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Fewer Flags, More Flowers

I haven’t commented on the current situation in Cataluña yet.

I suppose that some might think that strange, given my previous comments on other referenda, such as the Scottish one, and my advocating for a yes vote on proclaiming independence.

This is a little bit more complicated.

And not just because I live in Spain, where some of my friends and family would be of the opposite opinion, and I can do without the aggravation

It’s complicated because the Spanish are, to throw a stereotype out there, bloody stubborn and ill-disposed to listen to the opposite point of view with much in the way of tolerance. Just a few minutes watching any chat or panel show will show you that. They can’t stop shouting over one another even when they’re paid to give their considered opinion.

This means the Catalan question has the potential to get worse, in a way nobody wants, but well, shit happens, and has happened.

People get entrenched.

Of course, my reticence on the subject doesn’t mean I haven’t been asked my opinion, usually with the anticipation that I’ll agree with the inquirer’s point of view.

I have tried to be diplomatic in giving that opinion. But give it I have, for I never learnt one of my father’s lessons – only say something if it’s to your advantage. I can’t hold back the truth. There are too many wankers walking around our world, walking on our world, because people have been reluctant to cause offence or call them out on their bullshit.

I went to Cantabria last weekend. Wonderful. But a small blemish on the experience was seeing the Spanish flag draped from many balconies. Some of these balconies were on the houses of Guardia Civiles stationed in the towns, others were on working class blocks of flats.

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Does the flag add anything here? No.

The thing is, that Cantabria is in the opposite direction from my house to Cataluña. Santander is three hours west, Barcelona five hours east. What the fuck the Cantabrians think they’re doing with the flags that the Catalans will feel any emotion whatsoever is beyond me. Nobody in Barcelona gives a toss if some lad in Santander sticks a flag out his window. At least, they shouldn’t.

But this is how entrenchment starts. First it’s the fucking flags and the waving them and the burning of others’ flags. Next thing you know, you’ve got the Guardia Civil staring across a barricade at a hastily formed citizen’s militia.

I’ve never been one for flags. Nor football jerseys. I can’t see the point of them outside the Olympics, to be honest.

There were several mass demonstrations in various cities across Spain (and I include Cataluña for brevity) over the last couple of weeks. Most of them had flags waving. There were thousands of people in Madrid waving their flags under the biggest Spanish flag ever in the Plaza de Colon, singing Yo soy Español. Amazing. We know you are. You’re in fucking Madrid – the capital of Spain. What the hell has that got to do with Cataluña seeing independence? They aren’t trying to make you a fucking Catalan. How could that demonstration help in the slightest? Or how, pray tell, is bussing thousands to Barcelona from all over Spain to do the same thing going help in the slightest?

It only serves to entrench.

There was one cross-country demonstration where everyone dressed in white and waved white placards. I liked that demonstration. The idea was that the politicians should fucking talk (‘cause you’d be surprised that a group of people employed to talk to each other could hide so efficiently from one another, or from the media for that matter. But Rajoy is a master at staying at home watching football while the country he’s supposed to be helping falls apart at the seams.). Needless to say, it had little impact. Because the politicians get elected by the people in the trenches.

They don’t care if that leads down the road to shitville. They don’t go to war, their kids don’t go to war, they are of the elite to whom this shit just doesn’t stick. And while we’re all in a fluster, they’re quietly getting away with the frauds they’ve been perpetrating this whole time. Both sides are as corrupt as the other.

So here’s my own opinion. which has changed little since last time the Catalans were looking for a referendum…

I would like to see Cataluña remain as part of Spain.

But only on their terms.

If they want to go, the rest of Spain has to let them go. It’s that simple. Anything else is just bullshit. And bloody bullshit if things go awry.

I would like to see true European integration. I bought that idea way back. My kids are trilingual, have two passports and I think we should move to whatever country we like for as long as we like, because we like, and not because some places have better jobs and better wages and their politicians grind other places down to keep things that way.

But the small-minded, short-term thinking of politicians has shown that to be a dream – hitherto fore, anyway.

Until then, though, each community should have as much say about its own destiny as it can get for itself. George Monbiot has been talking about the benefits of the commons in recent weeks. The smaller the group holding the purse strings, the better.

Now, the Catalans have been getting a bad deal compared to other parts of Spain, at least in their view – and let’s face it, it’s their view that counts. So an ever-greater proportion of the population has decided that it’s time to take not just the purse strings into their hands, but the reins and to hell with the rest of Spain.

Once that proportion of the population becomes big enough, then you have to listen to them. You can’t just ignore them as crackpots or begrudgers or whatever else you want to label them.

Sending in the cops against some hippies might work, but sending the cops in against a million people taking to the streets is just not on. As we have seen. I’ve witnessed National Police do similar shit to people in the past, but when they did it to thousands on October first, they got a media backlash that had just the opposite effect to that desired. To quote Peter Gabriel in Biko, “you can’t blow out a fire.”

Had the Spanish government given some certain concessions, perhaps the numbers looking for a referendum. But they didn’t do that. And look where it got them.

If a part of the population looking for independence reaches a critical mass, you have to give them a referendum.

Had the Spanish government done that a while back, well, everybody who knows anything says that the No vote would have easily won.

Look what happened in Scotland, even though we were all sure it would go the other way.

But they didn’t do that.

And look where it got them. Exactly where anyone who knows anything knew it would.

Once you deny a large group something, and especially if you go about it aggressively, without talking, with the heavy hand, the hard boot, well, all of a sudden other people outside that group will ask why the fuck you are denying their fellow citizens, and who the fuck you think you are denying them, and well, hell, they might just ask for the same thing themselves, just to piss you off, you prick.

It’s called History, Mr Rajoy.

So now you have a growing independence movement and a government still saying there’s no way in hell they’re going to get independence. And in fact, some of them are going to jail for sedition.

Easily solved, I think not.

The only option is talking.

There are other options, of course. Like what happened in other countries which became independent. History has lots of those examples.

And at the same time, history means fuck all to the future.

The fact that there was no Catalan kingdom before is irrelevant. The fact that Ireland was never joined as one country before the English invaded was irrelevant. The fact that half of a currently designated area is in favour of separation and the other half isn’t doesn’t mean that they either stay or go – they can split. Look at Ireland – though I know that was a bit of a fudge/fuckup. Belgium can become two countries, if they want, just like Czechoslovakia did. Cataluña might not all become independent. It’ll depend on what the local people say, and how many of them say it.

And everyone else, who doesn’t live in Cataluna can keep their noses out.

Except the goons in government. They need to get fucking talking.

So let’s see more flowers and fewer flags on people’s balconies, please.

 

 

 

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Cyclists, Motorists and Pedestrians – can’t we all just get along?

I had originally written this as a rant – well, not exactly, but a vociferous defense of cycling.

But what would be the point of that? The anti-cyclists would just write it off as another cyclist going off on motorists, but not willing to stop for a red light.

And they’d be kinda right. I do want to defend cycling, but more than that, I want to defend a kind of city where motorists and cyclists and pedestrians can actually make the current situation better – not get along, necessarily – but get to where they want to go without slowing down everyone else in the process.

I really want to plead for common sense from everyone, and who knows, maybe a little understanding, and generosity, especially from pedestrians.

Traffic is a complex problem in our cities. I’ve lived in four cities for a significant period of time – Dublin, Madrid, Boston and Pamplona. I have commuted by bike in three. Madrid has a good metro system and a shitty road system that made buying a bike just not worth it. My commute was too far to cycle, and cycling for pleasure was something you did far away from Madrid, unless you were a kid learning how to ride a bike on the parade ground of El Retiro. Besides, dragging my bike to my 9th floor flat every day would have been a pain, even when the lift worked.

What I have seen in my approximately 40 years walking, 30 years on a bike and 20 driving a car, is that most people are impatient, in a rush, and often fucking spiteful – as well as generally distracted and unaware of their surroundings. Sure, they’re not all these things at once, but the number of courteous people who are paying attention on the road and who aren’t jealous of others getting ahead of them are fairly few.

And you know what? Most of them are on bikes.cycling

Yes, I am defending bikes – had to happen!

But seriously. Cyclists get a bad rap for being dangerous little bastards who delight in breaking the law. In reality, they’re the best of the road users, and the only reason people rant off at them is pure fucking envy.

Sure, they break the law. But they don’t endanger anyone – least not themselves – in doing so.

Usually.

There are always some assholes, but there aren’t more arseholes sitting on saddles than walking, or shuffling, or sitting in diver seats.

When some motorist fumes that a cyclist has just broken a red light, he (usually a he, so I’m not going to waste my time writing “or she” every few minutes here.) doesn’t give a fuck about the world order coming apart at the seams (take a look at the politicians “running” the place, if you want that – sorry, my mistake, that’s all part of the current world order as carefully fucking designed) he’s just pissed that he can’t do the same, and get on to his destination, instead of sitting like a prat with this big engine running and wasting petrol.

Let’s be honest.

Red lights are a pain in the hole.

A real fucking blight on the existence of any road user.

But they’re there.

Why?

Because of the cars.

Yes, that’s right. The bloke fuming in the car is the reason we have red lights. So suck it up, my man!

Of course, it’s not his fault – it’s all the other fuckers who are on the road along with him.

We can all (us old folk) remember when there just weren’t that many traffic lights. They weren’t necessary. Now they pop up all over the place and ever decreasing distances from one another, and it is not because there are more bikes on the streets.

I’d like to see fewer, just like I’d like the street lights to be turned off at night like they used to, and cars that travel at night run off electricity, like the old milk delivery floats used to, so we can all sleep in silence. But is that going to happen soon? Well, you never know.

Prolific traffic lights are a fact of modern life, but if we want to reduce them, then we have to increase the number of bikes, and that means not giving bikers such a hard time.

 

Bikers have it worse than everyone, despite being the envy of most. They’re the forgotten ones.

And they know this because cyclists are also sometimes pedestrians and motorists, so they see how it is for all three sets. Most motorists, though, are not cyclists, the same for pedestrians.

Yes, bike paths are starting to spread through the cities, too, but partly this is to get cyclists off the roads. Some motorists think that since cyclists have their own paths, they should stay the hell off the roads. However, most cycle paths are just no good for cycling on, and seem to be added as an afterthought half the time. Certainly, those who design them have not been cycling to work for years, or have ever visualised anyone cycling along those roads. They criss-cross from one side of the road to the other, making the cyclists go out of their way (and have to cross the street after yielding to traffic) for no apparent reason – other than to fit in some extra car parking spaces along one side, it seems. In some cases, cycle paths are mere painted lines on the footpath, and I’ve seen a few that would suppose cyclists can go through trees and bus stops like phantoms. I’ve never seen a cycle path that didn’t pool rainwater worse than the pedestrian path beside it – god forbid someone should think of that when steam-rolling it.

In assessing cycle paths, we have to be conscious of the fact that there are two types of cyclists – those who are getting on a bike for the first time ever, or in years, and those who never got off theirs from the days before cycle paths. For the former group, paths are good because they make cyclists feel safe. For the latter, they can be useful, in some situations – usually going uphill slowly – but a pain in the arse most of the time, if, that is, they are to be used exactly as designed. As I just said, they’re designed badly.

The prime directive of cycling is maintain momentum, given that we want to get where we are going quickly, but cycling is slow (relatively speaking) and hard fucking work. So stopping, for anything, is avoided at all costs. If I have a hill, and I see a junction coming up, then I don’t want to be on the cycle path, because they’re designed to have to yield to cars – perhaps for a practical reason, but frankly fuck that. I’ll stick to the road and keep my right of way. Cycle paths are built as if cyclists are as slow pedestrians, but we’re sometimes as fast as cars, and gradient needs to be taken into account. If not, we’ll ignore the path and use the road.

While it seems like I’m way too pro-cyclist, here, bear in mind that for every prick like me on a bike, there’s one less prick (or sedate motorist) behind a steering wheel.

When a cyclist breaks a red light and scoots on down the road, he is not blocking the junction, while if he were a driver, he’d be another car in front, that the motorist would have to wait to pull off before he could press the accelerator when that interminable fucking traffic light eventually does change colour.

You’d imagine that there would be no conflict at all when the cars are taken out of the equation, but you’d be wrong. In Pamplona, many bike paths are simply white lines painted on the path – they’re wide paths. This means cyclists are supposed to be up there with pedestrians. Likewise, in the centre there’s a large section that is basically pedestrianised. In these zones, pedestrians are increasingly becoming irate with cyclists, too. I often read complaining letters in the local press about the cyclists, going too fast and frightening the bejaysus out of pensioners.

But the reason isn’t simply because cyclists are more aggressive than they used to be. Rather, pedestrians are increasingly less aware of the world around them. They are lost in their own world, their own thoughts, listening to music or talking on the phone, staring not at the screen of a phone instead of looking to see if they’re about to walk into a lamp post.

When a cyclist passes them by, perfectly safely, they are often startled because they didn’t see it coming. Instead of berating themselves for being inattentive, they curse the cyclist for going so fast they didn’t see them coming. Pedestrians think they’re in a park instead of a street, that nobody else is trying to go around them, that walking 4 abreast across the street is perfectly okay, and that walking out of a shop door does not require one to look left or right, or even walk out front ways, when backwards is better to say goodbye to the shopkeeper.

In this situation, the cyclist is the one who is paying attention, who is watching the entire street, calculating the distances, the speeds, the likelihood of unexpected movements, when a shop window catches some old lady’s eye and she makes a bee-line across the street without wondering if the person behind her (walking or cycling) will have to pull up short to avoid hitting her.

Cyclists know their responsibilities, and they only hit a pedestrian when the pedestrian really does something off the wall out of the blue. And then, it usually amounts to the pedestrian tripping over out stationary front wheel and apologising for not looking where he was going.

But our responsibilities do not extend to not giving someone a fright.

Whether because we have to screech to a halt – and many bike breaks are pretty squeaky – or go past at a short distance because the other pedestrians (walking 4 abreast) squeeze us in, and the pedestrian is staring at a text message, it’s not our fault someone is startled. This doesn’t mean we’re going to fast, or are assholes.

Yeah, it did turn out to be a rant… Sorry! But since cyclists are the minority, they need to voice their concerns.

 

So, back to my we can all get along speech.

We can only get along if people wake up. If people are aware of others, they will see the bike coming and know it’s not going to hit them. Eye contact with a cyclist is just as important as with a car before stepping onto a pedestrian crossing. Yet, fewer people bother to do the latter nowadays. They toddle across the road without looking up from their phone at all. I know it’s the motorist’s responsibility to stop, and when I drive, my foot hovers over the brake at zebra crossings – not for the old geezers too stupid to look up, but for the kids who might run out. Likewise on a bike, if there are kids, I slow to walking pace, because they are unpredictable and it’s not their fault.

There is a tendency to heft responsibilities on to others and keep rights for ourselves. While in a car, I give up my right to break lights and frighten pedestrians into waiting for me to pass before crossing, but as a pedestrian (or a cyclist), I have no problem double-checking that the car sees me (it’s saved my bacon many times) and I also have no problem stopping and waiting until a couple of cars go by before crossing, even though I don’t have to. There’s no problem with momentum on foot, I can wait twenty seconds, and if the traffic flows a little better, then everything will improve.

But I don’t see many others doing the same.

I know that waiting for a cross-walk signal can be a pain, and I jaywalk when I am not in the company of kids, but even jaywalking has deteriorated.

People nowadays step out onto the street without looking first, assuming that the first few feet of asphalt is not used by cars. Usually it’s not – but why not glance first, just in case. It is used by cyclists, but who thinks about them?

Crossing the street has become, for some people, especially the old and infirm, who should be the only ones waiting for the traffic light, akin to stealing second base – get as far out as you can and then “sprint.” They often have to scuttle back to the sidewalk from a good two metres out when a car does come along that needs that extra space on the side, or a cyclist decides he’s not going to put his ass out in the fast lane just to avoid the clowns – actually, he will, but sometimes it will mean going behind them, so far out are they.

Who knew old age pensioners were in such a fucking rush all of a sudden?

I saw one old codger in the middle of a junction, standing in front of a stopped truck, trying to look around it to see if he could cross the rest of the street or if traffic was coming up the moving lanes. It was hard, not only because he was hunchbacked, but because he was pushing his one-year-old grandson in front of him in a stroller. There were 20 seconds left to wait for the green man. And they complain about the youth of today…

In summary, if cars would go a little slower, cyclists could go back on the streets, there will be fewer cars, fewer traffic lights and people will get home sooner in the end. If pedestrians lift their eyes from their phones, they’ll see that cyclists are not trying to kill them, and that there are other pedestrians around who’d like to walk a little faster, just so they can stop at the edge of the road and wait those few seconds to cross safely.

The solution to our coming traffic and car emissions problems is the bike. Rewilding our world will also mean rewilding ourselves – and getting on a bike, even in the rain, is a great way to do that. Get on the saddle and see the world from the cycling point of view – it’s a great view!