Sunday, 26 January 2014

Frack This Green & Pleasant Land?

The UK's Greatest Treasure
One of the reasons I cycle, is because I live in a country famous for its beautiful green countryside. For years this countryside has been protected from construction and other threats, in order to preserve what makes Britain special as a place to live and visit. We are a small country and apart from things like the queen and a some pretty special old buildings and monuments, it is this largely unspoiled countryside that brings people here. The same can be said for other European countries like France of course. So why would we risk spoiling that, especially when we have so little of it compared to large countries like the USA or Canada? That's easy – profit, greed and short-sightedness.

 Image courtesy of The Daily Mail

 Image courtesy of Blue Flag

Image courtesy of

Why All This Fuss About Fracking?
Fracking is currently a hot topic of debate in the UK. Rarely a day goes by where I don't overhear someone talking about it or see yet another cliched newspaper headline – Fracking Crazy, Fracking Disaster etc. We hear arguments on both sides. It reminds me of the nuclear power debates back in the seventies:
"It's perfectly safe," "It's an environmental disaster waiting to happen," "It's unavoidable because we need to find more energy sources to meet our needs," "There are better, safer, cleaner ways to get energy by putting more investment into renewables."

We Could Learn From The French
We have all heard the arguments. I am mindful that France has heard the arguments too, and France has made fracking illegal there. Yet as I write, a French fracking firm is seeking a license to frack in England! Are our politicians really that stupid that they would allow this? You needn't answer that.

Misinformation Meets Mr & Mrs Gullible
What worries me most is that anyone would believe the misinformation put out there by oil and gas companies and the people in the pay of those oil and gas companies. Why on Earth would we trust them? Did we trust tobacco companies when they said there was no evidence that cigarettes caused cancer? Well, yes I think some people did. Let's face it, these are some of the most profit obsessed companies in the world we are talking about. They do not mine oil or gas for good, they are solely focussed on money – the same as tobacco companies. These companies have shown us time and time again that they put profit before any concerns over our environment or wellbeing. Their only thoughts regarding care or caution are about what they can get away with. Their spokespersons appear on TV and say, "Look folks, they've been fracking in the USA for years and it's been fine. And it's made the USA almost self-sufficient in gas. We'd be crazy to turn down the opportunity!"

Do you remember the smoking beagles? - Image courtesy of The Guardian

From Sea To Shining Sea
First thing is, the USA is a gigantic country compared to the UK. They can mess up quite a lot of their purple mountained majesty and fruited plains without too many people noticing. Second thing is, it's easy to make statements like "it's been fine there," without looking at the evidence, because the people who have had their local countryside ruined (for countess decades to come) are small voices in America. What chance do we have of hearing them over here? Well by chance I have a friend who lives in Ohio. She's pretty well balanced and well informed. She saw something I reposted on Facebook about fracking. She commented as soon as she saw it. Her words were "Don't any of you over there have any doubt about the devastating effects of fracking on the countryside. Large areas of Ohio have been left as filthy, uninhabitable swamps due to the devastation and pollution caused by fracking. She attached a photograph. Here it is plus a few more:

 Fracking causes minor local earthquakes - No problem, apparently

Tap water that catches fire is still safe to drink, apparently - tell that to the Smoking Beagles!

And the images from Texas are far worse. Have a good look: Texas Fracking Photos

I think we all know what to do. Let's not wait to find out the hard way, like the smoking beagles.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A Constant Craving

A Childhood Obsession
As I have said in a previous blog post, I caught the cycling bug early. At around three years old I managed to persuade my grandmother to buy me a clattering contraption called a 'Mobo-bike'. It was covered in metal panels to make it look like a motorbike / Lambretta. The fact that it used to rattle like hell drove my parents to distraction, but not as much as the fact that I saw it as a means of escape from Fort Swain. It really was a case of 'the wind in my hair' (I had some back then). Once I had managed to drag the bike under the garden hedge (circumventing the tall, locked gate) I would hurtle down the pavement towards who knows where - my destiny I think I thought. All through childhood it was the same. So long as I had access to a working bicycle I knew I could up and go if things got too much for me. I found the rule-bound confines of an English childhood intolerable (much of it spent in Malaysia, Singapore and Germany, but the uptight system was pure expat English).

The Mobo-bike. I think it was a blue version of the top one.

Proof that my constant yearning for travel was my father's fault

Adult Escapism
I think, like many adult cyclists, I rediscovered cycling when I had children. As a teenager a motorcycle had seemed infinitely preferable. Inevitably a car appeared on the scene along with our first child, although I have never given up motorcycling. But it was the traffic congestion that first made me take to a bicycle again. My daughter needed dropping at playschool each morning and collecting in the afternoon. It was about three miles away. A little too far to walk and the roads were always busy, so I bought a new bike and put a child seat on the back. It was a revelation. Not only was it far quicker and cheaper, but both my daughter and I looked forward to those daily journeys. And it kept me fit. It was only a matter of a week or two before I began going off on short tours along the coast and around nearby Kent villages. Kent is known as The Garden Of England, and I discovered how much more pleasurable it was to experience it from the saddle of a bicycle.

Small children love cycling with their parents. 
Image courtesy of

Family Excursions On Wheels
My wife never much enjoyed cycling, although thankfully this has changed in recent times since a short holiday with friends, cycling along the superb Danube Cycle Path (Donauradweg). My son was the one who shared my love of cycling and still does, although my eldest daughter has become a recent convert - initially for ecological reasons. So family cycle outings have become an infrequent possibility. If you have read other posts on this blog, you will know that it became something more than that for my teenage son when we rode 10,000 miles from Ireland to Japan in 2008. My youngest daughter stubbornly still claims to loathe cycling after being forced to accompany us on a camping holiday along the Danube. I say it will be different when she has a boyfriend who cycles.

A reluctant cyclist following The Danube - now a convert (It's a Giant Halfway)

The delights of the Danube Cycle Path

The Power Of Nostalgia – A Constant Craving
So powerful is the memory of my 9 month cycle trip with my son in 2008-9 that the sight of a touring cyclist passing by still has my heart racing. For the last ten days I have been back in Tokyo – the destination of my 10,000 mile journey with my then teenage son. I have enjoyed my stay immensely. As the end approaches, I find myself regretting the fact that I have a plane ticket home. Planes are no way to enjoy a journey. You're lucky if you see anything. Your experience along the way is limited to a predictable menu of mainstream movies. I keep passing Tokyo cycle shops and I find myself examining bicycles, asking myself which one I would choose if I had to buy a bike to ride home to England. It may sound a crazy idea but of course I know it can be done without too much fuss or luggage. I have been lying awake at night, fantasising about a phone call to my wife and another to my business partner, telling them I will be delayed about six-months or so getting back. I in no way see this as any kind of sickness – far from it. This is how I know I am still healthy.

You can read about the 10,000mile cycle trip with my son Sam in our book, Long Road, Hard Lessons. See other links in right margin.

 Munar, Kerala, India - Yellapatty Tea Plantations. Very hilly.

Capadocia, Turkey. Sam, lovin' it.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Tokyo Cycle Trends

Metropolitan Cycling

I am currently back in Tokyo, visiting an old friend with whom I shared a house here in the mid-eighties. That was when we were wild young men. Back in those days Tokyo astounded me with its size and traffic. Few people in Tokyo had their own cars and most people got around by metro, taxi or by bicycle. There were millions of bicycles in fact. This is still the case. Most of them in those days were small-wheeled shopper type bikes as they tend not to cycle very far. Tokyo is a huge city - the world's biggest in fact. Go up any tall building and you will find that you can rarely see as far as the outskirts. It's about sixty or seventy miles diameter in general.

View from Tokyo Metropolitan Building (Shinjuku)

Night views of Tokyo conjure up thoughts of film 'Bladerunner'

Most Tokyo cyclists use their bikes to pop down to the supermarket (many open all night in this 'Bladerunneresque' world) or to ride to the nearest metro station for work. The multi-storey cycle storage parks outside stations these days are quite fascinating. I visit my friends here every three or four years and notice each time how there has usually been a change of bicycle fashion during my absence. Over the years I have seen this trend-conscious city pass through a fashion for grown-up tricycles, another for tiny folding bikes, then another for traditional Dutch-style bikes. This time I notice a trend for a kind of small wheeled racing bike. This is not a type of bike I have seen in England or anywhere else although it could be said to vaguely resemble those very rare and expensive modern Moulton bikes. So every time I see one, I photograph it and hope that the owner might arrive and engage me in conversation, or even offer me a ride – the Japanese are very hospitable.

 Latest Cycle Fashion - Nakano, Tokyo 2013/14

A Cautionary Tale About Drunk Cycling

Back in the eighties I got involved in some drunken youthful antics involving an attempt at getting to a late night party on a 'borrowed' bicycle with flat tyres, after leaving some sleazy downtown bar. Such behaviour in the early hours tends to stand out in Japan, especially when the rider is a westerner, and I was soon apprehended by a cycling policeman with a long truncheon, who easily outpaced me. I only narrowly escaped deportation after being interrogated and locked up for the night. Releasing me the next day they told me I had fitted the description of an American assassin they were hunting, after an international war between two drug gangs. They had phoned my elderly landlady in the early hours, who had eventually convinced them I was only an adventurous English teacher with a love of strong sake. Fortunately they still allow me back.

Many Ways To Arrive In Tokyo

In 2009 my teenage son and I arrived in Tokyo by bicycle after riding nearly 10,000 miles from Dingle in the west of Ireland. Cycling into Tokyo and down the main streets of a city I had been so familiar with in the past was a surreal experience for me. It proved so for others too. People struggled to get their heads around it. As I have said, many people in Tokyo cycle, but rarely further than one or two miles at the most. We stayed in Tokyo for a month at the end of our long expedition and often got around the city by bike. It can be a hard city to find one's way around and we frequently found ourselves stopping to ask for directions. Ironically, we found that a request to be shown the correct route to take in order to get to Takao, Kamakura or even Shibuya (not far from the centre) was usually met with a look of incredulity:
"No no, you can't possibly get there by bike sir, it's more than ten kilometres away!"

 Sam in Nam Ban Oon, Laos - March 2009

 Near the Turkey-Iran border - Sept 2008

Arriving back home in Canterbury - June 2009

You can read more about our Ireland to Japan father and son expedition, along with specific details about cycling in Japan, in our book Long Road, Hard Lessons:

Book on Amazon UK
Book on
Book via Smashwords