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Jewish World Review
August 8, 2006
/ 14 Menachem-Av, 5766
A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
Nothing separates men from women more significantly than riding a bicycle.
Whenever I see a man on a bike in London, he is invariably breaking the law:
riding on the pavement, whizzing through a red light, pedaling arrogantly
along our one-way street in the forbidden direction.
I have never seen a
woman doing any of these things. Their cycling is strictly utilitarian,
economical, discreet, at modest speeds and on machines which have no element
of display. What does this tell us about the sexes? Well, it certainly makes
me revert again to my technological vision of the future, in which men have
been eliminated, their prime function taken over by perpetual sperm-banks,
and with selection procedures ruling out male babies. This would be a world
with minimal crime and no wars, no sex in the traditional sense (what a
relief) and in which it would be possible to ban alcohol, drug-taking and
I am thinking of buying a bike, my walking-radius now being down to three
miles. I have two already. One is an Austrian folding bike, called a Putsch,
I think; the other is a big, old-fashioned Hercules, very plain and strong,
specially made in the 1970s for heavy-duty service in Africa. Neither is in
serviceable condition, and I do not fancy going to all the trouble of
getting them repaired when the likelihood of my using them often is remote.
What I really want is a bike that I can pedal but which also has a small
electric motor to get me up the steep hills of west Somerset. Many years ago
I had a petrol-driven tricycle which had this dual character and I travelled
many hundreds of miles on it, not uncomfortably. But it was stolen and
proved impossible to replace. When I last inquired about an electric bike I
was shown a clumsy-looking machine which was too heavy to lift and
stunningly expensive. That was some years ago and it may be that things have
got better. I say this because we have just acquired a car which is fuelled
by petrol but driven by an electric motor. It is called a bisexual. No: that
is the wrong word a hybrid. It is exempt from the London congestion charge
as being 'socially moral'. It does 50 miles to the gallon and is very quiet.
It also has superb air-conditioning, a huge advantage in this horrid hot
weather, and scores of advanced gadgets. Those in the know say it is the
first really successful electric car and everyone will have them soon. So I
am encouraged to believe a successful electric bike cannot be far behind.
However, one should remember that the history of the bicycle is long and
bumpy. The first, in wood, was created in 1818. The inventor had a
comic-opera name, Baron Karl de Drais de Sauerbrun, and his machine was
called a draisienne. It did not catch on. The proper bike did not take shape
until the 1870s. But by 1882 it was fashionable enough to make an appearance
in Gilbert's lyrics for Iolanthe:
In your shirt and your socks
(The black silk with gold clocks)
Crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle.
The quarter century between 1890 and the first world war was the golden age
of the bike. Oh, to see Henry James making his stately progress down the
Sussex lanes, or going to call on Conrad. Or George Bernard Shaw out for a
'spin' with George Moore, or H.G. Wells pedalling industriously to keep up
with the young Rebecca West.
('I was a real thruster on a pedal-bike,' she
told me many decades later.)
Mr Gladstone, I suspect, was a little too old
to take to the bike, but Lord Salisbury tried it and his nephew A.J. Balfour
was often on one when he was prime minister. It was one of the things he
held against Lord Curzon, whom he prevented from becoming prime minister
when Bonar Law died; 'George is too grand ever to have been on a bicycle.'
Zola thought of writing a novel about the social consequences of the bicycle
but never got round to it, though a photograph survives showing him about to
mount one, dressed in what looks like a Gallic version of 1890s golfing kit.
Yet, plainly, bicycles and morality are not wholly unconnected, since a bike
is something which enables you to move by your own physical efforts, without
dependence on animals, flunkeys or minerals. Next to walking it is the most
moral form of transport, symbolising independence, unselfishness and
self-reliance. Hence Norman Tebbit's famous Thatcherite rallying cry to the
unemployed, 'On yer bike!' and the old Chilean proverb, beloved of General
Pinochet, 'El socialismo puede llegar sólo en bicicleta.'
For me, the second half of the 1930s was the age of the bicycle. I put up
with hand-me-downs from my older brother and sister until the glorious
moment when, thanks to the munificence of a godfather, I actually acquired a
brand-new Raleigh, all to myself. Nothing I have ever owned has given me one
quarter of the pleasure of that sparkling machine, with its three gears,
light and dynamo, and its graceful, tingling carriage in all weathers. It
gave me a freedom I had never before dreamed of possessing and which, when I
think deeply about it, I have never really enjoyed since.
I ranged over the Five Towns, where we lived in Arnold Bennett-like
cosiness, and went out to draw and paint local churches with my father, who
gave me lessons in architectural draughtsmanship (he had a Raleigh too).
Together with my sturdy friend Richard, the doctor's son, I went on all-day
excursions across north Staffordshire and into Derbyshire and Cheshire,
across Biddulph Moor, to Leek and Macclesfield, to the little towns I call
the Gaskell Country of Cranford, to the Dove Valley and the Peak District (a
two-day trip, that), to weird hills called the Roaches and Cloud End and
ancient places with names like Uttoxeter. We had satchels with our grub:
sandwiches of potted meat or anchovy paste, lettuce and tomato with slivers
of gherkin, or buns with triangles of processed cheese (then a novelty)
wrapped in silver paper. How good such edibles tasted, eaten with voracious
relish sitting on a farm gate by the side of the road, the silver wheels of
our bikes spinning idly on the grass, reflecting the sunshine. We had, if we
were lucky, Tizer ('the Appetiser') or dandelion-and-burdock to drink
Coca-Cola was unheard of then where we lived and as an extra treat a Mars
Bar (new from America in 1936) or Milky Way (England's answer in 1937).
All was not idyllic, of course. There were flat tyres to contend with, even
punctures, and here I must pose a question. Why do bicycles inspire jokes in
literary circles and showbiz? Why, for instance, did Kingsley Amis write, in
'A Bookshop Idyll',
Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Auden, too, was one for bicycle cracks ('Tomorrow the bicycle races ...but
today the struggle', etc) as were Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey and the ITMA
team. Another comedian, Billy Connolly, used to say, 'Marriage is a
wonderful invention. But then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.' Had he
ever used one? Not so easy is my recollection. But I have an itch to get on
my bike again, all the same. It is, when all is said, the most ingenious of
useful mechanical inventions, the easiest to use perfect for simpletons
like me and the least harmful. Impossible to sin with a bike; anyway,
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07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
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02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson