Book & Video: All aboard the cyclists’ special (15m27s)

And as I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey. (Edward Thomas)

Two contrasting pieces about cycling:  a short film on the joys of cycling for pleasure as part of a group and a book on cycling for a living as a courier in London which touches on cycling’s darker, obssessive side.  

We go cycling for pleasure, not penance.

Cyclists Special is a 1955 British Transport Film promoting the virtues of weekend cycling for pleasure using special Sunday train services, with their dedicated carriages for storing cycles and buffet cars supplying packed lunches.  

Starting in Willesden Junction, London (a station close to my heart), cyclists take the train to Rugby where they begin a tour of parts of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicesterhire, exploring the countryside and taking in places of historical interest like Kenilworth Castle.

Once outside the town each group spins away on its own particular route, away from the main road into the peaceful countryside where tree lined lanes welcome these friendly positions that bring their exhaust smoke, no petrol fumes, no record or blaring horn.  Only the humming of tires and the talk that arises between solicitor and carpenter, teacher and typesetter electrician and radiographer; between people of all ages ranks and station, who rediscover their common humanity in finding countryside, exercise and companionship all-in-one.

As well as bikes, Cyclists Special has ties, jackets, cloth caps, plus fours, pipes, Brylcreem, quifs and trouser ankles as clipped as the accents.  Cheery and informative this enjoyable film celebrates the resorative effects of cycling in the country, spending time with people of different backgrounds and occupations, gaining different perspectives and breaking the routine.

There’s always a certain excitement about coming to a strange place.  Over the years you may have trained yourself to arrive anywhere looking as bored as a bactrian camel but if you’re honest with yourself a new place sets you simmering as your home town never could…every place like every person has its own unique history and character.

Containing wisdom such as “a cycle tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint”, it is unmistakably a film of its time.  

However, I love its inclusive sentiment and it reminded me of Alastair Humphries’ ‘anyone can do it’ attitude to adventure and his notion that adventure doesn’t have to be ultimate, epic or awesome.  A bit like Al Humphries’ Fred Whitton challenge and The Office #microadventure videos, Cyclists Special is an antidote to “hype and hyperbole” and, as Al Humphries might say:  “Everyone is invited – and that’s part of the magic of cycling.”

Jon Day’s book, Cyclogeography, on the other hand, emphasises a darker, though no less spell-binding, side of cycling and its focus is firmly on urban rather than rural cycling.  
 

Day is a lectuer in English at King’s College London and spent several years as a cycle courier in London.  Based on his experiences, Cyclogeography mixes memoir with pyschogeography, philosophy, history and literary diversions.  

The title is a play on the term psychogeography which, according to Joseph Hart, “encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore.”  

Day reflects on Baudelaire and the flâneurs‘ roles in understanding and portraying the urban environment by exploring it on foot, and joins Valeria Luiselli and Paul Fournel in speculating on the bicycle’s underrepresentation in travel writing and wondering why there is no cycleur equivalent to the flâneur. 

Drawing on his cycle courier experiences, Day takes us on a journey through London to experience the city anew, and from the saddle.  Weaving through gaps in trafffic, passageways, spaces beneath buildings and other unseen parts of the city, Day portrays the cycle courier as an outsider and someone who exists on the fringes of the city’s economic activity, practically inhabiting a parallel city to the one the rest of us live in. 

Day’s writing is infectious and it is difficult not to be caught up in his excellent descriptions of how cycle couriers learn the city’s abstract properties, its rhythms, smells, signs and textures so that they eventually come “to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.”  

Day examines the cyclist’s relationship with his machine, a life measured in revolutions and also describes the physical and mental impacts of cycling.  One minute he is revelling in the “the sheer joy of being physically tired at the end of a day’s work”, “the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city” and “the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement”, and the next he is discretely vomitting by the side of the road after pushing himself in a street race and recounting stories about early competition cyclists whose obsession led to bodies ravaged by drugs and overexertion.  

Along the way Day takes a number of diversions and examines cycling in a variety of forms including escape, observation, exploration and art.  He meets artist Richard Long and writer Iain Sinclair, who voices his concerns about the changing nature of cycling, its politicisation and its shift from being subversive to becoming a colonising force in the city. 

He also takes us on a literary journey, drawing on the work of writers like Jonathan Raban, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Rebecca Solnit, Samuel Beckett, Robert Macfarlane, Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells as well as Guy Debord and Roland Barthes.  Drawing a parallel between writing and cycling, Day notes that:  

The rhythms of movement provided by cycling seem perfectly suited to the writer’s need to notice. At bicycle-speed your eyes focus on a single scene as you glide past, and for a few seconds you can isolate one incident before you’re rolled onward. Then on to the next. The saccades of the eye’s snatch-and-focus synchronise with your velocity, flicking from rubbish bin to lamppost, from bus swerving out in front of you to pedestrian about to cross the road in front. The bicycle provides a road’s-eye view midway between the ponderous bus-gaze and the start/stop stress of the car.  Driving, in the city at any rate, is binary, reverential distancing.  Cycling flows, converting static and isolated glimpses of the city into a moving, zoetropic flicker of life.

Valeria Luiselli also noted this ‘cinemtaic’ quality of cycling in her Manifesto a Velo (from which Day quotes) noting that “the bicycle is not only noble in relation to body rhythms” but “is also generous to thought”.  Contrasting the cyclist with the pedestrian, motorist and users of public transport, Luiselli concluded that, “skimming along on two wheels, the rider finds just the right pace for observing the city and being at once its accomplice and its witness.”  I am reminded of the truth of this every time I go out on my bike in London. 

Despite the exhilaration and infectious energy of the book, Day highlights a darker side of cycling, revealing the loneliness of the job, human contact reduced to voices over the radio and the margins of urban life, suicides, the obsessive nature of cyclists and their acceptance and deliberate running of physical risks from knackered knees to the ‘alleycat’ street races.  However, even in its darker moments, Cyclogeography is a compulsive read. 

For more about Cyclogeography see the reviews in The Guardian here and here, The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement and The Financial Times

To read more by Jon Day and for biographical information, see here and also his contributions to n+1 and The London Review of Books blog.

Book: Wanderings & excursions of a Prime Minister

The wanderlust is perhaps the most precious of all the troublesome appetites of the soul of man.

Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Prime Minister of the UK in 1924 and held the office on two further occasions in the period between the First and Second World Wars.  He is credited with being one of the three principal architects of the Labour Party in the UK.

337px-ramsay_macdonald_ggbain_35734

He was first elected to Parliament in 1906 but his opposition to the First World War saw him defeated, although he re-entered Parliament in 1922 in the post-war period. 

In the years following the First World War, MacDonald travelled around Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.   He wrote about his travels for a number of magazines, including the publication, Forward.   Some of those pieces (along with a number of essays from other publications) are collected together in a book published by Jonathan Cape in 1925 called Wanderings and Excursions. 

The book is split into four sections covering travels in the British Isles, travels abroad, political conferences abroad and portraits of politicians.  It is the first half of the book, covering about 200 pages which are most relevant to anyone with an interest in travel writing.

Sometimes one must flee from familiar things and faces and voices, from the daily round and the common task, because one’s mind becomes like a bit of green grass too much trod upon. It has to be protected and nursed, and it has to be let alone.

MacDonald is someone who apparently valued the escape and restorative aspects of travel and walking outdoors.  He paints a wonderful image of himself striding out across moor and mountain singing out loud before retiring to a pub with his pipe at the end of a day’s energetic walking reflecting on and comparing his physical efforts with those of his Victorian political heroes.

Travel for MacDonald did not just mean going abroad.  Proud of Scotland and its physical landscape, he could help but note that “no people doomed to remain confined within the limits of their own country have a richer storehouse of treasure to explore than have ours.” 

For the most part, he omits politics from his writing about places, confining himself to the sights, experience and his reaction to them.  

There are places – sometimes great cities like Rome, sometimes only buildings like the Tower of London or the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling – into which time and event have breathed the breath of life and they have become living souls. We think of them as brooding over their past and looking upon the generation around them with the detachment of one who endures in the midst of a world that is fussing, fuming, and passing into a shadow. They are too dignified to speak; they only muse and remember. Such is Constantinople.

He is, however, careful to point out that he is no tourist simply doing the rounds of the sights:

My readers must not assume that, though this journey brings us to new scenes day by day, scenes that revive in us childish delight, we do nothing but go from shrine to shrine. We are also trying to understand what is going on and what general drift there is in the conflicting currents of opinion, passion, and will that reveal themselves whenever we throw out a float to detect them.

When politics does creep in, he tends to be apologetic, although his observations are interesting:

One of the greatest curses of Capitalism is that it robs us of the faculty of enjoying a holiday. Keats, thinking of Burns, reflects how delicacy of feeling has to be deadened ‘in vulgarity and in things attainable,’ because, the more we are capable of knowing true joy, the more are we maddened by the poverty and emptiness of our lives. But I offend, for in worshipping the sun and the open air, one must not preach.

The essays cover travel to Egypt, Palestine and Syria by boat and motor-car, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Georgia. He makes astute observations about the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East and there is an interesting chapter about a trip to India in 1913 during which he witnessed the construction of New Delhi.  There are also short pieces on Honolulu (“the most absurd place in the world”) from 1906 and South Africa in 1902 at the end of the Boer War.

The book contains further chapters which predominantly describe political conferences in Berne, Berlin, Denmark, Belgium and in Prague, although they also contain some interesting observations about those places (“everyone who loves Edinburgh and regards its stones as precious must love Prague”). 

One of the appealing aspects of this collection is that MacDonald’s enthusiasm for travel leaps off the pages.

But the smell of the East is an incense in my nostrils, and its clatter of tongues is music to my ears. I have been wandering in the mud of the city which Alexander the Great founded, which Julius Caesar took by storm, which became the home of philosophy and religion, and which shone over the world as its Pharos shone over the Mediterranean.

For me at least, Ramsay MacDonald’s name conjures an image of an embattled politician with serious socialist views and a political zeal.  In these essays, though, another side to the politician is visible, that of a man who revelled in being outdoors and who enjoyed reawakening a child’s enthusiasm through travel and who could give into the romance of starting out on a journey or thrill at the sight of simply seeing the names of places he wanted to visit painted on the side of a train:

When you go to Clapham, there is no romance about Victoria Station. It is sordid and utilitarian. But when your journey is to be beyond the rim of the world, romance meets you, even at Victoria, and this noisy dull place becomes like the miserable doorkeeper of a palace.

How I welcome the hospitable appearance of that refuge, the Orient Express, with the places I sought painted in red letters on a white iron sheet on its sides  – ‘Milan,’ ‘Venice,’ ‘Trieste,’ andway beyond, ‘Constantinople.’ 

Wanderings and Excursions is not currently in print which is a pity, if unsurprising.  I could not find a copy of the text online even though it appears to be out of copyright but second-hand copies are available via Abebooks, here.

Video: London Bus Tour (4m15s)

Who does not like looking out of the window while being in a bus?

Does what it says.  All footage shot from windows of London bus.  There’s something about sitting on a bus watching the world outside carrying on, oblivious to its audience.  No footage of tourist attractions but simply life on London’s pavements and streets from angles that only double decker buses give you.  Anonymous and never quite sure of what you are going to see, it is one of the city’s pleasures for those with time to while away.

Nicely shot and cleverly edited to synchronise with the steady but infectious soundtrack. The slow motion and use of reflections in the bus windows also combine to give the video a dreamlike quality.

Thanks to The Browser for posting this as their Video of The Day and of course to Moritz Oberholzer for the video.

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Book: Laurie Lee on foot through Spain

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
by Laurie Lee

Published by Penguin (1969)

“Go where you will. It’s all yours.
You asked for it. It’s up to you now.
You’re on your own, and nobody’s going to stop you.”

Laurie Lee’s account of his journey through England and across Spain in the 1930s is a classic and makes the top 20 in World Hum’s list of most celebrated travel books as well as The Telegraph’s top 20 travel books of all time. 

Following the success of his childhood memoir, Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee was a best selling author as well as a poet, musician, artist and scriptwriter by the time As I Walked Out was published in 1969 as the second part of his autobiographical trilogy.  

In an interview with Phillip Oakes for the Sunday Times in 1969, Lee commented:

If you’ve written one reasonably good book, why try to follow on? There’s no real point. You’re not proving anything. The only argument for it is that what I have to write seems to fall naturally into a trilogy. Childhood, then discovering Spain, then the civil war. (published in the Sunday Times on 30 May 2010)

As Robert Macfarlane noted In an article for the Guardian in 2014, there are similarities between As I Walked Out and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts.   Both journeys began within a year or so of each other, 1934 and 1933, respectively.  War awaited both authors at the end of their experiences and both accounts were published later in the authors’ lives; As I Walked Out in 1969 with Time of Gifts following in 1977.

In As I Walked Out, Lee describes how he left his village of Slad in Gloucestershire to busk his way along England’s south coast before stopping to work in London.  After several months in London, Lee departed for Vigo in Spain where he began a six month journey on foot across the plains and sierras to Madrid and then on to Andalusia before reaching Almunecar as the storm of the Civil War was about to break.

In its review of As I Walked Out in 1970, the English Journal concluded that “This is a book for an adolescent its itchy feet and a bent for vicarious living” (English Journal, 1 May 1970). 

In a sense that is fair.  Writing these memoirs was, in Lee’s words, “a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations”.  What he achieves is a vivid evocation of youth, loss of innocence and youthful travel.  Lee’s style is poetic but eloquent and economical rather than florid or ornate.  His phrases are well turned and he uses striking imagery.  

Lee recalls what it was like to be young, to be in no hurry and feel no pressure (“never in my life had I felt so fat with time”).  He remembers his youthful energy and physical strength and describes them in a way that only someone who has started to miss them could.

Lee also captures the pleasures of travel: the thrill of waking up in a place which holds no memories and has an unfamiliar language and likening it to being reborn; the unease of arriving somewhere at night; the unexpected moments which make one think of and miss home; the innocent ignorance and the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having no plan but choosing one’s own path and making a journey happen.

At the centre of this is Lee the wandering violinist, the “prince of the road, the lone ranger developing a “taste for the vanity of solitude”, and it never occurring to him that others may have done this before him.

By the time As I Walked Out was published, Lee’s Spain was already changing.  Retracing his journey for the BBC in the 1960s he lamented:  

I remember Segovia as a place of ragged almost oriental poverty, where a stranger’s face was a matter of unusual interest. Tourism has changed all that.  But the old relationship between host and visitor has been corrupted and cheapened.  Tourism always corrupts and no country can stand against it. 
Lee realised how fortunate he had been, reflecting in the book that:

I was a young man whose time coincided with the last years of peace, and so was perhaps luckier than any generation since.  Europe at least was wide open, a place of casual frontiers, few questions and almost no travellers.   

Laurie Lee and As I Walked Out were the subject of an episode of Travellers’ Century, a BBC Four documentary series presented by Benedict Allen:

You can also hear Laurie Lee reading an extract from the book describing life and lunchtime in Madrid here or read how his journey has inspired others to make the same walk, here, here and most recently, P D Murphy’s As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee.

As I Walked Out One Midsummers Morning is also available in ebook format as part of Red Sky at Sunrise, which contains all there instalments of Laurie Lee’s autobiography: