On the view from here….


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I’m not sure when travel writing, as opposed to just writing but from somewhere other than home, became ‘a thing’. Or, perhaps more accurately, became a thing again.

In Victorian times people were fascinated by writing from far-flung places which were, in British terms at least, new. Unexplored, strange, shocking.

But in the decades which followed travel writing as a commercial venture morphed into what was effectively a “guide to places you might go”. We knew about them already. Christ, with a few quid we could go ourselves and still be back at work two weeks later complete with sun tan and dinner party stories. No shocks, just recommendations about where to eat.

In recent years though, it’s changed again. The endless obsession with Self, fueled by the easy social media audience available to all of us with the time and inclination to chase it (regardless of having something of note to say), combined with some kind of wider acceptance that everything is about the individual, the need to “find” one’s inner self (because your true Self surely can’t be the account manager living in a semi in Surrey you see in the mirror every day, right?), has bred a new world of travel writing which is, in essence, a cushion.

A cushion?

Yep. A cushion. a buffer between a dull, predictable, modern existence of social climbing, professional development and naked consumerism in which the next 40 years are mapped out before you and something “deeper” (that’s deeper, so long as it’s available at a reasonable rate for those that book early).

I was lucky enough to travel to places off the Lonely Planet trail for years; usually during times of difficulty, and then be asked to live (as opposed to die, often a possibility) on my wits. I’m comfy with my inner self. I know what I’ve done. I know how lucky I am to have done it, and to have come through it neither physically buggered nor so defined by it that I remain socially buggered when I’m not still in the thick of it.

When I shave in the morning I know I’ve seen Humanity at it’s absolute worst, and thus at its best too – one rarely comes without the other. I’m comfy enough in my settled, 9 to 5 skin now.

But what I was paid to write about on those journeys was not me, or my view, or even the journey. It was about what was happening there. Everything else was for me, privately, not for wider consumption.

It’s why correspondents of my generation who were in those places remain so close. We share the memories because we shared the places. If you weren’t physically there, you didn’t get to dip your toe in. There was no running commentary on Twitter. Christ, you were lucky if you could charge your sat phone long enough to both file your copy to your employers and make a call to your loved ones (never the same thing, as anyone who’s ever dealt with a national newspaper foreign desk will attest).

But I digress. The reason this is much on my mind is of late I’ve been dipping again in to “travel writing”. I re-read my own bookshelves: Thesiger, Steinbeck, Greene, Hemingway et al. Then I started to spread my wings to things I’d never read, but probably should have done, not least through the prism of motorcycles, which are my “thing”. Ted Oliver’s follow-up to the seminal “Jupiter’s Travels”. I’d read the original years ago, but avoided the sequel. Then Dan Walsh’s “These Are The Days Which Must Happen To You”. Again, I remember the columns, never read all of them. 

Then I hit a problem. Having finished Walsh: a travel writer criminally under-valued because of his connection to motorbikes (as Le Carre is criminally under-valued as a novelist because of his connection to spies) I was desperate to find something else in the same vein: searingly honest, full of beautiful linguistic rhythms, finding the wrong side of the tracks without pretension.

Nothing. The shelves of the book shop seem rammed with “travel writing” by numbers.

There’s the book based on a novel idea – seeking the perfect snowfall, visiting countries with a certain amount of letters in their name; anything for a clever dust jacket write-up.

Then there’s the cringing journeys of self-discovery and “personal growth” (as opposed to what? Impersonal growth?). The journeys which are so full of self-analysis as to sum up all 600 pages with the word “me”.

Finally there’s the cynically manufactured big name travel book. Take talented, big-name writer; pay for him or her to visit X location(s), remove said costs from eventual book advance and await best-seller. AA Gill has an adventure which his publisher paid for and has been in his diary for three years, et cetera ad infinitum add £££.

Sadly the antidote to this seems to be the “fund the trip” book. Motorcycle (or indeed cycle, row, sail or walk – choose your poison) from X to Y, write about your experiences, usually not very well, and hope to shift a few copies to those who will look past the lack of insight and the stuttering prose because they, like you, dream of a the big trip by the same means.

Almost nothing I’ve picked up which is even moderately recent in terms of release seems to grasp the key thing which made (and in fact makes) great travel writing – the ability to see things others don’t – not in terms of the big picture, but the small one right in front of your eyes –  and to write well about them.

It doesn’t matter how hard the trip is, how different it is to the writer’s previous life selling insurance, how much it helped them come to terms with their divorce or even how unique it was in terms of achievement.

What matters is that it tells you about people, places, smells, sights, fears, joys and experiences of other places through someone else’s eyes. The writer as cipher. Done well, writing like that tells you all you need to know about the writer, who they are, how these things affect them, without them needing to overtly lay it out.

The reader is trusted to be able to divine the big picture from the small one, without a literary map or a moral ABC; that being what happens when one travels.

So if you’re out there and you have the opportunity, fuck off and be the next Greene, or Oliver, or Walsh. Please.

I need something to read on the train.




(No) Revolution Rock: the conformity generation.


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One of the things which made punk so attractive to young people back in the day was the feeling that they were part of something which scared the willies out of their parents’ generation.

The looks of horror, disgust or plain fear on the faces of the middle-aged as they passed groups of young punks on a street corner were the very fuel by which the movement was propelled. That was the point, to flick the Vs at the political (The Clash) or moral (the Pistols) values and behaviours of the day.

Older people were alarmed by the huge gap between the world-view of this snarling, foul-mouthed, spikey-haired generation and their own. They had no moral reference point with which to connect with them and the more alarmed they became by what they feared punk represented, or might lead to, the more punks loved it.

Put simply, the way punk bands behaved was unacceptable to the predominately conservative older generation. It was wrong, and should be removed from the airwaves, denied the oxygen of publicity and, put simply, banned.

The same sense of “outside” drove the post-war rock n’ roll generation of the 1950s, the hippies of the 1960s and the hedonistic if not moralistic 1970s rockers.

Rock n’ roll (used here as a catch-all that might include rap or even, years earlier, jazz) has always been as much about kicking against the accepted norms of the last generation as ever it has been about the music itself.

This is in my mind today because of a controversy surrounding the American metal band Metallica, who have been booked to headline the Glastonbury festival in Somerset this year.

Glastonbury: once a celebration of the 60s generation which was going to change the world, then a more hard-edged thing in the 80s when the travellers were being harassed and beaten by police (again because people feared them for being different). Now, of course, it’s a long weekend in which wealthy middle-class kids get to feel a little edgy, knowing that a £5 a go iPhone charging point and an £8.99 organic burger is never far away. A cash-generating moral black hole in which drug dealers from Kirkby get to sell talcum powder to public school girls from Kensington with impunity.

If you missed it, the “outrage” (modern definition: “a lot of tweets”) centres around Metallica front man James Hetfield’s love of guns and hunting things, including bears. It has led to petitions for the band to be banned from the festival. 

Bit of housekeeping: I find the National Rifle Association, of which Hetfield is a member, reprehensible. I also think hunting bears is pretty shit.

But I can’t help but notice that something odd’s happened here. This outrage about a band is not from the generation above it, but from the one it plays to. It is the present generation which is squealing about how Hetfield’s world-view is “unacceptable” to them. The prevailing norms of wider society are vastly more liberal than they were back in the days of punk, and often match those of this younger generation. So it is the kids who are furious about the idea of rebellion in rock n’ roll now, not their parents.

Think about it. Championing gun ownership and shooting bears is undeniably rebellious for a band playing to a crowd of 20 somethings. And like the goggle-eyed parents of the 1970s, watching TV in horror as Jonny Rotten swore and Sid Vicious spat, they don’t like it up ‘em. “No!” they have cried, like their grandparents before them. “We cannot have this. These people do not seem to accept that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to think! They must be banned!”

So here we are. Today’s youthful generation is actually the (small ‘c’) conservative mainstream. And it now  has the cloying wet blanket of social media to throw over dissenters, mustering 13,000 signatures so far to the “ban Metallica” petition.

The irony is delicious. The Occupy generation appears to have bitten the end off its collective pipe when faced with something which doesn’t agree with it. No space here for individuality, just conformity.

It’s as rebellious as a Royal British Legion club

I think Joe Strummer would have had a giggle at this, if he’d been about.. To borrow from the great man:


“I’m all tuned in, I see all the programmes,

“I save coupons from packets of tea,

“I’ve got my giant hit discoteque album,

“I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free.”*


*”Lost in the Supermarket”, from the album “London Calling”, 1979.

People don’t like being called names? Who knew?




I try not to do politics here, but today’s events are so profoundly depressing I kind of feel the need to vent.

If you’re after motorbikes, you might want to move on.

Is the rise of UKIP in the UK pretty bleak? Yes. Worse still is the rise of overtly ultra-Right parties across the continent, particularly in France and Greece.

But equally bleak, for me at least, is the incredibly self-serving response here in Britain, and in Brussels/Strasbourg.

It’s certain that UKIP has become home to lots of particularly nasty extremists, especially those from the BNP (note that that abomination was finally wiped out at this election, with even Nick Griffin losing his seat). But you don’t win the Euro elections with ex-BNP voters, it’s mathematically impossible. You win them by drawing Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem voters to you, which is what UKIP did. Including, I suspect, a lot of people whose attraction to UKIP wasn’t around its unpleasant rhetoric around immigration, but because they feel the EU is a fundamentally undemocratic organisation and that the political obsession with monetary union has delivered levels of poverty in southern Europe not seen in two generations.

Whether one agrees or not, those are perfectly legitimate views.

So whilst UKIP’s victory is galling, the reaction is actually worse. Endless hysterical accusations that every UKIP voter would put their cross next to Mussolini given half a chance, howling social media posts about Hitler and so on…what message do these junior common room politicos think they’re sending to those ex-mainstream voters who went UKIP this time?

First it says: “We won’t engage with you on your issues because we regard your very opinions as offensive and illegitimate”. Well, that’s going to make them think twice about doing it again eh?

Secondly it says: “Because we’re only shouting abuse at you you’d be right to conclude that we’re in no way wondering whether we should think about why you did this, or whether the EU might have a problem.” In other words, “How DARE you disagree with us! You must be either stupid or evil.”. Again, that’s in no way an invitation for these people to dig their heels in for 2015 is it?

The response to UKIP plays absolutely in to the hands of the party’s spin doctors, who claim that the political establishment is arrogant, out of touch and contemptuous of “ordinary people”.

Unless this changes, unless there’s a real attempt to attack UKIP on its insane and unpleasant domestic agenda (particularly its horrific position on labour market reform), coupled with some show of humility by the EU political machine and its supporters, all this abusive hysteria will do is help cement UKIP’s chance of turning this protest vote in to Parliamentary seats in 2015.

I voted for “The Roman Party” here (slogan: “Ave”). I don’t know what they really stand for, although presumably they’d be good on roads. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for anyone else on the ballot. I intend to vote for someone more mainstream in 2015, but if you’d like to spend the next 15 months calling me rude names and doubting my intellect on the basis of my vote this time, I might just stick a picture of Octavian in my window next time around and do it again. Just to annoy you.


Angels, Outlaws, patches and why spaces between words matter.


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To most bikers the complex world of motorcycle back patch clubs is pretty much a mystery. To non bikers it’s not a mystery because they simple have no idea how large, complex and, occasionally, dangerous this world can be, despite it being all around them. It happens below their social, economic and cultural radars.

This doesn’t stop them making assumptions of course. Most people simply assume anyone who rides a big motorcycle and wears a leather or denim cut off bearing patches is “a Hells Angel of some sort”.

What is true though is that a mix of myth, urban legend, movies and occasional appearances on the TV news lead many to presume that all these people are violent armed criminals living in some sort of greasy underworld.

The reality is vastly more subtle, and interwoven, with the UK (although the principles outlined below might apply in most countries) cut up in to territories occupied by a hierarchy of clubs, or “gangs” to the uninitiated or the tabloid press, some of whom are little different to mobile versions local golf clubs, some of whom are a little more..er..focussed and some of whom really should give you sleepless nights if you happen to get on the wrong side of them.

So after being asked by lots of friends over the years, thanks to a hairy mis-spent youth spent in leather and denim, what means what when it comes to bike clubs, I thought I’d lay it down on paper, or at least in pixels, on the basis that my mates can’t be the only ones who are curious.

Bit of housekeeping first.

One – nobody knows what goes on inside an MC (Motorcycle Club) other than the members of that MC. Whilst many share certain principles and even values, they’re all different. I don’t intend to try to explain the inner workings of anything here, on that basis. Nor could I.

Two – Because MCs (and MCCs, MRCs and others – see later) are all different it’s impossible to write an article like this without someone declaring it to be “bullshit”. In other words, we have to stay general and some people will take generality to be inaccuracy, compared to the world they know. Valid call, but I’m trying to cover the basics. Many people will be part of clubs which do things differently, of course.

Three – if you’re reading this because you’ve got some kind of interest in joining an MC, stop here, close your computer and do something else. If you need to research it on the internet you’re vastly too far removed from even the edge of the scene you’re interested in to either get close to or, I would contend, to want to get to its murkier centre. It’s almost certainly not for you.

So let’s start with the good news. The vast majority of “patched” bikers you might see roaring about are not going to shoot you, kidnap your daughter, fight pitched battles in your street or bite the head of anything more lively than a Cornish pasty.

This is because, statistically, they are likely to be members of an MCC or “Motor Cycle Club”. That space between “Motor” and “Cycle” is hugely significant. Remember I mentioned MCs, or “Motorcycle Clubs” above? An MCC is to an MC what Dad’s Army is to the The US Marine Corps. One’s a loose affiliation of like-minded friends enjoying a shared social activity, the other is a regimented and disciplined way of life, and potentially death.

An MCC might be formed by friends who enjoy riding together. It might be formed by people who do the same thing for a living, engineers let us say, who also enjoy bikes. It might be formed of people who enjoy a certain kind of bike.

In the main the only commitment required is to turn up, have fun, behave within the accepted social norms of the club and pay your subs or share. Pretty much anyone can join. 

MCC members will almost always wear the identification patch of their club on the front of their jacket or cut-off. Once in a while this might be worn under the armpit as a “side-patch”, although even this is close enough to the “uniform” of an MC, and drifting towards those groups’ holiest of holies, the back patch, for some to dislike the practice.

Technically (in as much as there are set “rules”) it is accepted that an MCC should have the blessing of the MC which controls the territory in which it exists if it wants to avoid trouble. In reality this depends very much on the nature of the MC in question. Some rigidly enforce these rules, especially those involved in tense or occasionally violent territorial disagreements with other MCs. Others are generally more accommodating if the MCC in question is no obvious threat, doesn’t try to look like an MC and is not too big.

There are plenty of examples, though, including one a few years back where I live and ride, of MCCs forming in blissful ignorance of the fact they’re being watched; existing, growing and then suddenly getting a visit they didn’t want and disappearing very quickly. Usually this requires little more than a firm explanation and “request” and, occasionally, matters can be repaired to allow the fledgling MCC to continue existing. An MC wouldn’t ask twice though…

Similar to MCCs are MRCs, or “Motor Cycle Rally Clubs”. Again, a social group whose reason for forming in this case is to attend bike rallies and have fun. They too might sport front patches.

Just above an MCC/MRC sits a rarer beast, the “side patch brotherhood”. This is a little more lifestyle oriented than purely social, but is effectively an MCC+ whose identifying patch is worn on the side.

Between these social clubs and the full MCs, to which we shall come now and then return to later, are the “back patch brotherhoods”. We need to touch on MCs now because it’s hard to explain these back patch brotherhoods without first touching on what a full-blown MC, such as the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Satans Slaves or Blue Angels, actually is.

An MC is often thought of by those outside it as a “gang”. The MC would insist, rightly, that it’s a “club”, but the first word suggests belonging, shared values, risking all for other members, and that begins to get close. Not close enough though. Membership of an MC, and the right to wear that MC’s full colours, takes years. We’ll talk more about that in a bit, but it’s important to understand that for those who join, the MC is the single most important entity in their lives, including family.

Tight, secretive, proud and, most importantly, united, an MC’s members will do whatever is asked or expected of them by the club. Club business and events take precedence over career, or family, every time. For this reason MC members tend to be in relationships with women (let’s remember that most MCs are made up of brothers, very rarely sisters) who are also wholly submerged in the scene, or prepared to accept constant absences from home. It’s hard, although not impossible – some manage – to do it any other way.

The MC is family, blood and belonging. Its colours (particularly the back patch with both top and bottom rockers) are sacred. They are to be protected with your life. This isn’t an exaggeration, people have died over their colours.

We’ll return to MCs, but now you have an idea of what they’re about, you’ll better understand why a “back patch brotherhood” can be reasonably described as a kind of halfway house between an MCC/MRC and a full MC.

Membership of a BPB has to be earned, it’s not just given. Rules are much tighter and many of the members’ shared values, and the lifestyle they enjoy, would look, at least from the outside, similar to those of an MC. Also like an MC, the BPB sports a back-patch, thus the name.

Given how close to an MC, in image at least, these brotherhoods are, you would be right to presume that MCs take a close interest in them. No BPB is going to exist without the blessing of its local MC (or, as is often the case, its nearest MC – which may not be local but still claims the territory and, if necessary, will travel to protect it).

It can take months or even a couple of years to earn your back patch, and you’ll spend time around MC members at bike related social events or gigs. General opinion seems to be that the once absolute dividing line between BPBs and MCs has become less rigid in some parts of the country, to the point where meetings to discuss issues of shared interest can happen.

The key word in a BPB is “brotherhood”. Members take their belonging seriously, they do what they’re asked to do when necessary. The most significant difference with an MC is the BPB recognises that you have a life away from it, competing demands on your time and so on. An MC simply wouldn’t recognise anything as competition, emotionally or logistically.

Personally I think life’s better when you treat everyone with respect, and in bike terms that applies, for me, to all groups of riders, clubs and associations. But in terms of bike sub-culture, which this article is about, a BPB should be regarded as effectively non-threatening, or at least non-aggressive. Like any tight group, insulting it is likely to lead to issues but no more so than choosing to mouth off at a group of football supporters or soldiers.

Which brings us, finally, to MCs, or “outlaw” or “1%” bike clubs. 

Dozens of books, TV shows, newspaper articles have been devoted to this subject and there seems little point in rehashing them here. Let’s just continue in the vein we’ve been in, which is a light-touch explanation of what it is you see out on the road.

An MC is a life. People join it because they want to live their life that way, and all else is secondary. For many it provides a family bond which is stronger than anything they have known before. Most, although not all, hold territory. It is also true that most will be aligned with one of the big, international, MCs – the Hells Angels or the Outlaws in the main in the UK, but not exclusively.

An MC member is identifiable by the club name on the “top rocker” above the club’s emblem on his back patch. “MC” will appear on the back patch, or more rarely after the club name. The “bottom rocker” will show where the club comes from. Occasionally you might see a rider with the main back patch and the bottom rocker, but no top rocker. This will be a “prospect”, someone making his slow way through the lengthy procedures required for initiation.

Contrary to popular belief, this is less about biting the head off a bat and more about demonstrating over a number of years your willingness to subsume your old life within that of the club, to show your unstinting commitment, to prove you mean it. For the Angels this long road is also a chance for brothers to run the rule over you, not just those from your own locality, but elsewhere.

Some clubs, it is said, do require prospects to do a “thing”, sometimes violent or risky, to show their loyalty and bind them to the club. I can’t say whether this is true.

The diamond-shaped “1%” patch worn by almost all MCs on the front of their colours relates to a notorious, violent riot in the US in 1947 at a major bike event. Amid public outcry, the very respectable American Motorcycle Association or AMA, declared that 99% of attendees had been well-behaved, and it was only the 1% that were trouble. The AMA insists it never said this, but whatever the truth, a legend was born.

You’ll occasionally also see the number 81 on patches, t-shirts or even stickers on non MC bikes (usually saying “support 81”). This is a bit of an oddity. 81 relates to the eighth and first letters of the alphabet, H and A. This has grown hugely in recent years as many Hells Angels charters (not chapters) have found a useful sideline in flogging “support gear” to non members. Someone who isn’t an Angel can’t wear the club’s colours, but they can wear a “Support your local 81” t-shirt. Personally I find this a bit alarming, not least because some clueless fashionista with a debit card and an internet connection can very easily buy himself something which, worn in the wrong place, will result in serious trouble, Still, each to their own.

On the subject of trouble, the police in the UK regard a number of back patch gangs as pseudo criminal organisations (in the US the FBI rates the Hells Angels as an organised crime outfit). High profile murders and fights, such as those in recent years stemming from the rivalry between the Hells Angels and the Outlaws in England and Wales, have led the police to accuse both clubs (and others) to be responsible for racketeering, drug dealer, arms dealing and all sorts. Again, there’s no point in any of us speculating on the truth of these allegations. What is true though is that an MC will protect its territory, honour and reputation with violence. Rather like the principles of NATO, an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, and the offending person makes an enemy of the entire MC on the spot, up until such time as things are resolved, one way or another.

Despite rivalries and inter MC violence, there is one thing which can unite all MCs, and that’s going to the police about one of them. At that point you’ve broken a code which they all share, and take very seriously.

Finally there is much rumbling in the media that big MCs like the Bandidos and others are aiming to start trying to “take territory” in the UK from rivals, territory the papers which have got hysterical about it recently (looking at you here The Guardian) say is about organised crime. Again, I have no idea if that’s true, but from reading the papers you’d think it was going to be post-apocalyptic anarchy on the streets.

I can only speak from my own, very limited, experience. In many years around that scene when I was young, and many more years since much further away from it but occasionally on the fringes, I’ve only ever had one bit of trouble. An MC member threw me across a table in a pub. It was a bit like one of the bar fight scenes in a western movie. I was pissed, and mouthy, and I wholly deserved it. No serious damage done, I apologised, no grudges.

Other than that I’ve found most MCs to be friendly if distant, which is normal for any very tight-knit group. I’ve been able to enjoy myself with a couple socially in “their” pubs in a few places and been made to feel perfectly welcome. I think part of that stems from learning how to behave when I was around the fringes of that scene as a young man and having two very old friends who are now Hells Angels, but mostly it’s about not being a twat.

I’m sure there’s some terrible people in some MCs, and I’m sure some MCs themselves do things which are unpleasant and morally questionable. I’m not here to defend them, nor do they need any help in that regard anyway (or, in some cases, give much of a shit in the first place). What I do know is that are also some terrible people in your office, and many of you will work for companies which do things which are morally questionable without the tabloids having kittens. People are people, good and bad.

So, bit lengthy but I hope helpful for those who’ve asked over the years and others who may be curious.

I know it’s not comprehensive, I’m sure it’s got its errors and omissions, and I apologise for those to those of you who know more than I do. I also hope there’s nothing which any club member, of whatever sort, could take offence at.

Finally, whatever you ride, whether you’re in a club or not, ride safe, and as free as you can at least.


There’s an arms race on the road and we’re all in the crossfire.


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We’re led to believe that progress is a good thing, by which people really mean change and innovation. And let’s be honest, who could be against change and innovation?

Today I want to argue that in some cases it isn’t. In fact it’s not an argument, it’s just a fact. And a scandal. Recent innovations to the modern car embraced as wonderful by automotive journalists and customers alike are killing people, and could kill so many that in any other circumstance the government would call in the army.

I do not exaggerate for affect. People are dying and they are going to die in greater numbers. It’s a scandal which nobody will recognise, partly because the hugely powerful car lobby wants it ignored, and partly because we are still hung up on the word “accident” when discussing road deaths. Often there’s nothing accidental about it; it just wasn’t deliberate. It’s not the same thing.

To explain: drink driving probably hit its zenith in the 1970s when it was regarded as perfectly normal to sink six pints in the pub and drive home. Over the years the death toll became too much and finally governments acted and social values subsequently changed to make it less and less acceptable. And rightly so. Getting in to two tons of metal capable of doing 140mph in a state of vastly reduced reaction times and ability to judge speed and distance is clearly exceptionally stupid, and selfish. So they pretty much did for that.

Then we got mobile phones. Again hundreds died before finally the government made driving and phoning illegal. Unfortunately we are only in the early stages of enforcing that and, unlike the push against drink driving 30 years ago, we’ve now replaced all the traffic cops with speed cameras so people know the chances of getting caught are microscopic and generally simply ignore the rule (how many do you see doing it every day?).

Then came in-car computers. I had a 7 Series BMW once for a week which had the company’s “i-drive” system in which, to operate anything from the radio to the air conditioning, I was required to fiddle with a little wheel by my left hip whilst juggling endless menus on a tiny screen on the dash two feet away. It was nothing short of deadly.

Now of course these little screens can also be used to adjust the ride height, suspension settings, engine mapping, climate control, colour of the interior lights and dozens more things too.

And of course the phone is now linked to the little screen too, so we can scroll along until we find Phil’s office number, not looking ahead, and then have a long chat with him as we bomb along the M4 at 90mph.

And all of this has to fit around the sat-nav too. The joyful sat-nav; another tool designed to allow us to think even less about where we’re going. Just look at the (other) little screen and listen for the voice to tell us where to go and when. Great! Brain off, put some tunes on.

On top of this menagerie of distraction we then got texting; now estimated to be responsible for more road deaths amongst 17-24 year olds in the US than drink driving. Recognising that this was astronomically dangerous, systems have now been developed to allow people (who can afford a flash new car) to send and receive texts using voice-recognition software in the car, via…yes…a little screen.

And finally, in to this potentially fatal mix, we must now add in car wi-fi. That’s right folks, your high speed front room is now complete with almost all manufacturers in 2014 offering high-speed wi-fi as an option. Now you can Tweet, Facebook and email on the move too. Most mid and top end car makers now offer this as an option, including full 4G connectivity.

Of course safety rather than profit is the manufacturers’ key concern (ahem), which is why these systems are voice operated. The problem is, this is so much shit. Every single available piece of data shows that voice-operated software in a car is a huge distraction.

Ian Spence, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, revealed last year in his paper “How Speech Modifies Visual Attention”, published in the respected journal Applied Cognitive Psychology: “Many people assume that talking to a voice-operated device will be as safe as using a hands-free cell phone, but neither activity is safe.”

Spence and his team tested the ability of volunteers to pay attention to a visual task and perform it correctly in the presence of other potential distractions such as listening to a car radio, answering simple yes/no questions from a researcher, or playing word games. Subjects responded more slowly to the visual task no matter what the distraction was, and responded much more slowly as the complexity of the distraction rose.

Listening to the radio didn’t slow responses nearly as much as word games or other distractions that required actual thought from the user – the kind of thought needed to type or speak URLs, or search terms to a WiFi connected in-car device, for example. Even refusing to respond verbally didn’t distract test subjects any less or improve their performance on visual tests. “It did not matter whether the subject spoke the answer aloud or simply thought about the answer,” Spence said in an announcement about the research. “It was the thinking, not speaking, that caused them to slow down.”

And that’s the point. These myriad devices can be made to apear “safe” in terms of being “non-visually” operated but the result is much the same – the driver isn’t thinking about what should be top of his or her agenda…not crashing.

The British weekly newspaper Motorcycle News (MCN) accompanied the police in London on an operation to catch drivers texting or calling on phones recently. Every time they pulled one in to the stop another seven or eight would drive by. There were simply not enough cops to cope with the sheer number of people doing it.

As one exasperated traffic cop told MCN afterwards: “You have to wonder, given all the things going on inside a car these days, just where driving fits in to the list.”

The final nail in the complacency coffin, the icing on the collision cake, where modern cars are concerned is safety. Whilst the driver’s conscious ability is dramatically reduced by all these distractions and toys, his or her sub-conscious reason to worry about that is also reduced by the safety cages, airbags, auto-braking, radar, crumple zones and a dozen other safety features. He or she feels fine, cosseted. When I drove my 1970 Triumph TR6 I had to concentrate on what I was doing: it was loud, harsh and little stronger in a collision than a bean can, and I knew it. It focusses the mind.

Car makers are filling vehicles with more and more safety equipment not on the basis that this makes matters safer for the rest of us – folk in cheaper cars without all these benefits, pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists – but because it makes it safer for the driver inside, who is actually becoming more dangerous to those around him with every new distraction.

If this keeps up you’d better hope you can afford a £120,000 Mercedes S-Class if you want to stay safe. It’s an arms race out there people, and we’re the poor bloody infantry.

*Details of Ian Spence’s research reported in this blog were taken from the excellent article by Kevin Fogarty on vice.com



It’s Moto GP on the telly Jim, but not as we know it.


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What to make of the grumblings, complaints and downright fury about MotoGP moving to PPV on BT Sport?

Well first, it’s not a zero sum game. Let’s remember that the BBC often treated its coverage with distain last year, chucking it off the main channel and on to the red button in favour of snooker, horse racing and lots more. Qualifying was only sporadically available and FP not at all. There was nothing outside race coverage itself either.

Secondly, the argument that it was free but is no longer doesn’t hold up.

BT Sport is available free if one buys BT Broadband, or for a fee via Sky TV. The BBC coverage was paid for by the licence fee. BT need to make their offerings attractive enough to make you part with your money, the BBC get your money regardless and you go to jail if you refuse to cough up. Yes, your licence fee pays for lots more than MotoGP, but then so does your broadband fee to BT. Both cost you money to watch.

The key point for me is that where the BBC (of which I”m a huge fan outside MotoGP by the way) is concerned, we’re not talking about losing great coverage here. We’ve lost a channel doing the bare minimum and, towards the end, not even that.

BT appear to have been sensitive about this. The allegation it faced in 2013 was that it snapped up MotoGP from 2014 because of the huge spike in the sport’s wider popularity (“Move Over F1!” was the front page headline I saw on a British Airways magazine on one flight last year), and as part of a sporting spending spree designed to generate headlines. But would it take its custodianship of the sport seriously?

To address this BT has undoubtedly pushed the boat out. Live coverage of all FP, qualifying and racing of all classes at every race. In the UK no channel has ever offered this. There is also a Tuesday night magazine show in the weeks which follow a race. For the opening race in Qatar there is more than 20 hours of live coverage.

BT can’t be faulted on scale of coverage then.

How they do it is open to question. We’ll have to see.

The criticism of model/presenter Melanie Sykes as the anchor has been vitriolic and, in my view, misogynistic. The BBC equivalent was Matt Roberts. He may have owned a motorcycle but he was no more qualified to judge racers than Sykes is (although unlike the self-aware Sykes, he seemed to think he was). He was very blokey though, which seemed to be enough for most male viewers.

The rest of the BT team includes a broad group of ex-racers, a bike obsessed former hurdler and some long-established commentators/paddock watchers.
They’ll need time to bed in, and they’ll learn (as will the tech guys and the producers) in time.

Whether BTSport will be good guardians of MotoGP, and whether Dorna’s choice to take it off “free” to view in the UK (although ITV have a highlights package) will have an affect on wider popularity we must wait to see, but I reckon they deserve a chance.

However you watch it though, there are few more exhilarating sporting spectacles on the planet, so if you’re struggling with the F1 and its faceless, corporate racers, court battles and processional racing, give some real racing a go in 2014.

Vladimir: losing the Twitter war, winning the real one.

The Ukrainian crisis, if that’s what it is, is quite instructive. Not, though, in the obvious way. I fear it tells us something about our politicians which might be quite alarming.

Increasingly Western politicians’ success comes not as a result of their intelligence, strategic brilliance or even ideas. It comes as a result of their ability to communicate.

Soundbites on TV, the ability to fire out sharp and witty Tweets decrying their opponents, being able to deliver the key messages their advisors have crafted for a 23 second slot on the news. All vital skills. Combine this with the ability to use social media to raise money, as well as the skills required to work your way up the greasy pole in the first place and stay on the right side of the 24-hour media, and you have the ideal modern, western politico. Doesn’t put their foot in it, looks good on whatever their country’s version of Question Time is, capable of scoring a point off the other lot.

Barack Obama is the alpha male of these politicians; the one leaders of other countries try to emulate. His jokes are funny, his soundbites effective and his ability to raise cash without relying entirely on corporations unsurpassed.

Vladimir Putin is not. Whilst Obama was working his way up from city to State legislature with an eye on funding a Senate run if he could afford the TV spots, Putin was a senior KGB officer, working amid the collapse of Europe as we knew it and dealing every day with the deployment of power and influence.

Of course the reason Putin hasn’t had to develop Obama’s skill set in so many of those areas in which the US President excels is that Russia wasn’t even pretending to be a democracy when Putin entered politics, and now that it does pretend to be he really only has to pay lip service to it.

Obama, who was described by one US Senator this week as “playing marbles whilst President Putin plays chess”, is often praised as a “digital politician”. Modern, they mean, up to speed.

Vladimir Putin isn’t a digital politician. He doesn’t need to be. But I can’t shake the feeling that the fact he has spent the last 30 years learning how to take and then wield power on a complex geo-political stage rather than Tweet pictures of his dog may be standing him in rather better stead this week than his more celebrated opposite number in Washington.

Sure, Presidents are advised by legions of experts, but where the balance of power in Europe is concerned, in in terms of judging how players will react, you get the impression that this has been a week when analogue has won the day. 

Much is being made this year of the anniversary of the start of WWI. Looking back at the events which led to that I’m not sure any of the key political players spent any time using focus group data to decide which colour tie to wear. On all sides, rightly or wrongly, they considered the future of a continent, indeed a world. Huge ideas, shaping and breaking nations. Ideas, responsibilities and decisions which extended behind a headline.

Are modern, Western politicians capable of doing much more than winning elections these days? Given their performance in foreign policy since 2001, you wonder, don’t you?

Va-va vroom, with less va-va vroom.



For men, the politics of sexism are often difficult. Not, I should add, for those terribly conflicted and oh-so-right-on men who worry constantly about these things – for them it’s easy: they’re sexist by dint of being men and have 4,000 years of misogyny to make up for.

No, I mean for us normal blokes who are bright enough to think about the issue morally and intellectually but aren’t obsessed by it. Our start point is not to apologise for our gender but to want to do the right thing.

The example we hear most often amongst male friends, especially once the beer is flowing (window on the male world here girls), is about dress; and it goes like this: “If a girl wears a tiny skirt and high heels, it is wrong to look?”. For liberal men this is a bit of a complex. Showing off your body and wearing impracticable and (one presumes?) uncomfortable footwear to make your legs look longer would appear to be a simple way of making yourself more attractive to men in terms of body shape. Yet many of us are un-dense enough to recognise that this is not an invitation to ogle and, moreover, may just as well, psychologically speaking, be about feeling great because you look great rather than showing off.

It’s a mine-field, and lots of us don’t quite know where we stand.

Anyway, this is slightly on my mind today thanks to motorcycles, where such issues are less of a mine-field than a mine-continent.

Let me introduce you to Red Spade.


(c) Red Spade Racing

Okay, things to get out of the way:

She’s clearly stunning. She’s dressed from head to toe in leather and PVC. This is clearly a photograph designed to titillate, to use an old-fashioned word.

So what you have here, then, is another beautiful size six or below model with a great body on a bike. Move on, yeah?

Well no, because here are some other facts about Red Spade:

She’s not a model, she’s a sports bike rider, and a proper sports bike rider at that. She’s married to a guy who loves the same thing. She’s fast. Proper fast, and wants to get technically and psychologically better to be even faster. The girl lives to ride.

She’s a photographer, and a bloody good one. You’ll see her at Moto GP races and she makes a living from it.

She’s sharp as a tack, is absolutely aware of how she looks, and is happy to use it to help promote her brand (redspaderacing.com). She’s in control entirely. She wants to work and live bikes, and is prepared to take the financial risk to do so. Which is fucking cool, in my book.

Now, I take the piss out of her re these glamour shots because, as much as one can via social media, I like and respect her. I suspect she’d be a lot of fun to have a beer or two with, or go for a ride-out with (if I could keep up). But the fact remains that an element of her image is about the way she looks.

In the world of bikes – and I appreciate many of you won’t know this –  this is a bit of a issue. And it’s complex. Our world still has lycra-clad grid-girls at races, models draped over new machines at launches and magazines where it’s still normal for a feature on a particular bike to include a leggy model in a miniskirt and killer heels sitting on it, despite not knowing how to put the key in, much less ride it. This is “biking normal”.


Hang on, are you real police officers?

I don’t have a problem with it at all and in fact the two grid girls I’ve spent beer time with in my life were both bright, funny, self-aware and took no prisoners at all, they were great company and would still have been had they weighed in at 16, rather than seven stone – but the fact remained they were both Rizla Suzuki girls (see above) dressed as police officers only with PVC hot-pants instead of trousers, which was tough to get past in conversation, encumbered, as I am, with with a male brain.

I was reading entries on a great website the other day - http://everydaysexism.com/ – which aims to highlight the difficulties women face in the professional environment. There are some horror stories which could have resulted in jail time for the men involved, but the real eye-opener was the constant background hum of, well, everyday, sexism women face constantly at work.

These examples are easy to see as what they are – wrong. But at the same time what are we, men, supposed to initially think about a woman who makes her career as a model and drapes herself across a magazine for a photoshoot. If I’m honest my usual initial reaction is “PHWOOR!”, which would appear to be the desired reaction, right?. I guess not, perhaps, but then I think of one of those grid girls I met who was, then, a single mum, loved motorbikes, loved the scene and loved being a part of race weekends. She wasn’t a victim (although I guess the income was welcome), but a confident young women, proud of her looks, and making her own choices.


Jenny Tinmouth – faster than you.

Yet our world is also full of female racers with huge talent and, for want of a better phrase, massive balls, desperate to be taken as seriously as the men they race (and often beat): I’m thinking of Jenny Tinmouth and Maria Costello off the top of my head. For them a leather-clad modelling shoot is 87th on their list of ways to be noticed. They’re racers, not models, however attractive the may be, and I suspect they face a daily battle to prove it.

Yet here’s an odd thing. When you mention these two female racers to any bike racing fan, the response will be about wins, placements, events competed in, lap times and so on. They are absolutely accepted and respected as bike racers, regardless of gender, by people who read those magazines with the aforementioned skimpily-clad models in.

There’s a respect for risk and skill among bikers which crosses the Rubicon of sexism. I’m not sure, ironically, that’s there in the world of car racing. Beverly Turner, ex ITV F1 pit lane reporter and undeniably beautiful woman (no stranger to risque photo-shoots in men’s magazines herself), wrote a book when she left F1 exposing the true horror of that world for women – painting a picture of hostility and assumption with regard to sexual favours among drivers, team bosses and even the media. Turner, who has a first class degree in English, was unrepentant on publication of The Pits: The Real World of Formula One, and has argued the case with panache ever since.

I guess what it all comes down to is learning to look beyond first impressions. Red Spade may be beautiful, but she could ride the arse off me (although, and I want to be absolutely clear here if she’s reading this, not in the dirt, where I’d leave her standing – I have some macho pride).

I think biking does that better than most sports or pastimes. We occasionally get a bad press on this stuff, but all of us who ride know that riding is the great leveler, whatever you look like.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and female riders and racers might disagree.

I can’t know for sure, but I can, and do, know what my favourite ever picture of Red Spade is. It’s one of my favourite bike pictures of all time, and whilst there’s not much of her in it, there’s enough to make the rider’s heart in me sing far more loudly than the man’s.

(c) Red Spade Racing

(c) Red Spade Racing

In which my six-year-old takes me to the football…


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He couldn’t see, because everyone had leapt to their feet and he’s only about three feet tall, but he could feel. Both fists clenched, both hands in the air, a high-pitched wail of “Yeeeaaaahhhhhh!” with the head thrown back.

My six-year-old son was celebrating what would turn out to be the winning goal at his first professional match, in this case Oxford United v AFC Wimbledon, a Sky Bet League Two encounter at the Kassam Stadium.

Afterwards (the U’s won 2-1 by the way, with a debut goal from last minute transfer window loanee David Connolly), he didn’t want to head for the car but wanted to be by the rail beside the pitch, and the tunnel, to see Oxford off.

A right of passage for fathers was complete: our first match together. However, things are not quite what they seem.

My boy plays football for his village side, but probably just because that’s what is expected at school. He doesn’t watch it on the TV with me, has little interest in fact, and rarely raises it in conversation. On paper he’s chosen to become a Liverpool fan, like his dad, but it’s not a burning obsession – he’d rather read a book about forensic science than watch Luis Suarez. All of which meant that I knew he’d agreed to come to the game partly, or perhaps even mostly, because he wanted to do some dad/son stuff.

All the way there he insisted he didn’t mind who won, “just so long as it’s a good game”. In five layers of clothing, two thirds of the way through a fairly dire first half with the scores at 0-0 in a bitter wind, I could see he was wilting – fidgeting, rocking about on his seat, looking anywhere but at the pitch. “Do you want to go?”, I’d asked. “It’s okay if you do. It’s your day and we don’t have to stay.”

No dad, he said, I’m fine. Let’s stay. He was saying this for me mostly, bless him.

But Oxford’s first goal, somewhat against the run of play, excited him. The Don’s rapid reply depressed him. Suddenly he started to care what happened.

By the end of the game I knew it had been a long stretch for him, and with every blow of referee Andy D’Urso’s whistle he would ask “Is it the end dad?”, but he cheered the win.

On the way back to the car we stopped at the club shop. He was angling for a home shirt but settled for a snow-shaker. He said he “might” like to come again and asked if our day out meant he couldn’t have his evening hour on the computer. I thought he’d done well and that would be that.

The next day, though, he said slightly slyly: “Dad…I think Oxford United are a really good team.” The snow shaker is by his bed. I sense he might, for the first time in his life, be thinking about how it feels to be part of something, to really support a team.

Me, I don’t care who he supports in the end – I hope he makes up his own mind. So long as it’s not Chelsea, of course. But I harbour secret hopes about Oxford for the most selfish and cruel of reasons. I loved taking him, but I also loved being back at a game, a lower league game, close to the action, a cheese dog and a cuppa at half time, the conversations in the stand, the cheering abuse of Andy D’Urso (even the nipper shouted “Rubbish – absolute rubbish!” at him at one point, and he was right).

My days of going to Anfield with any regularity are long gone. I’m as passionate a Red as I’ve ever been, but kids, work, family and the fact that it would wipe out the entire day make such trips it impossible. It would be nice…in fact better than nice…to have a local side to follow, to read the back page of the local paper again, to look forward to home games, to read the programme notes again and stalk about the back of the stand hoping to get a hot dog in before the second half – and all on a smaller, more manageable scale than those big days out in Liverpool.

To achieve this I may have to see my son become a U’s fan, forever (or at least for many years) not having the glory of the Premiership, not being able to  watch his team on Match of the Day and of having to endure playground conversations with his mates as they discuss which £40m Spanish international superstar their team has signed most recently whilst he thinks of something nice to say about Dave Kitson.

I must let him decide, it would be unfair to influence him, but I notice it’s Mansfield at home on the 15th and club training shirts in kids’ sizes are in the sale at the club shop…

Three conversations from modern life, 28th, 29th and 30th Jan 2014.

Three conversations from the modern world – 28, 29 and 30th Jan, 2014:

1 – On the phone:

The thing is, you see, that you’ve put my car insurance up but I haven’t made a claim this year, or indeed any year. I don’t understand why I’m suddenly more of a risk.

You’re not more of a risk. This is just what happens.

It’s ‘just what happens’? You mean the reason you’ve put my insurance up is you’ve put my insurance up?

Yes. That’s right. That’s just the way we do it.

Has anyone ever suggested sales isn’t your strong suit?



2 – At the hotel:

That’s all paid for Sir. Can I just have your credit card please?

I thought it was all paid for?

It is, your company paid for it. I just need your credit card.

I don’t have a credit card.


You don’t have a credit card?



Well because I’d have to be an idiot to carry around a small piece of plastic which would allow me to spend money I didn’t have in the form of a loan I haven’t taken out on the basis of the best the market can offer and which charges me an obscene amount of money for the privilege. I’m not an idiot, so I don’t.


Okay Sir, have a nice night. Do you need an alarm call?


3. At a dinner:

So they call the street where I live ‘Millionaire’s Row.’

Do they? Why do they do that?

Well, because you have to be a millionaire to live there. Houses are very expensive.

I imagine people richer than you live on Billionaire’s Row do they?

I don’t know.


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