Cheltenham Literature Festival 2011 again provided a fantastically rich harvest of fascinating, amusing and intriguing talks – including one which you might guess I couldn’t resist; Bella Bathurst introducing her slim new tome The Bicycle Book (link to a review).
I didn’t immediately warm to Bella, I have to admit. She’s scathing about road racing in her book maintaining that it has nothing to do with simplicity and joy – she obviously hasn’t seen Mark Cavendish clinching the sprint! – and perpetuates the notion that “you live like a monk and dope like a fiend” which indicates, I think, an old-fashioned biased view of a sport in which increasingly, thanks to enlightened team bosses, riders are dope-free.
She made it clear she’s not a fan of lycra and ‘ couldn’t understand the thrill of being a human billboard’ – referring to the racing fan habit of donning favourite team strip to go out riding.
Scarcely have I seen an author at the festival who was so po-faced and gloomy – although Doris Lessing at Hay was very resentful about being asked to sign a paperback I’d had for a while instead of her brand new hardback.
Maybe Bella illuminates with pleasure when she’s pedalling. She certainly writes as though she loves cycling. She got into it as a commuter seven or eight years ago and goes mountain biking in Scotland. Bella says she wrote the book because she felt a lot of cycling literature was ‘dry’ or ‘worthy.’
I completely agreed with her view that the basics of the bicycle are about simplicity and joy and the extraordinary sensation of childlikeness (her word, not mine!); that it takes you back to a basic physical earthy joy.
It is a broad church, that of the cycling fraternity. I wasn’t sure I belonged at all as I looked around the audience of geeky-looking blokes, the older guys with grey bears and a woman in a dufflecoat but vive la difference and all that. I was wearing smart office gear, nice top, pearls, black trousers with my cycling trainers (forgot the boots that day) so I am in no position to comment! In cycling, its each to his own.
Bella talked about how cycling is a form of self-medication for some – a therapy for midlife crisis or depression, which I can believe and have actually recommended to people.
After the Second World War, she said the Brits marginalised cycling and then went hell for leather for motorisation whereas European countries didn’t get rid of bicycles to such a large extent. The Dutch particularly made a conscious choice to encourage cycling in contrast to the Brits who listened only to the motoring lobby.
The talk – and conversation with the audience – got even more interesting talking about cycling safely. Bella was sold on doing a one-to-one cycling lesson with an experienced cycling instructor to instill confidence and good practice before beginning city commuting.
She had been to Patrick Field, of the London School of Cycling who gave, not the Government-approved version of cycling, but the “real” version of cycling.
He counselled against the “female problem” of cycling too close to the kerb and urged her to take up her own car sized space if necessary. Patrick was in favour of “owning your space” and feeling confident in that space on the road.
Safe cycling was also about being seen, she said, but again it wasn’t about hi-vis jackets, it was about confidence, eye-contact with drivers and appreciating just what HGV drivers couldn’t see in their mirrors.
Controversially, she said she heard it was still quite difficult to get police to follow up a non-fatal accident involving a cyclist. It figured, she reckoned, because the police tended to be motorists and they liked it that way.
Several people in her audience said motorists must be educated to consider cyclists in this country. In London a significant proportion of cyclists die when they are run over by lorries turning left. One woman cyclist said that in Hamburg, lorry drivers can be prosecuted for not looking out for cyclists when they do nearside turns.
A Czech cyclist who said she’d cycled all over Europe said she found Britain “extremely unpleasant” for cycling as there was “no infrastructure for cyclists” and few cycling lanes. She thought cyclists should put pressure on the authorities to make more cycling paths.
Bella’s response was to agree. Sometimes it felt like cycle paths were traffic calming measures designed to cheese off motorists. She also conceded that cycling could be a genuinely horrible and terrifying experience – which made it even more important to discover how to do it safely.
But enough of the gloomy doomy stuff. One of the most interesting bits of the talk was when Bella described the early development of women cyclists at around the turn of the century.
An extraordinary woman called Zetta Hills, who was obsessed with all things aquatic, was in her mid-twenties when she decided cycling on roads wasn’t really enough of a challenge – she’d attempt to cycle across the English Channel!
Zetta used a bicycle mounted on wooden planks which had miniature paddles attached to the back wheel – a kind of aqua-turbo trainer.
In 1919, she managed to cycle 47 miles of the Channel but despite heroic pedalling, the current sadly took her around in a loop and she was three miles off Folkstone when one of the metal struts supporting the bike snapped and she sank into the sea.
Undeterred by that failure, Zetta decided to cycle the Thames on the same style of contraption wearing ankle length dress and court shoes. Bicycles for women, back then, were strongly associated with female emancipation.
Controversial stuff! A woman riding a bicycle, going where she wanted under her own steam, independent of men, was signalling to all “This is the future.”
Here’s some original Pathe film of Zetta looking rather jolly cycling down the Thames
What a woman!