I thought we had something special, something precious – but clearly I was mistaken.  The long-term, loving commitment I believed we shared has been shown to be nothing more than a romantic fantasy on my part.  Yesterday, to my horror, I discovered that some of you have been reading other blogs behind my back!

It’s no good you claiming these other blogs meant nothing to you or that you can change.  I think we both know better.  You don’t see WordPress as a matchmaker or duenna, no you see it as some sort of brothel of the mind!  It exists just to deliver some cheap tart for you to read and then cast aside – just a way to satisfy your carnal, reading urges.

After crying myself to sleep last night, I have come to realise that this isn’t my fault and I mustn’t blame myself.  I must be strong, I must learn how to carry on!  I will survive!  I have no desire to live in a soi-disant “open relationship”, but I suppose I must learn to extract a modicum of joy from our tawdry literary couplings – at least until I can find a more sustaining blog relationship.

All of which foolishness reminds of how little progress I have made on my promised dating “project” (viz none whatsoever).  As I commence my fiftieth orbit of our local star I have resolved to tackle this lack.  If nothing else, the delay (coupled with my recent Playdate – not a real date) has brought insight.  Whilst I clearly am planning to date for the amusement value and to provide much needed content for GofaDM, what I am most seeking in a date is…

… an audience.

You have been warned!  But at least I am being upfront about this.  I’m not hiding my desires behing a screen of seeking companionship, long walks or perhaps “something more”.  I want someone to listen, laugh where appropriate and provide encouragement for more of this sort of nonsense.  Any takers?


My heart will go on

Fear not, no ocean liners (or icebergs) were harmed in the making of this post.

Those with a long memory – and perhaps a slightly obsessive interest in the author – will recall that at the end of April last year I discovered that I had low haemoglobin and should seek urgent professional medical attention.  Well, last week I finally got around to doing this – s0 well within 10 months (virtually instantaneous in geological terms) – and had various samples of my blood taken and sent off for analysis.  This was quite traumatic for me – not the blood extraction itself, this is no trouble – but the need to fast for 12 hours before hand.  As a result, my blood letting procedure was booked to be as early as possible (9am) and I planned a very major meal at 20:30 the previous e’en.  With these precautions (and pockets full of food to consume the instant my blood had been taken), I managed to make it through this very difficult time.

Well, this morning I received the results – and you may be pleased to know that I passed!  My blood is entirely normal – though my HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol is somewhat higher than the norm but this is a “good thing” (I do wonder if the medical profession are dumbing-down their analysis for our benefit) and a result of exercise.  In conjunction with my blood pressure, BMI (now a part of Lufthansa, I believe) and honest answers to the lifestyle questionnaire I can now confirm that I am officially immortal.  OK, that may be a slight exaggeration – but according to NHS statisticians I have only a 3% chance of a heart attack in the next decade (this seemed quite a big chance to me, but apparently is very low indeed).  So, any of you hoping that this stream of drivel would be brought to a sudden close by some sort of cardiac incident look likely to be disappointed.

So, it would seem that I am in excellent physical health (which I had always secretly suspected, but one doesn’t like to boast).  No test was made (or will be, if it’s up to me) of my mental health and so I continue to evade the attentions of the men (and women) in white coats, my jackets remain far from strait and walls remain unpadded.  I now feel strong enough to turn 100 (in base 7, which is NOT the same as dog years) at the weekend.  Huzzah!

The genie is out of the bottle

The worms have – very much – left the can.  And, as we all know, entropy – or the arrow of time – prevents freed worms being returned to the same can.  Perhaps I should explain the title: see I can hear your plaintive, beseeching cries.

I have spent three of the last four nights at the Nuffield Theatre – though none in quite the usual way.  On Sunday night I went to see a Q&A with Tom Hiddleston who spoke about his career, theatre and film.  This was very interesting and drew an overwhelmingly female audience, some from as far away as Canada and the Far East.  I fear my own public speaking or Q&A sessions have not drawn such a broad audience (and have occasioned far less whooping) – and such audience as I can draw usually has their travel funded by their employers.

On Monday night, I went to see Experiment – a night of new writing laid on by the Nuffield Laboratory.  This contained two fragments which may one day develop into full plays, the beginnings of a spoken word piece and an almost indescribable (but fun) audience participation piece.  The night was enormously entertaining – far more than can usually be achieved for £4 – and I still find myself wondering what will happen (or had already happened) to the characters in the two play fragments and musing on the ideas from the spoken word piece.

Tonight I went on a Playdate – something I normally leave to my nephew.  On these occasions (for adults…  and me) a small group read a play and chat about it.  Our play tonight was Loveplay by Moira Buffini – first performed by the RSC on my 35th birthday.  This has a whole series of brief scenes (or vignettes), set in time periods from 79AD to 2001, each looking at an aspect of “love”.  During the evening I played: a Roman soldier, a Saxon rapist, a 14th century playwright, a Victorian adulterer and a virgin schoolboy (typecasting, I know) from the 1930s.  What a range!  This was an indecent amount of fun (and was free) and I loved acting: I wanted to play all the parts and found myself just waiting for my next line.   The play is somewhat comic, so I was also trying to milk my lines for laughs – where appropriate.  If given the chance, I would also have done the foley work and given life to the stage directions.

At the end, the organiser asked if I was an actor – and an actual actor remarked on my confidence at a first reading.  I am clearly wasted on PowerPoint presentations, the time has come for me to begin my stage career.  Well, I believe it is in my blood (I think my grandparents participated in am-dram) and now it has finally been released.  A star (and/or monster) is born!  You have been warned!  If you start running now, you may just avoid the consequences of tonight’s activities – but I wouldn’t bet on it!

Banging one’s head against a wall

This is an activity which is generally reported to provide its maximum pleasure through its cessation.  Having not tried it, I cannot confirm this opinion but it does have the ring of truth about it.

I have recently finished Caitlin Moran’s excellent book How to be a Woman, though readers should not infer from this that I am about to seek gender re-assignment therapy (or even start wearing frocks on a regular basis).  It is funny and moving and wise and I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of the exact combination of X and Y chromosomes they happen to possess (and as I learned in this week’s Nature podcast, this is likely to be a rather wider mix than you might imagine).  It is full of great advice for members of either of the two traditional sexes, though I’m not sure whether the unexpected flexibility of yellow shoes applies to chaps like myself (I have certainly yet to put it to the test).  One insight was how much pleasure those (mostly) lacking the Y-chromosome gain from the removal of their bra at the end of the day, despite the utility it had hitherto been providing.  I do not wear a bra – though many men in this increasing obese age might usefully consider the option (if only to avoid travelling with a load not properly tied down) – but have (what I assume to be) similar feelings about shoes.  I have no desire to walk around barefoot – it strikes me as uncomfortable and would lead to wounded and very dirty feet – but there are few joys in life quite so great as removing my shoes at the end of a long day.  I do sometimes muse that the shoe may have been created by our ancestors primarily for the joy that its removal brings, and its use for foot protection was just a happy accident.

Having lacked work-based meetings and flying to Scotland using only hand-luggage (which precludes the taking of razor blade and a broad range of unguents), I had until this weekend gone for quite a long time without shaving.  As a result, I had developed rather more beard than is my wont – and which surely must indicate that the beard is now seriously off-trend.  My beard is spared the common tendency to be far more ginger than the rest of my hair, but instead – and probably worse – is far more white then the rest of my hair.  I do not think it makes me look distinguished and luckily it was razed to my face before any similarity with Santa Claus became too pronounced.  It lasted a little longer than usual as a result of (a) apathy and (b) a vague idea that it would keep me a little warmer while cycling in the recent, relatively chilly weather.  However, its destruction was always on the cards as possession of a beard quickly starts to annoy me – I have no idea how the generously bearded put with the things: they itch and get trapped in zips and worse.  Its two-stage removal on Friday was thus most welcome, but came with an unexpected bonus.  As well as taking off a whole chunk of unwanted hair, the shave also took years off me!  I felt positively youthful on seeing my clean-shaven visage in the bathroom mirror – a feeling enhanced by the soft-focus provided by wisely not wearing my glasses.  It is almost worth growing a beard de temps en temps for the fillip offered by its subsequent elimination. The true test would be whether the pain of its cultivation is exceeded by the joy arising from its removal – however, the plethora of confounding variables will make this rather a hard test to convincingly apply.  Probably needs an epidemiological study – so over to you, the readers!


Doo-dah.  Serendipity, day.  No-one?  I’m wasted here…

As part of my continuing efforts to broaden the range of music to which one can strive while in the gym, this morning I went with The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann.  This can be slightly distracted, I will admit, as the desire to either join in or laugh can be quite strong for some of the songs.  Nevertheless, I felt it was a successful choice -in general, I think I am looking for distraction or sometimes a “still small voice of calm” rather then motivational lyrics or a strongly motivic beat when I am working-out.  If I had a home gym (which I don’t) would I then be able to work-in, I wonder?

Anyway, I had taken a grip of a bar and was about to invert my body prior to fully “skinning my cat” when Michael Flanders began to introduce the song The Bradypus (aka The Three-Toed Sloth).  The sloth spends much of its time inverted and Mr Flanders apologised for not singing the song whilst upside-down (I feel the wheelchair provides a decent excuse) and suggested the listener might like to make good the lack – and so, for the first time, I did and enjoyed the song as F&S intended (hanging upside down from a bar, well no convenient and more authentic branch was available).  Unlike the eponymous hero of the song, I am not able to remain in position for the entire song (3’15) as I lack the adaptions required to prevent my head filling with my body’s entire complement of blood (which I suspect may be detrimental to long-term existence).  Still, I enjoyed the additional authenticity for as long as I could and would recommend any reader who feels sufficiently confident to give it a go (Please note, GofaDM takes no responsibility for any loss or injury which may occur as a result of taking this advice).

I now find myself wondering whether there any other songs which provide lyrical (or introductory) parallels with the “work” of the gentleman gymnast…


As the sun was shining this afternoon and I had some time to kill while my buns were rising (not a euphemism), I decided to go for a stroll around Southampton Common to see if there was any sign of Spring.

The extensive grounds of the current Fish Towers – traversed on my way to the Common – could offer snowdrops, yellow crocuses and even a couple of early (and probably foolhardy) daffodils in bloom.  Floral signifiers of the season-that-is-to-come were harder to come by on the Common itself, though there was a red rhododendron flowering and a very few clumps of mauve crocuses.  I suspect the better informed stroller would have seen many more signs of future vegetative efflorescence – but as previously established, I dropped biology in the 3rd form and my botanical knowledge is somewhat rudimentary.

The Common seemed largely populated by those taking their dogs and/or children out for a walk.  Both categories of the walked seemed very keen to get into any available water, though the children were (fortunately) restricted to puddles, mostly those shallower than their wellies.  In addition to the walked, there were groups of young people engaged in a number of ball games – or training for ball games.  Most of these seemed to be drawn from the broad range of traditional, winter-played ball sports with which I have at least some vague familiarity (if absolutely no skill).  However, one group seemed to be playing a muggle version of Quidditch.  As there appears no obvious shortage of magic-free ball games for people to play, attempting to translate a game for which the ability to fly is critical to both the players and the “balls” does not strike me as an obvious choice.  Still, the young people involved seemed to be enjoying their rather earth-bound version of J K Rowling’s game, so perhaps the loss of its aerial element is not so important.  Its playing may itself have been a signifier of the coming Spring as I have no idea when the Quidditch season traditionally falls or whether it has been changed by the intrusion of TV money.

However, one key and very welcome summer migrant was missing from the Common.  I refer of course to the ice cream van with its familiar song.  I presume they must still be wintering somewhere in Africa awaiting more consistent warmth before they return – though Chris Packham and co have yet to feature them on Springwatch, so I can’t be sure as to their migratory habits.  Still, despite, returning home without a cornet (or any other brass instrument) I am reminded how great it is to have the Common so close to home and remain hopeful that winter is on the wane

The heat is on

As exclusively revealed in the last post (and a couple of postcards) I have been in bonny Scotland, staying with friends in Edinburgh.  These friends, in respect of their response to the ambient temperature at least, are substantially closer to societal norms than am I.  As a consequence, they were actually running their central heating and had supplied a duvet with a TOG rating well into double figures (unlike the 4.5 TOG summer version which I am using at my unheated home).  Despite my hosts pandering to my more obscure temperature response curve by turning off the radiator in my room, for my first night I was kept from sleep by the oppressive heat.  I gradually discarded sleep-wear and progressively uncovered more of my unsleeping form from neath the duvet until I was completely exposed.  However, ultimately I was forced to open the windows in order to achieve the sort of temperature which my body has come to associate with sleep.  Luckily, my body did adapt to the conditions and so by night two I was able to sleep with the windows closed and any frost confined to the world outside.

Whilst north of the border, I did indulge in some reasonably typical leisure activities: a little alcohol was consumed, I ate out several times and took in a spectrum of the Arts: cinema, chamber music and painting (as audience, rather than a more active participant).  I also partook of some less widely enjoyed activities, including a couple of sessions analysing the functioning of a central heating system and a little freelance IT support.  I find that I am oddly accomplished when it comes to understanding the functioning of central heating systems and their foibles, despite rarely using them myself and how totally useless I would be if I were required to implement the fruits of my analysis.  I fear that I am very much an armchair plumber/electrician – but, if such you need, I am available at a very reasonable rate.

On Friday, I decided it was time to explore Scotland outside of the region served by Lothian Buses.  My original thought was perhaps to sample the nearby delights of North Berwick, but somehow this plan morphed into a visit to the Cairngorms – perhaps, subconsciously, I was still seeking the cold?  Aviemore is really quite accessible from Edinburgh by train with a roughly hourly service taking 3 hours (±15 mins).  I can thoroughly recommend the journey, especially north of Perth where the scenery grows increasingly wild with first forest and the moorland and mountain to see as the train trundles along.  Being mid-February there was also copious snow to be seen – often between the tracks, not just on the hills.  The route rises for much of the journey to reach the highest spot on the UK’s mainline rail network, before dropping down into Aviemore itself.  Despite taking such a “classic” rail journey, I eschewed the brightly coloured, stripy blazer and tried to minimise my condescension to the locals.

Once in Aviemore, we took the short trip to the funicular railway which takes one up the Cairngorm (to some 3600 feet).  Even the foot of the railway is pretty high and offered some very fine views – the summit is even higher, but offered no views whatsoever as the clouds descended and stayed.

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

This was the first time I had been to a ski resort during the “season”.  What a lot of gubbins you need to go skiing!   So much special equipment and clothing, so little of it flattering.  It quite put me off the whole idea – and I did (once) learn to ski, just outside Tunbridge Wells (justly famed for its mountains and powder) – and if that hadn’t, the lacerations and bruising which covered any exposed part of the snow sports folks bodies (as glimpsed by the author) would have convinced me.  However, while skiing looks nothing special, snow-boarding does look quite cool – an aura which seems to attach to all board sports (with the possible exception of shuffleboard), though (oddly) not to board games.  Perhaps I should try the skateboard, it seems to need less extreme clothing than its cousins and significantly less specificity on the geography where it is practised.

I was, of course, dressed for the “slopes” in exactly the same clothing I had used on the previous day to wander round art galleries in Edinburgh.  Weather is like a wild animal, it can smell your fear so you must show no weakness in its presence.  Wandering around at the base of the funicular railway to capture the views, I will admit that the air was both fresh (some of the freshest I have ever had the pleasure to inhale) and bracing:  I even did up one button on my jacket, but there was no need to fish the (thin, summer) cardigan from my bag.

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

Despite my lack of interest in many of the traditional activities that take place there, I can thoroughly recommend the Cairngorms for a day trip (or longer).  (Based on my experience, I’d definitely recommend reserving a seat on the train, as both were surprisingly (to me) busy for a winter, school day).   I was able to post a very reasonably-priced postcard to my nephew from the UK’s highest post box – and enjoy a cheeky mulled wine (or two).  The train journey back, as night fell, also offered a wild beauty: as the sun set, the colour was slowly leached from the countryside leaving a rather haunting monochrome landscape.  All in all, I had a wonderful day out in what felt like a very different world from the one I’d left that morning – and all without leaving the country!

I have seen the future

Well, a tiny fragment of it!

I find myself (once again) in the Athens of the North – not as a result of a rather convenient abduction, but by booking (and then taking) a flight with FlyBe. This does spare my Facebook friends from the usual flurry of activity occasioned by the traditional long train ride – but leaving at short notice, flying was vastly cheaper (and faster) than the surface options.

Flying from Southampton is surprisingly painless – the airport is a short bus ride from home and formalities at the airport can be completed in a matter of seconds. There is also no long queue (or, indeed, any queue) of planes waiting to depart ahead of you and so my flight departed (and arrived) well ahead of schedule. Sadly, for the economics of FlyBe, the plane was mostly empty and so we were allowed to spread out from our default positions (all packed together over the wings), but for the first time in my flying experience this spreading out was constrained by the passenger weight-distribution in our Dash-8 (basically, we could all move nearer the back of the plane, but not even a single row forward – presumably to avoid the aircraft face-planting on the Southampton tarmac).

This more rapid (if less green) route north meant that I could have breakfast, a serious gym session, shower and lunch in the south and still be in Edinburgh for leisured consumption of emergency cake in the Filmhouse cafe followed by the 18:00 screening of the Skeleton Twins (great fun, despite roughly four attempted suicides – on screen, not amongst the audience) at the Cameo. Whilst I realise this capability has existing for many years, it still seems like a form of magic to me – though not, in fact, the vision of the future to which the title refers.

Talking of the Cameo, can I thoroughly recommend Cameo 2 to GofaDM readers. It is quite unlike any cinema I’ve visited before, it has a large and very wide screen but only three (3!) rows of seats. I think it may be (almost) the perfect cinema – why are all others narrow but deep, when wide and shallow is so much better? But, no even this is not the future.

After the film, I went to Tuk-Tuk, the only known source for the finest (IMO), if least authentic, naan in the world – I refer, of course, to the cheese naan. Forget your peshwari or keema, cheese is the filling that naan was invented for!

OK, I’ve teased you for long enough – now to the future bit. I am staying with a friend and he has been upgrading a number of rooms in his house (and is partway through a major extension). My room has been refurbished and as part of this work, the mains sockets have been replaced. As well as the usual two 3-pin mains sockets, there are also two USB charging ports provided – what a delight for the traveller and how practical in almost any modern home. The number of devices which need a USB power feed, but end up using a whole 3-pin mains socket leads to the proliferation of multi-plug adapters and extension cables in every home. It’s like having four sockets in the space for two and would be a boon for the foreign visitor (but also the local) as you need to carry far fewer plugs/plug adaptors with you. It could even lead to fewer hurt feet, with fewer currently unused 3-pin plugs lying inverted waiting to punish the unwary, barefoot pedestrian. The campaign for this to become the standard for all homes starts here!

Cine M&A

M&A, for those who have been spared exposure to this particular abbreviation, stands for Mergers and Acquisitions.  This is very much the civil partnership of the corporate world: a place I do have to visit de temps en temps.  In a merger the marriage is somewhat mutual, whereas for an acquisition a shotgun tends to be involved – as I understand matters.

In a typical M&A scenario, a small company which does one thing well is taken over by a larger entity which may do many things with almost any level of competence (including none at all).  The combined entity is briefly larger, but almost immediately what remains of the small company ceases doing its one thing well.  The entity then contracts and may enter slow, but terminal decline or may later be re-born.   (I believe this process may be linked to the “creative destruction” on which capitalism seems to depend – it takes out both a large company and a small successful one, opening up new ecological niches to be exploited).  My sense is that M&A activity is nearly always bad news for the employees, customers and shareholders of both companies – but does benefit a range of corporate lawyers, bankers and a few senior managers.  Since the shareholders have to agree to both M and A, such people do seem to fit my favourite definition of insanity, viz doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome, very snugly.  I would also have thought that the senior managers may well be open to accusations of failing in their fiduciary duty by permitting such activity to occur as I had thought they were supposed to protect shareholder value.  In related “news”, it may just be me and some sort of selection bias or availability error in operation (or, indeed, poor journalistic standards), but whenever a captain of industry makes any pronouncement reported by the media, they do give the very convincing impression of being complete dunderheads (and should never be allowed to speak in public).  If so, the plan to promote such folk to a position where they can do less harm may be back-firing spectacularly for the UK plc.

OK, so “M&A” covered we now move on to the “cine” in our title.  I am a fairly frequent movie-goer and usually frequent my local art house fleapit (for the avoidance of doubt, I have never knowingly encountered a flea on these excursions) and in both Cambridge and Southampton, this has been a Picturehouse cinema.  A while back, Picturehouse was bought by Cineworld, a large chain of more mainstream cinemas – as with most M&A activity, it is quite hard to see why.  Some hope of economies of scale perhaps?  Megalomania? Mind-altering drugs?

When my local Picturehouse does not show a film that I want to see, then it has generally been to Cineworld that I have taken my film-going pound (or several).  So, I have some familiarity with both chains as a customer, I have no idea what it is like as an employee  – though those at Picturehouse do generally seem to be more invested in the process than their cousins at Cineworld (or may just be better actors).  In the last week, I have been to both – which in Southampton are situated pretty close to each other – and there is quite a contrast in the customer experience.  At the Harbour Lights (the local Picturehouse), you have a fairly small lobby with comfy seating (and a balcony overlooking the marina), fairly decent food offerings but the screens are modest in size, though you do get comfy, reclining seats on quite a steep rake and carpeted floors.  At Cineworld, the lobby is much larger but with standard cinema food (which doesn’t appeal to me at all) and nowhere comfy to sit.  The screens are much bigger, but the seats less comfy on a shallow rake and the floors are clearly designed to be wipe-clean.

As a sidebar, I do wonder why standard cinema cuisine is so awful – and generally rather noisy to eat?  Is the typical cinema-goer so hidebound by tradition that they insist on popcorn, nachos covered in a rubbery substance simulating cheese (badly) and fizzy pop?  I can’t believe I am alone in finding such offerings unappealing.  So much of the UK has a vibrant food culture, why has none of this made it into the mainstream cinema?  Anyway, given their proximity, if I have to visit the Cineworld I acquire my food and drink from the Harbour Lights (and it would seem that I am not alone).  However, this option is not available everywhere and one feels that mainstream cinema is missing out on a lot of potential income from that portion of the audience still blessed with functioning tastebuds.

Sidebar over, and I am now ready to merge the two parts of the title together.  As a customer, the change of ownership of Picturehouse has been mostly hidden – except for worries about the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, following the rather baffling opinion by the Competition and Mergers Authority that its presence in the same town as a Cineworld would harm competition.  (Given they have segmented the audience very successfully, are more than a mile apart, and both have to compete with a local MyVue this seems far less of an issue than, for example, the situation in Southampton where they are little more than 100 yards apart.)  However, a few weeks ago this situation changed as one of the primary curses of any M or A struck: I refer, of course, to the attempt to marry the IT systems.  The old Picturehouse website disappeared to be be replaced by a new one – well a new stop-gap one, the new one won’t be ready for some months (not entirely clear what the thinking was here, as it’s usually not a good plan to dispose of the old version of something when the replacement is still some months away).  This new website is decidedly clunky (though more modern-looking), and on launch did not allow you to see what films were showing or book tickets – though it could have been worse, for some cinemas it did show film times: the wrong film times.  It has also affected all the internal systems, so you cannot currently buy food or drink with a credit card: which these days does feel deliciously subversive as cash transactions are so much harder for the authorities to trace.  But, the staff have most of my sympathy: I only have to deal with the new IT once a week (or so), they have to fight their way around it every day – and in the knowledge that it will be changing again.  I also very much doubt that they are receiving extra money to deal with this hassle, and one cannot really tip at the cinema (well not in the UK, the US may well be different, as I believe there is no situation where tipping is inappropriate in our former colony).

And now for sidebar number 2 – on the topic of major IT implementations.  Both the news and personal experience would suggest that any major IT implementation will be a disaster – and yet, companies and governments continue to indulge in this very expensive luxury.  Why?  I (myself) take the view that once your employer starts to implement SAP, it is time to dust off your curriculum vitae and seek pastures new.  (I’m sure SAP is not unique in this respect, but for me it is very much the “poster-child”).

So, in conclusion, I can only hope that matters at Picturehouse will sort themselves out – despite the poor omens and/or odds – and that I will continue to be able to enjoy better food and comfy seating while at the movies.  Perhaps, I should also offer to take any overly stressed member of their staff out for a commiseratory (which I insist is a word, despite WordPress’s doubts) beer?  (Though, I might need to limit the geographical and temporal scope of this offer, if I am to avoid bankruptcy).

Roads scholar

I have often been accused of being superficial – mostly (perhaps entirely) by me, but then again who else is forced to endure quite so much of my company? – and this post may reinforce that view as it will focus entirely on the surface of things (the things being roads in this case).

As a cyclist, I experience roads in a much more direct way than the mere motorist – I see them at close range and the lack of suspension on my vehicle (and, for that matter, my backside) means that I feel their surface imperfections in a very physical way.  However, this is an everyday occurrence, so you might wonder why I choose to explore this topic now.  There have been a couple of recent cues:

  • Just before Christmas the government announced it was going to provide money to fix 18 million potholes.  It struck me that if they started from my flat, this money would be exhausted within a mile – and so seemed woefully inadequate for the entire country.
  • On a recent episode of The Unbelievable Truth, one of the “improbable” truths was that a new set of roadworks starts every 10.5 seconds – as a regular roads user this was improbable, but because 10.5 seconds seemed far too long a gap.

Given my very close, physical relationship with the road surface and my tendency to traverse the same routes on a regular basis, I can watch some roads deteriorate in real time.  Often, I can predict where the road will deteriorate: though this requires little skill beyond vague recall of the erosion-based content of the O-level Geography course and, in particular, the segment on glaciation and the work of freeze-thaw action and plucking.  As so often, the possession of O-level Geography means that my understanding of important issues relating to the country’s critical infrastructure seems vastly greater than those charged with its planning and management.

It seems that macadam goes back to the 1830s, and its use in combination with tar to the 1850s, but tarmac as we know it today was only patented in 1901 – nevertheless, as a species, we have had more than a century of experience in its application and maintenance.  Given how far our skill in other areas has advanced in this timeframe, our current performance with tarmac seems all-the-more disappointing.  It strikes me that there are two major causes of premature failure of our roads – well, there is one over-riding cause of damage which is heavy vehicles using them, if we only allowed bikes and pedestrians to use them (despite the obesity crisis) they would last a great deal longer.  This point brings me to a matter of public policy that always puzzles me: in most of our major cities, it is more expensive (and difficult) to leave a vehicle at rest (harming neither the road nor the environment) as a result of parking fees and restrictions than it is to continuously driving it around (despite the cost of fuel).  Surely, we should be encouraging folk to park their vehicles at every possible opportunity: air quality would improve, roads would last longer (and fewer would be needed) and the nation would become fitter, reducing the funding needs of the NHS.  Let’s forget charging for parking and vigorously enforcing payment and restrictions, let people park however they want on the roads (except on bus routes, where any mis-parked vehicles would be destroyed without warning in uncontrolled explosions) – this would quickly make driving anywhere almost impossible and push people out of their cars and onto their feet or public transport.  Perhaps even pay people to park their cars, rather than charging them.  I like to think this is a policy so left-field that even the Greens and UKIP have yet to adopt it!

Anyway, let’s return to my two main causes of premature ageing in roads.  Firstly, we have subsidence.  This suggests EITHER that the UK is much more geologically active then we have been led to believe and that fracking is the least of our problems OR that the road’s foundations have been inadequately prepared.  Given that roads built by the Romans and Incas – in much more tectonically-exciting regions – remain substantially intact in many places, I’m inclined to suspect modern roads are not properly built in the first place.

The second major problem is shoddy repairs.  These are not repairs to wear-and-tear on the roads, but following the all too regular digging of holes in the road to access the goodies that lie beneath.  Now, I have seen pictures of cities before utilities went underground, so I’m pretty sure we do not want to return to those dark and untidy days.  However, the frequency with which the utilities beneath our streets need to be exhumed suggests something is awry with the way they are installed or maintained.  Still, the frequency of such excavations, while irritating, is not the problem but rather the poor quality of the re-instatement work.  If this is inspected at all, I must assume it is before anything heavier than a feather is allowed to drive across the “repair” and is done with the aid of a box brownie, situated somewhere near the orbit or Saturn and which has had its lens liberally smeared with vaseline.  Often these repairs fail to survive as much as a week.  Given that road upkeep is generally funded from the public purse, this situation would seem to represent a major subsidy being granted to private companies.  I would suggest that detailed records need to be kept of those responsible for every piece of reinstatement work and if any issue with that work arises within 10 (say) years, then they should be required to pay for its resolution and a very hefty fine on top.  If there is a worry, given the fast-paced nature of modern capitalism, that the company may no longer exist in 10 years, then they should be required to post sufficient collateral to cover future claims.  This should produce a major saving to the public purse, produce better roads and create a whole new market for risk management products focused around road repairs.

Of course, tarmac is not the only covering chosen for our roads.  Here in Southampton, grey brick pavers seem rather popular.  These can look very attractive (for a while), but seem to suffer from even more rapid deterioration that does tarmac – and are, I assume, much more expensive to fix.  As they are damaged, they create lots of sharp edges that protrude into the roadway, adding an exciting trip hazard for cyclists and pedestrians (and I assume, the chance for brick-related damage to the vulnerable underside of motor vehicles).  Despite their short-lived aesthetic benefits, I think I would have to question the practical sense of using brick pavers on any road subject to heavy vehicular traffic, e.g. buses or lorries, which since the advent of the satnav can be pretty much any road (however minor) not protected by bollards.

With roads, as with so much else, policy and decisions seem to be made by those who have never used (or indeed even seen) the object of their deliberations.  Also, once again, the benefits of O-level Geography are made plain for all to see – perhaps it is time we stopped mocking geography teachers for the leather patches on the jacket elbows and promoted them to senior positions in government and the civil service?  (For the avoidance of doubt, GofaDM is not being sponsored by a cabal of disgruntled, power-hungry geography teachers).