White Hat, hunting, and a very stupid tweet

White hat exercises are those in which someone who is on your side tries to undermine you, in order to test your defences. The general idea is that as a result of these white hat forays, you will be able to fix any faults in your system so that when a black hat comes along, you will be able to fight them. This week White Hat Media, a company who claim that it’s vital that social media is integrated with online intelligence, may have to argue that one of their own employees was just on an exercise to test their skills. Or they may just have to admit that one of their employees is not, or at least was not, particularly media savvy.

It started out like so many Twitter spats with a comment that, whilst undoubtedly stupid and cruel, would have gone by and large unnoticed before the advent of social media.

Anon

It is a cruel statement and as anyone who’s been pushed around by drivers will know, which is basically anyone’s who’s cycled more than a mile on UK roads, it’s an attitude that costs lives. There are a substantial number of drivers who use punishment passes to try to drive cyclists off the road and comments like this, even if meant jokingly, help them to justify their actions. There are enough drivers out there who treat people as less than human because they happen to be on a bike and this young woman felt perfectly able to voice such sentiment in public.

At this point the hounding started. The 23rd was a working day and I missed it but as this picture shows it had reached at least 85 retweets before it became necessary for the woman in question to close her account. Now however nasty her comment bear in mind that this is someone tweeting from her personal account, a private individual, not someone seeking the public eye although she ended up firmly in its sights. There are a lot of interest groups on Twitter and they use retweeting as a call to arms. Cyclists as a group can be very intelligent and very articulate. However, like any other fairly random grouping (and the fact that they all happen to have cycled somewhere is fairly random) there are quite a few who can be cruel in their own right. Thus she was on the receiving end of some very cogent and quite fair criticism and a torrent of rather nastier stuff.

Several people referred to this woman as an “oxygen thief”. Somebody tracked down her employers and informed them of her misdeed. And yes, it is quite true that someone who works for a media company really should know something about the power of social media and really should be aware of the need to watch what you say in public. She has freedom of speech but with that freedom comes consequences. And yet I cannot say that the punishment fitted the crime. Is calling her an oxygen thief really that much better than what she said? She wanted cyclists dead – I can’t see that in effect saying that her life is worthless will make the situation any better.

Her employer’s Facebook page was inundated with one star reviews from people saying that the company was untrustworthy because of this employee. Many said she was psychopathic. I doubt very much that any psychologist or psychiatrist would make a diagnosis of psychopathy from one tweet, however bad. It takes quite prolonged study to come up with such a diagnosis and who knows what the intent behind the tweet was. Oh she may well be vapid, she may be ignorant and misguided, or just thoughtless, who knows. But psychopathic, really? Why bandy that particular diagnosis around? She felt that within modern UK culture it was quite acceptable to castigate cyclists and I take issue with that but I don’t feel qualified to comment on her mental state. And I am very glad that my teens and early twenties were lived out in the days before social media on the internet because I’m quite sure I said some very stupid things that are better lost in the mists of time.

Essentially, the pack smelled blood and they were off. And yes, I know what she said was nasty and yes I know that people with that attitude have killed others. However, as far as we know, she’s just someone who said a very foolish thing not someone who really, if she thought about it for a while, advocates murder. I’m not comfortable in situations in which what amounts to bullying is justified on the grounds  that someone else started it. The fact that this woman tweeted something incredibly stupid and spiteful does not actually mean she deserves to lose her job, as many people were demanding. Humans, like it or not, are predators with a very evolved hunting instinct. Once someone slips up in some way, somehow it seems to become OK to pursue them without mercy. I’m pretty sure that in cold blood, and without the back up of a crowd, many of the people name calling and asking for her to be sacked would have had a more considered response. But once people’s blood is up and once the crowd have called for something more bloody and violent, a pack mentality takes over.

These situations have arisen before. In the case of Emma Way, she actually had hit a cyclist and upon boasting about it, she lost her job. Thus when a Twitter storm like this starts someone will say something along the lines of “There seems to be a common factor in this string of young women, car owners and drivers with this outlook and foolish enough to tell the world of their prejudice in this way”. (That’s a quote from someone on White Hat’s Facebook page). I can guarantee you that there are many young men on Twitter saying equally facile and cruel things. I also know that women are judged far more harshly, by both men and women, when it comes to assessing their achievements. She said something idiotic, but let’s not pretend that it is just young women doing this. Unless you’ve surveyed Twitter comprehensively and worked out whether the demographics on Twitter are the same as those in the general population, it seems better to me not to claim that this is a largely female problem.

This young woman thought it was OK to threaten cyclists because anyone riding a bike is labelled as being part of an out group, they are dehumanised to a degree that makes it OK (in some circles) to make jokes about killing them.  Then as an individual she became an outsider, someone who could in turn be bullied and it was OK to do so, as if the original comment had given people permission to behave in a way that otherwise they would think is unacceptable. If somebody starts by doing something bad to us first, it’s as if anything we do after that is justified by their original sin. Well I’m sorry but I don’t buy that, it’s why the world is in the state it’s in. Half the world’s problems could be solved here and now if someone just worked out that retaliating in kind is a shit idea.

If I’ve learned anything from Twitter it’s that taking on the world one idiot at a time uses an awful lot of energy to very little end. True in the case of Emma Way Twitter helped to get some kind of justice but Ms Way had actually hit somebody. I can think of other cases in which someone in the public eye has said something they really shouldn’t and they have ended up by resigning. Sometimes this is fair enough. In general I think it’s good to ask yourself what you want out of a situation, if it’s achievable, and if so how you’re going to achieve it. In this case ideally I would like the young woman to realise that threats of such violence, whether or not made in jest, are hurtful and unacceptable. I’d like her to realise that people on bikes are just getting from A to B, that they are human beings and that any human, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, deserves a certain amount of respect and care. I might be able to achieve this simply by saying as much. I doubt very much that calling her an oxygen thief and demanding that she be sacked is going to help the situation or make her think carefully about road safety.

So fine, tell her what she said is stupid (which is different from saying she is stupid). Explain to her the number or deaths on the road caused by drivers devoid of empathy. Explain why cycling facilities are so often not used. Consider pointing out to her employers that they have someone completely unversed in the power of social media working for them. But if you castigate her personally and call for her sacking just ask yourself, have I never, at any point in my life, done something stupid and thoughtless that I really regret?

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Tale of Three Overtakes

I’m very fortunate with my current commute. It’s short, it’s on fairly quiet country roads and there’s so little congestion that there are no traffic lights. However, as any reasonably experienced person who travels by bike will know, there will always be flashpoints. The main two to watch for are risky overtaking and junctions (and that lovely overlapping set, risky overtaking at junctions).

Overtaking seems to spark vociferous debate as there is a clash between cyclists’ need to remain safe versus drivers’ need to get somewhere in a hurry. You would hope that, for the sake of basic humanity, safety would win but generally it doesn’t. As justification for their impatience, many non-cycling drivers just resort to a “why are you on the road” attitude as justification for their own, at best reckless, behaviour. But the other morning I encountered, in quick succession, three different types of overtaking behaviour that clearly showed what the problems are and why it is often so unnecessary for drivers to act in the way that they do.

It started out gently, with drivers coming past leaving me enough room, overtaking in reasonable places and indeed managing to hang back until we’d reached a reasonable place (hint, that’s not on a blind bend). However, I then realised I was approaching the back of a queue of traffic, an unusual situation at that point of the commute. Taking a deep breath of country air and looking at the state of the road, I realised that someone was moving sheep. Now I accept that you cannot stay behind a cyclist travelling at 15mph on the basis that there might be someone moving a flock of sheep half a mile ahead of you. I don’t mind people overtaking carefully and reasonably and don’t expect them to know the exact road conditions for the next 5 miles. However, it does show that no matter how impatient you are to get past a cyclist, doesn’t mean the rest of your commute is all going to be sweetness and light.

Think about your commute in totality. Is it all one long smooth ride, apart from a couple of cyclists travelling at 12 mph that you feel you need to get past? In that case, congratulations and what are you worried about? You’re lucky, it’s a nice journey, give them room, admire the view. Or is it messy and snarled up? Are you often queuing behind other cars, cars which like your own are carrying around 25% of their capacity? Are you in the queue at lights behind lorries and vans? Are there cars parked along the route that mean that passing oncoming traffic is difficult? In which case why are you blaming the entire situation on a couple of cyclists, whose vehicles are carrying 100% of their possible capacity and who are doing around the same average speed as you? Is it possible that you’re actually just a bit frustrated and have decided to take it out on them because they’re a bit different, they represent an alternative that you find unsettling and when you whinge on Facebook all your mates press “Like” and talk about road tax and red lights?

The sheep reached their field, the cars and vans sped up and I kept going. I went through a village with a 30 limit. After this the road carries on into open countryside and the limit is the national one i.e. 60mph. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to travel at 60 since it is a limit and not a target. It doesn’t even mean it would ever be safe to do 60 on that stretch. It just means that no-one’s really got around to working out what an appropriate limit would be and they’ve stuck to the default option. So a driver decided to squeeze past me just as two cars were coming the opposite way. I’ve had worse but it was too close and too fast. And unnecessary as within a few seconds there was no oncoming traffic at all so they could have had the whole of the other lane. And then it became doubly unnecessary as within 50 yards the driver turned right into a side road.

It does seem that many drivers are unaware of basic physics. Accelerating and decelerating wastes energy. Thus accelerating to overtake and then braking to make a turn will increase your fuel bill. If you know that you are going to turn off within the next few yards, just wait. Don’t take a risk with someone else’s safety, think ahead, drop down a gear, stay behind, make your turning, save fuel, make the road feel a bit safer for everyone. And you know what, if it does take up more of your time, it will only be about 30 seconds. Trust me, I know, I went past the side road just as the impatient Herbert  was parking up. I muttered under my breath. As someone who likes to think several steps ahead, I get confused by people who don’t, especially when they’re (nominally) in control of a ton of metal.

Nearing my destination, the road narrows considerably. I work in a small town that can be something of a bottleneck, particularly since people park on the road. The streets are narrow and there are often large vehicles on them meaning that anyone driving is likely to end up in a passing situation. On a bike you can generally slip through, provided of course that some numpty hasn’t just overtaken you and then plonked their car somewhere in the oh-so-surprising realisation that their way forward isn’t clear. To try to prevent these unnecessary overtakes, I tend to take primary position. That is, as recommended by the Department for Transport, I move into the centre of the lane. This makes it harder for people to overtake and in general makes it clear that there’s no need to bother. It doesn’t stop everyone of course and I have had people overtake when I’m in primary and the vehicle in front has its brake lights on (here’s the thing, you can see it, it’s a vehicle, it’s not a surprise, it’s quite big, its brake lights are on, that means it’s braking. That means it’s fucking pointless overtaking me only to end up behind it, numbnuts).

The road heads downhill into a 30 zone. Since I’m generally doing about 25mph by this time, overtaking me means breaking the speed limit, another reason to take primary. I could hear a vehicle behind me and from the engine noise thought that the driver might overtake but I was very close to a narrow bridge with a blind summit. Since I can pass cars on the bridge, but they can’t pass each other, I didn’t see any point in moving over. It would in all probability have resulted in the driver having to brake on the bridge, whereas I was confident I could just keep going over it. On a bike, you are the engine, so you are aware of the extra energy it takes to keep braking and if you can maintain rhythm, you do. The driver however had other ideas and as soon as I was over the bridge, and despite the narrow roads, he barged passed. It was a classic punishment overtake: I don’t care, I’m in charge, it’s my road, I’m in a car, I pay road tax, I want to be in front, and I’m bigger so I’m going anyway.

Inevitably I caught up with him. And this is the bit so many drivers find so difficult to accept. I’m using a nippy form of transport that can fit through small spaces. It isn’t allowed on motorways because on large open roads it’s comparatively slow.  However, in the crowded conditions you find in towns and cities, although bikes may have a lower top speed than cars, their average speed will be at least as fast, if not faster. Since I wasn’t impressed by the driver’s behaviour and didn’t see why he should get away with bullying unchecked, I told him what I thought of his lack of road awareness. His response was “it was a mistake, there’s no need for that”. Well I would venture to suggest that it’s a “mistake” that could be avoided in future by A. not bullying people and B. not assuming that you have the right to the road and that you will be faster. If that’s too much to cope with, go for C. obey the Highway Code, in particular rules 162 to 169.

Anyone on the road needs to realise there might be anything ahead. Whatever it is, it has a right to be there. There’s no need to assume that somehow you and your journey are more important, for whatever spurious reason you feel like making up. If your journey is shit, it’s unlikely to be because of one thing. Be honest with yourself. Is it really that cyclist? Or is it actually all the other stuff, other stuff that you accept, because it’s easier just to scapegoat a minority group. Plan ahead. If you are going to turn off shortly, is it really necessary to overtake? How much time will it actually save? And how much fuel will it use up if you have to accelerate and then brake, rather than maintain a steady speed. Don’t assume that because you’re in a car, and because it can go faster than a bike, it will actually be faster in the conditions in which you’re driving. And remember, don’t overtake if you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. In a small town with narrow windy roads where visibility is restricted to around 50 yards, if that, you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. So don’t overtake, it’s in the Highway Code. If you don’t like that, then just accept that you’re using a vehicle that makes less than optimum use of the available space. And the reason that cyclist is in the middle of the lane? It’s a warning that it’s not safe or appropriate to overtake. If they’re wrong, it won’t cost you much. If you’re wrong, you put your life and theirs in danger. Is it really worth it?

2 Comments

Filed under Cycling

Wear a helmet: It’s common sense

Arguments over helmet wearing keep coming up and are fairly well rehearsed. There’s the “common sense” pro-helmet argument which runs roughly: wear a helmet as it will help if you hit your head. This is questioned in various ways: am I more likely to hit my head cycling than walking or driving? By wearing a helmet am I making cycling seem more dangerous than it is? Will wearing a helmet change my behaviour such that I take more risks? Will it change driver behaviour so that they take more risks around me? And is it really going to do anything if a tipper truck driver fails to notice me and drives over the top of me.

These are sometimes countered with testimony from surgeons saying that helmet use saved various patients’ lives. With some frequency those who are insistent on helmet use will just return to the original “it’s common sense” followed by “are you afraid you’ll mess your hair up?” Then the argument can deteriorate somewhat. I should add at this stage that the argument is rarely pro-helmet vs anti-helmet. It’s usually pro-helmet vs pro the choice not to wear one if I’m nipping to the shops via the back roads.

In following these discussions it seems to me that the phrase “common sense” is often used when someone hasn’t sought out any facts to back their argument up. They don’t feel a need to go looking for facts because to them the case they’re stating seems obvious, it’s commonly known, it’s “common sense”. However, when you examine these common sense arguments they often seem to be a gut, unexamined reaction that isn’t actually backed up by all the data available. In response to a challenge someone may go and find some evidence to back up a common sense argument but often that data suffers from confirmation bias. It’s data chosen with a particular end in mind, it’s partial and there may well be other data that presents a very different picture.

A few weeks ago I got into a brief discussion with someone on Twitter from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a charity which states that it “is committed to saving young people’s lives by promoting safer cycling and, in particular, the use of cycle helmets”. Someone from the trust tweeted that:

BHI tweet

To which I pointed out that teaching the children about the difference between objective and subjective risk might have been more useful. The BHI Trust replied that they were happy to debate the issue but admonished “Let’s be sensible”. So I started to wonder about what we mean by being sensible and the ways in which we use claims of sensibleness as a rhetorical device in an attempt to shut down argument. And if you don’t teach children properly but just repeat something that’s “common sense”, what you get is tweets like these from full grown adults:

Traffic WMP1

Traffic WMP2

It’s news to me that personal protective clothing (PPE) is essential when cycling. Oh I might want to wear it if I’m going fast down hills, but arguing that it’s essential means that cycling is inherently dangerous and puts the onus on the cyclist to make it less so, rather than examining the wider reasons why cycling might seem or actually be dangerous.

It is commonly recognised amongst those who investigate health and safety that PPE should be a last resort, not a first one, hence this advice from NHS Scotland. PPE only protects the person wearing it whereas the hazard can be removed from everyone if it’s tackled at source. Thus the organisation argues, “PPE must always be regarded as a ‘last resort’ to protect against risks to safety and health. Engineering controls and safe systems of work must always be considered first”. In countries where cycling is viewed as normal and cyclists have clearly separate space very few of them wear helmets, because the hazardous element to cycling has been greatly reduced.

However, since the UK does have hopelessly inadequate cycling facilities, should I wear a helmet? Will it help? Well as counter-intuitive as it might sound, the jury is out on that one. And yes, I know A&E doctors will often say that someone’s life was saved by a helmet. But do they actually know that? Much as I respect the ability of those who work in such departments, there is a difference between treating an injury, and carrying out scientific tests on the best way to prevent that injury. There is evidence that in some falls helmets actually increase the chance of rotational injury.  (You can read more about rotational head injuries here and here although I warn you, it isn’t fun. Or search on “Diffuse Axonal Injury”. Such injuries are apparently very common in motor vehicle accidents). In a very detailed paper here Bruce Barcott argues that whilst helmets do a great job in a major crash, they don’t really help prevent concussion. (Unfortunately due to the ingrained belief that bike helmets work, there has been little done to improve them. In contrast, helmets for horse riders are continually researched and developed).

In the interests of covering all possibilities, let’s assume for a minute that actually, PPE is the first port of call and that helmets work. This being the case, are there other times when I should wear one? Is there anything else I do that is as likely as cycling is to cause me a head injury? The Center for Disease control gives the US stats. Cycling doesn’t appear. Falls dominate but “motor vehicle crashes were the third overall leading cause of TBI [traumatic brain injury] (14%). When looking at just TBI-related deaths, motor vehicle crashes were the second leading cause of TBI-related deaths (26%) for 2006–2010”. This would suggest to me that, if helmets do work, I really ought to be wearing one in a car. In fact, it would help whilst I’m out and about as another 10% are due to assaults. In the US, cycling doesn’t seem to register as a single cause.

But what about children? In the majority of cycling—driving accidents it is the driver at fault but the stats are different for the under 12s. So is cycling high on the list of things that cause head injuries in children? Wolters Kluwer, a company which provides information internationally to health organisations, gives stats that show that falls are the most common cause of head injury followed by motor vehicle crashes, pedestrian and cycle accidents, sports and, rather sadly, abuse. It advocates helmet use for cycling and some sports, but despite stating that high speed motor vehicle accidents are more likely to cause severe brain injuries, does not argue that children should wear helmets in cars.

If I drill down into the stats, I reach the conclusion that I at least ought to wear a reinforced hat after a glass of wine and once I’m over 65 I’m going to glue a motorcycle helmet to my head. So how have we arrived at this situation in which helmet use for cycling is “common sense” but it isn’t advocated in situations in which head injuries are most common? Well I would suggest it’s to do with who we think is actually responsible for causing accidents.

Reports of motoring accidents almost universally blame the car, making it the subject of the verb rather than the object. When I put “car accident news” into a search engine one of the first hits I get is “Dad’s fears after a car crashes into his garden”. To read the article I would have had to click on several adverts, so I didn’t. From the headline I get the impression of a wildly roaming car bounding around the countryside and terrorising suburbia by wilfully rampaging around gardens. I suspect the truth is that someone drove the car into the garden, since cars are not in fact wild animals. Changing tack and searching instead on “car crash” I get this from the BBC in which a car “left the road”. This article worries about older drivers but nonetheless says a “car slammed into” a person not that it was “driven into” a person. This article despite discussing speeding and driver behaviour, still quotes someone saying “cars go to [sic] fast on the road” rather than arguing that “cars are driven too fast on the road”. Back when we had carriages pulled by horses, this grammar might have been correct. Now that cars are purely mechanical and not drawn by animals with a mind of their own, it’s about time we took responsibility for the way in which we drive them.

In these situations, in which the car is an active agent and the subject of the verb, anyone injured becomes the hapless victim of chance. In this news story the driver injured her head, but there’s no mention of a helmet. This driver suffered a serious head injury, no mention of a helmet. I don’t doubt that sometimes the drivers are innocent victims, either of other drivers, or of some unforeseeable mechanical failure. However, news stories repeatedly make the car the active agent, as if the driver were some innocent bystander, whether or not the driver was at fault (and make no bones about it, if you were driving too fast for the conditions, you were at fault).

Contrast those accounts with this account of a cyclist suffering serious head injuries and the way in which the reporter felt the need to comment that he was wearing a helmet. By making PPE the focus of stories about cyclists, the cycling itself becomes a dangerous activity in which the cyclist is at least in part to blame, simply by engaging in that activity. And the neat trick here is that if cycling is dangerous and the cyclist is at fault, by extension the driver in any car/ bike collision isn’t. Thus Women Writers can quote someone saying “I find that mundane tasks, like driving, allow me to pour new ideas into my head”, and driving becomes something everyday, safe and innocuous that can be undertaken whilst thinking about other things.

So it isn’t necessarily common sense to wear a helmet whilst cycling. Or at least, if you apply the same standards of risk assessment, it is common sense to wear a helmet whilst engaged in many other activities. Look beyond the obvious and it makes even more sense to engineer environments such that you’re less likely to have the accident in the first place. For cyclists, this means separation from motorised traffic. For drivers it means better training, retesting and a realisation that controlling a ton of metal at three times the speed at which humans have evolved to travel is anything but mundane.

On edit:

As AT OM pointed out in the comments below, to assess whether cycling is more or less dangerous than other activities, one needs to make comparisons based on how often these activities are carried out. This is something I have discussed before, in a previous post about helmet wearing and you can read a report by staff at University College London here.

If you want to see just how truly bizarre arguments over helmet use can become, see this article in the Dorset Echo (HT to @gazza_d) in which a mother argues that cycle helmets should be compulsory after her son hit a pedestrian, knocking the pedestrian unconscious and causing her a head injury. Yes, let’s go over that one more time. Cyclist hits pedestrian. Cyclist has cuts and bruises, pedestrian has head injury and the logical response is for the cyclist to wear a helmet, apparently. Well actually, no. The logical response would be to examine how the accident came about and then try to prevent something similar happening in future. Is the infrastructure such that at that point cyclists and pedestrians are brought into conflict? Is the child aware that pedestrians often step out without looking and so you need to leave them plenty of room? Is the child aware of appropriate speeds on a bike? Is he aware that you need to be able to stop in the distance that you can see and that you save valuable seconds by covering your brakes? And yes, Dorset Echo, he is a child, not “Cyclist Jordan Moore”. He’s fifteen, he’s not about to do the TdF. And since he is 15, if his mum wants him to wear a helmet she should make him wear one. For crying out loud.

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Letting agents: Just what is it they do with your money?

1 in 7 renters who used a letting agency paid £500 or more in letting fees. For £500 I’d expect a lot, a gold welcoming mat perhaps, but in general what they actually do is run a credit check and ask your previous letting agent for a reference. Which might just about be acceptable if they first checked whether or not your old letting agent was OK or if they were an  incompetent charlatan of the sort who charges hundreds of pounds for something that takes about 15 minutes to do if you type slowly.

I have recently moved out of a flat I rented in Exeter through the letting agents Bower & Bower. In fairness to Bower & Bower they only charged me £125 in fees and then only the once. They never charged a renewal fee, which is fortunate because they didn’t update my contract after the first 6 months. Indeed in the four years I was renting through them, the letting agents and landlord did very little.

In my first year of residence the landlord replaced the condemned boiler. Then in the autumn of 2012 I spent 6 weeks with no heating after the old gas fire was condemned. When the gas fire was eventually replaced the landlord put the rent up by £25 pcm and did not offer a rebate for the time that I was without heating. And here’s the thing with my landlord and Bower & Bower. They weren’t nasty or particularly dangerous or outright thuggish. They were just common or garden half-arsed. They exhibited the sort of borderline incompetence and laissez-faire attitude to making money off someone else’s labour that isn’t actually illegal and thus flies under the radar. Channel Four aren’t exactly going to devote air time to them but nonetheless, I was being charged a lot of money to live in a damp and rather poorly maintained flat whilst they did whatever it was they did with the cash I paid them.

Then things worsened. There’s damp and then there’s water pouring through your ceiling. On 30 December 2013 I phoned the letting agent to tell them that water was dripping into my hallway from the ceiling. I had worked out that the external brickwork was so saturated that water was basically seeping through. It was a 200 year old basement flat in one of the wettest recorded winters so it wasn’t that surprising. Since I wasn’t about to be inundated I agreed with the letting agent that they would contact me in the new year and I would let them know if it got worse, so we could avoid an emergency call out fee over the winter holiday.

On 3 January I phoned Bower & Bower and explained that the ceiling in the hallway was still leaking and that I was increasingly concerned about it. They agreed to contact the landlord. The week commencing 6 January Bower & Bower contacted me to arrange for a builder to visit my flat in my absence and inspect the ceiling.

I heard nothing further from Bower & Bower until they contacted me by letter on 21 January to inform me that the landlord wanted to put my rent up by another £10 pcm starting from March 13th. I found this, to be honest, somewhat enraging. In no other circumstances could you rent accommodation and be charged extra to fix problems. Can you imagine checking out of a hotel, reporting a leak and being told ‘ah yes, madam, there will be a £10 surcharge whilst we fix that.’ The rent you pay should include maintenance. That’s the whole damn point.

I contacted them by letter and explained that in the light of this increase, and the lack of maintenance work carried out on behalf of the landlord, I would look for alternative accommodation. On 27th January I was contacted by a builder on behalf of Bower & Bower. The following day he called round to the flat whilst I was there. He expressed concern about the damp in the flat. Observing the leaking plaster board he pushed against it and this simple action caused some of the plaster to fall down. Now whilst I wasn’t in danger of major ceiling collapse, having plaster fall on your head when you open your front door isn’t that much fun and certainly isn’t something one should be charged hundreds of pounds for, particularly if you don’t know what might lurk underneath the plaster.

I gave the letting agents a month’s notice from the 12 February, by which point they had still not fixed the leak which continued to let in water if the weather was bad. This meant that if I was expecting any important post, I had to rush home to fetch it out of a puddle (because of the position of the leak in the hallway by the front door I could not leave a bucket under it if I left the house). At this point, the fun really began.

When I gave notice, by email, I received a letter in return with an enclosure detailing the things that were expected of me before I left. These included cleaning up any mould. Yes, that’s right, mould is found in rented accommodation so commonly that cleaning it up forms a standard part of the cleaning procedure when you leave. You would hope that maintaining properties so that mould doesn’t grow in the first place would be a priority but no, it doesn’t seem to be.

And then that was it, no communication from the letting agents. Nothing from them about how or when to hand the keys over, nothing about inspecting the property and absolutely nothing about procedures for the deposit.  On Monday 10 March I moved my belongings into the new property I was renting. On the 11th I returned to the old property to clean it. Still no word from Bower & Bower so I phoned them. They told me to just drop the keys off at their office. Still nothing about any hand over so I took photos of the flat after I’d cleaned it.

I took the keys back to the office and someone working there took my bank details for the deposit to be returned and told me that provided there were no problems with the property it would be paid to me within 7-10 days. I was not impressed that he wrote my bank details on a scrap of paper whilst I read them out to him. Ask anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes working in an accounts department and they’ll tell you it’s a good way to get someone’s account details wrong. And interestingly, when I told him my title was “Dr” he got confused and assumed that I was a landlord not a tenant. Yes, let’s all watch multiple social prejudices in action.

The week commencing 24 March I phoned Bower & Bower. There was no sign of the deposit and without it back, I knew I could not afford the rent payment for my new property which would leave my account 2 weeks later. The man I spoke to assured me that he had inspected the property, that it was OK and that the deposit would be returned within a few days. There had been a delay because he had been unable to get into the property as the front door stuck. Yes, I said, that’s because of the damp, the damp that I reported to you several times. I’d become inured to kicking the front door open, it had become a normal part of life.

By 4 April there was still no sign of the deposit. I did some digging around. I could not find my deposit registered with any deposit protection service and I had not received any notification from Bower & Bower that it was registered. I emailed them to this effect. I should point out that I did not have the evidence – they may have registered it but if they did, I had not been made aware of the fact. I received no reply that day despite telling them of the urgency of the matter. Thus on Saturday 5 April I started phoning them repeatedly. I did eventually get to speak to someone, I told him I didn’t care what excuses he came up with, I wanted my deposit back, end of story. Then I hung up and went back to the internet to research.

A very helpful person on Twitter gave me some good advice and pointed me in the direction of Shelter. From Shelter I downloaded a letter that makes it very clear what the penalties are for landlords and letting agents who don’t use the tenancy deposit scheme. I downloaded this and emailed it to Bower & Bower. Finally, it was their turn to contact me in a panic. They even managed to check my account details, which they had taken incorrectly the first time. By Tuesday 8 April the deposit was back in my account.

In fact, Bower & Bower continued to panic because frankly I didn’t see why I should contact them to tell them I’d got the money back. I already felt as if I should have billed them for a considerable amount of my time. Finally, to get them to stop phoning me (how times change) I told them that yes, I had got the deposit back and then I told them this:

It doesn’t compensate me for my overdraft charges. It doesn’t make up for your staff not following any procedures for the end of my tenancy, checking the flat, returning keys or agreeing on the deposit. It doesn’t make up for the stress of wondering if I would be able to pay my rent this month, or having my phone calls and emails ignored until I threatened the company with action through the county court. It doesn’t, in any way, shape or form, make up for your company leaving me living in a flat with a leaking hole in the ceiling for 10 weeks or the way in which my landlord tried to put the rent up every time he was asked to do anything. And really, getting my deposit back doesn’t alleviate that nagging sense prevalent in UK society in general and within your organisation in particular that somehow, because I am a tenant and not a landlord, I really don’t matter.

The power balance between letting agents and tenants encapsulates much of what is currently wrong with British society. As a tenant, I have very little chance to check out a letting agent. I certainly cannot run a credit check on them; ask for written assurance that the landlord has sufficient funds and won’t suddenly need to sell up; ask to see every one of their procedures and policies and ask them for the addresses of previous tenants so that I can ask those tenants whether or not the agent is reliable. And can you imagine not only being able to ask a letting agent for those things but in addition, charging them for the privilege? No? Well why not? Because as far as I can see, the letting agent or landlord is just as likely to be an unreliable charlatan out to fleece you, as you are to be an unreliable tenant who cannot pay. And yet there is an assumption that letting agents are trustworthy and that tenants are so unreliable that they not only have to prove themselves but have to pay to do so. Either you should both trust each other, or both check each other out. The asymmetry reflects a power imbalance and embodies the assumption that it is landowners who are trustworthy whilst tenants are shiftless.

It is part of a wider imbalance. I don’t have the right to charge Bower & Bower for my time, for interest and for overdraft charges. However, should I notch up a debt to a company, they can do just that to me. And so, when you’re waiting around for letting agents and other people who like to hold onto your money for longer than they should, you find yourself borrowing money in ways that simply make you poorer. And because you have so little capital anything you need to buy you buy cheaply, and so as the old saying goes, you buy it twice.

Thus you stay poor. Somewhere, somehow, this needs to change. There are fundamental changes needed in the housing market but we could start small. We could start by assuming that tenants are reasonable people, that renting property isn’t something done only by people too idle to work and save. By charging over the odds, companies entrap tenants in poverty and then claim that it is the tenant’s own fecklessness rather than the system the landlords and letting agents help to create that is at fault. We have built a system that fails the most vulnerable people.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Chris Hoy, cycling and the borg…

…or, Please stop blaming me for what that other person did

Hoy tweet

I suspect that Hoy’s had enough feedback from this tweet by now. In one sentence he managed to sum up all that’s wrong with “othering” and the pervasive attitude in British society that cycling is different and odd.

So why do I think Hoy is wrong? To illustrate this, I’ll discuss two things: first the way in which drivers are treated when they act criminally and second the accusations levelled at cyclists and the way in which they are held collectively responsible for the behaviour of others, behaviour over which they have no control.

In discussing driver behaviour I’ve looked at my local papers for the last couple of days. So pervasive is adverse driver behaviour that there’s no real need to look any further. Leanne Burnell has just been released from jail after killing a cyclist. She is not allowed anywhere near where the cyclist used to live. Burnell and her boyfriend were racing in a 30mph zone when they killed Amy Hofmeister. But is anyone saying that these two give drivers a bad name through their actions? After all they have basically murdered someone. Are they a small minority that give other drivers a bad rep by being irresponsible? If they are, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the reporting.

This drunk driver isn’t being held up as an example of why people dislike drivers. And then there’s teaching assistant Emma Walker, who decided to travel at twice the speed limit and drive on the wrong side of the road whilst her passengers begged her to stop. Walker got away with it but her three friends variously suffered brain damage, a dislocated hip meaning a shortened leg, a broken neck and a ruptured spleen. So is Walker giving drivers a bad reputation, and if not, why not? To answer this, let’s examine what it is cyclists are blamed for.

Cycle1

So this cyclist is blamed for their own death despite the fact that the actual stats on red light jumping tell a different story. As for outrunning cars, well yes cyclists will filter if cars are going slower, which they generally are in rush hour traffic. The Twit in question had no idea about the details of the accident or who had caused it, they just blamed the cyclist on the grounds that “they” ALL go through red lights.

Moving on:

Road tax

Now there are multiple problems with this. Road tax was abolished in 1937; VED is a tax on pollutants and bikes would be zero-rated; in the UK roads are public highways we all have a right to use; payment of something doesn’t confer a right to violence because you’re a bit irritated, and so on. But what you can see in that tweet is that cyclists are hated on erroneous grounds. Road tax is a side issue, it’s an excuse to justify a hatred that stems from something else. Nothing I do on a bike, whether stopping at a red light or not, is going to change this person’s prejudices because they aren’t based on facts.

And again:

hungover driver

It isn’t for this person to decide whether or not others have a need to be on the road. Driving with a hangover is at best inadvisable. And if your blood-alcohol content is still over the limit, it’s illegal. Again, cyclists doing nothing wrong, driver possibly breaking the law.
And the last one for today:

Cycle2.jpg

Again, cycling side by side isn’t actually illegal. Drivers accuse cyclists of doing something wrong even when cyclists are acting within the law. Thus whatever cyclists do, whether they act legally or illegally, this invective will be directed at them. Whereas no matter what drivers do, whether it’s actually killing someone, maiming their friends, or just threatening random violence against strangers, the individual is deemed to be responsible, not the group. So what is going on here?

Essentially driving is seen as a normal activity that almost every adult does. It’s the default option. There’s always an assumption that you’ve travelled by car or that you will travel by car. For evidence just look at invitations you get to events and the instructions for how to get there. Thus the behaviour, because it’s “normal” is disassociated from the person doing it. A person driving badly is an individual doing something normal but doing it wrongly.

In contrast, cycling is something other and different. People will ask you why you cycle, but they will rarely ask you why you drive. Thus if you cycle, you’re not disassociated from the activity, it is assumed to be part of your identity. And as such you’re then identified with everyone else who cycles, because this random abnormal behaviour identifies you and marks you out with “them”. Thus you can be blamed for what someone else does, as if you’re all part of some borg hive mind. And along with the blame comes the punishment – it’s OK to run one cyclist over because once someone saw another cyclist somewhere else doing something wrong.

Cyclists are not disliked for their law breaking. Most of the time they’re not breaking the law and much of the time those accusing them of so doing don’t really know what the law states. Cyclists are disliked for transgressing social boundaries, for not doing what’s “normal”, for questioning a consumerist culture and a lifestyle that relies completely on the motorcar.

Thus in arguing that the actions of a few cyclists taint those of the many, Hoy feeds into a prejudice rather than questioning it. He is validating the assumption that cyclists are other, different, blameworthy. Hoy thinks cyclists should earn respect on the road. Did Emma Walker earn respect for drivers? Did Emma Way, when she knocked down a cyclist and boasted about it? Once you realise that cyclists are a bullied minority, the notion that they should earn respect takes on a rather nastier tone. It’s like telling a bullied school child that the problem lies with them, that if only they would change their behaviour the bullies would go away rather than realising that the problem lies with the stupidity of the bullies. Cyclists shouldn’t have to earn respect any more than any other road group. The shift in attitude needs to come from the idiots who blame all cyclists for the behaviour of one cyclist. We need deeper cultural shifts so that the vulnerable are respected, not mocked and threatened. Shame on you Hoy, for adding to a bullying culture.

36 Comments

Filed under Cycling

Professor J. V. Pickstone: A personal recollection

I first met John in April 1996 when I went to Manchester for an interview. He seemed to have modelled himself as an eccentric professor, and throughout the time I knew him I never quite worked out how much this was really just him, and how much he was playing with the persona out of impishness.

John saw something in me, and offered me a place on CHSTM’s MA in the History and Social Anthropology Of Science, Technology and Medicine, a unique and, it would be fair to say, brain-stretching course. I was assured funding for the course and with his backing, was fortunate enough to get Wellcome Trust funding for a PhD too. Thus John did, one way or another, change the course of my life. I was far from alone in this.

Although I think there’s a general rule that memorials should be universally glowing, it would be fair to say that my relationship with John could be a bit tetchy, and I think he would rather I was honest about that. He had a habit, in supervisions, of scratching his chest. Some of his shirts had a button missing where he would delve inside for an itch. Rumour had it that one of his overseas students told him off for this. “Oh”, said John, “is it not acceptable in Japan?” “It’s not acceptable anywhere” she snapped back. Then there was the time he asked me the difference between sex and gender. I didn’t really know where to start with that one and it’s only now that I realise how much he must have trusted my judgement to ask that question of me.

I think now, those habits are a sign of how much at ease with himself John was. He had a slightly odd gait and on investigation someone, perhaps a physiotherapist, recommended orthopaedic shoes. So John bought orthopaedic trainers and went bounding round the corridors of the old Maths Tower in Manchester, joyously realising that people were staring at his almost luminously-clad feet. I grew accustomed to 3-minute corridor supervisions, which were frankly terrifying. It’s amazing how much information someone can fling at you in 2 sentences as they pass you in the hallway. And then there was his habit of giving you half a name and a fraction of a title, with a very approximate date, and leaving you to find the book or article in question. This was prior to google and I attribute many of my more terrier-like research abilities to JVP’s supervision methods. For some reason I couldn’t stand the thought of turning up at my next supervision without having tracked down the piece in question and having read it thoroughly, no matter that John would have moved on to something else by then.

John cared very much about his subject and about Manchester. That he has gone so relatively young and so suddenly leaves the world a little diminished. His PhD was supervised by Alan Sterling Parkes and I was always proud of the fact that this made the physiologist F.H.A. Marshall my academic great-grandfather. But there are many of us now with an uneasy sense that we are academic orphans. I remain unconvinced about the afterlife, but if there is one, John, I hope you are having a wonderful time, indeed I have no doubt that you are.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Marius, slaughter, or just normal herd control?

A young, healthy male animal has been humanely killed by a zoo. This has caused something of an outcry, with other animal parks offering him a home to try to save him and some people (OK, they were on the internet) saying it has ruined Denmark’s reputation as a humane society. But has it?

Putting down healthy, male animals is by and large what our food industry relies on. Of course many of those objecting will be animal rights activists and vegans and I can understand their fears. But I suspect many will have no particular qualms about drinking milk, or indeed munching a burger. So presumably then the fuss isn’t about killing an animal, but about the species.

So how rare was Marius? He would appear to have been a reticulated giraffe, but apparently all the sub species are endangered and have unstable populations so which sub species he was is presumably a moot point. So yes, one could argue that the zoo should not be killing a healthy animal from an endangered species. In which case we could cut out all the stuff about his doe-eyed cuteness. It shouldn’t matter if he’s cute or not, since a human’s idea of cuteness shouldn’t really affect decisions about species preservation (though obviously it does, yes Panda, I’m looking at you).

So given that Marius was rare, would breeding from him have been a good thing? Copenhagen Zoo is part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Under their rules, Marius could not become a breeding male, since his genes are already well presented in the population. This does make me wonder why he was bred in the first place, but then I’m no expert on giraffe genetics.

How about keeping him and not breeding from him? Well that means keeping a non-breeding animal in a space that could be taken up by a breeding animal. It might please the sentimentalists, but it wouldn’t help the giraffe population. Apparently castration would not have been without its complications and I cannot imagine that a frustrated bull giraffe is an animal many zoos would want to have around.

I don’t think for a moment that it was a decision that was taken lightly by the zoo. When you’re dealing with animals of that size, with limited space and with the best interests of an entire population at heart, sometimes you have to make a tough decision that won’t make you popular. I have no problem with people objecting to the decision to kill Marius. But I do think they need to think through their objections. Whether he was cute or not is irrelevant. The real issue is whether or not breeding from him would have helped the giraffe population. Millions of animals are killed every day in far worse circumstances. I’m more worried about them, and the suffering of animals who are kept alive in poor circumstances, than I am about an animal who was killed as quickly and as cleanly as was possible.

6 Comments

Filed under Current affairs, Uncategorized