Musings of a Septuagenarian Cyclist

Conversation with a rough sleeper

 

What a fantastic day!

Astride my bike on top of Box Hill, a blazing sun in sky so blue, a nip in the air it’s true but with bursting lungs and hope in my heart

All’s well with the world.

What a shitty night!

The ground so cold, my fingers are numb and I can’t think straight, my mind is so dumb. Why does no one think to ask

What’s up with the world?

 

Down the hill, with a wonderful view, I sweep through lanes, not a care in the world. The leaves on the trees with autumnal hue

My heart soars on high.

I can’t sit here, they’ll move me on, I’ll plod round the town till I find a spot to squat and stare at passers-by

My heart sinks to my boots.

 

Towards Epsom Town, past the RAC, a gin and tonic in the clubhouse bar? Perhaps next time I pass this way.

No harm in drink on a beautiful day.

Past Pirie’s Bar and the Anchor Tap, the pain in my gut gives a lurching leap; thank God for the kids who throw a can

To see me through this bloody day.

 

Down in the square I choose a place to enjoy a drink and a bite to eat. I use my phone to find a train to return me back

To my blissful home.

I sit in pain on a wall of stone, and look at geezers as they wander by; will they, or won’t they toss some food

To lift me out of this bleeding mood?

 

I must get back, catch up on the chat; there’s Brexit, and the election news, so important to know as soon as we can

Which way the big money is going.

Brexit? Who gives a fuck; whoever wins won’t put food on my plate. And as for the election, I ain’t got no vote and if I did

Who would care what I might think?

 

With Christmas approaching, two moods fight their corners; all the presents to buy, and the food and the wine, but at its heart

There’s the family and love.

Christmas? Family? Love?

What are they?

 

Musings of a Septuagenarian Cyclist

“Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level, and without understanding molecules, we can only have a very sketchy understanding of life itself.”

Francis Crick – English scientist

I was flicking through a book entitled “The Meaning of Life” (whilst sitting on the loo, if you must know!) when I came across the above quotation. Whilst later out cycling, it struck me forcefully that this is, at the same time, both profoundly true ……. and therefore profoundly untrue!

Science tells us that the entire matter/energy of the universe came into existence at moment of the Big Bang; matter formed of a multitude of fundamental particles which, for the sake of convenience I will call “molecules”. I am, of course aware that this term is a gross simplification, but this should not alter the fundamental flow of my train of thought. Everything that has subsequently happened in the universe is a consequence of the interactions between these “molecules” – their number, positions, type and modes of interaction.

Our understanding of these interactions has of course refined over the centuries. Gone are the days when Newtonian physics would have condemned us to a world of utter predictability. Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle and the ambiguities of quantum mechanics have introduced much welcomed doubt in the way in which one set of scientific circumstances will lead to another. This does not change the fact, however that the new set of “molecular circumstances” will be a direct consequence of the immediately previous set of “molecular circumstances” – even though the connection may be one which we don’t yet fully understand. To this degree, therefore, the above quotation must be profoundly true. All aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level

Let’s compare this however, to the world we inhabit and observe: a world, yes of complexity and uncertainty; but a world of personality, beauty, diversity, love, hatred, joy, suffering, free will(?), art and literature; a world encompassing millennia of human history. Can we accept, believe, that this is all the result of the unthinking subsequent interactions between the initial “big bang molecules”?

If so there is an inescapable question. What determines, guides, these interactions?

Some might say “scientific law”; but what does this mean. Does it mean guiding principles which lead the universe (and its inhabitants) to some predetermined outcome? It seems to me that this is a binary question – there is no middle ground: either these molecular interactions are random and mindless; or they are guided in some way towards a purpose.

Others, no doubt will disagree, but I cannot, perhaps will not, accept that every aspect of my life, from deciding what to have for breakfast, to my innermost thoughts are determined only by a sequence of purposeless throws of a molecular dice. Given, therefore the binary question I believe we are faced with, I choose to believe in a universe that is controlled by some principle which provides direction towards a greater purpose.

What shall we call it: scientific process? Spirit of the Universe?

I’ve got an idea; let’s call it ………. God

 

I choose to believe in God

finger of god

Musings or a Septuagenarian

Peacehaven – haven of peace;

truth – or a lie?

Conceived in haste, nurtured in poverty,

last resting place of Pinkie Brown.

now replete with fish and chips, and betting shops.

Peacehaven – haven of peace?

I’ll let you decide.

Telscombe – valley of gold;

truth – or a lie?

conceived in the womb of history, nurtured through guilt,

crossed by the prime meridian

now replete with privilege and power.

Telscombe – valley of gold?

I’ll let you decide

Peacehaven or Telscombe?

I’ll let you decide.

A wing and a prayer on a folding bike in Spain. Last day.

Leaving my Casa Rural (excellent, by the way) I peruse the sky; totally overcast, with not a glimmer of hope anywhere. I have little choice today – I’ve got to get to the airport. Three possible routes however: easy, moderate, challenging. Of course I choose the challenging one ( a no-brainer, really) for the prospect of the scenery and …… the hills! After half an hour it starts raining – proper rain. But the scenery makes it all worthwhile.

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I suddenly experience a vivid example of distorted perception: my eyes and brain tell me that the road is going downhill – my legs tell me that I’m definitely not. There’s a famous example of this in Snowdonia near Bedgellert. The valley is rising faster than the road. The brain is interpreting this, in the context of all its accumulated data, as the road falling. It’s actually going up, and still steeply. In relation to my blog this experience is serendipity indeed.
Our perceptions and behavioural responses are, of course relative. Every time it stops raining I think “wow, wonderful!” On sunny Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday I would have felt “Oh no – what miserable weather!”
I descend to Guenes and dive into the first cafe to escape from the rain.
Over my coffee, I have another “eureka” moment. The whole week I’ve been puzzling why my usually excellent directional sense has been completely out – not randomly, but by 180 degrees. I’ve got it! Another flaw of perception. When cycling at home, towards the sea is South, away from the sea Is North. Simple and straightforward. Over here, my brain can’t let this go. It can’t handle the fact that cycling away from the coast is South. Believe me, this “flawed fixation” has been powerful and disconcerting.

It should now be all downhill to Bilbao. No such luck! Another rollercoaster – but beautiful.

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Beliefs. Why do we have them? How do they form? Ghosts; Arsenal Football Club; human good; human propensity to evil; spirit of the universe; magic; God?
Whatever beliefs we have will influence our decisions and behaviour. We must therefore ask whether they’re under our conscious control. We may feel that they are based purely on analytical deliberation. Yes, to an extent, but superimposed on our brain’s lifetime of processing millions of gigabytes of subconscious information, some of which might be flawed or biased.
Beliefs stem from our unique consciousness and help us navigate our world. There is much evidence to suggest that “belief” is good for brain health; it makes us happier, and we live longer. Beliefs become even more powerful when they are pooled to become tribal – a football crowd or a gang.
Do I believe in God?
Let’s consider this in stages. I recognise that my accumulated bubbles make me more likely to believe in God than many others: a church family and school; career in Catholic education etc.. As a scientist I know that the existence of God can’t be proved; I also know it can’t be disproved. Where does that leave me? I choose to believe in God – in hope.
Why? There’s an element of Pascal’s Wager: more to gain and less to lose. But also, and more importantly, I think it leads to a better life. I am happier. Perhaps one day I will have genuine (blind?) faith.
I descend to Bilbao and continue to the airport.

Distance travelled          32 miles
Elevation gain                     2206 ft
Average speed                 9.5 mph

Some thanks
To Dr. Hannah Critchlow, whose book “The Science of Fate” I have been reading, and which has informed parts of this blog.

To Stuart who serviced my bike in preparation for the trip. It’s been faultless.

To my sister, Geraldine for giving me a lift to and from the airport

To my children, who have kept me posted with news and gossip

To Mary, who has lifted my spirits by phoning  twice a day to make sure I’m ok.

And to God, in whom I choose to believe, for keeping me safe (sometimes, against the odds!)

Hasta luego!

A wing and a prayer on a folding bike in Spain. Day 4

A rollercoaster of a day – in more senses than one.
Yesterday, I had a message on Strava (a cycling app) from an old friend/past student encouraging me to “hit the nearby Picos”. When I suggested that, at nearly 72 y/o I might struggle to conquer the high passes, he replied that “age is just a number”. If you’re reading this, Marek, you are of course right. I’ll be talking about perception later. Self perception is a crucially important aspect; it’s deeply true that you’re only as old as you feel. Thank you, Marek
Unfortunately, the Picos he’s referring to are three days cycling to the West; with a plane to catch tomorrow I must go East. But I’ll definitely do the Picos another day.
It’s raining! The forecast suggests it won’t stop soon, so there’s no point in hanging about. Off I go! After 3 miles I smell a rat – I’m going the wrong way. Consequently, with half an hour gone, I’m back where I started. Oh well, onward and …….. upwards! I had naively thought that, being a coastal road, this might be relatively flat. No such luck – believe me, it’s a veritable rollercoaster (if you’ve got Strava, look at the elevation profile). Looking on the bright side, the rain is easing and the view back towards Laredo is worth a photo-stop

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The road I’m on is the original main road to Bilbao. It’s almost deserted thanks to the new auto-route, which is often within earshot, occasionally within sight. Soon, it feels as though I’m back in the mountains.

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I start thinking. My perception of the world is not an accurate “truth” but just a subjective illusion. Perhaps  there are as many “realities” as there are human beings in the world. Every brain contains unique biases and distortions. Have you seen the “bear playing basketball”? If not, look it up – you’ll be shocked. How could you miss it? It’s simple – the brain sees what it expects to see. What my brain expects to see is dependent on the accumulated  mindsets that its plasticity has absorbed over my lifetime. This is unique for each one of us. Another example is the infamous “dress”; is it black and blue, or white and gold? There’s some suggestion that our judgement on this depends on whether we’re a lark or an owl; whether our visual perceptions are adapted by the brain to morning light, or evening shade. Another example of distorted perception (which probably none of us have experienced??) is the hallucinatory drug, LSD. Schizophrenics, of course, suffer frequent distortions of “reality”
Our brains are very busy. Because of this, they operate what might me likened to a filing system – a bit similar to the one I operated with the mountains of post I received every day as a Headteacher (it seems a long time ago!) – two piles: “important” – must do now; “maybe later” – probably end up in the bin. How does our brain decide which? It draws on prior experience to make assumptions about what it perceives. This enables it to comprehend the world even when bombarded with an almost infinite number of signals. Survival! Perhaps this explains why each one of us has a particular ability to remember certain things …. but not others.
If you find this suggestion of predetermination  and limitation of free will rather depressing (as indeed I do) there is a silver lining to the cloud. Later!
Back to the journey. I encounter a large number of people walking, in groups, along the road. I soon discover why.

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Perhaps one day Mary and I will do it.
I soon descend to Castro Urdiales. Hang on a minute – where’s my cycling cap? Taking advantage of the improving weather, I have taken off my waterproofs and cap (to feel the air whistling through my hair!) It was hanging on the handlebars. Back I go to look (uphill!). After 2 miles, “eureka!”

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Why bother? I’m very attached to it.
I enjoy lunch (to “Hey Jude”) and explore the town. The first thing I discover is a blast from the past

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I’m pleased to say its no longer in use.
Castro Urdiales is very popular – I can see why.

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Continuing on the old main road, I reach S. Juan. A decision to be made: find an early pit-stop; or turn right, back up into the mountains. You’ve got it – up into the mountains it is. A good decision. After a few miles, the weather now almost sunny, I come across some locals sitting outside a bar. Enquiring about any nearby hotels (my Spanish is coming on) they shake my hand, consult their phones and eventually suggest a village called Mercadillo. A mile down the road I discover the perfect overnight stop – Casa Rural Encartada, in a beautiful village

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The silver lining? The brain also has an ability to “enjoy” new challenges; to keep moving. To encounter, consider and evaluate other mindsets through interaction with different people and their opinions. We enjoy a good argument (First Friday?!) This does not, however short-circuit all the above – it sits on a throne.
It is perhaps the passage from knowledge to understanding to wisdom.

Distance travelled           39 miles
Elevation gain                      3638 ft         As I said, a rollercoaster
Average speed                      9 mph

A wing and a prayer on a folding bike in Spain. Day 3

I must start by promising not to use the word “fantastic”. Overdone yesterday. Leaving the Pension at a leisurely 9.15 after a wholesome, but hardly exciting breakfast, I feel a subtle change in the weather: hazy sunshine and, dare I mention it, a stiff breeze – a potential cyclist’s nightmare. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Looking back at the hotel with some fondness I thank my good fortune (fate?) in coming across it. I could have been well and truly stuck – there are not many about. Also friendly and very reasonable.

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I soon cross the River Ason which has frequently accompanied me on my way.

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I start musing immediately: echo chambers; social bubbles – whatever you want to call them. We like to think that they are under our control; that we can dip in and out of them at will. But can we really?
The human brain can be too clever for our own good. It pursues a constant quest to keep up to date. By doing so, do echo chambers actually change the brain? If so, our behaviour is likely to adapt and change not only consciously, but also unconsciously, with no choice involved.
This may be why criminality is so hard to escape from. Even harder than it is for we old geezers to diverge from the ways in which we are set. When on the bench, one of the most shocking cases I came across concerned a young woman of about thirty, charged with shoplifting. She was so physically damaged that she was barely able to step into the dock. After pleading guilty, it was revealed that she had 130 previous convictions: half for shoplifting and half for drugs. Don’t tell me that she was leading a life of choice. Nonsense! She would love to be able to escape.
There is also the well-documented case of a journalist who, to write a feature lived as a down-and-out for a year. Guess what? At the end, he found it really hard to return to “normal” society. Surprise, surprise! It’s not just the environment which changes, the mindset changes too – and deeply. This theme has, of course, been explored in “Lord of the Flies”
Are we too quick to say “snap out of it”? The trouble is that one bubble/mindset morphs seamlessly into another throughout our personal and professional lives, deep within our brains, without us realising it. It may be possible for us to backtrack one or two steps, but back to the beginning …….?
Back to the journey.
After all this musing I suddenly realize I’ve been up (and down) two cols: neither particularly high, but both from a low starting point – two in one morning

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On the way down, I have a strange encounter

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There’s nothing like the unexpected!
I soon move into a gentler, pastoral terrain and stop at a bar for lunch.
Heading northward towards the sea I pass through Noja and on to Argonos. The roads are getting noticeably busier; though still surrounded by hills, that magical grandeur of the mountains seems suddenly far away.
Around the next corner, and ……….

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Wow! This makes up for a lot. Yes, you’re right – shirt off, I lie on the beach soaking up what there is of the sun and the scene for a good 45 minutes. After all, I’m in no hurry.
At Santona I have a choice (yes, they do exist!): the boat across the narrow strait to Laredo …. or cycle 10 miles around the bay. You’ve got it – I choose to complete the day on my trusty bike.
Arriving in Laredo I discover an up-market seaside resort, with a good selection of shops and hotels …. one of which I book into.
Another great day.

Distance travelled            42 miles
Elevation gain                      2801 ft
Average speed                       9 mph       You’ve got to admit I’m consistent.

On emerging from the hotel after a rest and a shower, I discover it’s raining. Checking the forecast, it may carry on for the next two days.
I was right about the weather!

A wing and a prayer on a folding bike in Spain. Day 2

What a day. Fantastic! But let’s start at the beginning.
When strolling round Balmaseda yesterday evening I found it absolutely enchanting. It seemed that the whole town was out on the pedestrianised streets and plazas: teeming with children playing, their parents drinking coffee or beer, and grandparents enjoying a good gossip. Why doesn’t this happen in Warnham? In addition to the human interest, the village possessed a number of interesting features including a mediaeval bridge

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After a makeshift breakfast (nuts, a peach, some ham, and chocolate biscuits washed down by a latte) I set off heading, guess what – up into the mountains. After a steady 30 minute ascent, the road I’m on comes to a dead end. Wrong mountain! Not to worry – it’s another fantastic day. Serendipity strikes: by the time I get back to the town, the tourist office is open. You may not believe this, but my Spanish is better than her English. I manage to learn that there is a hotel in Ramales, and even its name. Off we go
The scenery is fantastic full of vibrant colour

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With rapidly rising spirits (in spite of a seemingly endless climb) I start to think about choice, decision making and, dare I say it, fate. May I set one thing straight: in the old nurture/nature argument there is one unequivocal answer – both play a part. But the balance between the two? Yesterday I suggested that autistic people possess embedded brain neurochemistry which significantly affects their choices and behaviour patterns. But it doesn’t stop there: schizophrenia, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, depression, anxiety, ADHD, dyslexia, addiction ……. All of these “conditions” rightly attract sympathy and support. I’m now going to throw the cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting one more: criminality. Many (but not, I’m pleased to say, all) of my fellow magistrates would reel in horror at the suggestion that fault could ever be mitigated by any suggested brain condition. But hang on minute …. we’ve already accepted the principle: autistic people do sometimes behave in ways which might objectively be described as “criminal”. Although no “criminal gene” has been identified, it has been suggested that certain genes are linked to aggressive behaviour: a greater propensity for assault, ABH, criminal damage, even rape? The law is, after all, simply a social construct with no objective truth; it is clearly dependent on history and geography.
The brain is an amazingly complex and ever changing organ; billions of cells with trillions of connections. Do you know that it consumes about 20% of the body’s calorific intake? Its elasticity is a double-edged sword: on the one hand constantly adapting in response to a myriad of daily information; on the other, becoming more individually attuned to its owner. It’s often said that older people are set in their ways: maybe we are ….. through brain biology.
I pass a roadside verge of beautiful flowers

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“Bring flowers of the rarest ….. “. It is May after all.
I continue my journey, with birds singing and lizards scampering from under my tyres. On reaching Ramales I locate the recommended hotel. It’s closed! It’s only two o’clock; my plan is to book in, leave my panniers and explore the nearby mountains. Now what? After a few unanswered phone-calls I decide to continue westwards. Miraculously (fate?) a few miles does the road I come across an unpretentious pension. I stop for a beer ….. and yes, they do have a room. Prayers answered.
On with the plan. Possibly the most fantastic two hours of cycling I’ve ever enjoyed; unburdened with panniers, I take my time edging up the mountain pass. Glorious!

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Sorry about the finger!
After pausing near the top, I reluctantly start my descent back to the hotel
Distance travelled                 56 miles
Elevation gain                           4628 ft
Average speed                        9.2 mph    (getting faster!)

Hasta luego!