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henry cordierReticent and uncertain; are my ideas any good? I’m sure it’s a question many speculative writers ask themselves. The writing starts in uncertain circumstances, notebooks under the pillows of childhood, then creative writing homeworks for school, which must pass the red pen test of one’s English Teacher.

Mine wrote poetry – good poetry, at least the snippets he read to us in class on the brighter of his days, the days when he was not so scowly-stern. I wanted him to like my writing too, my poetry. That I respected him, feared him a little even, it meant a lot to have him pen good things in the margins of my homeworks. And of course  it hurt when the marks slipped below C for things I’d laboured long upon, while managing to miss the point entirely.

Mr. Jones. It was approval I sought back then from him. In my eyes he was a literary genius, benign sage, and caustic nemesis rolled into one. He was a man I could both hate and love, this man who whipped me through my English O Level. He was a God, or rather the channel through which I sought the approval of the Gods for my words – his red pen the arbiter of permission to think the way I thought.

But after the brightly coursing stream of education, one is discharged into the stagnant, murky mill-pond of life, and with no Mr Jones, the image of Godhead moves to the faceless publisher. For the next twenty years I sought approval there instead, but to no avail, for the God of publishing does not exist; it is therefore healthier to be an atheist in all our dealings with them.

In retrospect, I am glad now for the red pen of Mr. Jones, bright-curling round my spelling mistakes, even the pointed “see me” and the ensuing stern lectures on my use of grammar and punctuation, with ears burning, and the girls in class I adored all listening in. Oh, the humiliation! Could he not see how much I wished to be like him? that words for me were thoughts out loud, and my thoughts did not seem like the thoughts of other boys. Are my thoughts all right, Mr. Jones? Is it all right to think and feel this way? Why can I see the story of a man’s life in a worn out shoe, when others see nothing? Why is there pathos in a girl’s discarded bow? Tragedy in a rusted spring? What see you there, Mr Jones? And is that all right? Is that normal?

Revise use of comma, apostrophe and semi-colon, Michael. Watch your spellings!

But once you have the mechanics, what you think is what you think, what you see is what you see, and you need no approval to think or see, or write an account of it. Then writing becomes a matter of style and long practice, years of practice,… decades and decades in the dusty notebooks of adulthood. But the thoughts are yours and the fact of your existence alone is sufficient for them to be written. If anyone agrees or not, is moved or not, is a matter for the Gods.

You have no power there.

Mr. Jones never told me this. It’s something we have to work out for ourselves. Perhaps he did not know; perhaps it was approval he sought for himself, through us, by reading us his poems. With the benefit of long hindsight, I think this might be true, for I am much older now than he was then, and age, if nothing else, brings insight.

No.

Do not write for approval. Ask yourself only this: in seeking publication am I chasing validation of my ideas? If the answer’s yes, you’re labouring under a delusion. Nobody cares that much. If a publisher likes your work you are one lucky scribe my friend, but if he does not, it does not mean you cannot write, that your mind is dim, that your thoughts are third rate – only that the publisher cannot sell them.

So where does approval come from? One’s online readers? It helps if readers say nice things, but it’s as well to bear in mind they might not mean it – same if they assault you with brickbats. Of course the only approval that means a damn comes from you. Only you can give yourself permission to think out loud, to have the courage your thoughts are worth the writing down. It sounds complicated and crinkly-weird, but it’s really very simple. Just be yourself, sincere, then the Gods might come and speak to you, and ultimately through you.

Isn’t that right, Mr Jones?

Good poems they were, your poems.

Keep well.

MH17

I was going to post something else today but I can’t. World events dictate a period of sombre reflection. We have become so bound up in the growing turmoil of the Middle East we Europeans have taken our eyes off the civil war on our doorstep. The threat of Jihadist terrorism is not to be ignored, but by far the greater threat to the security of Europe comes from the conflagration that is now Ukraine. We have heard nothing of it in our news reports recently – only sordid sex scandals and banal government reshuffles, so unless we purposely dug for it, we might be forgiven for thinking the Ukrainian crisis had gone away. It hasn’t.

Airline disasters are always humbling events, so many innocents meeting a violent end. We put ourselves in that aircraft, the cramped interior, the stale air, the engine noise. We have all thought about it, and tried not to. Air travel is the safest form of transport, I’m told, but on those rare occasions when it does go wrong, the losses are immense, and the nature of one’s demise so unimaginably terrifying. It takes a long time to hit the ground from 30,000 feet, a lot of time to think, to suffer and to see it coming.

298 lost.

It is not the first time a passenger jet has been shot down by military technology, either by design or by ignorance, but the implications are always politically explosive. While our thoughts must rest for now with those lost and those who mourn them, let us also refocus our minds in the days and weeks to come to a threat more tangible than any we have known in recent years, to an armed struggle on the borders of Europe where the risk of collateral damage has been so amply and so tragically demonstrated by the downing of flight MH17 yesterday.

And to the world’s media I say this: look again at what you headline, then you’re less likely to be caught out, harping on about the outfits of new lady ministers when violence on this scale is spilling on our borders. You’ll look less stupid, and less obscene as your horror radar recalibrates and screams for blame. But remember this also, the only enemy in war is war itself.

We have to find a way to resolve this conflict. This is Europe, 2014. There’s so much in the world we have achieved we can be rightly proud of, so much else besides of which we should be ashamed.

Mazzy at BuckdenI wanted to give the car a decent run this weekend, so drove the little road from Bolton Abbey all the way up Wharfedale, then on to Leyburn for the night. It was the weekend after the hugely successful Grand Depart, when the opening stage of Le Tour De France set off from Yorkshire. The aftermath had left all the dales villages still trimmed up and looking very festive with their bunting and yellow bicycles. It had also left the roads in various places scrawled with some very distracting graffiti.

I’d set myself the challenge of completing my own little tour de Yorkshire with the top down. I’m doing well so far, only having had the top up on a couple of journeys, and one of those was because I preferred the imagined security, and a bit of soundproofing, when I took to the motorway. On this occasion though I braved a bit of the M6 from Bamber Bridge to Tickled Trout and then the long stretch of the A59 from Tickled Trout to Bolton Abbey – all of it topless, so to speak – but it was an unnerving experience. I think if we all had to drive this way, we’d be driving a lot slower, and much more carefully.

First stop was the Abbey Tea rooms for coffee and to gather my addled wits. Sixty miles an hour in an old MX5 feels like ninety, and there’s always someone tailgating you. White vans were a particular hazard on that stretch of the A59, having taken over from the usual Beamers and Audis and flourescent Ford Focuses, familiar from the back lanes around home. One had bullied me from the Cross Keys, all the way past Skipton seemingly intent on bulldozing me into the ditch. It may be that I’m used to a quieter, smoother car, but sixty in Mazzy is my limit for now, and plenty fast enough for even the faster sections of the A59. Not fast enough for white van man though. I had fitted a dashcam for the journey but quickly realised it was pointing the wrong way. Instead of pointing out the front, recording potential head-ons, it would have been better pointing backwards. I’m not sure if there’s a You Tube channel called Mad Tailgaters, but I’m thinking of starting one.

Bolton Abbey marks the beginning of the run up the Wharfe, and it’s a great place to refresh yourself. I was too early for scones, so made do with a stiff Americano and some deep breaths. But already the day was shaping up for the better. There were old English roadsters on the car park here – Morris, Alvis, MG – all from the thirties and the forties, a much more civilised era for motoring, an era when the brakes were rubbish, there were no airbags and petrol was sixpence a gallon. I wondered how they’d managed the A59, and the tailgaters. The owners, rather well groomed, silver haired gentlemen – tweed jacket and cap types with clipped accents – looked calm and unruffled as they took their refreshment. Maybe I just don’t have the Spitfire spirit, and needed to buck up a bit.

Bolton Abbey is a popular tourist destination, but not the sort of place to visit if you’re touring. Part of a private estate, the entrance fee is now over £8 per person. That said, there are a lot of grounds to enjoy, a beautiful section of the river, and then there’s the Strid, where the Wharfe is squished down to a narrow passage between crags that you can (almost) leap, and most likely drown when you miss. But you need a full day to do justice to the visit, and the admission fee. On this occasion, I was not tempted. This trip was all about the drive – and a bit of walking. The price of a cup coffee was the only thing Bolton Abbey got out of me.

The road up the Wharfe was a delight, the car coming alive once more on the tight bends and through the rises and hollows. An overcast start to the day dissolved here into blue skies and sunburn, and by the time I reached Burnsall Bridge, both the car and my heart were singing with the joy of it.

You can’t go fast here – too many cyclists and horses, but thirty feels like fifty in Mazzy so you don’t need to be racing to feel like you’re flying. Burnsall is another popular tourist destination, a pretty village and a fine old bridge spanning the river, also partly the setting for my timeslip short story, Katie’s Rescue. It’s a good spot for picnics or for commencing a walk, but I was heading up to Buckden, at the top of the dale, so passed on without haemorrhaging shrapnel on the carpark.

The price of tourist parking tends to discourage touring. You can see most of these places in an hour before moving on to the next, but at the prices charged you want to settle in and make the most of them, which is perhaps not a bad thing. The National Trust finally got me at Buckden, charging me £4.20 to leave my car while I had a walk up the Pike. As an illustrative aside, a few hours later I was in Aysgarth, wondering about visiting the falls, but I didn’t because it hardly seemed worth the price of parking the car again, for what would have amounted to no more than an hour’s visit. It would have been good to see the falls, but I’ve seen them before, and you don’t need to pay money to experience the sublime. If you’ve not been to Aysgarth, ignore my tight-wad example here and pay up – the falls are spectacular and worth every penny. But remember the sublime is in you. You can find it anywhere, not just where the National Trust or English Heritage set up camp and tell you to.

waterfall buckdenThere’s a beautiful little waterfall in Buckden that’s not even marked on the map. It was by the side of the footpath that descends the Pike and must be known to many a walker, to say nothing of Buckden’s few residents. As I came upon it, the sun was hitting it just right and the colours exploding as if were something not quite real. My photograph here doesn’t do it justice at all. It may not be Aysgarth falls, but has its own water sprites who’s siren call lured me over to spend a grateful break with them.

Buckden was also decked out for the Tour de France, and takes my personal award for the most festive effort. I met a lady the following day who was looking for a supermarket, as she’d taken a cottage in Buckden for the week. We laughed, agreeing that there wasn’t a lot in Buckden, and it’s true, you’ll struggle to find a supermarket there, but there’s a whole lot more besides and, apart from that carpark, it won’t cost you anything. Buckden without doubt is my favourite Dales village – apart from all the others of course.

Finally it was on to Wensleydale, to Leyburn and a homely B+B for the night. It was my first time in Leyburn, a small, historic market town. I’d made a reconnaissance trip on Google Streetview the night before, and thought the place looked a bit dour, but nothing could have been further from the truth. They had the bunting up here as well – the Tour de France seems to have visited every town and village in Yorkshire! Leyburn’s a good stopping off place for a tour, with plenty of pubs and restaurants around the main square.

One’s always a bit self conscious, travelling alone and walking on spec into the first pub that takes your fancy, but I was at my ease in minutes, the landlady calling me “My Love” like I was a regular and settling me down to a fine, flavoursome Steak and Ale pie. I’ve visited many a UK town where the lone traveller’s self consciousness was not assuaged, and where the locals proved to be standoffish and downright queer. Leyburn is definitely not one of them. Both Mazzy and I received a warm welcome, and we’ll be coming again.

It was altogether the best day of the Summer thus far, to be bettered only by the day that followed it.

If there’s a heaven, I’d like it to be the Yorkshire Dales, and an old blue car to explore it in.

Topless, of course.

le grand depart buckden

tennerIt’s no secret trying to become a professional author is one of the toughest trials of mental endurance ever invented. You need levels of self belief verging on megalomania, and a determination greater than Hercules in order to pass all the trials you’ll be set before a publisher will shake your hand. This has nothing to do with the actual gut-wrenching business of writing a publishable manuscript of course, which, since you call yourself a writer we must take as for granted. It’s what comes afterwards that will really test you. It’s no exaggeration to say an aspiring author will submit a manuscript ten or fifteen times and it will be returned, each time probably unread, and certainly with no helpful indication why it was rejected. We might persevere at this game for decades, but most will give up. The more dogged will die trying, while a few, just a few, of those left standing,… will make it through.

An aspiring author should be under no illusions how difficult it is to break into traditional print and I’ll advise anyone to get a proper job first because they also need to be under no illusions how much money they’re going to make if they defy the odds and succeed in eventually going pro. Headline celebrity authors have distorted our expectations. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is worth a phenomenal £570 million, but this is an exception. A study just published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS) reveals your typical professional author earns more like £11,000 a year. It doesn’t sound a lot does it? That’s because it isn’t.

Let’s put this into perspective. If you worked in a shop, or a fast food emporium for a really stingy employer – which is about everyone these days – you’d get the legal minimum wage, and not a penny more, which amounts to £12,300 a year. That’s right, you’re likely to earn more flipping burgers than publishing novels. But it’s worse than that: there’s a big debate at the moment how much you actually need to live on to meet the basic minimum standards of life in western society. The absolute minimum you actually need, the so called a “living wage”, is currently about £14,700 a year, so you can forget luxury; your earnings as a professional author are going to be well below what’s even considered decent for any human being to live on. You’re probably in breach of your own human rights by persisting. It’s perhaps not surprising then the ALCS study also tells us the number of professional writers has fallen from 40% in 2005, to just 11.5% now. This isn’t saying writing is in decline, but that writing as a profession clearly is. There’s something weird going on. We’re all becoming hobby writers.

As a professional, the writer clearly isn’t valued much by society and if they want to earn the basic minimum standards for living a normal, happy life, they need another job, preferably one that still leaves them time to write. A doctor working in private practice can charge you £200 an hour. A garage mechanic will charge you about £40 an hour. With an hourly rate below minimum wage of £6.31, dear writer, financially, you are the lowest of the low, which makes it even weirder that so many of us are still drawn to writing, and persist in holding to this fantasy image of writing for a living. It flies in the face of reality, to say nothing of common sense.

When stymied by perpetual rejection, the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens set up his own magazine, primarily as a vehicle for the serialised stories he couldn’t get published anywhere else. He was able to think outside of the box and to basically self publish, successfully, in a world where editors were telling him he’d not the talent to write at all. Yet the ALCS study tells us only a quarter of contemporary writers have even tried the online version of self publishing, though of those who have, the vast majority say they would do it again because the returns are now better than for many traditional paying markets like magazines, TV or Radio. Dickens would definitely have been in there. As for the three quarters of writers who won’t consider it, they must be getting far more from their writing than money can give them, and that’s fair enough – I know how they feel – but how they’re managing to keep body and soul together, I really don’t know.

Some might say this decline in professional authorship bodes ill for the creative arts, that the continual grooming of a top ten of glossy celebrity authors is a bit incestuous, that it suppresses the creative gene pool, stifling latent talent among the masses and preventing other great genre busting stories from reaching the audience they deserve. But the good stories will always find a way to their readers, regardless of how they’re published, or who by. There’s still plenty of paid talent out there, doing great things, though they might not be paid as much as we think they are. And then there’s always self publishing online for those who can no longer bear the grind, and are able to disabuse themselves of the supposed kudos of the “professional” author.

As for me, I’ll need to be safely retired before I consider going pro. In the mean time I’m happy to carry on giving my work away. £11,000 a year is better than a slap in the face, but that I could earn more flipping burgers is a real wake-up call. It’s not worth the hassle, or the postage, or the SAE envelopes, or the printer ink, or the double line spaced MS, or studying the market, or drafting the grovelling enquiry letter, or polishing the synopsis, time and time and time again.

There has to be another way; and there is: self publish. But most of all, if you want to write, stop talking about it and…

Just write.

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885They say a writer should always write for the market, in other words write whatever’s selling. Who are “they”? Well, a lot of them are people who write self help books for writers on how to get published. “Study the market”, they say, then sit down and write stories to suit it. And if you’re a naive young writer, trying to narrow the odds of getting published, this appears to make sense. But in reality what’s popular at the moment may not be popular by the time you’ve worked out what it is, and written something similar. If you’re not careful you’ll spend your life chasing your tail, pursuing the mythical golden genre, which is, sadly, a genre you’ll never catch up with.

So, what about now? What’s currently trending? Well, I might have said tales of teen vampires and spankbuster stories. But I suspect I’m wrong because I was never any good at studying the market and, judging by the glut of said spankbuster novels I saw  in the charity shop this weekend, I suspect that genre may already be on the wane. Certainly by the time I wrote one they’d be as passée as sideburns and flared trousers. But, actually, I don’t want to write one, because in writing specifically what I feel someone else wants to read I would not be fulfilling the contract with myself as a writer, and I’d probably dry up after the first chapter. What writing is for me, is finding the button which, once clicked, the writing writes itself while I sit back and am entertained, intrigued, informed and healed by the words that appear under my fingers. This is not writing for the market, or with a view  to publishing. It’s writing for myself, and it’s the most satisfying kind of writing there is.

It is not the writer, but the unconscious imagination that delivers this miracle, and what it delivers may not always be popular, commercially lucrative, nor even intelligible to another human being. I write what I write, but if no one else is interested in it, that’s not sufficient reason for me to stop writing. We write best when we write what pours most naturally out of us, otherwise it’s like telling someone what we think they want to hear; it maintains the status quo, but it never moves things on. So, throw away that self help book; do not write for the market; write what you want to write; be a warrior-writer, an explorer of the unknown. This way the more fortunate of you will be the ones who hit upon the next big thing, discovering the new killer-genre that a generation of self-help hopefuls will try to copy.

And the publishers will suddenly love you.

Of course the majority of you who set off down this path, will never find a publisher, your genres will always be too obscure, and eventually your tales will wind up in the commercial wasteland of the online world where they will wander in perpetuity like lost souls. But again, that’s not sufficient reason to stop writing, especially since now you will find readers, unlike in the pre online days when you would not.

The imagination is an infinite resource, but not one to be mined as if for gold, more for that which wants to see the light of day. This is where the stories are born and where they grow. The writer sets them down, for himself first, then for others. But the imagination does not work in neat genre folders. It is what it is, and what comes out of it is as unique as the teller of the story.

In the psychology of Jung, there is a natural creative tension between the conscious mind and the unconscious. We do not know what lies in the unconscious, but throughout our lives its contents, which are hinted at in dreams and snatches of imagination, press for acceptance, to be assimilated into conscious awareness. Reluctance to deal with the unconscious results in mental illness and a seriously unbalanced life. On the other hand, directly courting its contents through the written word can give us the appearance of being mentally ill, when actually what we’re achieving is a better balance.

Some writers then, and I count myself among them, write primarily for themselves, as a means of self understanding and self healing. This might sound self indulgent, but there is a common bond between human beings, since we rise from the same collective psychical substrate, so what I have felt and suffered, there’s a good chance you have felt and suffered too. The writer therefore lights the path, so others might gain insight and comfort from the fact they are not the first to pass this way.

But now we’re getting deeper into the psychology of the written word, and it becomes apparent there are two kinds of story. There is the story that takes us out of ourselves, puts us in the skin of another person and presents an entertaining, though undemanding alternative experience of life. And then there’s the story that puts us in a skin which, though at first unfamiliar, we realise is essentially our own, and it casts us in a situation which, though it at first seems strange, even outrageous, we realise mirrors our own lives. These are the stories that make us look more closely at ourselves and how we live.

Most of they money’s in the first kind of story, and a writer might spend his whole life chasing it, spurred on by the desire to be known as a writer, to wear the tweed jacket and bow tie of the mythical bardic breed. There are many good writers who make the realm of genre fiction their own, and make a living at it, but many more who aspire to it and fail, to lie instead embittered and broken on the trail.

The second kind of story is a stony road – I suppose you might call it the literary path – the novel as an artform. I’m not saying there’s no money in literary novels, but it’s probably best to consider it from the outset void of remuneration unless you’re already in cahoots with a publisher and his marketing machine. Future generations may laud your genius, but for now its best to view yourself as just another self conscious, self indulgent loser. And that’s fine because those pursuing this path are less interested in the epithet of “writer”, less interested in a lucrative publishing deal, and more  in discovering what it means to be a human being.

Their stories may be strange and unsettling, or even unreadable, unless a literary critic tells us first they’re worth the eye popping agony of ploughing through them. But that they provided sufficient energy for their own creation, through the channel of a writer’s imagination, is justification enough for their existence and they will surely find readers in their own good time. In the mean time they may languish for decades on free to download websites, long after their author has passed away, but it doesn’t matter; the deed is done. It’s simply what writers do, and we should be grateful now for the catch all medium of the Internet for their preservation.

If you want to write, don’t write for the market – just write!

waltham 3I am fifty four years old in December. I have worked at the same company since I was seventeen. I don’t dislike my dayjob, though I’d be lying if I said I did not find it, at times, stressful and difficult. It’s certainly the source of most of the neuroses I’ve battled over the years, mainly on account of my insisting I need to be one person when I’m at work, and another, more myself, when I’m at home. And the mask, the persona, has never sat comfortably with me. That said, with a straight head, I can see my job is easy. I sit in an air conditioned office all day and do stuff on a PC. It’s hardly like working down the pit, so there’s no reason why I can’t be doing it in my eighties.

I’m not trapped in this job either. I have a pension accumulating, but I’ll have to wait until I’m 65 to get all of that, and that just seems too far away right now. I can retire early, from the age of 55, make room for a youngster to take my place, but the pension will be reduced by 4% for every year of freedom I gain. At the moment I’m thinking 58 or 59 will be a more sensible time to go. Realistically then I’m four or five years away. The pension still takes a 25% hit, but I have savings that will compensate for that a little. I’ve done the calcs and reckon I can manage, but only if I live modestly, and don’t live much longer than 90.

My income would be much reduced, but the mortgage is paid this year, and my outgoings aren’t what they used to be. In return I’ll gain freedom from the daily commute, which is an hour and half of dead-time and rising with each passing year. I’ll gain freedom too from the eight hours a day I presently owe to someone else. Some say I’ll be bored at home, but that’s because they don’t know me. I’ve already had my invite to join a weekly walking group, a bunch of hardy crumblies who venture all over the North West, rain or shine, and I look forward to that. I’ll carry on training weekly in Kung Fu, maybe slowing this down to Tai Chi, once I hit sixty. And of course there’ll be the writing. There’s probably another few million words in me yet, though I’ve no intentions of returning to the treadwheel of speculative submissions for paid publication. I’ll continue to write purely for pleasure, to explore my life and my psyche through my novels, and I’ll continue to blog, because it allows me to speak as an edited version of myself, and to decide what it is I actually think and feel about things. Like retirement.

Having observed other retirees, I know the life is not without its frustrations. They start out with great plans for world travel, and weekends away, maybe buying an old camper and touring Scotland like they always wanted to do, only to wind up running around after other folks, or nurse-maiding older relatives for years, until they need nurse-maiding themselves and have still not achieved anything they said they wanted to do. One retiree told me he didn’t know how he ever found the time to go to work because his days were so overtaken now with errands, and none of them for himself. It’s a fact of life, he says, that life will always find you something to do that stops you from doing what you want to do.

Of course there’s no obligation to retire nowadays; that legal full stop of 65 has been abolished in the UK and we can go on as long as we like. I know people nudging seventy now, still working full time in full tilt professional occupations, and with no intentions of retiring at all. It’s a personal choice, and it’s up to them, but the thought horrifies me. Personally, I’ve been waiting to escape this yolk of daily obligation since I was five.

Or so I tell myself.

At the moment I’m in pretty good shape, but that’s no guarantee I won’t start to fall apart over the next decade, and I have to bear in mind the fact that most of the guys in my family don’t even make it to sixty. There’s a theory the earlier you go, the longer you enjoy good health. I don’t know if that’s true. People are living longer, aided by large bags of pills, but my observation is that their quality of life is often much degraded. There’s no sense in eking out an extra ten years of life if you’re in pain, unable to get out of the house and you’re relying on someone else to wipe your bottom. Realistically you have to expect the hospital visits to increase as you get older, and chronic conditions begin to settle in on you. Better to be kind to your body then and let it rest up, ease off the stress of the commute, and other day-job frustrations, let your most strenuous exertion be a walk in the hills, or making love.

Do more of what you really want to do!

Get your life back before it’s too late.

Or have I reached that stage where I’ve become institutionalised, and fear doing something outside of the cage? Do I fear jumping the rails, of sitting down with the boss and telling him I intend to retire? It’s unlike me to be so direct about anything; a lifelong fence-sitter, that’s me. There’ll be no problem, if that’s what I decide to do. There’s a system; it’ll kick in, and at an agreed date, my office door pass will no longer work. It will be as if I had never existed. Is that what I really want? Am I not better belonging to something greater than myself, than belonging nowhere, and becoming nothing more significant than a housefly and a slave to my lawnmower?

Yes, there’s always the garden. There’s nothing finer of an evening than sitting out with a glass of chilled wine, with the lawn neatly striped, the borders weeded, the little twinkle-lights coming on and the sun setting over the darkening meadow. I can also catch up on that pile of unread books, or simply get some early nights at last, instead of stretching out the days in order to delay tomorrow’s coming, tomorrow’s commute, tomorrow’s nine to five. No, finally, in the morning, when I wake and cast that habitual, anxious glance at the alarm clock, I shall say to myself: it doesn’t matter, Michael; you have nothing pressing to get up for, ever again. Then I fancy I shall breathe deeply, and feel myself born again. It’s a way off yet, but the years are passing more quickly now.

And I am thinking about it.

Thanks for listening.

Mazda3One of my worst nightmares as a motorist is  killing someone, not just through my own carelessness but also the result of their own. Either way it would change my life for the worse, probably ruin it. It hasn’t happened yet, touch wood, and if I thought about it too much I’d never get behind the wheel of a car, but we must remain mindful of the possibility and always drive carefully so we maximise our chances of averting tragedy should the unexpected arise.

There are little roadside shrines all over the place now – touching displays of flowers, teddy bears and favourite football strips, each telling the story of a very personal tragedy. We drive by, perhaps momentarily reflective, wondering idly what happened and who it was that died. It happens a lot. Surgeons in A and E departments are hardened to it, that innocent people are killed randomly and pointlessly all the time in stupid road accidents. If we would like to preserve the fantasy that they do not, we need to take care, and think. And we need to slow down.

I have three points on my license, courtesy of a policeman’s radar gun and a momentary lapse of concentration – proof, if needed, that I’m as careless as anyone else. To an idiot driver three points aren’t going make any difference, but to one who liked to think he was a safe pair of hands, they’ve been a cautionary note. I think I am more careful now than I was before.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know I’ve been spending time on the back lanes of West Lancashire, tootling about between the villages, enjoying the air with the rag-top down, in my menopause-mobile. A small sports car is not the best of vehicles for being safe in. I’ve noted other drivers expect certain things from it, and are puzzled when it doesn’t conform to type – to the extent that I’m considering fitting a defensive dashcam. But it’s been an education, my number one observation being that, sadly, people no longer drive for pleasure, no longer seem to enjoy just motoring. The price of fuel and the sheer volume of traffic on the roads has killed that golden age when we used to take pleasure in just getting there. If we’re not merely commuting, we drive to show off now, or to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

What’s struck me as well is the greater number of cyclists about on the roads nowadays. The Wiggins factor has spawned a new generation of pedallers, to say nothing of a consumer boom in very expensive bicycles. Of course, cyclists require careful handling, not just because they’re vulnerable, but because they can also be rude and aggressive, and no one wants an ugly exchange spoiling an otherwise pleasant day out.

Filtering at junctions is a major source of conflagration, cyclists weaving their way to the front of a long, multi-laned queue and assuming drivers can see them coming up from behind. I have been called an effing willywhatsit by a cyclist for lacking eyes in the back of my head while he lurked in my blindspot. Perhaps he didn’t realise I had my sunroof open and could hear him.

On the backlanes the cyclist presents an awkward obstruction, since there’s a fundamental mismatch between the speed of a bicycle and a car. The Wiggins factor is thus responsible for the fact that more of my time is now spent crawling at ten miles an hour behind a pair of male (usually) Lycra clad buttocks. I don’t complain of the female variety, but of course the additional danger in that situation is one of distraction.

Speaking as a man I find there’s something half way between ridiculous and repulsive about the male buttock – especially when it’s in your face, so to speak.The temptation is to overtake when it might not be safe to do so, but a decent long straight, with no hidden corners doesn’t always come to hand when you most need it. What you need instead is patience. Several cyclists dotted along a stretch of bendy, twisty road, travelling in both directions, or a whole pack of them, demands a high degree of judgement and balance between brake and accelerator. Inexperienced, unskilled and impatient motorists dread encountering cyclists, even hate them, but it is always the motorist who bears the greater responsibility for safety here, since he is capable of doing the most damage.

I was stuck behind a pair of unsightly buttocks for a number of twisty miles last night. The guy was going at it hell for leather, managing an impressive twenty miles an hour, even up a slight incline. There was nowhere to pass safely, so I hung well back, much to the chagrin of the brightly lit BMW, riding intimidatingly close to my rear bumper.

When a clear straight came up, I was able to ease by safely and the cyclist graced me with a cheery thankyou. I think the fact we were both in the open air, and audible to one another helped engender civility. The enclosed environment of a saloon-car by contrast seems only to encourage petulance.

The road had a forty limit and I accelerated to just under it. Forty felt safe, given the forward visibility and distance between the bends. The Beamer passed me seconds later like I was standing still. I didn’t see him giving me the finger, but I felt it as I ate his dust. He must have hit sixty before I lost sight of him. I trust he managed not to hit anything else.

That network of little lanes makes for a lovely run out of an evening, but one must be careful, and not just of bicycles; this is a big horsey area too – lots of farms and stables dotted about, and horses sauntering along the pretty country lanes. A horse and rider presents an even bigger challenge to the motorist than a bicycle – they require more space to get around, and they move very slowly indeed. I’m always afraid of spooking them and springing a rider into the road. I have ridden horses, all be it appallingly, and I know it takes some guts to mix them with traffic. How the brightly lit Beamers manage them I’ve no idea. It’s a wonder they don’t explode with self-important rage.

Most of the villages hereabouts have strict twenty mile an hour speed limits now. Part of my route last night brought me through Croston. It’s a tight passage through this lovely little village, lots of parked cars and people enjoying a sunny evening outside the pubs and restaurants. It’s not easy to drive at twenty and I’ve noticed few bother, as if it were only an advisory limit, that thirty or even forty is still okay. But it’s not. In an automatic you need to drop the drive down a notch to manage it properly. (That slot with the number 3 next to it will do). In a manual it seems to sit awkwardly somewhere between third and fourth. There’s a reason fothat speed limit; hit someone at twenty and you’re unlikely to kill them.

It was in Croston I picked up a couple of youths in their fluorescent Ford Condom. They glued themselves to my bumper and didn’t take kindly to my half mile of doggedly obeying that twenty limit. Indeed they gave me a good blast on the horn to draw attention to their displeasure – to say nothing of their ignorance and stupidity. Then they raced past, subjecting me to my second shower of dust and stones that evening. I’d like to remonstrate with them here for needlessly frightening the life out of the good lady Graeme. I’d also like to remind them that inappropriate use of the horn is against the law. It’s also likely to cause offence, and is the number one catalyst of road rage incidents.

They’re probably good lads really, but people change on the roads. I don’t know if we become more our true selves,… or less.

Drive safely.

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