I left the Iwantonefothose.com job, went back to NZ to put on a play and then came back to a series of contract web positions for places like the Greenwich Council and the National Audit Office. I ended up spending the next five years inside the labyrinth of public office and administration.
After the pace of the startup world the byzantine environment of UK Government and Local Authorities was startling. Things could go nowhere, despite budget and plans and resources and good intentions, simply because someone didn’t really want to do it, couldn’t be arsed or was threatened by change. And to be fair some of the initiatives I was in were patently stupid - a whole few months spent designing an online jobs system for a department that had computers so locked down they could only use one browser, and the system that had been procured for the council didn’t work on that browser. Ambition failing, expensively, on a basic point of planning.
It wasn’t just plans and schemes of course, this was all about people and perception and influence and people keeping their jobs and pensions. I remember being appalled by a young woman, under 30, who had been an admin since leaving University, telling me how much loathed her job and detested all her colleagues but was sitting it out because the pension was good. Only 35 years to go then.
At the end of six months jobbing around I ended up in the Medical Research Council, the national institution charged with funding scientific medical research, and housed in a beautiful Nash terrace at the bottom of Regent’s park. The MRC and its precursors had funded research that had unlocked DNA, proved that smoking was bad for you and had developed those same monoclonal antibodies that had helped Steph so much a year before.
I ended up staying for over four years. You can put up with a lot for a good subsidised cafe.
Working at the MRC was my first real contact with an England that really saw itself as an eternal elite. Being part of the push to lead innovation in biomedical science is one thing, seeing from the inside how such an organisation believes that is the best simply as a matter of principle is something else. While the UK has a great place in endeavours like these the honest truth is that a lot of that comes from involvement with the EU and America. By 2030 50% of all STEM graduates in the world will come from China or India and 1.4% from the UK ref: WEF. With Brexit coming the state of innovation in the UK is going to get worse and, playing the numbers game and seeing how badly things like programming are taught in primary and secondary, the UK will be a minor player in all STEM fields inside twenty years.
That seems pretty obvious, but institutions in the UK seem to be perverse in their desire to ignore the rest of the world, looking instead to past glories, mostly relating to the innovations that have their roots in WWII. The future for science is not bright in the UK and hasn’t been for many years, but there is almost a cultish belief that it will remain so. That cult is, I guess, called the Tory party, but the left is not immune from it either. The real fascination working somewhere like the MRC is in looking at the history of the present - seeing potential tomorrows played out in the attitudes of today.
But what has this got to do with cycling?
Having a decent income again meant that I could at least afford a monthly cycling magazine to read and it was around this time that a new one was launched, CyclingPlus aimed not at racers but people like me, people who liked bikes and rode a lot, but had long since stopped pinning a number to their backs. In it there was a mention of a ride called the Dunwich Dynamo.
The Dynamo’s origins are a little hazy but it seems to have started with a couple of cycle couriers having a drink and deciding to see the dawn, jumping on their bikes, and ending up in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast via the deserted backroads of Essex and then Suffolk. The ride is held on the nearest Saturday in July to the full moon and so, like Ramadan for the veloreligious, is a movable feast. While Southwark Cyclists provide a bus or two that you can book for a ride back to town the ride is pure WOM - there is no entry fee or procedure, the route is a matter of habit and there is no official start or finish, no timing chips, no medals, no bragging rights, no bullshit.
I decided I wanted to do it. Despite years of cycling and racing I had never ridden that far in one hit and it seemed like a very very long way, an outrageous adventure. I booked a seat on the return bus, bought a bunch of batteries for my woefully underpowered commuter lights, pumped up the tyres on my single-speed rat bike and made my way down to the start in London Fields. That year there were a few hundred doing it, a mix of couriers, or pseudocouriers, tourers, club dudes and people like me ‘just riders’.
Having one gear is not really a disadvantage as long as it the right one. I have often done my best endurance times on single speed bikes. Having one gear forces you into ‘attack’ mode on the hills and then slightly restrains you on the flat, pulling you back to a high but sustainable speed that you can keep up for hours and hours making for high average speeds overall.
And that is exactly what happened. I have ridden the Dynamo five times altogether but that first one was the quickest. The single speed, coupled with me treating it like a 25 mile ride because I didn’t know any better, had me at the coast in around 7 hours which was a bit of a surprise. There weren’t that many people at the beach when I arrived and I had a long wait for the cafe to open at 7 and then an even longer wait for the bus at 1. And I hadn’t bought a book.
Charging through the night had been magic. Once you’re out of London and over the M25 everything changes. The temperature drops, the roads narrow and empty. The only sounds are the wind in your ears, cyclists around you chatting or the fizz of a group of club riders coming up fast behind you before they all stop for the inevitable puncture and you overtake them again. You freewheel through towns full of chocolate box tudor houses melting into in the streets, late night drunks hurl abuse at you and then the last third of the ride is done at dawn and very early morning with the sun slowly animating the low-rolling fields of Suffolk as the names become increasingly exotic as you reach the coast. Yoxford. Bruisyard. Saxstead.
The only thing that was not so good about the ride was the state of my back. Riding a very rigid aluminium bike with skinny tyres pumped hard and only having one hand position was like riding on solid metal boneshaker - desirable for town sprints where you wanted every watt to go to the back wheel but not so great when you wanted to be able to walk when you got off the bike after 7 hours riding.
I needed a new bike. One with gears, but more importantly, one with drop bars and more hand positions.
With a budget of around £150 pounds I took to gumtree and tracked down something that would do from a person who was most likely not a thief. A light tourer, a Ridgeback ‘World Horizon’ fell out of the internet and into my back yard. The name was evocative, a statement of intent. It was also marketing bollocks - this bike was no better for riding around the world than the single speed mountain bike it had replaced. It did have lots of gears, 24 of them, and the best thing about the whole bike was the fact you could change gears from the handlebars. This innovation had been around for almost a decade but it was new to me. Other than that the bike was a collection of fairly poor parts - and dangerously bad brakes - on a soggy frame. So A bit rubbish then, but it was nice to be on a road bike again, to be able to put my head down and rocket up the bus lane in Euston Rood, changing gears higher and higher without having to take my hands away from the brakes.
In terms of the great hierarchy of cycling brands Ridgeback is a non entity. This was a nothing bike, an also ran, the kind of bike that barely qualified you as cyclist and certainly not as a cyclist with any kind of style. But I was still under 40 and had a good turn of speed and, in the infinitely stupid realm of ‘commuter racing’ I was pretty much unpassable. Full rules of commuter racing here.
Settling into my Walthamstow to Regent’s Park commute after trying dozens of alternate routes, I knew the North East of London down to lane and shortcut level. I had already figured out by this time that the existing cycle lanes and ‘infrastructure’ were, at best, serving suggestions for the unwary. My routes were a mix of cycle lanes, bus lanes and twisty back streets - always searching for a route that was fast, safe and reliable.
In London you add in ‘likelihood to be mugged’ as a factor too, quickly learning from the distribution of teens on stolen bikes where the edges of manors and ends were. First rule - don’t stop. Second rule - don’t speak. Third rule - be fast.
Speed is the most useful thing a commuting cyclist has. If you want to move past that group of teens without them having time to decide what to do about you, if you want to get around that parking truck before the bus behind you makes you a smudge on it’s side, if you want to keep pace with cars because you have a right-hander coming up and you need to get across that lane, then being able to hit 25mph quickly is a great asset.
I once deliberately rode a slow bike in street clothes into Central London and it was, frankly, scary as hell. Being squeezed to the left all the time, taking your chances with drains, the curb and cars creeping over towards you, is horrible. And that’s the place new commuters and cyclists end up - pushed out to the margin and, due to their slow speed, being overtaken at a much higher frequency and speed disparity. Respect to the people who decide to take up riding to work, being a newbie on the road is an unnerving place to be.
While I was never a suicidally stupid commuter during this period I moderated some of my riskier riding habits. I had the need to get home safer than before. We had something more than ourselves to look after…
He was early and a bit of an experiment. We had asked Steph’s consultant whether her radical treatment would have any effect on babies and he said he had absolutely no idea, but probably not. I suspect the vast majority of his clientele were thinking more about survival than procreation.
What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. James K Baxter was a reprobate Catholic poet/alcoholic who left his family, became a hippy, called himself Hemi and died pointlessly young. It seemed a perfect name for a boy would grow up in the socially confined protestant culture of professional London. It gave him a chance to be different from all that if he wanted - a name as an escape plan. Coupled with my so-Irish-it-hurts surname there was no chance for him to be considered truly English, even if that is what he will turn out to be. James K was also a great writer, particularly in his later years and when Steph told me that her Mother had been buried with a copy of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets - one of my favourite poetry sequences of all time - the name was settled.
Once Baxter had emerged from a collection of pipes and sensors and we had him home we took him to see Steph’s consultant at Barts. He was absolutely delighted. He snatched Baxter from Steph’s arms and paraded him through the sick and terminal in the oncology ward waiting room and then through every consulting room, telling people there was always hope.
As any parent knows the first year of being in charge of your first born is quite a trip. You accidentally give them a teaspoon instead of a half teaspoon of Calpol and you think you’ve killed them. You are mostly too paranoid and then once in a while it turns out to be justified. There’s no time for anything but work and babies.
In such busy times the regular tick-tock of the commute is a blessing. Half an hour each way not being able to think about anything but were to put your front wheel next is as good as meditation. But also you need a little time out when you can get it. With Steph at home with Baxter and a holiday coming up I decided to get out of town. The DD had whet my appetite for a bit of an explore and I was due a couple of days off from daddyhood. And I had had the words ‘World Horizon’ staring at me from the top tube of my bike for a while now, but the farthest I had gone was Dunwich a couple more times.
A name as an escape plan.
For some unknown reason I chose Yorkshire and drove up and parked in the Vale of Yorkshire and set off on a loop - one leg out East over the Yorkshire Moors, and then another over the Wolds to Whitby, then back down the coast. The only alteration I made to my bike was to put the bars up a bit and slap on some cheap panniers.
It was an interesting trip. Having zero idea of the area and no cycling contacts to talk to I made the route up by looking at a map and ended up climbing come classic Yorkshire hills, Tan Hill being the best. Physically it was hard but not outrageously so, it rained on and off, it was mostly beautiful and empty and occasionally there were idiots in cars. Best of all it was unknown, something totally new.
I am not one for touring a lot, I prefer a decent holiday cottage and day rides on an unencumbered bike, but this was a cultural discovery as much as a physical. It was tearooms with doillies and old biddies staring at you; B&Bs with couples having breakfast that didn’t talk to each other and salesmen in suits on their rounds; it was decimated towns with nothing in them beside sad houses and pubs on the brink of closure; it was beautiful steep hill farms dotted with slag heaps that probably provided zero income; it was a once lovely seaside twin - Whitby - ruined by casinos in tatty shops on the foreshore.
You discover there’s barely anything left of whatever was once native in England. Most of the great forests had been decimated to build the Great British Navy, and most of what gets held up as ‘beautiful heathland’ is a human made miscreation of intensive farming and burn offs. I’d yet to read about any of that, but on this tour the fact that the landscape was entirely artificial was easy to see. It didn’t make it any less lovely to ride through, but this realisation that much of England was a series of ecological disasters covered over by a layer of sentiment and nostalgia foisted on you by The National Trust, or reshaped by the demands of industrial revolution, was a shock.
England doesn’t have a ecological base truth in the way that other countries have. In NZ and Australia you can still see untouched native bush, you can walk through it and, excusing the slow horror of climate change, know it hasn’t changed. There is a baseline that you can experience directly and reference in law. England isn’t like that, its natural beauty is a fiction, a story inscribed in the land. Once you understand that you can start to read the story and see how it has been contested and created. And it is a fascinating story, fascinating and ultimately tragic, a landscape created of oppression and exploitation. My ancestors had all left this England, and it was clear to see why - prior to colonising the empire England had already done a pretty good job of ruining itself.
The other thing you learn by going through the county at bike speed was that London was one thing and England another. And there was only one of those that was winning. This is was 2006 and the unrest that would become UKIP and then Brexit was still ten years away, but it was all there if you wanted to see it. A subtle sense of unease, the hopelessness paraded in the window of every closed local shop, a tangible and enforced gap between the Range Rover owners blasting from one country pile to another and the minions who mutely witnessed their passage. They were as good as peasants watching Lords and Courtiers, and festered with as much resentment. All it would take was a rallying cry and, with a simple vote each, they could take revenge and change the fate of a nation.
Of course I’d been into the country before, but mostly in a car or a train, editing out the scruffy bits of England. At bike speed you take in the shitty backwater towns and depleted villages, you see the dispossessed youths sitting outside petrol stations and drinking out of plastic bags. Of course there are the castles and the roman remains and the epic country houses, but the real fascination is in the history of the present - seeing potential tomorrows played out in the landscape of today.
Perhaps I was finally interested in all of this because I now had the duty to pilot a small boy through it all. Perhaps I am naturally curious and occasionally insightful, perhaps it is all a glorious projection. Mostly I think it was an accidental discovery made while in pursuit of cycling pleasures.
I had accidentally made a similar journey - one at work from the centre of London and the other a few hundred miles outside the M25. Just as you can only understand certain types of institution by working in them I think there is a type of understanding that only comes at bike speed.
And that is what riding a bicycle is all about - it gives you another perspective, a ‘World Horizon’ even if you are only a few miles from home.
Next: Good enough?