tenterhooks \TEN-ter-hooks\, noun:
1.One of the hooks or bent nails that hold cloth stretched on a tenter
2.On tenterhooks, in a state of uneasy suspense or painful anxiety.

Both sound painful to me, which begs the question, why do we put ourselves through it in the name of entertainment, pleasure and fun?




“This is the moment I’ve dreamt of all year”

Bradley Wiggins, La Planche des Belles Filles, Stage 7 2012 Tour de France

Watching yesterday’s Tour stage was unique for me. In none of the 24 Tours de France I have watched have I seen a different Britons win the stage and take the yellow jersey in one day. Nor have I seen a British yellow jersey wearer who actually has a real chance of winning the Tour. And when I stop to think about it that makes me quite nervous.

I’m aweful at watching sports where I have a vested interest. Just ask MrsAB. If Wales are playing a crucial rugby match I yo-yo up and down off the sofa, in and out of the room, convinced they will lose. And so this year’s Tour is no different. Nothing would please me more than to see Wiggo win. But there’s a niggling voice in the back of my head that says it won’t happen. Each stage of the first week has been watched through metephorical fingers, each crash a portent of something worse to come. Lady Luck has so far been on “our” side though I can’t help feeling she’ll ditch us soon.

I suppose what I am saying is that I am a bag of nerves. Some of you will have noticed that, some of you will be the same yourselves. And sat here watching Stage 8 having not quite made it out on two-wheels myself this morning I’m reflecting on how nerves affect me. The bicycle hasn’t been totally abandoned but it is fair to say it is suffering from neglect. I’ve spoken of my inertia before, finding it difficult to get out without some incentive or commitment, some of which is down to a nervousness of the unknown (meeting new people, trying new roads). But increasingly I recognise that some of it is a nervousness of the known (the hills!) and the “what might be”, by which I mean a growing nervousness riding on ever more crowded roads occupied by a growing minority of anti-social drivers.  It is through these eyes that I am anxiously watching the Tour.

When Wiggo said this is the moment he dreamed of another part of me felt fearful for the fragility of those dreams. He’s one week into a three week grand tour: a) that’s just part of the dream surely and b) given a crash strewn first week what does the future hold. Equally, however, I can’t help but feel some of my dreams have turned sour when I’ve realised them, others have remained tantilising close whilst oh so far away. It is my state of mind, it is how I view the world and when I invest in a dream it is never quite how I thought it would be. And most of the time it is nerves that are to blame.

If I’m nervous sat divorced from the real pressure of the Tour watching on TV in my front room in Wolverhampton, I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be Brad, in yellow, chasing his dream.

Fingers crossed that in 2 weeks time I can sit here and watch a stroll into Paris, the first ever British winner of the Tour de France. But first two more weeks of watching the action through those fingers. If Wiggo wins maybe I too can conquer my reservation and nerves and finally realise my dreams.

Uneasy Rider

I’m not the most relaxed person at the best of times as you have probably worked out by now. Anxiety is my enemy. And recently I have become overly anxious when out on the bike. So much so that it is now holding me back, taking away the enjoyment I once had. And why this anxiety? The actions of (an increasing) minority of drivers who seemingly feel the road is theirs.

When I was growing up and started cycling my parents told me to stick to the lanes. Keep off the main roads, they said, the lanes will be safer. So I’ve continued cycling with this in mind, trying to keep my routes to lesser used roads. But the problem is these roads are not so lesser used now. They have become short cuts, rat runs. And a growing number of drivers, often in expensive, powerful cars drive in a way which shows little consideration for other road users. They seem in a rush, unwilling to accept a cyclists right to space on the road, unable to wait to pass when it is safe to do so or in providing a safe space between them and me. Too often on some routes it feels like a battle.

So if you are reading this as a non-cyclist wondering what the issue is, take a look at the highway code. When passing, a motorist should:

162 Before overtaking you should make sure

  • the road is sufficiently clear ahead

  • road users are not beginning to overtake you

  • there is a suitable gap in front of the road user you plan to overtake

163 Overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so. You should

  • not get too close to the vehicle you intend to overtake
  • use your mirrors, signal when it is safe to do so, take a quick sideways glance if necessary into the blind spot area and then start to move out
  • not assume that you can simply follow a vehicle ahead which is overtaking; there may only be enough room for one vehicle
  • move quickly past the vehicle you are overtaking, once you have started to overtake. Allow plenty of room. Move back to the left as soon as you can but do not cut in
  • take extra care at night and in poor visibility when it is harder to judge speed and distance
  • give way to oncoming vehicles before passing parked vehicles or other obstructions on your side of the road
  • give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you  would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211-215)

The Freight Transport Association in association with the Institute for Advanced Motoring and London Cycling Campaign published a cycling code which states that cyclists:

“Your road position should not be less than one metre from the kerb and should be further out if it is not safe for a vehicle to pass. If someone does pass you inconsiderately then you have more room to get out of harm’s way. Keeping away from the gutter will enable drivers to see you and also help you miss the drain covers and debris on the side of the road too”

Together, these should provide a safe environment for us to share the roads. But unfortunately it doens’t. In the last week I have had 2 incidents which highlight this. They didn’t happen in London, they didn’t involve HGVs and they certainly didn’t involve advanced motorists. In both cases motorists overtook me inappropriately: in the first I was cycling down a single track lane and having waited on my back wheel the motorist overtook forcing me onto the grass verge, the second saw the motorist overtake me without sufficient clearance and with oncoming vehicles in the adjacent side of the carriageway. In both cases I shouted after the drivers and despite their apparent hurry to pass me both stopped to take offence. Neither seemed to appreciate their responsibility as drivers just their right to use the road.

It saddens me whilst at the same time making me more anxious to partake of a hobby that has given me pleasure and distraction in the past. It makes me think twice (if not more) about heading out. And the second incident almost brought me to tears and turn home. I’m an uneasy rider. I’m not asking for special treatment for anyone, just a bit of give and take, a bit of respect for responsibilities so we can all use the roads in some safety (as I’ve outlined before). It seems that this is beyond a selfish few and my unease is a hidden consequence of their ignorance.

Put Down Again

Well that stirred up a few comments then. When I wrote my last post I was anticipating a response but not quite the response I received. Thank you to those of you who provided some technical insight around horse racing and particularly the welfare of horses. Whilst I understand the logic for the decisions made, I remain sceptical as to why in a multi-million pound industry the easy way out is ll too often followed. That debate will rumble on and it is not the heart of the issue that I was highlighting. Revisiting the post I can see I’d put the emphasis on the wrong detail. So let’s try again.

In Put Down, I was trying to highlight the way in which disposability seems all too easy in life unless there is some value in the thing which might be disposed and at the same time the almost arbitrary way in which that value is bestowed.  My urge to write it was from personal reflection. In all honesty, many is the time that I feel on the scrapheap myself.  Having pursued a traditional career I often now feel rudderless, put to one side – sometimes in cotton wool, sometimes in a bin liner – and given up for, if not useless then could have been better. A host of contextual factors shape this but I can’t help feeling in a last chance saloon far too often.  What do I do now? How do I reshape my life?

This is a theme – a series of recurrent questions – that has sprung up remarkably often this week. Yesterday I read Daniel Friebe’s interview with Italian cyclist Ivan Basso (unfortunately only available in hard copy in this month’s Procycling magazine). Some of you will know that Basso was the next Italian Grand Tour star until his admission to associating with the wrong “sports doctors” led to a 2 year ban. Coming back from that ban he has shown glimmers of the form which gave rise to those great expectations but has all too often failed to reach those heights again. Put aside your views on doping, riders who have doped and the appropriate length of punishment, there is something more important here. He is 34. His best years are arguably behind him. He made a misdemeanour, paid the penalty and now has a second chance. Basso comes across as a character shaped by his past, as a rider who won the Giro d’Italia, who’d finished second in the Tour de France. A rider who was expected to fulfill his career by taking the big prizes.  That he hasn’t, that time is running out, that he seems ill at ease with what that means was a familiar tale to me reflecting on my own position. Friebe outlines in the article a series of choices which Basso might make, reshaping his career in a variety of ways – again, familiar territory – but Basso seems most at ease talking not about cycling but his new project owning a Blueberry farm. A lesson for me and others (though he does have some resource to fall back on).

Today, Barcelona FC announced that their coach, Pep Guardiola, announced what had been long anticipated: he was leaving his post as manager. Guardiola is 41. He’s been manager of the Barcelona for 4 seasons. In that time he’s won the Spanish cup once, the Spanish league three times, the European Cup twice and the World Club Championship twice. An enormously successful though short managerial career. In various media outlets there was speculation about impact of the job on his life, Sid Lowe’s article spelling it out quite clearly. And today enough was enough. Why? Because Barcelona isn’t so much a football club, its an all consuming passion, a quasi-flag bearer for an autonomous region/wannabe nation. It’s motto is “Més que un club” – More than a club. And for Guardiola the vultures have been circling – they’ve lost the league title to bitter rival Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, then they lost a supposedly unlossable European Cup Semi-final to faltering Chelsea.  As is so common in football as elsewhere, memories are often short and despite past glories there is the expectation of more to come. Yet for Guardiola I can’t help feeling that there is major personal question of what to do next. He hit the heights so young, what is there left to do? Where does he go from here?

Where this takes us I am not quite sure. For me, the reflection on these two is prompted by the similarities of the environment in which I am, where world class has been the baseline, where the job is almost expected to be your life and where deviation from these parameters is seen as odd. For those looking in from the outside making a change, moving  and changing career seems like the obvious course of action. Being in that position is somewhat different with all the inherent pressures, both real and self-created. Yet there still remains the question of what to do. Feelings of low, diminished or little worth in one position can be a brake on moving forward, undermining confidence and seemingly limiting choices. And whilst work isn’t everything, unfortunately most of us have to and it therefore becomes a prominent feature of life. Admittedly improving life balance would help but being happy (happier) in work would help.

So whilst my initial post was about our disposable attitude to so many things in life, it was really underpinned by my own anxieties and fears. Hopefully this made some sense.

The measure of the man

I noticed something strange today – people were talking about happiness. Not just in a casual “how are you” way but the metrics of happiness. That’s right folks, the Government have decided that they can measure our level of happiness. Or so the media would like us to believe. A range of headlines emerged yesterday and today about the level of “happiness” in the UK, from what makes us happy to what can make us less happy. apparently.  Unfortunately it is not as easy as that and the real basis of these reports is the Office for National Statistics attempts to measure National Wellbeing. As a researcher I know that finding out accurate and objective answers to highly qualitative and subjective questions is not easy. In some ways the national statisticians should be applauded for their efforts.

But dig a little deeper and what does this actually mean. Today’s headlines have been generated by a report issued by ONS on its “What Matters to You” national debate. As they state

“ONS held 175 events, involving around 7,250 people. In total the debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more.”

That’s quite a lot of feelings to understand (even if I am dubious about the “groups representing thousands”). So how do you do this in an objective way. Here is what ONS had to say:

“The term ‘well-being’ is often taken to mean ‘happiness’. Happiness is one aspect of the well-being of individuals and can be measured by asking them about their feelings – subjective well-being.”

So the “happiness index” isn’t about happiness per se, it’s about well being.  Not the same, in fact something which is increasingly important and potentially more valuable to understand than an easy corruptible term like happiness.  But even so, how do we measure well being. Back to ONS:

“As we define it, well-being includes both subjective and objective measures. It includes feelings of happiness and other aspects of subjective well-being, such as feeling that one’s activities are worthwhile, or being satisfied with family relationships. It also includes aspects of well-being which can be measured by more objective approaches, such as life expectancy and educational achievements.”

So overall the well being measure is a complex metric to construct and accurately measure. Even the “objective” measure are open to subjective and political interpretation.

However, in trying to measure these elements on such a large scale there is a great danger in the detail being lost. And in this case it is the feelings of individuals.  If we are judged to have a collectively high level of well being, where does that leave those who, for a variety of reasons, have a lower level of well being. What about those, to go back to the popular media presentation, who aren’t “happy”?  How do we even know when we are or are not happy?

I suppose I have two main concerns. The first is the manner is which this tool has been reported.  The media (in part driven by ONS’s use of the word in it’s own press release and report) have picked out a very emotive term, happiness, to mask a multitude of sins. Discussion of these merits more room and words than I have available here and there are useful discussions already taking place through organisations such as the New Economic Foundation. However, to write off ONS’s attempts as a waste of money as some seem to suggest misses the value in understanding the costs and benefits of modern life. If taken seriously it might eventually help identify ways in which we can change to avoid the costs, for example reducing stress and anxiety associated with the pursuit of material gains.  So it is a start but is not and never should be seen as a quick fix mark of how happy or indeed how well-off we are.

Secondly, and very much allied to the first concern, is an unease with measuring something which individuals have difficulty identifying themselves.  It is extremely difficult to measure our own happiness, stress, anxiety or mood. I know, I’ve tried. There are a whole range of books out there which sell themselves on their ability to show you how to measure how happy you are. I tried one recently and gave up, it made me more anxious. There are online tests that you can take to measure how stressed you are: the BBC are running an experimental stress test which is stressful in itself. And there tools out there which help you “monitor your mood”, Moodscope being an example.  Yet for all the value these purport to offer (and which others might find), I have found them stressful to use, limited in the meaning they offer and ultimately counter-productive.

However, to say that trying to identify and gauge one’s own stress and happiness is worthless would be wrong. I merely haven’t found the ways and means which are appropriate and meaningful to me and perhaps in looking for a value I and others are missing the point. Let’s look at it from a different perspective. If you asked me now if I was happy I would say that I am particularly unhappy. Ask me why I am and I can discuss a host of factors from the immediate incidents of the day to longer-term dissatisfactions with my life.  Now ask me to put a measure on it and I am stuck.  And this is perhaps the lesson. Whilst we get fixated on amounts and generalisations, the devil is in the detail.  Addressing my unhappiness is not about reducing it from say a 6 to a 5, rather it is about addressing the factors which cause it. In many ways they can be as hard to identify but ultimately much more worthwhile in addressing.

In sticking it to the man, there is a real measure of the (wo)man. Attention to detail and feeling is the key.