Root Menu

Steve Stuart

In conversation with Roman Krznaric

I enjoy people. Perversely, maybe because I am a bit of a nutcase myself, I also enjoying dealing with some of the more problematic people. You find it a challenge. You have people who are a problem and find either that they are complete idiots or you find there is a reason for their manner or whatever is that is unfortunate, and you then get through and establish a relationship with this individual, which allows you to help them.  It’s the fact that you are in a shop and there is a commercial arrangement and the business has to succeed and part of succeeding is that you cannot have an indifference to the customer. There is this element of service which should be almost the be all and end all in a good independent retailer. And if you can learn to listen a bit, there are all sorts of interesting people who can help to illumine life in general and your own life in particular.

People are absurd. A lot of people are absurd in a nice way. Other people are absurd in a way that makes it quite difficult to cope with them. But then that’s part of that thing about enjoying people regardless. I find a lot in life quite absurd and ridiculous.

Running a bicycle shop you are tied to work and you get these idiots who want you to be open seven days a week. I think ‘what?!’  What do you really think you are saying? Think about it. Just think. Think about the social consequences of what you are saying, just think and you’ll understand how insulting and how rude, how crass, how unintelligent that is. Because it means that they have not used their intelligence to analyse the world and what it means to have a business run seven days a week. What it means is that the proprietor of the establishment, the shop manager, has to be on duty seven days a week. They can’t stop.

If you can deal with difficult people then you can deal with good people. One of the sad things in life is that you tend to remember, and society tends to remember, the unpleasant experiences rather than the good experiences. You know the Armenians will remember being massacred by the Turks. The Bible is full of this awful thing happening or that awful thing happening. We don’t remember and it’s hard to remember the good times or what the good times meant. But I still think you need to try to remember about the good times. Because at the end of the day, one of the most important things in life is trying to engender happiness, whether it’s in yourself being happy or other people being happy.

*

Probably like a lot of people, I don’t know what my real talents are and I don’t know what I should be doing with my life – I have ended up running a bicycle shop as a vocation.

I never sought to end up in a bicycle shop. As a child I went walking over the local woods, and cycled a little bit, but only from the point of view of going from A to B. When I went to university in Durham, where I studied botany, I got into hill-walking and mountaineering. But coming to Oxford, that wasn’t an option. Then through meeting Fiona, she rode her single-speed bicycle a lot and I joined in riding my three speed. The rot started when we got back from a cycling holiday to Holy Island in Northumberland. I was cycling to work at the Poly Library and the pedals, the bottom bracket and chain set dumped on the ground and the frame was broken.  So I needed a new bike and ended up buying an old Cotton five-speed racer from Robinson’s Cycles on the Magdalen Road, who don’t exist any longer, which I stripped down and refurbished - I’ve always been a practical individual in terms of tinkering around and making things. Then a friend of mine who was getting into bikes inspired us to get better equipped and find out more about bicycles, and we ended up joining the Cyclists' Touring Club. I was working as an Assistant Librarian and went to library school to become a professional librarian. I needed a job to pay the mortgage, so I got a job at Walton Street Cycles, for what I thought was a summer, to tide me over.

When we had children I was thinking, I’ve got to get myself a job that pays more money because being an employee in a bicycle shop you get doodle-squit. Then through circumstance, Warlands came up on the market just before the point I was about to say that I have to bail out of WSC. My aunt then died and left me some money that allowed me, along with Andy Holme, to buy the business…

It’s as if working in a bicycle shop has been an inevitable process. It’s one of those things about being Christian, having this sense of a vocation or the idea of things being guided. I do feel that working in a bicycle shop is something that I have been almost pre-ordained to do.  It’s weird and on one level it’s something that I don’t particularly like the idea of. But as an explanation, that it’s predetermined seems to be one of the most fitting. Often the correct explanation is the simplest or the most straight forward explanation. You know, Ocham’s Razor and all that malarkey. I have been destined to run a bicycle shop. I feel that that is something I have to do.

*

I was born in Kenya and my parents left just before independence as my father was a farm manager and felt that there was no future for him as a farm manager in Kenya. He ended up in this country. Who was going to help him apart from him and my mother. They helped themselves and got themselves on their feet. You find that when you laugh the whole world laughs with you but when you cry you cry alone.

As a child walking across the fields and in the woods in the village where I grew up you had to be self reliant. I’ve learned that from life, from general experiences, that you have to rely on yourself and you cannot rely on other people

I went to a grammar school in Salisbury. I’m the type of person who grammar schools suited, not being particularly interested or inclined to participate in team sports like football or rugby. My schooling taught me that individual sports are better. I was good at cross country running and you don’t have to rely on a team in cross country running, on someone else appreciating you or liking you or giving you the ball in order to get some enjoyment. You can just go and do it. I find most team sports a complete and utter joke; the tendency is for the thing to shatter rather than to work to produce a cohesive whole.

The paradox is through later interests, through going to university and getting into hill-walking and to a certain extent mountaineering and then getting into cycling, and now dingy sailing, you end up in sports and activities where a form of team work is important.  But it’s more about individuals working as a team, they have learned from their individualism how to work properly together. It’s the thing that I find important in life: individuals helping to build each other up, to achieve more.

When you’ve realised that you have been helped by other people you cannot always reciprocate to that individual because the occasion might not be there to reciprocate. You can try to thank them but you try to pass it on. I try to help other people because I have been helped in the past. You don’t seek to be rewarded for it. You do it quietly.

Waiting in the post office queue on a Wednesday there are all the people getting their Giros cashed, getting mouthy about the queue being really long. You are just thinking, go away, come back later, you are unemployed, you have nothing better to do with your life apart from getting hacked off because it’s taking longer for you to get money than you anticipate. The way you are behaving and the way you are talking indicates that all you are going to do is whip round to your dealer and score some heroin or your week’s supply of dope, that’s all you are interested in. It is not as though you are really unemployed and need the money to survive and to lead your life. You are unemployed because you want to be unemployed. If you wanted to you could get off.

The danger is that you can produce the wrong conclusion, that you think all people on Giros are up to no good at all and exploiting the system. I think a lot of those people have chosen unemployment and are young enough to get out of it. Whereas someone in their 40s, 50s or 60s on the Giro hasn't chosen it. They do not have the opportunities.

*

As a child your main priority is personal survival and then when you get through education you end up in your early 20s, you’ve got beyond the point of personal survival and you can relax and enjoy things a bit. You’re looking at trying to strive for a certain amount of happiness and then the thing that really changes everything is when you have children. You have a whole new set of responsibilities but the main change is that you become part of the human race. In a big way. The scales come off your eyes, the scales come off your emotion, your scales come off. You realise that you are part of the human race because you were brought up by your parents and your grandparents, you realise the commonality that they have also experienced it. You hope that your children experience what you are experiencing. It’s part and parcel of the human race, part and parcel of the family and bloodlines. It sounds a lot more melodramatic than I mean it to be. It’s the fact that you have children and you have a sense of love. The love of a parent for a child is something quite amazing. The arrival of this child is a very momentous thing. It’s one of the most emotional things that can ever happen.

If you give children too much freedom they will begin to flounder. You need to restrict children’s freedom a certain amount. But the skill comes with learning how to let them overstep the boundaries. For children it’s by constantly finding out where the boundaries are and learning how to manage how to step over the boundary. It’s like taking up sailing. You can’t just leap into a boat and sail. You will end up in a mess. Children can’t do it. They do not know how to work out where the boundaries are, they rely on you as an adult.

Global warming is the great nightmare for this current generation or the generation we have become. In my father’s generation there were two things, one the second world war looming and then the potential of global annihilation through nuclear war. We have something which is more frightening in a way, because it isn’t either/or. You have got a sense that there could be complete and utter destruction, and I find that absolutely appalling and that worries me a lot. It’s something that makes you think ‘What have we done to have brought up children in this world? But then there is this thing that we are part and parcel of the human race and it’s about trying to educate our children to think about the world and think about how they do things and hopefully other people will be doing the same thing. So that over the next 10, 15, 20 years disaster can be averted because enough people will be thinking about it. Am I hopeful? I don’t really know.

*

I count myself as a Christian but I’m not an evangelical, I’m not a fundamentalist Bible basher. I go to my local church, St Frideswide even though it has an Anglo-Catholic tradition, which I am antithetical towards for various reasons. Why try to ape the Church of Rome?

I think religion is fundamental to people. Prayer seems to work, in a strange way. It’s a bit like how they say if you can get 10% of the population meditating then the country or the city or the town will become a better place. I think prayer is probably something which different societies and cultures have different names for. I have been brought up in a western European tradition and I see no point in going off and becoming a Buddhist or whatever. If Buddhism works for you then fine, you should continue to do it. I’m not going to say to you that you should recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.

We have a plethora of knowledge which could prove or disprove the nature of the particular religion we are following. At the end of the day I think you’ve got to work out for yourself what is the truth or the essential truth and try and follow the life. But in today’s world, that leads you to realising that other people are finding truths as well. And their versions of truth are not going to the same as your truth but you’ve got to recognise that and you’ve got to be able to agree to disagree.

A school can be tolerant if doesn’t tolerate intolerance in its community. I think West Oxford Primary School, which my sons go to, has a good mix of children from the community. It has Muslim children, oriental children, children whose parents have come from over the world. I think that’s a good thing and I do think they try and encourage that. The thing about West Oxford is that it is a mixed area, in terms of people and backgrounds. What I like about it is that it is remarkably tolerant and I think that is tremendously important.

*

To a certain extent I have an eclectic mind, where you want to find out about all sorts of things, that you find everything fascinating. I would like to learn everything, but I can’t. I would like to learn one or two foreign languages, I would like to learn a musical instrument. You only have a certain number of opportunities. If I ended up living in France, for example, then I could learn to speak French. I have discovered that I enjoy sailing and I would love to have a gaff-rigged cutter or something to cruise round the south coast in, but I live in Oxford, so what can I do? You discover that Farmoor reservoir is not as bad as you expected. It has drawbacks but it's somewhere you can enjoy sailing albeit in a small way. So you enjoy it. You don’t mope about it, you make the best of it.

Living in a place like Oxford - my Oxford Academic diatribe is about to come on! – you find that those who try to be rational in the way they operate are in a sense foolish. North Oxford – where there is a preponderance of dons – does not encourage the latter day Leonardos. You would expect places like Oxford and Cambridge and certain areas of London to have people who are happy with the idea that they can paint and draw, play musical instruments and speak one or two foreign languages, who are well adjusted socially and have a developed social conscience. But Oxford and Cambridge only play lip-service to the idea of education in its widest sense. Basically the people in North Oxford encourage a form of advanced well-adjusted autism as the acme of the intellectual type. You have people who can only function extremely well in one or two slight aspects of knowledge, who can only talk in a common room.

As somebody who didn’t enjoy schooling and was sort of bullied, and because of the fact that my family was moving round the world when I was young, I missed out on a certain amount of socialising and social skills. That leaves you with a certain amount of reticence about finding out what people really think of you. One of the things about growing up is reaching a point where you don’t particularly care what other people think, you achieve a point in life where you have sufficient independence that you don’t need to care what other people think of you.

Thinking about it, in my case I found Fiona, a life partner. You find someone else and your relationship becomes your Englishman’s castle in that it provides you with a refuge. You have that other person to share your life with, it gives you a certain strength. You don’t need to worry about other people because you have your love, you have your life partner. This other person allows you to move on from worrying about what other people think of you to perhaps being able to be a bit more about who you really are.

I think everybody in one way or another is abnormal and I think none of us fit into the norm. In many ways I count myself as one of those slightly abnormal people who don’t seem to easily fit into any particular mould or niche or corner. I can hold opposing or contrasting views at the same time. Some people may think from what I am saying that I am a complete and utter fascist. But then somebody else will hear me say something else and think that I am complete raving communist. The reality is, like most people, that I am somewhere in the middle, but my views can be extreme in different directions. I hope my views would be tempered by wanting to create a better society for everybody, for everybody to have sufficient freedom so that they can be as true as possible to themselves without fouling other people’s lives up too much in the process.

March 2005