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DOUGLAS MARCHANT, had a library of over two thousand cycling books and pamphlets, we asked him to recall some of his favourite pieces.
'The Third Policeman' by the Irish writer Flann O'Brien. 1967.
(ISBN: 978 1564782144)
I find it almost impossible to describe this cycling book. Just about everything about it centres on bicycles. The three policemen in an archetypal village are completely obsessed with them. This extract gives a flavour of the book. The narrator is talking to the Sergeant
I thought it would be better to try to change the conversation from bicycles.
'You told me what the first rule of wisdom is,' I said. 'What is the second rule?'
'That can be answered,' he said. 'There are five in all. Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brake first.'
'These are interesting rules,' I said dryly.
'If you follow them,' said the Sergeant, 'you will save your soul and you will never get a fall on a slippy road.'
'I would be obliged to you,' I said, 'if you would explain to me which of these rules covers the difficulty I have come here today to put before you.'
'This is not today, this is yesterday,' he said, 'but which of the difficulties is it? What is the crux rei'
Yesterday? I decided without any hesitation that it was a waste of time trying to understand the half of what he said. I persevered with my inquiry.
'I came here to inform you officially about the theft of my American gold watch.'
He looked at me through an atmosphere of great surprise and incredulity and raised his eyebrows almost to his hair.
'That is an astonishing statement,' he said at last.
'Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?' Hark to his cold inexorable logic. 'Search me,' I said.
'Who ever heard of a man riding a watch down the road or bringing a sack of turf up to his house on the crossbar of a watch?'
'I did not say the thief wanted my watch to ride it,' I expostulated. 'Very likely he had a bicycle of his own and that is how he got away quietly in the middle of the night.'
'Never in my puff did I hear of any man stealing anything but a bicycle when he was in his sane senses,' said the Sergeant.
'The Wheels of Chance' by H. G. Wells. 1896.
This is probably the most delightful cycling story ever and I cannot understand why it isn't as well-known as H. G. Wells' other books. So many episodes remain in the mind, but one will have to suffice here:
After your first day of cycling one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow; you ride down steeples and staircases and over precipices; you hover in horrible suspense over inhabited towns, vainly seeking for a brake your hand cannot find, to save you from a headlong fall; you plunge into weltering rivers and rush helplessly at monstrous obstacles. . . Where the devil was the brake? It must have fallen off. And the bell? Right in front of him was Guildford. He tried to shout and warn the town to get out of the way but his voice was gone as well. Nearer, nearer! it was fearful!
The following three pieces are quoted in chronological order. They express the pure joy of cycling in such superb prose and, no matter how depressed I might be, reading them immediately dispels the mood.
As we sallied forth, the atmosphere was soft and balmy with the odor of wild flowers. The subdued light rendered more brilliant the red of the buildings and the green of the hedges and the fields.
At first our route out of Northiam was largely uphill, over a roughly metalled road, the hedges, glistening from raindrops, often nearly meeting over the narrow, crooked, deep-sunken way. From the summit of the first hill the backward view of the village and the intervening valley was most enchanting. We are touring through dream-land.
Buttercups, vividly yellow, and kissed by the rain, thickly stud the hedge-banks. The yellow primroses, with which Surrey copse-corners were so delicately gay a week or so ago, have now nearly departed. White stitchwort gleams, star-like, in the luxuriant grass; another familiar wayside flower is a tiny blue bird's-eye; and to-day we have wild blue hyacinths in such great profusion that W—, who has a botanist's sympathy for growing blossoms, and seldom gathers such when scarce, plucked a corsage bouquet of them. Thus bedecked, we wheeled along gayly amid the sweet songs of ethereal larks, the chatter of startled thrushes, and afar off the monotonous plaint of cuckoos.'Our Cycling Tour in England' by Reuben Gold Thwaites. 1892.
Every cyclist knows the Portsmouth road between the Hutts, Hindhead, and the Anchor, Liphook. It is one of the kindest, heavenliest bits of road in England. Flying must be something like the ecstasy in which you sweep past the Seven Thorns Inn, out into the arms of the morning on Bramshott Common. It cannot be more than three or four square miles of rolling heather, bounded to right and left by woodland, but as your lungs drink in the air, and your eyes drink in the boundless horizons away yonder over the downs, it seems limitless space; and if you are not singing by the time you reach the danger post at the foot of the common, you cannot have a song in you. By singing I mean any form of voice-production indicating joy - the kind of private inarticulate grown-up baby sounds of happiness one makes only when we are quite sure no one is by, and which we blush to have overheard: the absurd improvisations of a glad heart.'Travels in England' by Richard Le Gallienne. 1900. (ISBN: 978 0559277948).
Once upon a time, on a July day, I rode from Winchester by Romsey, through the New Forest to Wimborne. It was one of those days on which even the unworthy may enter a temporary heaven. For the time I attained the bliss of the perfected cyclist.
The perfected cyclist is a wandering spirit, full of eyes, like the beast in the Revelation. All the burden of humanity falls from him as he mounts. He has no past, neither does his future extend beyond the flying day. If he look at all beyond the next turning, it is to the crowning satisfaction of supper. For him one lane is enough at a time. His is the zenith of optimism. The flower by the wayside is for him the sweetness of the world made visible. His easy downward glide is the very movement of life. Sorrow and pain are far-off accidental things, as irrelevant as death. All toil and vanity his wheels have left behind. The abodes of poverty are bright with his happiness. A puncture, a patch of stones in the roadway, a dust-compelling motor, these are the worst of life's troubles. The goodness of God is manifest in the sunshine.'Wheel Magic: Revolutions of an Impressionist' by J. W. Allen. 1909.
Every year we cycle in the Netherlands and experience the 'still centre of a storm of joy'. To cycle mile after mile without sight of a car!
A new level of happiness. What are the colours of happiness? Now then…. They are cycling past windmill-littered fields when the sun has got its hat on and the gulls are out following the tractor looking for upturned worms. They are seeing the sun flashing in the bare branches of the trees above and looking out, astonished, at the vast green parallelograms of tulip fields. They are stopping on a canal bank munching a pear and seeing old Dutch masters just hanging right there in the air. There are many, many more colours of happiness. They are hearing the music of those barrel-organed streets and being amazed at the constant magic confluence of sun and water. They are doing a bit of this and a bit of that in no particular order. They are tipping your head back and eating a salted herring or else pedalling quietly before the wind whistling little tunes in the still centre of a storm of joy. 'Merlyn the Magician & the Pacific Coast Highway' by Tom Davies. 1982.
It's so annoying the ease with which nostalgia trips you up. There you are cycling through darkest Staffordshire, it's wet and windy and you're heading towards Lapland, and some mealy-mouthed DJ comes on the radio and says: 'We play all the hits', and then churns out an hour of slush from 19- whenever, and without realising it you've climbed aboard the memory train and you're back at that party, on that holiday, in that exam room, in that motel or in that van in the Norfolk Broads and you've stopped pedalling, you're just freewheeling along with a sentimental grin on you face until a tanker covered in dung and the words Liquid Animal Fuel, splashes you with a puddle of mud and snaps you back to the damp reality of 31 July 1986.
I'd come into Stafford for medicinal reasons. A few miles previously I'd had a collision with another insect, but this one was a wasp and it flew straight down my T shirt. One minute I'd been cycling along, proudly in top gear, head up, smug, enjoying the afternoon smells of the farmyards. The next I was wobbling down the road, pounding my chest in Tarzan fashion, my shirt bulging as the prisoner tried to escape. I screeched to a halt ripped my shirt off and the wasp thought about flying off but decided, before it left, it might as well stab me in the belly. I considered putting a puncture repair patch over the wound but instead opted for the ointment on sale in a Stafford chemist. 'Destination Lapland: A Journey to the Far North' by Mark Wellington. 1987.