and prepped, a little more this time. Mentally rehearse the process: clamps, fold around, saddle, pedal. Check the crank position…and: Ping! Fold-fold-fold-done! Lift! Look across…damn! My super speedy method went like clockwork and I checked in a time of the order of 7.6 seconds, and I was still beaten. In fact, chatting with the others a little later on I realised, thinking through the white heat of pivots and levers and clamps, that I couldn't actually remember performing all those moves. Muscle memory and all that, as you'll recall if you saw me on the telly. Richard took home a rather spiffing sprocket trophy, like the one from Scrapheap Challenge but scaled right down. Your valiant runner-up took home a Brompton slapwrap, which I can use every day. All part of the plan, you might think!

Wednesday morning was the Bike Breakfast at the City Chambers, and even though I'd had my Weetabix I still joined the queue for a veggie sausage roll and a cup of coffee. I wasn't meant to be drinking coffee, really, but I was sick of drinking tea. Lots of familiar faces, too, including many from CCE, and various councillors and Spokes members and hangers-on. The velomobile even had company, from a Sinclair C5 no less. Now that was an interesting comparison, of finely tuned aerodynamics and high-efficiency transport idealism. The C5 might have cost much, much less, even by today's standards, but the Quest wins on comfort, weather protection, speed, and perhaps in its flowing lines (and nine foot-long presence) hasn't suffered the stigma of being treated like a jumped up vacuum cleaner.

I escaped to the south for the weekend, in pursuit of warmer weather and yet more bicycles. On one hand it was to attend the reinvigorated York Rally, beloved tradition of the bearded, Carradice saddlebagged tourers, albeit organised in a new grassroots volunteer manner, and on the other hand it was simply to get away from everything for a few days.

Back to Swallow Hall My destination of choice is Swallow Hall, a neat little campsite a few miles south of the city and indeed home to thriving colonies of the little birds, darting around close to the ground of an evening. By using a couple of small lanes, rather than belting up and down the A19 which is a horrible road, really, and National Cycle Network route 65, once the East Coast Main Line between York and Selby but now an extremely pleasant and convenient cycling facility, I could reel off the eight or ten miles to the railway station or the Knavesmire racecourse quite easily. Of course, I haven't been in York when it snows, so I have no idea whether NCN65 nor the lanes are viable.

British human power I was a bit concerned that I might find myself wandering the Rally alone, browsing through the shows and trade tents with ruthless efficiency, and ending up with far too much time in hand. Once, and it was partly a consequence of awful weather, I dispatched the whole show in a morning and left early to do more interesting things. But no sooner than I'd completed my perfunctory circuit of the lightweight camping area to see what tents people were using, I bumped into TJ and Joan, long of yACF (that is, yet another cycling forum), ACF before that and CyclingPlus even before that. They of course now have their little one, who was much more interested in twigs and sticks than shiny bicycles. That put the day on a nice high for starters. The show wasn't huge, certainly not by the standards of previous years, but the vibe was much better. It felt cosy, with a friendly DIYish ambience. Mainstays among the displays were the British Human Power Club, Bikefix, ICE trikes, Circe Cycles, JD Tandems and Spa Cycles, all of whom are left-field to a greater or much greater degree. I fitted right in. In fact, I parked my Lightning at the BHPC tent, and when I returned an hour or two later it had gained the company of several more recumbent bikes and was practically part of the display, alongside Windcheetah trikes, velomobiles, Kingcycles, and several of Mike Burrows' creations, including his latest race bike and the monster tandem he built with Miles Kingsbury for Guy Martin and Jason Miles' 24-hour distance record.

Even better, Mike was there in person. Between him and Karl Sparenberg (now at the helm of AVD, builders of the Windcheetah, as originally designed and built by Burrows) I spent an inordinate amount of time talking engineering.

Peter Eland, until recently at the helm of Velovision magazine, and now one of the team behind the York Rally, was there with Debz; I said hello to Howard Yeomans, formerly of the Bikes Made Good repair service and now at the helm of Velovision, with his stand set up in the trade tent; I met Ian Perry, a very strong velomobile pilot; I renewed my acquaintance with Lee Wakefield, another very strong velomobile pilot currently sidelined by injury and making a name for himself with his superb carbon fibre repair work; and I also bumped into recumbenteers Kim and Barakta from yACF.

Here we go: a hundred mile an hour traffic jam! Sunday was mostly spent playing at the new velodrome at the York Sport Village, part of the University of York. The BHPC had the track for an hour, with people like Mike Burrows and Ian Perry going at it hammer and tongs, and then the rest of us had the track to ourselves! For a nominal fee I had my first taste of following the red line, the blue line and heeling over on the 45 degree banking. Kim and I had cycled there together, along with Dave Holladay on his poor creaking Brompton, and we stripped our bikes down as much as possible, bar our GPS receivers. Kim's ponytail is longer than mine, and it streaked out behind her as she spun her way around the circuit while I piled on the coals for a top speed of 23.5mph, fierce headwind notwithstanding. For an hour or so we all played on the track, and then, our lungs bursting, took to the infield to watch others having their own fun. Bromptons, tadpole upright tricycles, a bike with a Trailgator, even a Nihola cargo trike had a go!

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the railway museum, a bit of a tradition really, in the hope of a late hot lunch and a wander. They'd sold out of soup and I was too late for hot food. Dave, who'd come with me, went to catch his train home and I cycled back to my tent for hot tea and coffee, self-heating pasta and cold pancakes, and to listen to the animals in the forest. But by then it was dark and only 15ÂșC outside, so I stayed in my tent and imagined what the birds looked like.

21 June 2015
Bird noises at 22.24: a low-flying 'parrrp-prrrp-prrrp-wheek' – surely not an owl? It calls out about three times as it flies overhead. Not many other birds at this time.

And for comparison, last year I noted:

19 August 2014
21.08. Sounds: 'tweek' and 'woohoohoo-a-hoo'. The owls are making so much noise! And this one is 'peepeepeepeepee'.

My tent, of which I should write more sometime, also collected most of the pollen in Yorkshire, on account of me setting up camp underneath a huge oak tree. It was all I could do to brush the worst of it off before packing up on Monday morning. My train home was another Cross Country Voyager, which meant hanging my bike up, which meant having to remove all the luggage and wrestle within the confines of train vestibules. I managed, but someone shorter or less strong would have real difficulties, with no train staff particularly interested in helping. Back at Waverley it was raining, and I rushed to get my bike and bags off the train, and banged my shin in the process.

Back at home I put some butter in the frying pan and finally had hot pancakes and maple syrup for dinner, and they were lovely.

July 01, 2015

Create a new dimension

Master of Time
Setting sail
Over all of our lands
And as we look
Forever closer
Shall we now bid
Farewell farewell

Chris Squire was cremated at 15.00 MST today, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Scotty Squire asked all fans to celebrate his life by playing their favourite Yes or Chris Squire song. My choice was Awaken.

June 29, 2015

I hear the echoes

You were gone
From all those lives
You left your mark upon

From the pen of a mid-30s Neil Peart came these sorrowful words, albeit, perhaps he might even admit—now, a little simplistic sounding for someone of his literary standards,—but in their simplicity, as with many otherwise 'simple' songs and song structures, lies a universal applicability.

The bell finally tolled for a man who more or less invented the upfront counterpoint lead-bass style and, probably more than any other, was known for his huge guitar tone: thick and woody, growling, yet toppy and zingy at the same time, a sound so fully embraced and earnestly copied by aspiring bass players with John Hall's finest maple and walnut slung over their shoulder. I'm no different, digging in with my fingers or a pick and wringing as much essence of string-meets-pickup as I can, partly because unlike him I don't have racks of valve glowingly expensive Ampeg and Marshall at my disposal. And I do have neighbours.

I heard the awful news at lunchtime today, the news that quite frankly none of us actually expected. Chris Squire, the big man—indeed the main man—of Yes, had died. Everyone…well I say everyone but in reality it was only a few who committed their thoughts, goodwill messages and snippets of performance to video tape – was behind the #playforsquire movement. Squire had been battling a variant of leukaemia since about May this year, and it seemed only natural to assume in this day and age of technological healthcare that nothing couldn't be beaten. Alas not.

And the bottom fell out of my world.

 photo CS%20tribute_zpsac72ue3r.jpg

I suppose I was a late developer. I didn't really know Yes as a unit until the mid-1990s; their big hit, Owner of a Lonely Heart, came out in 1983 and I was much too young then to know what music could sound like: the only singing I did was in church on a Sunday, and the only music I knew was choirs and organ. In the 1990s I built myself a bass guitar, and I listened to Rush: at the time, I only had a couple of their 1980s albums, with Geddy on Wal bass, but I was quite into MIDI files and exploring the rest of the catalogue. Strange songs like Xanadu and Natural Science… and then I remember reading a website called "The Rickenbacker Project", I think. It had some sound clips of various players. There was Geddy on Cygnus X-1, aggressive as hell, and there was Chris Squire from Yes. I probably still have the sound files on my old computer. Roundabout, that ascending riff in E-minor played super fast and super cleanly. Siberian Khatru, with its hyper-melodic growling bass line. And Hold Out Your Hand, which sounded like a Yes song to me, with a very loud, chunky and slightly distorted bass sound. I knew that it wasn't Jon Anderson singing; I decided at the time that it must have been that guy who replaced Jon Anderson on one album in the 1980s. What was his name, Trevor Rabin?

Finally in picking up a copy of Close to the Edge from my local friendly second-hand record shop I quickly discovered where those sound clips had come from. And although the internet in the mid-1990s was a pretty small and not-at-all parochial place, I found out enough that Hold Out Your Hand came from Chris Squire's mysterious solo album, Fish Out Of Water. It wasn't until a good while later, certainly some time after I bought my Rickenbacker, that I found a copy of that album in the same second-hand shop. I bought it immediately. Like it was to every other bass player the album to me was a heck of a statement. And there, too, was that voice: a slightly husky tenor of considerable range. So that's who was doing the singing!

And really the rest is history. I went to see Yes at the Playhouse in 2003, when Rick was back in the band, and it was one of the best concerts I've ever been to. I went to see Yes again when they played at the Usher Hall in 2009. I bought almost all the albums, some of the live shows on VHS and DVD, and on my bookshelf I have the splendid Perpetual Change.

But what for the band, now? Chris Squire was such an integral part that he cannot be replaced. Jon Davison looks and sounds a bit like Jon Anderson, and he has the big role, but he has his own take on it. Then take Tony Levin: he played bass on Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe which was four-fifths Yes – ! – and yet the album sounded rubbish. Admittedly some of that might have been Wakeman's godawful synth sounds of the time: thin and whooshy and penetrating, played frighteningly fast and ultimately incredibly dull. But Yes music is a product of a collective who aspired to be more than the sum of their parts, an ideal if you will, whose revolving door of musicians kept—and keeps—that spirit alive.

Rest in peace, Chris. Thoughts to his family, too: Scotty and Xilan—and of course Nikki, Carmen, Chandrika, Camille and Cameron.

May 22, 2015

I know you're different—you know I'm the same

For the past few weeks little A6-size booklets have been quietly spreading themselves around Edinburgh. You can recognise them by their front covers, four dark cyan and yellow ochre squares, each featuring an abstract smiley face. It's gone the middle of May already, which must mean that there's less than a month to go until the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling.

There are something like 46 different events in the EdFoc calendar, and nine of them appeal to me. Some, like the Brompton Fold-Fest, the King of Kaimes hillclimb and Ligfiets Zondag are frivolous but fun; among the more serious are Spokes' ever-present Bike Breakfast and roughly quarterly Public Meeting, and the Women's Cycle Forum. It can hardly be a year since the first WCF, can it?—but it is. And while the debate goes on as to why not more women are riding bikes these days, there is an undercurrent of hardier women cyclists who barely think about whether or not to ride a bike, because they've always done it and it's all they've ever known. Why is this?

A while ago I read an article that deconstructed "riding a bike" and its counterpart, "not riding a bike", reducing it to component parts that collectively could be termed an 'invisible bag' that one always carried, but I couldn't find the article this week when I looked for it. Having a bike in the first place might sound like a fundamental weapon in one's arsenal, but you can break that down further. In fact it was mentioned in a different (I think) article that looked more at privilege: one's wherewithal to buy or to deploy in some manner. But I didn't read it too closely, partly because riding a bike is all I've ever known, too, and partly because I was tired from riding my bike.

Murray Walker once described Martin Brundle as Formula One's "most experienced driver". In terms of number of races started or accidents avoided he might well have been at the time, but it wasn't Brundle who was always on top of the podium. Brundle wasn't a Senna or Hill or Schumacher, and quite honestly I think he preferred Le Mans and other endurance events. Cycling is equally perverse. If you have that much experience on two wheels, calmly anticipating incidents or knowing what food makes your best fuel, why should you ever have a bad day? I suspect it's because we're only flesh and blood and some skinny metal tubes, forever having to compete against hundreds or thousands of kilogrammes of steel possessed of unlimited amounts of power. When it became too much one day, I wrote several paragraphs that trod a very fine line, between angst and anger. If I had managed to get to that stage, what hope might there be for someone who hadn't even ridden a bike in traffic before?

With the Festival of Cycling looming next month, then, I recently realised I had a more pressing issue. Why do I feel awkward—nervous, even—about going to the Women's Cycle Forum? I supposed that the root of it might lie in the fundamental of not knowing any different, not having that experience of abject fear on the road, perhaps. I have been properly scared before, on a motorbike certainly, but only occasionally on a bicycle, and always because of an externality. How can I bring to the fore those paragraphs of angst, and what can I learn from them: what can I teach other people? If I'm brutally honest, it's not that much about riding a bike stuff at all, but by being in the company of many people my age, all ferociously intelligent and busy doing; creating; people in fact who can speak in public with a fluidity and allergy-free poise far stronger than mine. It might also have something to do with having always disliked how I sound, a weariness brought about by a lifetime of correcting people on the phone and perpetually avoiding recordings. Strange, then, that a stage will feel like an entirely natural environment as soon as I grab my beloved Rickenbacker and a microphone. But, from a fluid dynamics and vibration point of view, one's speaking voice and one's singing voice aren't the same thing at all.

At the last WCF I mentioned an approach I'd read about for improving "things", normally a project or an endeavour with an aim, and at its heart is a driver diagram. No, not Celestion and Electro-Voice and audio crossover circuits, but prerequisites. Every aim, and there might be more than one, is deconstructed to an objective, which is supported by tasks and by sub-tasks and micro-activities, and they can all interrelate as necessary: you draw arrows between them. Think of it as Keith Emerson's Moog Modular: input, process, output, with all those patch cords. In this manner, every morsel of an activity or a piece of information or a situation feeds into one or more more significant activities. In order to improve, you must know what elements are at its root, and the magnitude of each's contribution. In terms of being confident at riding on the road and able to avoid incidents, there are some very fundamental aspects.

I have a bike. In fact, I have more than one bike, but for the sake of argument it's a generic do-everything tool. Prerequisite #1: I can afford a bike, because I choose not to own a car, and I choose not to use my motorbike for every journey. Prerequisite #2: I can cycle to work, as much by luck and bloodymindedness as by design. Prerequisite #3: I can afford a bike not because I'm rich, because I'm not, but because I avoid consumerist acquisition for the sake of acquisition and one-upmanship. I buy stuff to use and wear out and repair. Other people might afford a bike because they have money to burn, or find they can't afford a bike because they have to have Apple's latest.

I have a bike that works. Prerequisite #4: I do my own maintenance so that it costs less money, and because I can. Prerequisite #5: I learned how to maintain my bike's systems by reading books I borrowed from my local library. One book was so good I actually photocopied entire chapters from it, because I didn't know where I could buy a copy for myself. Later on, I also had a job in a bike shop, building bikes. I read about maintaining bikes in case I have to buy newer components because the ones I'm used to aren't available anymore.

I have a body that works well enough to power my bike. The human body is a machine that gets stronger the more you use it. It evolved for mobility, originally on sand and fields, and its biochemistry rewards activity and exercise, and I contrive situations to allow for that. Prerequisite #6: I do eat crap from time to time, but food is fuel, and so if I pig out one day I try not to the next. Prerequisite #7: My body isn't broken (yet). My ankle sometimes gets complainy, and my knees have good days and bad days. I bought a wrap bandage to support my ankle when it needs it. I read about different knee problems and went to a physiotherapist. Prerequisite #8: Physio taught me about posture and alignment, so I found out about classes for yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi, and went to some free taster sessions and paid for some longer blocks of classes. See also Prerequisite #10.

My bike is comfortable to ride. It wasn't always that way. Prerequisite #9: My saddle fits me. I've had to buy and borrow various saddles to find one that actually suits my shape. Prerequisite #10: My saddle doesn't actually injure me. There is a reason that, outside the generic model I'm otherwise applying, I ride a recumbent bike most of the time. It's more comfortable than sitting on a hard little saddle and it completely eliminates the risk of re-injuring myself, something that has happened far too many times over the years. See also Prerequisite #3, and, much as I love my big enduro motorbike, #1 too. Prerequisite #11: My posture on the bike is comfortable enough. It's about handlebar height, handlebar grip shape, the distance from the saddle to the stem, the height of my saddle and the fore-aft position relative to the pedals, the length of my cranks, and the Q-factor of my cranks and pedals. See also Prerequisite #5.

And it goes on. Some are more practical:

I have somewhere to store my bike at home. I've made the space for it by not filling the place with hyperconsumerism. Or children. Perhaps not surprisingly, no little amount amount of space is given over to tools and the neat ordering of them. There is however a delicious irony in multiple bicycle ownership and me pleading against consumerism.

I have somewhere to store my bike at work, or when I go to the shops.. I've lobbied for it and I've advised on design and specifications.

I have a lock (actually, various locks) that is strong enough to protect my bike. I know how locks get broken, and I've learned how to lock my bike effectively and where the safer locations are.

I can ride in rain and snow and wind. I have clothes that allow me to do this in reasonable comfort. I didn't arrive with those get-ups: I had to learn by trial and error what was comfortable and what worked and what didn't work, like fleece gloves that didn't keep my fingers warm, or wore out the fingertips too quickly. I had a woolly hat that was too loose in the wind. I bought some shoes that I discovered put my feet at the wrong angle on the pedal, which then hurt my knees. I had some shorts whose pad was the wrong shape, and an earlier pair with lycra that wore out too quickly. I still remember the day, twenty years ago, when I wore my jeans and it rained, and I didn't dry out until going-home time. I can ride in snow. I have special tyres that allow me to do this safely, and I can fit those tyres myself because of Prerequisites #5 and #7.

Others are more strongly rooted in emotion and the socio-economic.

I ride my bike because I've arranged much of my life to accommodate it. I would love to throw my big heavy camera tripod into a car and drive into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night to do astrophotography, but I don't have a car, and the motorbike isn't well suited to that. I could hire a car I suppose, but that costs more money.

I ride my bike because I don't care particularly what other people think.

I happen to be white and middle class. I'm thus possessed of a God-given right to be unremarkable or not.

There are of course a hundred more nuances, setting out why I ride a bike. So far so good. So why am I not driven to post videos of innumerable instances of bad driving, or bad cycling? I see them every day: car and bus drivers intentionally stopping their vehicles in Advance Stop Lane areas, cars with defective headlights and tail lights, people cycling on the footway (if, admittedly, usually at only jogging pace), people ignoring red traffic lights (yes, drivers and cyclists), cyclists not performing shoulder checks when they change position on the road, car occupants opening their doors without checking for oncoming vehicles or oncoming pedestrians, road users ignoring zebra crossing protocol—the list could go on. But I want to think about the more dangerous instances, particularly cyclists undertaking buses and HGVs, cyclists positioning themselves in a vehicle's blind spot, getting cut up by bus drivers, and close shaves with vehicles emerging from side roads. What am I doing that other people aren't, and are those methods useful to other women who do have a bike and do want to ride more safely?

John Franklin wrote a book called Cyclecraft. In it he set out his case for cycling on the road effectively and safely, and reading it has become almost a rite of passage for British cyclists. Much of the way that cyclists in Britain ride is a learned response to British motoring habits and the media; a game of cat and mouse where the only way to win is to not be the mouse. This generally means riding as though you were a car: fast, wide, obvious, attentive, and as necessary, courteously obstructive. Frustration at the difference of speeds compounds itself, and alternatively can lead to injury. Fast isn't always possible, because hills exist. Wide requires confidence, because you place yourself in direct line of others. But counterintuitively, as every vehicular cyclist knows, a wider position gives you three dimensions on the road, which encourages others to actively overtake instead of passing as though you have no width or length, only height. Courteously obstructive means getting in the way on purpose for specific occasions, when your own safety must take precedence over someone else's precious seconds. Being obvious is not just being wide but making your intentions clear to others. When you signal, for goodness sake signal with your whole arm and not a flick of the wrist and hand, and use expected gestures. What does waving your outstretched arm around mean to another road user? Help me? Overtake now, please? Perhaps you look as though you're waving to a friend, and the following motorist will divert their attention for half a second to try to see who you're waving to. That's half a second when they're not concentrating on you, or anyone else on the road.

Attentive in my experience is where far too many people are missing a trick. Motorbike training school teaches you an awful lot about observations: where to look and when to look. Shoulder checks, lifesaver checks, roundabout exits, right turns, tarmac banding, the colour and smell of an oil slick, road camber, drain covers, the facial expressions of others, escape routes, braking distances (do you practice "tar and tyres" when you stop behind another vehicle? Do you maintain a two-second gap when moving?). Imagine yourself to be The Terminator in enhanced vision mode. 'I see everything.' If you don't find it tiring, you're probably not concentrating enough. What was the last road sign you passed?

My journey on a bike must never be so important that the time I lose sitting stationary at a red traffic light is worth more than my safety. I've regularly been at a red light for two whole minutes; that's a long time to be waiting and sitting still—and feels even longer when it's raining or snowing. But five seconds might be the time between nipping through that gap and waiting for the last car to pass. Am I really in that much of a hurry? When my speed is up, of course the last thing I want to do is grab the brakes and convert all my hard won momentum into heat. Riding a bike is all about not having to slow down unnecessarily. But that speed might not be appropriate if you can't avoid a cracked piece of tarmac in time when a car driver is approaching from the other direction. Perhaps a pedestrian is about to step out from behind a parked car, too. And there's a child and some parents crossing the next side road: is that side road also your escape route?

I've spent ten years riding bikes that have two mirrors, left and right. Mirrors are fantastically useful: you can watch traffic behind you without having to turn your head! You need not wait until you're ten metres from a parked car before looking over your shoulder (if you even do that) and pulling out to overtake, only to find on your tail another cyclist on your tail who has already assumed the overtaking line and who is now adding to your own safety by acting as a deflector shield; you can plan that manoeuvre much earlier, judging the best time to signal (you did signal, didn't you?) and move out. The Highway Code might be stuffy, full of shoulds and musts and fiddly advice, and you might be bored to tears with the memory of The Ladybird Book of Road Sense, with children wearing reflective arm bands and ankle bands, the Green Cross Code, and bicycles with sticky-out flags, but the advice is if anything more relevant now than ever, our drivers too busy with their phones and imbued with a Top Gear sense of superiority and selfishness. There should be very little that comes as a surprise if you have mirrors and you use them. Don't use them too much, because you also need to be watching in front for drivers who haven't spotted you before they embark on a trajectory that Cyclo-math predicts will intersect precisely with your own.

Cut up by a driver? Ideally you should have seen it coming with a flick of your eyes to your mirrors. But could you have prevented it by riding in the middle of the lane instead? It's happened to me before. I watched a car driver tailgating me up a short hill, and stayed in a wide position on the road because I was less than 30 metres from a red traffic light and I didn't want the driver to attempt to overtake, cut in and hit the brakes. In the event, the driver overtook anyway at speed, then cut in on purpose. I hadn't expected that part, but I was already fingering the brakes in anticipation, my spidey senses perking up. And so I jammed my brakes on, steering only slightly to my left, which meant the driver overshot my position and while I was shaken for half a second I was untouched and intact. Cycling shouldn't have to be this way, but it is. Sometimes the best approach is to get to love your brakes, and teach your brain to stop pedalling in those instances. And if you're going to hit the brakes, you need to know in a split-second what is behind you. Turning your head is much, much slower than swivelling your eyeballs.

Observations. Anticipation. Decision making. Reaction times. And an improvement approach. I have a feeling that British cyclists are probably some of the most experienced in this regard. American motorists take prisoners: if the internet is to be believed, will kill you soon as look at you should you be cycling in the lane and not on the shoulder, thus preventing through sheer firepower the fast, alert style of cycling that involved give and take. Dutch people (and other countries with similarly high cycling modal share) probably have greater fitness on account of more everyday riding, but have infrastructure that greatly reduces the bicycle-vehicle interactions at significant speeds. In a town centre, if you reduce motor vehicle speeds to that of a moderately fit cyclist, the entire environment becomes more relaxed because you eliminate the element of competition and one-upmanship.

Your author is of course writing this from a very particular viewpoint: someone currently fit and fairly fast on the road, and who doesn't have to cycle with children. I'm a motorbiker, and I try to be aware of my abilities and the limits of those abilities. I still practice what I was taught when I learned to drive a car. And different bikes require different mindsets. When I tow a trailer full of shopping, I am not a fast cyclist. At all. My brakes have to work much harder, which means I go downhill more carefully, which means I am extra-observant about other vehicles and their intentions. When I pilot my velomobile, my speed on the downhill and level can be very high, but I have a lack of height. The safest thing then is to ride very wide, and I am extra-observant about vehicle blind spots and whether I can be seen in someone else's mirrors—not just wing mirrors but rear-view as well. High speed requires more planning for stopping distances; when riding up hills my slow speed means I watch my mirrors very closely so that I can tuck in as necessary (out of politeness as much as anything) or stay wide as necessary if there is a lot of parking on the road or if I will be making a right turn ahead. And in a velomobile I don't attempt to filter past vehicles unless there is an extremely good reason for doing so. It's too much of a risk to try it and find the ASL area blocked by a car, or to become stuck halfway because a manoeuvre requires turning more tightly than the steering will allow.

Your author is also writing from a viewpoint in which lycra is the preferred clothing, and who never seems to have found a good skirt for cycling in. This may be connected to my preference for riding a recumbent bike, which is more or less incompatible with skirts and baggy shorts. On an upright bike if I was cycling to a restaurant, then I would really rather look less "cyclist", mainly because everyone else would be doing likewise. Until the clothing companies start making trousers long enough for me I'll probably endure the dubious fashions of bepocketted plus-fours over lycra leg warmers that at least look a bit like stockings. And until the clothing companies start making cycling-cut coats with long enough arms, I'll carry on wearing my stretchy windproof fleeces.

I could adopt the non-cyclist attire of the Cycle Chic movement, but on my recumbent I'd get chain marks all over my jeans, and on an upright my jeans would give me saddle sores. I had them in the past and I don't want them again. The alternative might be courier-chic, but for me padded shorts are mandatory on an upright bike, and tights would have to go over the shorts, which would look ridiculous so I'd need to wear a skirt over the top, and then I'd get much too warm again. It would be fine in the autumn, except that it's then too cold on the legs for just tights. Perhaps I should turn Roubaix lycra inside out to have the fluffier side exposed. That would look less like lycra. Of course, the seams would then also be on the outside, so some custom tailoring might be in order.

I don't want to make a big deal out of clothing being the barrier to women not cycling more, because I think there is a lot to choose from nowadays for most averagely sized women. I won a prize recently for a 1000 metre turbo trainer time trial, and all the clothes I received were too small for me, but I'm not average. Cycling clothes do look less dorky if you buy them in greys and blacks, and also less dorky if you buy walking clothes rather than cycling clothes; I've stopped wearing traditional cycling jerseys since I realised that wicking t-shirts are far nicer. What is still a big deal to me is bike shops, and also bike shop mentality. Too much cycling clothing is marketed as fluorescent armour, when in fact how you ride on the road will stand you in better stead than assuming that hi-viz will mean everyone will play nice around you. Not in Britain right now, anyway. And far too many bike shops still have a blokey, hi-tech vibe to them, not helped when there isn't a single woman on the shop floor. If you feel smaller when you leave the shop than when you went in, take your custom elsewhere. You'll find that outdoor shops are much, much better in this regard.

My invisible bag, therefore, carries quite a lot. Cycling works for me because each journey is low in cost and surprisingly predictable in terms of how long it takes from A to B. I've worked hard to be able to maintain a bike, without paying someone else to do it. I want to carry on being able to do it, too, so I try not to take unnecessary risks, but measured risk-taking keeps up my level of alertness. So far, so good. Telling someone else to 'man up and take the lane' seems easy enough to do, after all, if I can do it anyone can, right? Wrong. I'm not them, and I don't know what's in their own invisible bag. More importantly, until they tell me, I don't know what isn't. And they can't find those things to put in their bag until they work out what they are and how to overcome each one in turn. That's a big part of what the Women's Cycle Forum is for.

May 18, 2015

I want to believe in that love yet again

I made a decision the other day. I bought a new Yes album.

When Yes put out their part-orchestral Magnification album, all Myst-style computer graphics artwork and a sound that was an English stately home personified, I was thrilled. The subsequent DVD, Symphonic Live, with the European Festival Orchestra performing alongside Yes—a Yes still featuring Jon Anderson, of course, with Tom Brislin doing sterling work in Wakeman's stead—was also superb. And then poor Jon had all manner of vocal problems that with a tour looming eventually saw him bow out of the band, to be replaced with a diminutive Canuck called Benoit David. Brislin departed and Oliver Wakeman came in for the tour. I remember going to their concert at the Usher Hall, in which David put in a solid performance (if also rather tambourine-happy). Man-mountain Chris Squire, a bit of a hero of mine, scowled and plunked at his Rickenbacker with his usual gusto but unimaginatively. Steve Howe alone saved the day by being absolutely on fire.

The tour came and went, and a new album was in the works. Wakeman and son of Wakeman were long gone, replaced by one-time Yes alumnus and, with Steve Howe, co-founder of Asia, Geoff Downes. At the controls was Downes' earlier partner in crime and one-time Yes vocalist, Trevor Horn, and everything looked it would be absolutely peachy. Except that the new work, Fly From Here, turned out to be total rubbish.

It shouldn't have been. With all the right ingredients there was plenty of sparkle in the production, as one would expect from Horn, but there was no spark in the playing. In fact, there is only one little section that sticks in my memory, a sort of hi-tech, herky-jerky version of the repetitive ascending organ section of Awaken. I can also gauge how much I like an album by its position in the pile of CDs that don't have an allotted place in the rack that's full. Fly From Here is languishing two-thirds of the way down; higher up than some The Alan Parsons Project stuff and 90s Iron Maiden, but lower down than Pink Floyd's Division Bell, various Gentle Giant albums, and much, much lower down than Soft Machine, Magna Carta and SBB. Heck, Fly From Here is lower down in the pile even than Starcastle! Unfortunately that's how much it excited me.

What then, for Yes? Follow Chris Squire's method of course. Hear about another musician who could fill your bandmate's shoes better, and nick them. And so it was that Benoit David parted ways, and Glass Hammer vocalist Jon Davison came in. Another Jon! In fact, another Jon dressed in white who was equally interested in Paramahansa Yogananda and for two pins sounded remarkably like Jon Anderson, a timbre slightly thinner perhaps but a perfect fit in the mystery and mystique of Yes music.

Even the fans readily accepted Davison. Not for him I suspect was the reaction of the crowd when Horn sang his heart out at Madison Square Gardens in 1980, and someone shouted "Fuck off!" Anderson might be short in stature but has very large shoes to fill, and Davison was up to the job. I was burned buying Fly From Here, so I decided to wait a while; give it a few months for the reviews to appear. Of course, the only Yes studio albums I don't own are Union and Open Your Eyes, both of which I'm in no hurry to acquire, thus it was only a matter of when—not if—would I buy the new one. And so it was, twelve months later or so, that I did.

It's called Heaven & Earth. Squire, Howe and White are the three elders now. Squire got divorced, got married again, lost some weight and regained his cheekbones. Howe grew out his hair again into a wispy grey cape, probably to get away from looking like someone's grandma. White has hardly changed for thirty years, but ought to grow his moustache again. Perhaps that would give him some imagination in his performances. Downes is looking quite middle aged these days, still bouncy but quietly spoken on the keys. Davison looks much younger than I think he is; he ought to grow a beard to place him more in the shaggy disciple role that singing lead in Yes demands. That's why Horn's big round bank manager glasses didn't quite fit, even in the rolled-up sleeves days of the early 1980s. Remember Anderson's shoes, and so much of Yes is Anderson, groovy, hippy, cosmic and slightly barking.

The first thing that struck me about Heaven & Earth, in reading the liner notes first in my best homage to vinyl's gatefold sleeves, was that Billy Sherwood was part of the production. Sherwood was all over Yes' The Ladder album, prog-AOR par excellence, and he seemed dull as ditchwater. But so too do we have Jon Davison! The sound of the album is bang up to date in its clarity—you can practically hear individual windings as a pick scrapes along a guitar string. You can hear sub-bass frequencies spilling out like those in the control room would hear, as synth bass and possibly real bass plumb the depths. You can hear Davison's voice soaring, a little penetrating at times yes, and Squire's ever-present harmony is there too. But it's also too clear, too sharp. Too accurate.

Albums from the 1960s have a wobbly, sometimes muffled, always close-up sound to them. In the 1970s as microphones and tape recording came of age you could saturate the tape signal, as you might overdrive your Marshall or Ampeg, but you still operated through oscillators, valves, transistors, knobs and switches and pieces of wire. There was always a feeling that an organ or an electronic instrument or a mixing desk or some recording apparatus was alive, because it was affected much more by heat or radio frequency. You never quite got the same thing twice. It was said (by Ralph Denyer, I think) that if valve amplifiers had been invented 30 years after transistor amps, they would be called harmonic processors. This audible interfering with what should be something immutable and programmed, coupled with tape's accommodating response to overloaded signals, is what brings that pleasant vibe to recorded sounds. It's called 'warmth'. If you didn't know what you were doing in the 1980s, digital meddling would clip harshly, ending up sounding gritty and jarring. If you did know what you were doing, like Alan Parsons, you could create incredible depth and realism to a production.

What Heaven & Earth—and Fly From Here before it, and sundry other works like Rush's Test For Echo and Vapor Trails, and Primus's Tales from the Punchbowl—is missing is that warmth. Fans mourn the passing of Chris Squire's crunching Rickenbacker tones, Rick Wakeman's Moog that sounded like a laser beam going through butter, and the way a real Hammond B3 has a creakiness that Downes' artificial Hammond doesn't. So why not pull out those ancient instruments? Use a real Mellotron, and a chrome plated microphone, and dig those vintage vibes, because they sound good. That's what Wobbler does. They have a rule about no post-1972 instruments. You can hear it all over Afterglow or Hinterland. Or play your guitar and drums like you always do, but record and mix it with analogue equipment, and analogue only. Brain from Primus knew this, which is why The Brown Album has that fat, dirty, close-up sound quality to it. A bit too dirty, many say, but it gives it a proximity to the listener that's miles away from the scientific, razor edge of its predecessor. But I'm talking about prog, or at least the halcyon days of prog.

Wobbler's output is also chock full of clever riffs and themes, but they don't have what Yes did when Yes was their age: a hard-battling but ultimately democratic consciousness that bound those riffs and themes together in a cohesive way with the maximum musical value. Wobbler simply lurches from one to the next.

The first track from Heaven & Earth actually excited me. In fact, I even picked up my bass and jammed along—to a song I hadn't even heard before. Squire's bass was too low in the mix, but my own Rickenbacker made up for it. The album loses its footing towards the middle, becoming a bit too pedestrian and safe in its lyrics. Towards the end it picks up again, chucking in some pleasant and rousing orchestral stuff that would've sounded better coming from real French horns. Gravitas, you see. Some more odd-meter playing is a tip of the hat to days of yore, and the climax is Right There, and suddenly that's it. There's no gentle fade out, letting the listener gradually swim back to reality. Yes's later works will always be compared with the stalwarts of the early 1970s, and it's very hard to be objective and to measure performance by the standards—and preferences—of it's now 65 year-old musicians.

Heaven & Earth is really nearly there, but it's definitely more Earth than Heaven. What I wish for, more than anything else in the latter-day Yes canon, is for Squire, Howe and White to ditch Pro Tools, go back to tape, and bloody well start showing off again.

June 18, 2014

Use the passions that flow

Even I'm old enough to remember the beginning of the World Wide Web, old enough in fact to still have my free-with-Mac-Format magazine "road map of The Internet", when it was all pages hosted by academic institutions, Gopher was still a pretty neat idea, and Kurt Cobain was still alive. I'm therefore invoking a meme from a few years ago because it provides a neat preface; the meme called for one sentence but a few more will help.

"There was still a gaping hole in our plans, however, for with the departure of "Gawain", we had left ourselves nothing with which to replace him! So…, at this juncture we parted ways, Alex, Geddy, Terry and Paul to begin work on some of their overdubs, while I would be imprisoned in my room until I could emerge glowing triumphantly, clutching some wonder of spontaneous genius to my knotted and sweating brow!! — mere fantasy, I fear. Did I perhaps have a title? Ah, no. Did I have a few strong ideas lying around? Well, no. Did I have any ideas at all? Well, maybe, but not exactly. And for two days I stared in frustration and growing unease at blank sheets of paper, and questioning eyes."

I could go on, for the original paragraph is as long again and Neil Peart is a much better writer than I, but on the third day in a newfound welter of creativity he began to piece together a host of ideas and thoughts, at once unconnected and yet circuitously themed. The product was of course a song called "Natural Science". Two days? Eighteen months more like, in my case. I'm far beyond sounding like a broken record: my record has long been recycled into a dainty bowl with crinkled edges, designed for holding pot-pourri or marbles or one of those curious collections of small metal objects typically comprising safety pins, half-broken zip sliders, paperclips and a selection of prizes from crackers—the same hoarded collection of items whose owner would without a hint of doubt claim that they might be useful, perhaps in say ten years; or more likely, never. My record of late hasn't been all that great.

My "Natural Science" ought to bridge that last year and a half, if it could. While the keys rattle under my fingertips I think of my notepads and their pages of handwriting, describing strange, fantastical journeys into the unknown: Mordor turning out to be one of the shabbiest camp sites known to Man; Sendar the growing familiarity of Kensington and Chelsea—if only experienced as a commuter; afternoons spent with toy trains and cable cars…and none of it readily transcribed for your perusal and delectation.

I think of the year in which I tried to declutter, my lovely big car with its faux-walnut dashboard and four flat tyres eventually meeting its maker, and my stop-gap motorbike that I sent packing with not a little 'good riddance!', and the year spent instead relying purely on human power. The car I miss, if only for the comfort of its half-leather seats and the way it ate motorways for breakfast—but it was an ailing dinosaur in its owner's modern life that no longer enjoyed motorways nor had cause to take them. The motorbike, my black Honda VFR with the cracked plastic bodywork that I repaired myself, and a cracked exhaust manifold that I didn't, was a hole in the tarmac into which I poured money. It made all the right noises, as every VFR does, noises that today still make the corner of my mouth turn up, but it was too small. The seat was too low, so the footpegs bent my legs so much I couldn't ride 30 miles without it hurting my knees; the seat was the wrong shape, and the wrong angle, which gave me a numb bum, only lessened whenever I slid forwards on the brakes. The windscreen was too low, even in jacked-up position with a spoiler on top, so my helmet was buffeted all the time. Crouching behind the fairing, MotoGP style, is for short people. And so it was that having spent the better part of five years collecting parts, taking a trip up north to a special garage and back, and latterly going wild with socket wrenches, wire brushes in an electric drill, paint, plastic weld and a sledgehammer,—yes, even a sledgehammer, for how else do you panel beat a bent and bashed bash plate back into shape?—the great beast that was my Honda Africa Twin once more took to the road. So long it had sat forlorn in a corner of the garage, reduced to a 200 kilogramme shelf. And how easily it accepted its owner again with a cackle and a joyous roar that scared small animals and no doubt delighted small boys.

Yet I'm getting ahead of myself, for that was mere months ago. The motorbike project in fact nearly never happened at all, because I was enjoying my economy and coming close to decluttering properly, but I couldn't bring myself to cut loose entirely. An Africa Twin is just a machine after all, just a collection of welded metal tubes and outdated, petrol swilling technologies, but it isn't clinical and efficient like a BMW, or brutish and unhinged like a big KTM, nor a bloated facsimile like its successor; it has a genuine heritage and a friendliness coupled with an old-school vibe that makes it very difficult not to like. I decided I should give it a chance, the chance it never had the first time around.

And yet there was a void. In honesty, none really existed. It was a void that should have existed, and one that I successfully argued did exist despite the rather glaringly obvious evidence. At the root of this was our climate: the culmination of too many years' winter cycling in which my fingers quite predictably turned white. As we all know, cold extremities can be ameliorated by a warmer torso, but I can recall only one occasion when this actually happened. I was wearing the fleece mid-layer that I used in winter motorbike trips (no more such trips, either) and I was riding my mountain bike—dear old Annie the Blue Bike, now mothballed for various reasons—and indeed riding up hills in snow, so my torso had extra-extra-special cause to be warm that day. To really stop the cold hands I needed to get out of the wind, say with a fairing, and if I had a fairing I might go faster: a lot faster if it was a full fairing, and if I was going faster I would need suspension. And if I was going faster with suspension I could go further too. Naturally the thing to do was invest in a velomobile.

Am I insane? Probably, but it was an educated insane, after all I'd been cycling recumbent bikes for ten years and was therefore well acclimatised, and I had spent a splendid afternoon in Toronto racing Bluevelo's yellow speed machine along the Waterfront Trail. It was also not without precedent, because another customer of Laid Back Bikes had already acquired his own for use on the other side of the country, and there were twenty other things that made it all seem quite sensible, like having space inside for four or five bags of shopping, and a warm close-fitting foam cover for when it rained. It arrived at the end of 2012, hit the roads in early 2013, acquired its first scratches within a month ("speed scratches"), and its first crack just a couple of weeks ago. And it keeps my hands warm! Lee Wakefield, known these days for being a dab hand with carbon fibre, as well as a seasoned velomobile pilot, reckoned that I was the first woman in the UK to join the ranks. Little old me! And practically a legend in my own time judging by events the past few days.

There comes a time, though, when novelty wears off. One noticeable manifestation of this is probably the theory of Bicycle Acquisition Syndrome, which I explored at length before, and of which the foregoing is perfect evidence. Even so, a new bike is like a new pair of shoes. Grippy soles contrast with the worn in and worn out predecessor's, laces with neatly bound ends, stitching neat and precise. Then before you know it a year has gone by and your shoes—like your bike—are once again literally an extension of your body, where every crease and wear patch is in the perfect place, and nothing is a surprise anymore. Shoes wear out, at least the modern ones made of petroleum and glue, not classic leather shoes that can be resoled or unstitched and mended; Brooks saddles conform to the rider, and a Rohloff hub wears in, not out. We crave originality and variety, because there's always something faster or more comfortable or that carries more…and we buy more bikes. Travelling the same pattern of roads day after day, month in, month out, just to commute to work and back again, isn't novel. It's our own very real Groundhog Day. Naturally, we notice a new pothole here, a filled one there, the repainted stop line at a junction, and we know the exact line to take across a roundabout to avoid a slippery manhole cover. The route becomes rehearsed ad nauseum, much the same traffic, much the same static hazards. Boredom is actually the overriding reason I change my commuting route so often.

You might say then that I mix up my commuting route to reduce my familiarity with it all, to increase the range of sights and sounds and smells along the way, and perversely to increase the number of hazards to which I expose myself. Danger makes for exciting times, which is why people climb skyscrapers using only their thumbs, drive bulldozers backwards on one track while blindfolded, or put their heads in crocodile mouths without a safety crowbar. And danger is of course countered by experience and practice, which informs skill, and skill informs decision making and reaction times. The problem with all of this is that constant wariness of hazards becomes hard work. Someone proficient at racing cars can't race constantly, even taking out the effect of the inability to simply stay awake. Pierre Levegh did remarkably well to race at Le Mans in 1952, single-handedly for over 23 hours; the speed of the cars by the 1990s—and thus the effort required to drive them at pace—saw the rules mandate a maximum of four hours at a time. But I'm only cycling in traffic, aren't I? I'm only going at 10mph, 20mph, maybe 30mph. How is that hard work?

It's hard work because other people make it hard work. Until the UK, or, in the possible interests of posterity, Scotland and 'the rest of the UK' makes it convenient to bicycle everywhere without the constant danger posed by drivers who think they own the road, or who think they can drive better and with greater precision than they actually can, it's going to stay hard work. There are so many angles one can take on this subject that one day I shall construct a massive family tree of everything that makes cycling hard work and why. Government hand-wringing, silo working, red top newspapers, sloppy journalism, sloppy science, biased court judgements, poorly upheld legislation, Police disinterest, influence of television 'stars', individual superiority complexes, social classes, social networking, and a general economic apathy are all in there to one degree or another.

It's hard work staying on top of things.

And frankly, one day not so very long ago I reached a point where nearly every moment I was seemingly subject to all manner of hazards—I would challenge any everyday cyclist of any ability to name a week in which nothing of note happened to them while they were on the road—and it became too much to bear.

After today's commute I'm beginning to wonder why I keep cycling.

The short answer is it keeps me going. The longer answer is that infernal combustion every day would cost too much and smells horrible, and would erode the first reason further. I was given my first bike when I was very young and the longest I've ever gone without riding a bike was 6 months. Today, and you might be surprised by this—I was too—I realised that I've finally stopped enjoying cycling in Edinburgh. I'm an engineer to my core: I love my bikes; and I try to help people feel that love for their own bikes. Yet each of mine is dangerously close to becoming little more than a means to an end. Far too quickly I'm coming to understand why people don't want to cycle, and I don't want to become one of those people. I shouldn't have to; I shouldn't be made to.

Because I'm fed up; of drivers overtaking me too closely, or undertaking me just to gain five seconds, or pulling U-turns in front of me without consideration of my speed, or shouting abuse at me just for existing. I'm fed up of poor driving standards that ignore conditions, like traction, or visibility, or gradient, or an ability to accelerate, and standards that are seemingly based on the driver's comparison with their performance during the previous five minutes. I'm fed up of the narcissistic me-me-me, me-first! attitude that pervades driving nowadays, in which traffic lights and roundabouts are to be beaten, rather than respected. I'm fed up of being polite on the road, and in return getting none of the human respect I would like. I can get no respect far more easily simply by not caring how I ride my bike.

I'm fed up of our city's roads that are being repeatedly destroyed by buses and lorries and not repaired properly, or even engineered properly. I'm fed up of road repairs that aren't remotely fit for purpose and that shake my bike to pieces.

I'm fed up with our city's pretensions to being supportive of cycling. That it treats me, and everyone else using human power, as though we were whizzing about on micro-scooters, weaving madly amongst pedestrians without a care, and able and happy to jump off on a whim. That it repairs only the roads that carry the most and the largest vehicles, and leaves the quieter, preferable routes to rack and ruin. I'm fed up of useful cut-throughs being 'repaired' to prevent their use by cyclists, forcing us to reconfigure our routes to include more dangerous areas requiring manoeuvres that we were only too happy to avoid before. I can't help wondering how many people, pounding the treadmill or spinning nowhere fast in a gym of an evening, were once busy cycling on the road but had that enthusiasm burned out of them.

I will probably cycle to work tomorrow. The fresh air will do me good, as will a bit of exercise, but my mood is damaged.

People do sometimes give up, opting for a safer, perhaps quieter, indeed less exciting life. But like a broken record, I did cycle to work tomorrow. I think tomorrow was Wednesday, but I might be wrong. I remember commuting on my motorbike the day after that, because it has presence: it's big and tall, and has huge round headlights and a loud horn (not Stebel Nautilus loud, but pretty good nonetheless). That day I enjoyed presiding o'er all the land, and I was surely satisfied as the plebs moved aside courteously as I approached with a rumble. In fact, such behaviour may have had rather more to do with feeling remarkably unwell that evening, necessitating my filtering past traffic like a mad woman while trying valiantly to hold down my lunch amidst a soaring body temperature. And unless I'm Laia Sanz, which I'm not, riding my motorbike is how to get less fit rather than more, and so I cycled the next day. Having been unwell, then, and thoroughly tired, I decided to take the quietest possible route home. Distance becomes a little less relevant when you plod instead of sprint, and I pottered along beside the trams, and around the houses, and sneaked in and out of cycle-type infrastructure,—nothing so grandiose as real custom-designed, all-singing-all-dancing European-level infrastructure I would add, for This is Edinburgh™—making my way home one of the many ways I knew how.

Issues? Yeah, we've got issues, and Edinburgh knows it. The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling was borne in 2013 out of Kim Harding's frustration that our leaders weren't doing enough about meeting the target they'd set themselves (a signatory to The Charter of Brussels, committing to achieve so-many-percent of trips being made by bicycle by 2020). EdFoC featured a varied selection of events, from films to talks to rides, all day things, evening things, overnight things. Strictly speaking, it wasn't the first bikey festival. We'd already had two or more years of the Bicycle Film Festival, largely the product of the energetic Maggie Wynn, and way before that there had been what we dubbed the First Edinburgh International Human Power Festival—ostensibly for recumbent riders, which lasted just for one day. There was never a Second EIHPF, more's the pity. Happily, thanks to the passage of time in which the city gained Laid Back Bikes, that's almost a regular event these days. With the EdFoC now in its second year and happening this very week, interesting stuff is organised: interesting stuff is going on.

One of the first events was the prosaically named Women's Cycle Forum. Apparently the first of its kind in the UK, possibly even the first of its kind. Lots of women ride bikes, lots more men do. Men—in the most general, biological sense—are imbued with a magical substance that helps them shrug off danger more easily than Women, in the most general, biological sense. The more of the magical substance Men have, the more they like to fight each other, and then it makes them go bald. It's often lots of men who attend rafts of workshops and meetings whose discussion points include Why More Women Should Ride Bikes and How To Make It Happen. Well, Men, sorry, but your gender agenda kinda sucks. I went along on a drizzly Saturday evening, badly underestimating how long it would take to ride to the venue in town, not helped by the main cycle route through the Meadows unexpectedly swarming with people wearing serious faces and hi-viz vests that said "Security": sufficiently serious that I cheerily ignored the first half before diverting back onto the roads, thus taking a great Commonwealth Games Baton Relay-avoiding dogleg that wasted valuable minutes; I arrived late and the meeting had already started, Sally Hinchcliffe mid-paragraph in introducing the panel. I'm not entirely sure that I didn't miss the first speaker. I poured myself into a seat near the back, next to a little girl busy making bracelets from tiny elastic bands, and tried to look demure despite generating my own weather by this time, hardly grateful for my decision to wear my crumpled baggy shorts (complete with cat hairs) over my lycra shorts, as if that would look more presentable than simply opting to have velomobile-strength thighs on display. Perhaps fewer people cycled to the event than drove or bussed or walked, although there was quite a range of bikes locked to the railings outside; perhaps fewer people had quite the dislike of bicycle saddles that do I, and were consequently more than happy to cycle in a dress; certainly there was a great absence of black lycra.

We had long, and not so long, introductions from eight highly relevant women. Sue Abbot, who looks like Miriam Margoyles, spoke about having a criminal record for refusing to wear a bike helmet in Australia; Rachel Aldred covered cycle campaigning; Sara Dorman covered 'not cycle campaigning' but getting involved in it anyway; Sally Guyer talked about making nice clothes for cycling in and looking good in; a fresh-faced Claire Connachan was 'fecking knackered' from just finishing a 40-miler with her girl group, Belles on Bikes. Polly Jarman spoke of her work helping young children to learn to cycle; Jo Holtan introduced the Cycle Hack movement for crowdsourcing ideas to improve bike routes; and Jayne Rodgers spoke with feeling about working with disabled people and getting the right bike, trike or quad for them to carry on cycling. Then it was onto group discussions, quick-fire to thrash out burning issues, ways to deal with them and ways to solve them: brainstorm meets cycle hack, if you like. My group was led by Sara, talking a mile a minute and simultaneously writing on the made-for-writing-on red paper tablecloth. Sally joined us, our discussion ranging from too-close overtaking to making street corners sharper to normalisation and destigmatisation to management system methodologies, each of us taking turns to draw diagrams and scribble thoughts, but all pointing towards a general desire for cycling to be safer, dammit.

 photo IMAG0563_zpsc319ddbb.jpg And in fact from the feedback from each of the groups—probably fifty people altogether, covering all kinds of people and all kinds of ages and abilities—the overwhelming desire was exactly that: safer cycling. Not faster cycling, not cheaper cycling, or even more stylish cycling. Safer. Just get the bloody motorists off our backs, but don't you dare corral us into some piece of shit segregation that leaves no room to move and no room for three dimensions. With the thought that cycle chic didn't necessarily mean floaty skirts and Dutch-style bikes with wicker baskets and flowers and little dogs, I took my baggy shorts off for the ride home. No bunching of material, no seams to sit on this time, just a second skin. And on my hips technically a third, because they're Endura mountain bike shorts.

 photo DSC_9333_2sm_zpsdf728f66.jpg Back to my preferred office the next morning for Ligfiets Zondag. Last year my velomobile was, not entirely unexpectedly, a hit, so I rode my usual bike instead this time. To be honest, one can only take so many questions ('How fast does it go?', 'Does it have an engine in there?' 'Where did you get it?' 'How much did that cost?' 'Can I have a go?' 'Can you go up hills?' 'Can I have a go please?' 'Can I have a sit in it?' and so on and so on) and I wasn't particularly minded to field them all again. Besides, a relaxing bike ride to the coast, Cramond and Silverknowes Promenade in this case, is the type of event that starts out specialist and over time becomes diluted, for all the best reasons really, by people riding whatever bike they want to bring.  photo DSC_9334_2sm_zps57eec44e.jpg It becomes 'an outing'. And so we had people on recumbent bikes, like Angelo and Ally still buzzing from their expedition across Canada last year, people like Hannah and John riding trikes or towing trailers, people like Kim using cargo bikes, and people I didn't know at all on their remarkably undeviant bikes. And…, I should have expected it really, losing count after about the third time I was asked where the big red streamlined speed machine was.

 photo DSC_9336_2sm_zps03a1443b.jpg After an early lunch of egg and cheese and bacon, and then an hour or two spent riding up and down the Prom trying different bikes, or playing fetch with John's dog and its slightly soggy tennis ball, or sitting in the sunshine and chatting, I was late leaving! I was later leaving than I even originally planned, too, forgetting that France is one hour ahead of us, and therefore four o'clock in the afternoon there is three o'clock here. And the 2014 24 Heures du Mans was 45 minutes away from finishing. I missed it.

But the ride home along the Roseburn path, bursting with green, was quiet and warm and pleasant. With Angelo and Ally alongside it was a ride full of happy conversation, and my earlier rant faded. It could almost have been written by someone else.