The Y Chromosome

The Y Chromosome

The other day I mistook the dog medicine for my cough medicine. I realised my error after the second teaspoon.

Panicked, I barked at my wife, ‘What’s the dog medicine for?’

‘The dog.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but why does the dog need it? I’ve just had two teaspoonfuls of it.’

‘Why did you do that? If you knew it was for the dog.’

‘Why the fuck do you think I did it? To be more dog? It was a mistake. I’m a man; men make mistakes. You know that.’

Other than taking off down the street a couple of hours later in pursuit of a tortoiseshell cat and then cocking my leg at a street lamp, there were no immediately noticeable side effects.

The bigger concern is the possibility that this incident could be further evidence of natural selection at work. What with the declining sperm count in men and the continual atrophy of the Y chromosome, there has been some speculation that within 5,000 generations the male of the human species will become extinct.

I think it could happen a little sooner than that.

Men are disappearing. My company has gone from being 100% male when it started ten years ago to 50:50 at the end of last year. Three months and six female hires later, the women have taken over, and our corporate testosterone count is down to 43%. It’s the same story at home where the equilibrium between the sexes was lost when my son decamped to Durham, leaving me in an uncomfortable minority of one.

I’m surrounded by women.

Even the dog is a bitch.

The only two places where men outnumber women seem to be the Conservative front bench and the bicycle lanes of London. This is probably Darwinism at work. Men are ending up in those places where any reasonably intelligent person would know not to venture.

My wife certainly plays on my deficient male cognitive ability.

A few years ago, I announced that I was considering shaving all my remaining hair off to become completely bald. ‘You can’t do that’, I was told, ‘You have a funny shaped head’. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by this but accepted it anyway. It was a conversation that has repeated itself several occasions since.

Only recently, when sitting in the barber’s chair having my regular ‘number one’ all over, did I have a rare opportunity to examine my head in the mirror. I realised I have so little hair, and cut the little I have so short, that the contours of my head are clear for anyone to see, whether I shave the last few remaining follicles off or not. I had been duped by my wife, who took advantage of my little brain. When I challenged her on it she said, ‘I like you better with longer hair’.

‘Well, so do I’, I thought. I like me better with longer hair, but sadly it’s not an option. She might as well have said, ‘I like you better when you are a virile twentysomething that is not hard of hearing and can read menus in dimly lit restaurants.’ That version of me is long gone.

Decline and fall. Me, the brotherhood and the Y chromosome are on our way out.

I wonder if the Dodo entertained similar thoughts before that final fateful leap into the unknown.

March 2014

Ride Of My Life

Ride Of My Life

When I was young, much younger than today, I drank Baileys by the pint.

I also once ate thirty-six Weetabix in a single sitting.

And I went barefoot for most of my first year at university.

In a recent TED talk – ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’ – cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore explained that the part of the brain responsible for insight, judgment, impulse control and empathy is somewhat lacking in teenagers.

In other words, their operating system is deficient.

Together with Trevor, my schoolboy partner in crime, I converted the loft in our boarding house into an illicit smoking den, re-wiring the electrics to provide a sophisticated lighting system and power the record player. That this might have been a major fire hazard didn’t occur to our under-developed minds.

But from these moments of madness come the strongest memories. My recall of those adolescent years is much more vivid than anything before or since.

One such memory, the teenage achievement of which I am most proud, came on my bicycle.

I used to live in a village called Bassingbourn on the Cambridgeshire Hertfordshire border. My girlfriend, my football team and The Eagle Public House were all fourteen miles away in Cambridge.

Sometimes, after an evening at The Eagle or with my girlfriend, or both, I would take the train and then cycle three miles back from Royston station. Many times, though, after the last train had long since departed, I would cycle all the way back home in the dead of night.

(It was after one such ride, and a severe case of the munchies, that I polished off thirty-six Weetabix.)

My proudest achievement was that I once cycled all the way home hands-free. I didn’t touch the handlebars at all in during the fifty-five minutes it took to complete the fourteen-mile journey.

Thanks largely to the Romans, Cambridgeshire is geared up for hands-free cycling. It is flat and straight. The fourteen miles contain one roundabout, two junctions, ten bends and one hill. It presents only three significant challenges for the hands-free cyclist.

The first being the solitary hill between Cambridge and Bassingbourn. Only two hundred and seventy-six feet high, to a native of East Anglia like myself it was a mountain. In the Doomsday Book, the neighbouring village is called Ord Wella, which means ‘spring by a pointed hill’.

It’s not easy cycling up a hill, even a relatively small one, without hands. You need to keep your speed up; otherwise the balance goes. The thing about cycling up a hill is that gravity takes a firmer grip and starts to pull you back down. I had anticipated this (even as a teenager I tended to think ahead) and so had steadily built up speed for the preceding half a mile. I don’t know how fast I was travelling when I hit the incline, but it was fast enough to get me to the top without even the slightest wobble.

I fair flew up that mountain and was still moving at a fair lick by the summit.

This presented a new challenge. Something that I had failed to anticipate. Something I hadn’t properly thought through. Something that came into sharp focus the moment I flashed over the top of that pointed hill.

As I began to pick up even more speed, I remembered that gravity works the other way round when going down.

A downside of hands-free cycling is the lack of access to brakes.

It is remarkable how much speed one can pick up when descending a two hundred and seventy-six-foot pointed hill.

The village of Wimpole passed in a flash.

Thankfully, the village of Wimple was fast asleep when I exploded through it like a meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Thankfully, the village of Wimpole didn’t have speed cameras in those days.

Thankfully, neither did it have speed bumps.

It was just over two miles from the hill to my next challenge, one that I was approaching somewhat faster than I would have liked despite not having used my pedals since the summit.

The next challenge was the junction that connected the A603 with the main road from Royston to Huntington. Executing a sharp left turn from one major road on to another requires a not inconsiderable amount of skill and a dollop of luck. Luck that no other cars are passing at the same time.

To a fully-formed adult brain, the consequences of a being hit by a car travelling at 50mph would constitute a risk not worth taking. In fact, no-one in their right mind would contemplate bursting on to a major road in the gamble that it might be empty. Even in the early hours of the morning. But as Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore has already established, I wasn’t in my right mind. My teenage brain, with its under-developed pre-frontal cortex, lubricated by a couple of pints of Greene King, and stimulated by the challenge of a record-breaking hands-free ride simply didn’t have the capacity for assessing reasonable risk.

As it was, no cars were passing that junction on the A1198 at the very moment a high-speed hands-free merchant joined it with what nowadays would be recognised as a sweeping snowboard-like manoeuvre. Had there been, you wouldn’t be reading this blog now.

At no point did it occur to me that my life might have been in danger. I was a teenager. I was immortal. I was giddy with the success of having first held my nerve while travelling at high velocity down a pointy hill without the assistance of brakes and then, secondly, having completed a sharp left-hand turn on to a major road without having fallen over.

The last four miles were a breeze. The remaining challenge was relatively easy. It involved a sharp right turn, but this time from a major road on to a minor road, and with no oncoming traffic.

Nothing could stop me from the triumphant completion of the ride of my life.

January 2015

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

‘Cyclists. Do not pass on this side.’

‘Or I’ll kill you.’

While the new warning sign that is springing up on the back of trucks doesn’t actually spell it out, the threat is nonetheless clearly there in the subtext.

Cycling in London can be a perilous undertaking. Making my unsteady way through the building site that is the Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station development, alongside a continuous stream of heavy goods vehicles – none of whom presumably have the slightest inkling they are sharing their road space with something as insignificant as a bicycle – feels about as safe as life as a gay activist in the Crimea.

I’ve been knocked off my bike three times. Once by a very slow-moving limousine on Parliament Square, so slow that it hardly counted. Probably a Tory grandee just going about his everyday business of unknowingly, uncaringly and regularly running over the proletariat. Once by a van at Clapham Junction, where I incurred some bruising and scratching. A ponce on a racing bike, red rag to a bull for white van man. And most dramatically by a woman in Chicago who opened her parked car door just in time for me to slam into and end up sprawled across the road. She had no way of knowing I was a Limey, but I have to believe that at some level she must have known.

‘You cycle to work?’ I love this question. It fills me with expectation. I imagine that I am about to be cast as a modern-day urban superhero. A giant amongst commuters. A manly man.

‘In London?’ Yes, London, where I leave cyclists half my age trailing in my urban dust, where I race with milk floats, where I dance over potholes, and yet where I stop at red lights because despite my testosterone-fuelled manliness I am also a well-adjusted and socially responsible citizen of the world.

‘You’re so brave,’ they swoon, ‘there is no way I could do that.’ Sadly their eyes betray the truth. They don’t think I’m brave; they think I’m crazy. They see me as unhinged. It doesn’t take long before they excuse themselves.

No-one likes cyclists. Not unless they are Bradley Wiggins or resemble a Smurf. Regular cyclists are not popular. Motorists hate cyclists because they get in the way. Truck drivers hate cyclists because they fear being blamed for running them over. Pedestrians hate cyclists because they get hit by them. Couch potatoes hate cyclists because they make them feel guilty about exercise. Dogs hate cyclists because they can never run quite fast enough to bite that great big provocative wheel. Other cyclists hate cyclists, because, as everyone knows, cyclists are wankers. Air travellers hate cyclists because they own the moral high ground on climate change, and everyone hates someone who owns the moral high ground.

As a cyclist who flies a lot, I’m a wanker with unacceptably large carbon footprint.

Last week, while doing my bit to finish off the ozone layer, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. I had downloaded ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ on my iPad. This is a fine film. An everyday explicit lesbian love story. Very explicit. Not long into the movie, I had to stop watching when I found myself in the midst of an intense, intimate, and it has to be said truly mind-blowing scene. Although I had the relative privacy of a flatbed seat, the risk of the air hostess glimpsing what was on my iPad was too great. I imagined my 26-year-old work colleague being forcibly taken away from me for her own safety. We were, at the time, in the airspace of the United Arab Emirates where they execute adulterers. Not being entirely sure where they stand on hardcore teenage lesbian porn, I threw my iPad out the window. Or at least I would have done had I not been in a sealed cabin at thirty thousand feet.

A wanker with an unacceptably large carbon footprint who secretly watches hardcore adolescent lesbian porn, it would be fair to say that I may have some self-esteem problems. This could be why I cycle. I’m no psychiatrist, but it makes sense that a cyclist, particularly a London cyclist, is driven by an unconscious death-wish.

It can be the only possible explanation of why certain cyclists have decided that red lights don’t apply to them. Without doubt, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of a lemming throwing itself off a cliff. I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. It might, though, explain why I find myself treating those warning signs on the back of trucks less as a warning not to pass, but a challenge to try and do so.

April 2014

Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Life is like a bicycle. Both go round and round. Both get cold, wet and miserable in winter. Both require resilience. And both can, as my bike has, crack under pressure.

A technician spotted an almost imperceptible hairline fracture in the frame during a recent service. It was only a matter of time before a spectacular collapse.

I’m hoping that the cracks and creaks in my recent BUPA health check aren’t similarly indicative of a general road unworthiness and imminent collapse.

With my bike grounded until a replacement frame arrives, my meandering has come to a shuddering halt. Reflective thought on an overcrowded cattle truck at Clapham Junction is impossible.

Thinking about bicycles in need of care, though, takes me back over thirty years. At the start of my second undergraduate year, I needed a bicycle. One of my friends told me that in Cambridge it was possible to buy unclaimed bikes on the cheap from the police. Wondering if they might do the same in Oxford, I paid a visit to the local constabulary. They told me that they sold all the unclaimed bikes every six weeks in one or two lots through a sealed bid auction. I asked them how many bikes were in a lot. They said anywhere between twenty and forty.

I thought there must be a similar number of students in Oxford who would be interested in buying a dirt-cheap bike. I spoke to my friend Pete and persuaded him to join me in a joint venture to try and buy thirty or forty bicycles. Pete had a car and so didn’t need a bike, but he saw an opportunity.

We arrived at Oxford Police Station on the day of the auction and were surprised to see how many other people were there. Not only did we have competition, but we had serious competition. We were up against bicycle dealers, some of whom had come from as far as London. While the dealers inspected each bike in great detail, sizing them up in much the same way that a livestock merchant might prod a cow at a cattle market, we simply counted how many bicycles there were in each lot. This was easier said than done because they were in varying states of repair. The reason the police sold them in lots was that a good proportion of them would be unsellable otherwise and only suitable for parts.

While the professional dealers were going about their measuring and their weighing, Pete and I had a philosophical discussion about when is a bike not a bike. We concluded that in amongst the rusted frames dredged from the River Cherwell, the broken chains, bent wheels and one or two gems that made up one lot, there were approximately thirty bicycles. We undertook a sophisticated assessment, as might be expected from a couple of Business Studies students, and valued each bike at £10. We then added £5 to ensure that we outbid anyone else who had used the same calculus.
It is worth pointing out that my student grant in 1982 was £410, so £305, even between the two of us, represented a significant outlay.

What, up to that point, seemed like nothing more than a little bit of fun took a surprising turn when the police called the next day to let us know that one of our two bids had been successful. (Thank God, we missed out on the second lot.) The police asked us to collect the bikes the next morning. The start of a brave new business venture seemed a good enough reason to skip our Economics lecture. Better to do business than study it, we figured.

After taking our money, the policeman asked us where our van was. We said we didn’t have a van. We had Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle. He said he meant where was our van to transport the bikes. We told him we planned to transport them in Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle.

The copper looked at us, a couple of twenty-year-old students, and had a sense of humour failure. He told us to stop fucking him around. We told him we weren’t fucking him around.

It took seven hours of cramming bits of bike inside the Beetle and strapping whole bicycles on the outside, Pete driving two miles across Oxford, unloading them in our student house (which fortunately had a garage) and then returning for the next load. Looking back, I’m amazed the police let us out on the road. Unrecognisable as a Beetle, it looked as if a pile of bicycles were independently moving down Oxford High Street. I guess their desperation to be rid of the bikes (and us) overrode any instinct they may have had to enforce the Highway Code and basic road safety.

A few days later, I was fly-posting the Oxford colleges with a simple message ‘Stolen bicycles for sale’. Basic art direction: Black marker pen handwritten on A4 paper. With the benefit of hindsight and a few years experience in the advertising industry, I might have positioned our product slightly differently. At the time, it seemed funny. Now I can see that presenting our bicycles as stolen might not be the most attractive proposition. Nevertheless, in terms of return on advertising investment, it has been one of my most successful campaigns. It resulted in a single enquiry, which we converted into a £40 sale. The posters cost me 13p to photocopy, giving a return on investment of 284%. Some years later, I met someone from Oxford University who remembered the posters. The advertising industry measure ‘day after recall’. This was ‘years after recall.’

Our very first customer came not from our advertising, but word of mouth. He had the pick of the bunch and got a decent bike for £30. We suggested he might also like a bicycle basket for his new bike. Only £4. It was unfortunate that he stopped at the local bike shop on his way home and saw that he could have bought the same basket for £1.50. We managed to overcome the temporary loss of customer confidence and, even though I say so myself, provided spectacular after-sales customer care. Not only did our first customer get a good bike, but I subsequently introduced him to his wife, his current job, gave him a godson and performed godfatherly duties to his eldest son. Call me old-fashioned, but you don’t get this level of service from the bike shops of today.

Looking at the current explosion of bike shops, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had we stuck with it.

November 2014

Red Light

Red Light

I wait. Patiently.

The road is empty. The pavement deserted. The pedestrian who pressed the button has disappeared. I wonder what possessed him or her to change the lights when there was no traffic on the road. Irritating fucker. Maybe it was a reflex action without thought or consideration. Only after pressing and seeing the sign saying ‘please wait’ did they realise they didn’t have to. Off they trotted. A few moments later I arrive to face the consequences of their action.

The hill on Plough Road offers a great start to my commute. It enables me to build up an early head of steam and a momentum that can carry me through the first couple of miles of my journey. A good start like that generally means the ride in is a real joy. I fly to work and am nicely set up for the day ahead.

The pedestrian crossing is right at the bottom of that hill on Plough Road. I seethe as I wait. A good day has just become not so good. Not only did it take some effort to stop, but it’s going to be hard work starting up again. It might as well have started to rain.

I wonder if the person who did this to me has any idea of what they have done. I look around to see if someone is hiding around the corner, chuckling to themselves at how they brought that cyclist to a shuddering halt for no good reason. I can’t see anyone. Maybe this is the work of a malevolent town planner who has programmed the lights on deserted crossings to automatically turn red whenever a cyclist appears.

I continue to wait. I must be in a Guinness ad. Tick, tock.

I had tried to do that cool cyclist thing of balancing on my stationary bike without putting my feet on the ground. Only as I began to topple did it occur to me that I had failed to factor in that I am a portly middle-aged man susceptible to the pull of gravity. Falling off your bike is not cool. Thankfully there were no witnesses.

The reason there are no witnesses is that it is 6:05 am. The reason I am waiting at a pedestrian-less pedestrian crossing on Plough Road at 6:05 am is that my wife, bless her cotton socks, set her alarm for 5:45 am. I have no idea why she gets up so early, but because she does, so do I. I am programmed to get up immediately when the alarm goes off, and, as I now shower at work, I am out of bed and on my bike before I know what has happened. Only when waiting at the Plough Road pedestrian crossing does it occur to me that I am very tired and it is very early.

The light is still red.

Time to confess. I have employed a touch of artistic license in this blog. I do stop at 99% of red lights (well, maybe 97%). However if you, dear reader, seriously think I would wait patiently at a pedestrian crossing on a deserted road at 6:05 am you must have me down as one of those law-abiding public school twats that I have spent my whole life pretending I’m not.

There are 24 potential red lights between Elsynge Rd SW18 and Valentine Place SE1. One every 335 metres. For a high-performance cyclist like myself who can take some time to build up a head of steam that’s a problem. Often I’ve only just got going when I have to stop.

Stopping at lights evokes a strange combination of self-righteousness and self-consciousness. Self-righteousness because it proves I am a good person. I’m not one of those idiots who jumps lights. I imagine that I must be receiving admiring looks from those inside the car stopped beside me, who have been obliged to reappraise their previously poor perception of cyclists.

Self-consciousness because I must look like a law-abiding public school twat. Standing obediently in front of a light that has changed colour simply because it has been programmed to do so every few minutes when there’s no-one crossing, or about to cross, the road and while other cyclists casually breeze past makes me feel a real plonker. I wouldn’t feel this way if I was behind the wheel of a car because 1) it is deeply ingrained that under no circumstance does a car jump a red light and 2) I might get nicked. But for some reason, it’s not quite so clearcut when on a bike. If pedestrians can exercise their discretion and ignore red lights at their own crossings, then surely a cyclist (evolutionarily much closer to a pedestrian than a car) can in certain circumstances do the same. I know this way of thinking is wrong and makes me a bad person, but this is why I have been known on occasion to dismount and pretend I’m a pedestrian. It also explains why 3% of the time, I ignore the light.

The one light in particular I disobey is the only one of the twenty-four for cyclists. Its red illuminated shape is even that of a bicycle. This light is the coup de grace of the town planner who hates cyclists. You have to admire his guile. His brilliant concept is ‘Give them their very own light to make them feel important and to make us appear cyclist-friendly, but then fuck with the timing to really mess with them.’ Even our two cycling knights, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins would struggle to get to the other side in the nano-second that the light is green. You could put a gold medal on the other side and tell them both that the winner can claim it providing they got to it before the light turned back red and be confident that neither would come anywhere close. To have any chance of making it even halfway across this bicycle crossing you have to be primed to accelerate from a standing start at the kind of speed even eludes Lewis Hamilton.

Then, and this is where the town planner has excelled himself, next to the cyclist crossing is a pedestrian crossing. The pedestrian crossing is programmed to give sufficient time not only for a little old lady to cross, but also to host an impromptu tea party with her friends in the middle of the road. She would even have time to call them over from their home a few miles away, wait patiently in the middle of the road for them to arrive and then have a good old natter with them over tea and biscuits before the pedestrian light turned red.

There is no logical reason why the bicycle crossing and the pedestrian crossing shouldn’t be on the same timing as they are parallel to each other. The only conceivable explanation is that the town planner is fucking with the cyclist’s head.

And then, once the old lady has packed up her tea set and long since departed, it is the turn of the traffic. When I was younger, we had a good family game (well it seemed good to my simple eight-year-old mind, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it might be somewhat limited) of counting Minis on long car journeys. A six-hour drive to Penzance once produced fifty sightings (a trip that also included long intervals when I was necessarily distracted from the game to fight and argue with my younger siblings). I’m pretty sure I could smash this record of fifty Mini sightings if I played the game while waiting for the lights to change at this crossing.

It’s enough to make me see red.

July 2014