Friday, 22 February 2013

Wheel writes

It is, of course, at this time of year that people's fancies turn back to thoughts of cycling.  In my wild and car-free youth, there was never any such return, as I cycled all year round in order to get to work and (more often than not) back.  In these, my years of increased girth and diminished leisure time, however, I swap pedals for Saucony Jazz running shoes in the winter, until things get a little lighter and less frigid.  My first two velocipedal peregrinations - apart from asking very difficult questions (in Latin) of my lungs, legs and some apparently new parts of my body which have been introduced  simply to notify me that I have spent too long out of the saddle - have led me to ponder (no, that's not a Hertfordshire village) on some verbal and literary cycling associations.

In the former camp I have revisited the contrast between attitudes to the machine and the activity across opposite sides of The Channel.  Our Gallic cousins, for example, grace the device with the phrase la petite reine while, until relatively recently, riding a pushbike seriously in this country was regarded by anyone not of the fraternity as a somewhat risible activity.  Similarly, the act of rising from the saddle to exert greater pressure on the pedals starts in Calais as en danseuse and disembarks at Dover as honking (no, honestly).

The terminal point of such literary bicycle mapping is always, however, The Third Policeman by (really, you had to ask?) Flann O'Brien. One of the innumerably superior qualities of this, the finest novel that will ever be written in English (it's no use jumping up and down in that undignified manner - I refer you to page 37 of The Book Of Stuff That Just Is) is its insistence on interrogating itself as to its content. 'Is it about a bicycle' is the enquiry tumbling forth constantly from the mouth of the strange (but not Third) policeman Sergeant Pluck. In the context of the plot, it is a reasonable question, as he makes it his business, in direct contradistinction to what passes for the normal operating procedures for the constabulary, to temporarily steal and hide his constituents' bicycles, on the grounds that:

the Atomic Theory is at work in this parish

and that therefore, obviously:

iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms .

producing weird, hybrid creatures which are neither fully human nor bicycular.

So the novel is, of course, about a bicycle, or many bicycles, but also, as Puck's purloining proclivities illustrate, the insistence of human beings on expending vast amounts of energy and concern on issues and projects which are either enormously misguided or trivial.  Hence the narrator's obsession with a maverick 'scientist', de Selby, who attributes what most people call 'night' to a daily accretion of dirty air and launches an attempt to dilute water. Nesting a further example within this one, the book's descriptions of de Selby and of his commentators gradually become engulfed by their own footnotes, which grow monstrously out of proportion to overwhelm the main text.  The same determined misguidance is at work in the policemen's pedestrian handling of 'Omnium' a secret substance they have discovered which can lend more than god-like powers to its wielders, or in their case, not.

Bicycles, mad scientists, the meaning of life - why are you reading this and not rushing to your nearest 24-hour bookstore and purchasing a copy? Not to mention the delicious style, moral satire, comic dialogue, playfulness with registers and did I mention the bicycles?

On a much more trivial but nonetheless very worthy note, see The Wheels of Chance by HG Wells, which exemplifies how the bicycle helped to liberate the working classes and was a (literal) vehicle for (literal) social mobility.  Be careful, also, not to overlook Three Men on the Bummel, which is not only funnier than its aquatic partner but contains a description of inept home-made bicycle maintenance that is entirely sublime.

Or why not try these not entirely unimaginary pieces:

Pumphrey Clinker
As you Lycra it
Novel on Velo Paper


Happy pedalling.

1 comment:

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