One day about twenty-five years ago I was bicycling home from work in Fleet Street in London (these were the days when there were still real newspapers in Fleet street) to where I lived in Notting Hill (these were the days when there were still real people in Notting Hill) when I had a bad puncture. A really bad puncture. It was bad partly because the outer tyre was torn, partly because I had left all my bike tools at home. The puncture occurred halfway along the Mall in St James’s Park, the very posh bit where there are no nearby shops except galleries selling terrible old oil paintings in lovely frames, and there was nothing I could do about it except swear, lock the bicycle to the nearest railings and go home by taxi.
Next day I turned up again by taxi, carrying my bag of bike tools, and got out, prepared for a sweating quarter of an hour mending a bike when I should have been at work at Punch magazine.
But there was nothing wrong with the bike.
I looked again.
Both wheels were intact. There was nothing wrong with the bike. Which meant that either I had dreamt the whole thing (which was crazy) or that someone had mended the puncture for me (which was crazy).
I then noticed a little note stuck to the saddle. It said: “OWNER PLEASE CALL AT LODGE”. I looked around and sure enough nearby there was a small stone house I’d never noticed before, so I went and knocked at the door.
‘You’re the bloke with the bike?’ said a little man. ‘I mended the tyre for you.’
‘Well, thank you very much,’ I said, ‘but who are you?’
‘I’m the Queen Mother’s Gate Keeper.’
‘That sounds like an interesting job…’
‘Interesting? It’s the most sodding boring job in the world! I never get to do anything. That’s why I mended your bike. Saw you leaving it last night – thought to myself, something to do at last!’
I used to call on him occasionally after that, when I had time to spare, and we would have long chats about life, and he would tell me amazing inside stories about goings on in the Royal Parks, but the point is that I would never have met someone like that if I hadn’t been on a bike. And I would never have been on a bicycle at all if the London Underground hadn’t gone on strike for a few weeks, thirty years ago. It was the best thing that happened to me, because I borrowed a family bicycle from home in North Wales to do my journey to work and found that it was actually QUICKER than going by Tube. Prettier too. Along Bayswater Road, through Hyde Park, St James’s Park, down to the Thames, along the Embankment. Twenty-five minutes was the average, nineteen and a half minutes was my world record, but that was with a following wind and all the lights were green, and I never broke twenty minutes again…
The Tube strike ended, but I never went back. I became a bicyclist. I got round London on a bike. I would set off for places at the same time as other people in cars. And they would say, ‘We’ll wait for you when we get there,’ and I would say ‘I don’t think you will’. And I always got there first. I bumped into other members of the Royal entourage too. One day a big car turning into Kensington Palace in front of me halted suddenly and I ran into the back bumper. No damage – it was rubber against rubber- but the driver’s door opened and Lord Snowdon jumped out, looking furious and muttering oaths.
His face lightened when he saw me.
‘I can’t tell you how glad I am it was you,’ he said. ‘The thing is, I’ve been towing a yacht for the last few days, and when I felt the bump, I thought ‘God – I’ve rammed myself up my own backside!’
What I had become by this time was the second kind of bicyclist. There are two main kinds of cyclist. There’s the kind that goes biking for fun and has all the right gear and doesn’t look as if he’s having any fun at all. And there’s the kind that goes biking to get somewhere because it’s the best way of getting somewhere, and who looks as if he might actually be enjoying it. That’s my kind. I am not the kind of bicyclist who gets into black Lycra shorts, and shirts which look as if they are sponsored by ten different suppliers of drugs to the Tour de France. I am not even the kind of bicyclist who likes getting in groups with other bicyclists. I just like getting places on a bike.
There was a time, after I moved to the country, when I used to take the bike on the train whenever I went to London. And there was certainly something gratifying about getting out of the train at Paddington and pedalling past all the people you have been on the train with, avoiding their taxi queues and Underground hold-ups. But I gave that up shortly after I was knocked off my bike in Grosvenor Square by a taxi which came out of a side-turning without looking. I think God was trying to tell me something. ‘It’s safer inside a taxi than outside’, probably.
Actually, I’m surprised I hadn’t come off my bike years before, because when I was the jazz reviewer for 'The Times' I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s Club regularly and pedal home at about 2am. Most times I wasn’t exactly sober, and sometimes I was way over the limit, but I have never heard of a cyclist being stopped by the police of suspicion of drunkenness.
Same goes for Edinburgh. For some years I performed on the fringe with a cabaret group called Instant Sunshine, and the first thing I would do every year on arrival was to go to Mr Sandy Gilchrist’s fine bicycle shop on the London Road and hire a machine. Last thing at night, after the show, no trouble with taxis or drinking – on the bike and off to Craigmillar or the New Town or wherever I had ended up that year. The worst thing about Edinburgh, apart from the hills, and the traffic lights (Edinburgh has two kinds of traffic light: red lights, and lights that turn red as you approach), is the cobbled streets, which are charming historically, but which shake everything loose from a bike, including any luggage on the back and any fillings in your teeth.
Sandy Gilchrist’s shop, incidentally, was a good example of the first kind of bike shop, the kind that takes bicycling seriously, where everything is made of lighter-than-air aluminium, where there are photos of Italian racing bicyclists on the walls and where nothing seems to cost less than a £500. This kind of shop is always light and airy. The other kind of bike shop is dark and poky, stacked high with uncollected repaired bikes, with last year’s calendar on the wall showing a Trossach or a Cotswold. This is the kind that caters for people like me, though you can never get served in either kind of shop, because there is always an intense conversation going on about the best kind of gears or brakes, and just when you begin to despair of the customer deciding which he’s going to buy, you realise he’s not going to buy any- he’s just having a conversation. To get served in a bike shop I recommend shouting, fainting, or – perhaps simpler- finding out their phone number and ringing them on your mobile while you’re actually waiting at the counter…
New York was the most exciting place to hire a bike in, but then it’s the most exciting to do most things in. I was turning down a big road one day near Wall Street on my hired bike when a New York cop shouted at me to stop. ‘Don’t go down there!’ he said. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because it’s the Holland Tunnel, it takes all the cars under the Hudson to New Jersey, and if you go in there you’ll never get out alive.’
It was exciting even locking up my bike in New York.
‘Can you take it indoors at night?’ said the man in the bike shop.
‘Not really,’ I said, thinking of my seedy hotel room. ‘I was going to lock it to a railing or lamp post.’
‘Then take two locks and lock each wheel, otherwise you’ll lose it.’
And so I did, and I secured each wheel to a post and in the morning when I came down the wheels were still there, but the saddle had gone. I rode the bike back to the shop. Most of the time remembering not to sit down.
‘You didn’t take the saddle in at night?’ said the guy at the bike shop as he sorted out another. ‘Boy, oh boy, oh boy. Take in everything you can. Good luck this time.’
Cycles are now accepted in New York, but in some places they have always been part of culture. Oxford and Cambridge, of course, with undergraduates pedalling around on old bone-shakers, but I was really thinking of China. In 1987 I ended up doing a “Great Journeys ‘ programme for the BBC in the grand old city of Kunming, not far from the Burmese border, and there were no private cars so everyone cycled. So the BBC put me on a bike as well and put me in the afternoon rush hour going round Kunming’s inner ring road, which is the only time I have ever been in a huge traffic jam in which there were no cars, only bicycles. I did say that I don’t like going in groups of bicyclists, but when there are 10,000 of you at least, there is something exhilarating about it.
I have also hired a bike in Bolivia, where it was so high that you needed extra oxygen, and I have cycled in the countryside near Toronto where the roads are in such a chess board pattern that never turn a bend, and I have cycled in County Cork in summer where there are huge hedges of wild-growing fuschia into which it is very soft to tumble after too many pints of Guinness, but most of my cycling now is done round Bath and Bradford-on-Avon near where I live, alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal. The men who built the canals never dreamt that what they were really creating was cycle paths, but along the canal I now go to Bath or Bradford – indeed, parking in Bath is so dreadful that if I need to go there by car I always put the bike in the back, park on the outskirts and pedal in.
I hear, by the way, that they are trying to rejoin Edinburgh and Glasgow by canal, which is another way of saying by cycle route, and good luck to them. I did once at Festival time try to follow the canal out of Edinburgh towards Glasgow, but I came to a dead halt where it petered out in a science fiction place called Wester Hailes. While I was having a look round this strange new town, a group of residents advanced threateningly on me, perhaps to remove my saddle. I think they had never seen a tourist there before. I made my getaway just in time. Ah, yes, there’s no end to the uses of a bicycle…
The Sunday Herald, 2 July 2000