Lit Chic: Cycling and society

Originally written August 2011 for Fest magazine’s website:

Another bumper post from me today: I’ve had a quiet couple of days. My one fixture yesterday was the wonderful, ebullient, inspirational Bella Bathurst (I can’t gush enough – complete and utter girl crush). Bathurst recently wrote The Bicycle Book, essentially an ode to the joys of cycling, and she brought her own bike into the Peppers Theatre with her for this event. There were some gently amused murmurs from the audience as she pushed it in: how whimsical, maybe ever so slightly too self-consciously quirky, I thought, that she won’t be parted from it. Then came the bombshell (for those of us who hadn’t yet read her book) – she built this bike herself. From scratch. Yes. This is the point where my crush began.

The talk focussed fairly equally on the perils and delights of cycling – the joy, in my experience, is to be found in the equilibrium – and Bathurst was particularly interesting on the history of female cyclists. I was especially amused by her discussion of 1920s lady-biker Zetta Hills, who attempted to cycle along the Thames on, essentially, a bicycle with planks of wood attached to it. The attempt failed, of course, but Bathurst directed us to some rather charming Pathe footage which is certainly worth a look, if only for the joyous plume of spray coming from behind Hills’ contraption.

As effervescent as Bathurst was – talking, for example, about cycling footwear, she declared “I believe in red stilletoes” – serious matters were discussed, too. She feels passionately about cycling as a form of self-medication; in researching her book she talked to a committed cyclist who suffers from serious bouts of depression, and I was struck by her empathy and her belief in the important role of the bicycle in his recovery.

Afterwards, I chatted to Bathurst about my own bike (a bronze 1970s BSA 20, for any other cycling geeks out there) and we compared notes on going up Scottish hills. “You must be very fit,” she said. This is the closest anyone has come to flirting with me for the duration of the Festival. My crush became, at this point, thoroughly cemented.

From bicycle bliss to urban utopias: today, I saw Gregory Claeys and David McKie discuss notions of the perfect society – a rather endless tradition in literature but also, according to Claeys, an actual possibility. His suggestions – that we need to limit growth, and accept that “the sacrifice [to living standards] will be worth it” – were met with approval by the audience, although that ever-present question, “but how would it actually work?” was inevitably uttered, and, to my mind, not satisfactorily answered. No matter – this was an interesting hour of discussion, not least McKies’s research on notable eccentrics – and in many respects did provide tangible advice. Clayes’ comment that “We need to accept that the 21st century is the last century that the human race will have any control over its future” will continue to haunt me for some time.

So, the last 48 hours have ended with me feeling simultaneously environmentally self-righteous for cycling everywhere, and utterly terrified about the fate of the human race. The joy is in the equilibrium, right?


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