100 untimed books: driving

17. driving

17. driving

I don’t drive. I do cycle, though. So do many other people in my life. I bought this book for one of them as a birthday present and restrained myself with great difficulty from reading the whole thing before I wrapped it up.

Active Anglicans may well know Dave Walker from his work for the Church Times. His cycling cartoons are just as funny and well-observed.

100 untimed books

Balance

I have resolved that when I move to Cambridge, as I will at some point as yet undetermined, I shall make my bicycle my primary mode of transportation, rather than my tricycle. I love my trike, but it is impossible to get on a train, and occasionally a pain to lock up, and if I can’t ride a bike in Cambridge, the English Amsterdam, I’ll never do it.

To this end, and also because I felt like it, I took my bike to the park when I got back from Farnborough this morning. I got CTony to raise the saddle to something approaching the correct height, walked the bike down to the park, and spent a happy half-hour riding around in circles.

It’s been very interesting, re-learning how to ride a bike as an adult. It is still new enough that I marvel every time that first kick of the pedals sends me forwards, gracefully, not sideways, violently. That’s what it is, ‘learning to ride a bike’, finding that split second of trust and courage that gets you moving fast enough to take both feet off the floor and find you don’t need to put them down again.

I have been thinking today, though, about signalling. Signalling was what stopped me riding a bike ‘properly’. You know: on the road, to get to places. A cyclist who can’t signal is a menace, and I just couldn’t do it. I could manage to get my left hand off the handlebar, but if I tried to lift my right hand, I just went straight over sideways.

I always thought that this was because I am strongly right-handed, and am generally clumsy and unbalanced. All this is true: I am forever walking into things and dropping stuff. It turns out, however, not to be the reason that I can’t signal.

Because I can signal. If a year on the trike has done one thing for me, it has persuaded my brain that I will not fall off if I take a hand off the handlebars. Because whoever fell off a trike? (Me, as it happens, but only once, and it was a stupid bit of path that I should have got off for, really.) On the trike, it is second nature to steer with one hand, and use the other to grab the water bottle, or scratch my nose, or feel my pocket for the umpteenth time to make sure my keys are really in there – or to signal.

On the bike instead of the trike, I forget that if I signal I will fall off. And so I don’t fall off. Silly, but true, and very difficult to teach. It isn’t about balance at all; it’s about confidence, just like being able to ride the damn thing in the first place.

Adventures on Two Wheels

Today I took my bike to the park.

This was something of an achievement. I am a reasonably keen cyclist – but the cycle in question is a tricycle. I learned to ride a bike when I was eleven or so, but I have never had very good balance, and always had problems with the whole ‘signalling right’ issue when on a bicycle – which meant that bicycling on roads was contraindicated. When we moved to the Isle of Wight, that was about the only place to ride a bike – so I stopped.

Last year I bought a tricycle and got reasonably good at cycling. At the beginning of this year I asked my brother to bring my bike (actually one I’d inherited from my aunt, and had never ridden myself) up from the Island. He and Tony have had a whale of a time taking it to bits, cleaning it, and going, ‘ooh, we have a sandblaster at work…’

Today I took my bike to the park.

It is not true that one never forgets how to ride a bicycle. One does remember fairly quickly, but one has to endure a certain period of blind terror, wild flailing, and falling off into puddles and leylandii hedges first. Then one finds that one foot follows the other, and one is half way across the park and hasn’t yet fallen off and OH HELP THERE IS A LADY WITH A DOG, so one brakes, and slithers forward, and discovers with extreme gratitude that one’s foot is on the ground and the bike hasn’t fallen over, and the dog is still fifty yards away, and the dog has disappeared completely.

So then one turns around to go back the other way and OH HELP THERE IS A CHILD ON A SCOOTER. But one is feeling quite brave (at least compared to when one started) and gingerly wades forward and starts pedalling, and is fine, and so is the child on a scooter. And then THERE IS A TREE AND THERE IS ALSO A LAMPPOST and one has to go between them oh my goodness (let us wuss out and stop and walk this bit) and then one decides to go between the public lavatories and the cricket pavilion and there are PUDDLES AND A HEAD WIND.

And after about half an hour of this one’s nerves are in shreds and one’s thighs are feeling likely to come up in magnificent bruises – and that’s quite enough for one day.

I am really quite proud of myself.

But I don’t think it’s going to space today, or even to Billingshurst in July.

Reverb 2 and 10: spending and risking

Day 2: Your most significant spend

What was your most significant expenditure in 2012?

It doesn’t have to be necessarily the biggest expenditure, just the one with the most impact.

What difference has it made to your life?

As a matter of fact it was the biggest expenditure, or, rather, between the two of them, they were. Epona and Midna, the tricycles. Epona, £350, from eBay (whence she is shortly to return). Midna, twice that, from Evans, via the Cycle to Work scheme. They have changed my life, and I have to count them both, because if I hadn’t had the instant gratification of riding Epona, useless as she is, I’d probably have lost interest long before it occurred to me to look into Cycle to Work. And then Midna took so long to show up… Epona served her purpose, even if only for a few weeks. I am going to sell her on, but doubt I’d get much for her in the middle of December. Midna is great.

They have changed my life. Not in any dramatic, world-changing way, but cycling makes me more cheerful and gives me a little bit more independence. It means that I can buy twelve tins of tomatoes at a time if I feel like it. I cycled to and from work today, and even though it was simultaneously freezing and sweaty, and a little bit scary in the dark, and some wanker overtook me far too close (deliberately so, I think) it was such fun, in a way that sitting on the train for ten minutes never can be. It puts me in a whole different mindset.

Day 10: Your greatest risk

What was the greatest risk you took in 2012? What was the outcome?

Should I say, starting to cycle again? Perhaps. I did wonder if I was being a bit rash, forking out three hundred and fifty quid for something I wasn’t sure I was going to have the nerve to use. And actually every day I cycle is a risk; I’m always uncomfortably aware that I’m rather more likely to be killed on the road than I would on the train; but it is one of those occasions where you have to make the choice and stick with it.

There have been a couple of moments this year where I’ve felt physically in danger, and, looking back, have discovered that I took risks to get there – the most notable, perhaps, being where the path disappeared at Woody Bay, when I’d decided not to follow the boring, not-at-all-coastal, coastal path, and see if I could get round by the actual coastline. But that was all right: I swore a lot, clawed my way back up to the actual path, and trudged through a hell of a lot of mud to Seaview.

Coming out to the Rector felt risky at the time, but turned out to be safe and moving and vaguely hilarious. It does feel risky, living without the mask, particularly when it’s a long time since you’ve looked at yourself without it, and the person behind it doesn’t look the same as last time. Yes, I think that was the biggest risk of all: being prepared to let the label fall off. It’s worked out OK; I do tend to forget and to slip back into my idea of who I ought to be, but when I do remember it’s very liberating.

PM says PE teachers not sadistic enough. ‘We do our best, dammit!”

is the message I am getting from this story – which is unfair both on Cameron and my PE teachers, most of whom were fairly decent sorts. However, it does seem to me that there are two competing aspirations here, both laudable, and making school sports more competitive will only work for one of them. To win more Olympic medals, and to get the nation’s children, and, indeed, the nation’s adults, more active.

Let me tell you about how I became more active.

I hated sports at school. As I have hinted above, this was not because of my teachers. It was because of me. I was unremittingly hopeless and, because I was good at pretty much everything else (Design Technology excepted) my sporting incompetence was horribly conspicuous. This held true from primary school (where I was in a year group of five) through Key Stage 3 (class of thirty, year group of ninety) to GCSE, where I was in a year group of one and managed to lose it from my timetable.

I was hopeless. I was the fat asthmatic kid with glasses (not all at the same time, I will admit – the asthma came first, then the glasses, then the fat) and, no matter how hard I tried, I was never anything other than slow and clumsy. I did try. I was a conscientious child, at least in other people’s time, and not being good at stuff frustrated me, so I tried to get better – but my classmates always improved more, and so I continued to be slow and clumsy, and increasingly disillusioned with sports as played at school, with the (apparently insufficient) emphasis on competition. I was never going to be as good as Nicky or Jack or Abby, so why was I even trying?

None of which stopped me being reasonably active. I skipped; I hit tennis balls against walls; I taught myself to ride a bike by throwing it and myself down the drive until I stopped falling off. I stayed fit despite school sports, competitive or otherwise, not because of it. (Although, now I come to think of it, I did do trampolining for a while as an after-school club; that was fun, and I wasn’t too bad.)

Then we moved to the Isle of Wight, and to a house with a much smaller garden, I moved schools three times in one year, I hit puberty (late), my parents separated, and my first bout of depression set in. None of that was much fun, and I stopped doing pretty much everything that could be even vaguely described as ‘physical activity’.

When I was eighteen I got a job at a hotel two miles away. The job was pretty grim, but the two miles was wonderful – I could walk it. Two miles of soul-cleansing cliff-top, two miles of beauty, two miles of exercise – and the first glimmerings of my independence. I started walking between my parents’ houses, four miles apart, and those four miles became mine in a way that neither house ever did. They connected my broken family, but they also gave me space away from it. And – incidentally – I was getting fit. Suddenly I had a form of physical exercise (I’m not sure one can really call it a ‘sport’) that I loved wholeheartedly. The same thing has happened this year with cycling. I’m one of the slowest things on the road – and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing, and meanwhile I keep cycling.

And so my point is this: making school sports more competitive may well give us our next generation of Olympic medallists, and I will be as pleased for them as I am for the current ones – but it will not get the nation fitter all round, because it will do nothing for those of us who don’t do exercise that way, who don’t particularly want to compare themselves to other people, who just want to find something they enjoy and to do it. I have found that I enjoy activities that get me from A to B and allow me to enjoy the scenery. Other people will enjoy other things. Trampolining! Badminton! Judo!

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s at school that’s the problem, the way that most people hate most of the books they had to read for English. I don’t know. I don’t think there is an obvious answer – and I am convinced that making school sports more competitive isn’t it.

(As for the private vs state school question – the GCSE years, where I managed to escape sports altogether, were at a hilariously terrible private school. I will tell you about my wacky adventures there some other time.)

I love my trike with an A

I love my trike with an A because it makes anywhere accessible. Additionally, it is affecting my assertiveness amazingly. I hate it with an A because argh! my arse! All that admitted – Allez! Allez! Allez!

#ilovemybike with a B because otherwise the hashtag won’t pick it up. Down with this two-wheeled exclusivity!

I love my trike with a C because it carries copious cargo on my commute.

I love my trike with a D, dashing downhill 😀

I love my trike with an E because it enhances my eccentricity. Its name is Epona and I bought it from eBay. I extol Evans. Excelsior!

I love my trike with an F because it is teaching me to swear.

I love my trike with a G for the goslings on the green and the gregarious guys who greet me on the road to Guildford.

I love my trike with an H, in spite of hailstorms, headwinds, harassment and honking.

I love my trike with an I because it gives me my independence.

I love my trike with a J because I can jog around the jams. And I don’t jump the red.

I love my trike with a K, and count in kilometres.

I love my trike with an L for liberation, looking forward to likely lungs and legs – though I’m lairy of lycra. I hate it with an L for long loud lorries – and look at my legs!

I love my trike with an M, managing the Mars Trail on Midna, making misty Monday mornings magical.

I love my trike with an N, though I bought it on the never-never so, nitpicking, it’s not mine.

I love my trike with an O; it is my obvious obsession. I hate it with an O for the obnoxious overtakers.

I love my trike with a P, because precious little else would have me parade in pink shorts. I hate it with a P because every pothole is painfully palpable. It is a Pashley.

I love my trike with a Q, because it’s quick around queues.

I love my trike with an R for the rolling English road. I hate it with an R for the rain.

I love my trike with an S for its stability swooping through Surrey, not stranded on the station waiting for South West Trains to stop being stuck at Surbiton.

I love my trike with a T for its three wheels. I hate it with a T because there is no such thing as a tailwind. It is a Tri-1. T’other is a Trailmate.

I love my trike with a U in the urban undergrowth. I hate it with a U because other users undertake me more than I ever undertake anybody, and how can this road be uphill both ways?

I love my trike with a V because I am visible. I hate it with a V for the van drivers.

I love my trike with a W when I whoosh around Woking. I hate it with a W because Walnut Tree Close is a wind tunnel, without mentioning the woeful wonder that it is the longest road in the world.

I love my trike with an X because it allows me to indulge my xenophilia and imagine exploring.

I love my trike with a Y. Its name is You Bastard.

I love my trike with a Z, zipping along with the zeitgeist, zero to zoom.

Self on Trike

Describe your daily, common soundscape, from rouse to turning in.

Waking. Fighting the dry, tickling cough until the inevitable defeat. Up. Kettle burbles and clicks; computer sings. Now for a proper cough. Feeling more human: patter between bedroom and study to deal with emails (ping!), alarms (bringle, bringle, up and down the scale). Gather together the necessaries for work (‘I shall be late!’ and cursing freely), pack the bag and unlock the trike (‘what’s the time? I shall be late!’), and – now it starts:

– the click-click-click of the freewheel, the clunk of the gear change, the whir of the tyres. A sulky purr from the car behind me (‘yes, well, you can wait, can’t you?’), a honk if I’m unlucky, the roar as it passes. If it’s a motorbike, roar-whoosh. If a bike (they’re all faster than me, and can pass more easily) a slight disturbance in the air, and perhaps a ‘good morning’.

Birds. I never used to hear birds on my way to work; the fresh air never moved fast enough past me. My own gasping breathing (‘come-on-you-bastard, come-on-you-bastard, come-on-you-bastard’) – and down the other side of the hill, and I’m not sure whether I hear the air or feel it.

Back towards the main road, now. A siren. A hundred engines ticking over. The shrill peeping of the pedestrian crossing. The clatter of a train. Sometimes this seems like the longest road in the world. I am so nearly there.

Into work. ‘Kayjay!’ I am not fit for human interaction until I have had a shower. And yes, I am allowed to take the lift to it. I’ve just cycled seven miles you know. GROUND. FLOOR. Lift going up. SECOND. FLOOR. The extractor fan in the shower sounds more like a jet engine.

Phones. ‘Good morning, how can I help?… I see – when is your meeting?… have you spoken to your branch?… I’ll get the duty officer to give you a ring back…’ Will this bloody computer never load up? ‘Where are we with this committee?’ ‘What’s the craic?’ Always questions. The sickening crunch that means the photocopier has broken again.

The hum and the bleeping of the microwave. The inane witterings of whoever’s presenting this property show. A colleague’s get-rich-quick scheme (why does he never try them, if they’re so good?)

More phones. The tinny Westminster chimes of the doorbell. It is the photocopier man, who is not best pleased at being out here again. Or a courier with a trolley. ‘You coming out for a fag?’ Of course one of the smokers’ phones goes immediately afterwards. ‘No, I’m afraid he’s away from his desk at the moment. No, he’ll only be ten minutes or so. Can I get him to give you a ring back?’

‘Bye everybody!’ And then the long ride home. Whir, gasp, click, whoosh.

I am a tenor when I shower at home. ‘Yes! let me like a soldier fall!‘ The camper the better. ‘this breast expanding for the ball to blot out every stain. Brave manly hearts confer my-hy doom, which gentler wu-huh-huh-uns may tell… and the planet of love is on high, beginning to faint in the light she loves, on a bed of daffodil sky‘. Marie Lloyd used that to prove that smut was in the eye of the beholder. I don’t think she would have had to try very hard, but I suppose they hadn’t invented Eng. Lit. back then, at least, not the sort that deals with Subtext. ‘Beginning to faint in the light she lo-oves, to fa-int in the li-ight and – to die! Come! Come! Co-ome, my own, my sweet! Co-ome, my own, my sweet! Maud! Maud! Come! Come! I am here at the gate – alone! pom pom pom pom’.

The sizzle of hot fat. ‘I know I say this every time, but I don’t half make a damn good omelette.’ Somebody hits ‘shuffle’ on iTunes. Something loud and French. Or something sugary and soppy by the Kings Singers. Bairstow. Jackson. Or Youtube. Horrible Histories (‘My name is – my name is – my name is – Charles the Second’) or QI (‘Good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening good evening’).

And so to bed. ‘Night night.’ ‘Sleep tight.’ ‘Do not let the bedbugs bite.’ ‘Wake up in the morning light.’

A single car passes. And the call of a night train – wah-waaah.