Memories · Notes from West London

More about bicycles

Since writing about Cycling Proficiency back in June I have been meaning to return to the subject of bicycles, and to write about the first bike I ever owned. There are over 1500 words about this in the paragraphs that follow.

In that earlier piece I mentioned sharing a bicycle with my brother as a teenager. Throughout my childhood I did not have a bike of my own. At one point my mum bought two Raleigh bicycles, a red one and a larger brown one. Nominally, the former was for my younger sister, and the latter was for my older brother, but I (being in the middle) could ride either bike. It was a perfectly sensible arrangement. There were hardly any occasions when all three of us wanted to go cycling at the same time. By the time I was 13 my brother rarely rode his bike. During my summer holidays that year, while I gained confidence cycling on local roads for the first time, he was working on a building site with my dad.

In the years that followed, I occasionally used that same brown bike, with its three gears, to cycle to school, but learnt how much paraphernalia you need to do it right: lock, pump, repair kit, elastic straps with hooks to secure your school bag, a more suitable jacket than the long blue coat that saw me through five years of school and university. We didn’t have a working set of front and rear lights, so cycling at night was always a danger. None of us wore hi-vis clothing back then.

After leaving school I was fortunate enough to study at Cambridge, a city where many people see bicycles as a necessity, but that brown Raleigh stayed in London. During my first year away I spent more time in a punt (about six hours, as recalled here) than on a bike. The only time I used one was for a journey to Fenner’s, to see the university cricket team secure their first win against a first-class county side for many years. (It was Nottinghamshire if I remember right.) I borrowed the bike from a girl in my year and it was, without question, the most feminine set of wheels I have ever ridden. Without it my prospective travelling time would have deterred me from going to the match, and I wanted to be there. I consoled myself with this fact, self-conscious and pedalling towards Mill Road, and hoping not to be seen by any of my mates.

Towards the end of my second year I bought a bike of my own. I had got involved with a weekly magazine. The music critic was a postgraduate student from South Africa. His time in England was up. He was returning, reluctantly, to his homeland, where apartheid was still the order of the day. There were so many things that he had to leave behind, including the bike that he had bought from a postman, who had owned it since 1949. He had promised to take good care of it. He didn’t want to sell it to some stranger. I offered to buy it. In the context of his imminent return to a regime of institutionalized racial segregation my offer wasn’t a huge consolation, but it gave him one less thing to sort out before he left, and he seemed pleased that the bike was going to someone he knew. A day or two later I walked to his place on Grange Road, paid him the agreed amount (20 quid), said my goodbyes and rode my new possession back to college. The brakes were the least effective I had ever encountered. This 1940s model either pre-dated cables, or shunned them as new-fangled, so the braking mechanism contained metal rods (iron or steel, I guess) attached to the brake pads. I cycled cautiously but happily along the Backs. I was 20, and this was the first bicycle I had ever owned. My mum was not the only person to call it a “sit up and beg” bike. It was solid, painted some shade of green (olive maybe) and it had larger wheels than any bicycle I had ridden before. It made me feel rather grown-up.

During my third and final year at college I used my green “sit up and beg” bike less frequently than I expected, for various reasons. As before, in London, I lacked most of the kit required for winter cycling, and so much of the college year takes place in winter. There were punctures, and the brakes needed regular maintenance. Fortunately there were bicycle repair men employed by the college to sort these things out. They charged next to nothing for their work (25p to mend a puncture) but their hours of operation were rather irregular. You might leave the bike with them on a Friday and get it back the following Tuesday. I also had my own space in the bicycle racks under the college. It reduced the chances of the bike being stolen, and guaranteed that the saddle would remain dry, but it took me a couple of extra minutes to get to it, so for shorter journeys I continued to walk.

After graduation I kept my rooms for a few more weeks. When the time came to return home to London, I made my final journey by train. My mum had collected most of my stuff in the car a week or two earlier. I foolishly imagined that I could transport my remaining bags, balanced on my old green bike, down to the station. No chance. I needed a taxi to ferry the stuff, and left the bike in its place underground. It had at least one flat tyre. It would not accompany me to London.

The following term the youngest child from a local family went up to Cambridge to begin his studies. We knew his sisters well (my brother had gone out with one of them for a few years) but hadn’t hung out with him so much. He was many years younger than us, and went to a different school from the rest of us. These things make a difference when you’re a teenager. One of his sisters contacted me with a question and a request. Did I still have a bike up in Cambridge, and if so could he use it? I answered yes to both but warned her that it would need time and work to be made road-worthy again. Her brother was good at that sort of thing, and bright too: he had won a Scholarship to read Law.

At some point in his second year our Law Scholar friend collapsed during a tutorial. He had had a brain haemorrhage. He was rushed to hospital, operated on, and spent several weeks in intensive care. I knew some lawyers from his college who had graduated at the same time as me, nearly two years earlier. One of them, an old school friend, was getting married that summer. At his stag do I learnt that rumours were circulating about the whole incident. “Did you hear? Some kid died in old [Professor’s name]’s tutorial.” I was able to give them more reliable information. I could have given them his name, address and home telephone number, but didn’t. He hadn’t died. If he had collapsed in his room, alone, he probably would have, but he was recovering from the operation.

His recovery continued. Fortunately the family’s worst fears did not come true. He could still speak. He was physically able. He would not spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, or need round-the-clock care. But his short-term memory was gone. He couldn’t remember anything about the days leading up to his collapse. He could remember things from a year or two earlier, he could remember his childhood, he still knew and recognized everyone in his family. He would almost certainly be able to live an independent life, but it would not be built around the successful law career that he was preparing for.

While he was still recovering, out of hospital and in some kind of rehabilitation, his sister contacted me, the same sister who had asked about the bike in his first year. She had something to tell me, but it was a bit awkward. She had a message from her brother, for me. In a second or two my mind raced around a surprising number of possibilities. Was there some deep-seated grievance from the past? Had I, aged 15, made some smart-arse remark that he had held against me since he was 12? Had I in any way contributed to his misfortune? Surely not. I hardly knew him. She didn’t know how to tell me, not quickly anyway. “You see, the thing is …” It turned out that it was about the bike. He couldn’t remember where he’d left it, and he felt really bad about it. I did, literally, breathe an enormous sigh of relief, and told her it didn’t matter at all. In my relieved state I might even have said, “Tell him to forget about it”.

We do not know the fate of that old green bike, the first one I ever owned. In the 1980s it was chained up somewhere in Cambridge. Maybe it was released by some enthusiast for machinery from the 1940s and given a good home. We do know the fate of the law student who had previously taken care of it. He’s still around. We often see him at mass on a Sunday. He’s doing fine.




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