from the just-like-the-good-old-days department
Long ago, in a former life, I would escape the cares of the surgery by going out, then writing about it afterwards. There were certain artistic rules: cycle travel was a given; the concentration and physical effort abolishing any lingering distress I might have had from the poorlies I had been salving at NHS-speed all afternoon.
Naturally I hoped the concert, or art show, or talk, or date, or party would be amusing and enjoyable, or at least interesting. If the event was public, and I liked it, I would often write a review on my then blog. On the principle that if you can't say something nice, best say nothing at all, I gave few, if any, negative reviews. But there was always the bike ride. And sometimes only the bike ride.
I was single then, but a family man now. Just sometimes I look up from the trough of our three squares per day, and think "I was free once, just to ride out for adventure in the night, just for the sensation, and the pleasure, and the boasting of it afterwards to my special secret friend the internet, and now look at me, making the porridge, and telling the boy to put his shoes on half-a-dozen times so we can walk slowly up the damn road to creche."
Getting going again is essential for health reasons: my kilometrage has been approaching zero some weeks for too long, and one of my new year's resolutions was definitely to get out on the bike more.
First of course, I needed a bike. Happily I have found a nice one, a 'seventies-era Holdsworth road frame with Campag bits. It's just a tad oversized, but I have oversized male relatives to pass it to when I'm done with it in a couple of months, and with rack, mudguards, lock and lights fitted it's a handy winter machine.
And my second resolution was to scorn the purist and jump the train if the timetable demanded it.
And so all the parts were in place for adventure. I first encountered Philip Lee at show on the South Bank with Siobhan, eons ago, before the move to France. He was doing his thing—pouring potter's slip from a large tray on the gallery floor over his nude body, slowly, over an hour. It was a big group show—a St. Martin's degree show?—and hundreds of people were coming and going as he slowly transformed himself into a clay-covered gargoyle. But I'd happened to arrive just as he was starting the show, and so I stayed throughout, and complimented him on the work after, and he's been sending me emails to his private views ever since. My move to France has meant it has always been necessary to send my regrets, but I've always remembered his work. It was cool.
And here was the day, and there was my bike. And there was the sunshine over Sussex's pleasant valley. I sent off the job to Thibaut. Alexandra cancelled our lunch. Martin was safely in the crêche. Time to go. First, I had to fit my cleats on my new shoes. A short run to the shops had taught me that I cannot ever go back to toeclips. It's bad enough getting used to riding on the left again, and the general mania, ignorance and carelessness of Ingerland's motorists, and lots of unfamiliar road territory, without having to look down to see if your foot's trapped the toestrap. And I've been needing a new pair of cycling shoes for a while now.
I pulled off the tab on the sole of the show, and screwed on the cleats. Whenever I've done this before, I've always been making an exact copy of the position of the cleat on the old shoes, so this is the first time I've had to do it from scratch for more than... fifteen years, I reckon. Blimey.
The sun is still shining as I pack my bag. I wear my summer jacket, but I pack the winter one. I have a few tools and the pump, some Golden Syrup cake for bonk rations, a bottle of water, my notebook and pen, a camera, maps, all in a lovely new Ortlieb. Riches.
I eat a partially premasticated egg sandwich. I drink some water. Now it is time to go. The plan is to ride as slowly as possible to Hayward's Heath, then skip on the train to London, and find my way to Harrow aka bleedin' Wales, for its extremely northerly and westerly relation to more civilised parts of town, for the cyclist at any rate.
I unlock the bike. It looks OK. I think about for a moment, then I put the bag on the right side so its reflector will be on the offside for following traffic, and jut out for a slight illusion of width, and get going. There is a little downhill immediately. As I turn the pedals for the first time at the bottom of the slope, I realise I am going to have to stop and adjust the 3mm Allen bolt on the bottom clip of the Ortlieb to stop it brushing my heel each turn of the pedals.
This I do. In the sun. It is very pleasant and effortless. Afterwards the pannier attaches very firmly. I decide to tweak the stem bolt while I'm at it. It wouldn't move the other day, but I left a bit of lube sinking in, and Lo! It turns. I drop the bars a couple of cm and straighten them, and things are much better.
In another couple of hundred metres I meet Stanley heading north on his bike, so we stop for a little chat. We need to book him a week in advance apparently, such is his oppressive work schedule. He heads off to his society meeting, and I decide to raise the saddle another 12mm. This rocks. Very comfy now, and legs turning effortlessly, there is now no excuse for not fulfilling the plan.
Hemmed in as the campus is by the delightful A27 (Noisy all day! And all night!), there are little cycle crevices of escape, and one of these led me to the foot of the road to Ditchling, and up and over I went.
It is very steep, and I am carrying a few kilos that by rights should be a pig's, and it was a new bike, with unfamiliar gear ratios, but there was that nice wee ring on the triple that I specified, and there was me, twiddling up a valley wall that felt like 45°, but perhaps was about 1 in 10.
I quickly remembered why I emigrated. English drivers are weird round cyclists. If the road is clear the other direction, they'll overtake you properly, going wide. If it's not, they just barge past with inches to spare, causing both the cyclist (me) and the driver of the vehicle coming in the opposite direction intense alarm. The longer the tail of traffic behind the leading motorist, the hairier and more ignorant (in the sense of ignore-ant) each successive overtaking manoeuvre gets. They just don't know how to drive properly, because if they did, they would slow down, and wait for the good moment to overtake, like they do in France.
There was a Stop/Go at the top, and a crew were lopping overhanging branches with chainsaws on sticks. This was good to see, as were the sweeping lines of seedling green curving off through the chalky soil to approach infinity. I did not pause for a moment at the top, but plunged down, taking the lane to prevent my pursuers from cutting me up, and braking rather cautiously for the curves, which were unfamiliar, and potentially still gritwashed by melting snow products from last week's extravaganza.
Then it is flat, and the houses cost a million and are sold by Rudyard Kiplard and other Country Life estates agents, and the post office is in a half-timbered building that hasn't just retained its original features: it is the original feature.
I saw one too many country casuals striding out to Range Rover on gravelled drive in battered Barbour, and I know one should not yield to visual prejudices, but, let's face it, almost certainly tossers.
Hayward's Heath came all too soon. The very helpful ticket agent proffered me a route sheet for the train without being asked, and I accepted all her advice with a slightly cheeky "I am in your hands madam. And a very pleasant sensation it is indeed." This made her laugh, and her younger colleague blush, so that was a result.
My problems set in at Olympia, where the connecting train from Clapham filled up so alarmingly with suited corporate warriors, none of whom, I inferred, particularly wanted my oily chain and muddy mudguards pressed against the lower half of their immaculately clad bodies.
So I got off. Well, I was north of the river: how much further could it be? My knowledge of west London is sketchy indeed, and once I get beyond Harlesden it is non-existant. I managed to find my way from Olympia to Shepherd's Bush, by creating a parallel route to the rail line I had just left and spotting Goldfinger's Trellick Tower off in the distance. Through the straitened squares of North Kensington, where every basement is a luxury kitchen, even if the view from the oak refectory table is to the shoes of passers-by about three metres away. I even recognised my crossing point at the Regent's Canal! Now I was getting somewhere. But also it was 1730h and every motorist in London had had the same idea as I: of heading north and west and out and away from the grimy city where pale, slack faces look ill and tired, and cocky city boys strut and fret, and every shop window offers international phone cards, crap sweets, and maybe some dusty fruit, up the hill through Freyant Country Park, where the queues of traffic are so long and so tedious (if you are not overtaking them all on a bike) that the drivers drift and weave and you think "Are they drunk?" and sure enough they're texting on their mobile phones. I made a few choice remarks as I passed (Dude! You're driving. Pay attention!)
I tried quite hard to buy an A-Z. But newsagents and garages yielded nothing but helpful directions, and even the offer of a lift, which I declined. They are car oriented in these parts, and now in the dark I was contending with two lanes of impatient motorists in each direction, who showed little mercy or consideration for the cyclist, and I thought "You're well off your manor my son," and cursed the unforgiving, harsh road environment for cyclists, and congratulated myself on my prolonged absence from this scene.
At last a kind gentlemen outside a tattoo parlour said, "University of Westminster? Second right and walk through the tube station." And he was right. I found some bike racks and walked up to the door of the gallery, to be greeted by a lady in piebald pinks whose poems, handwritten on coloured paper, were attached on a rack down the front of her suit. This is the clothes sense of frontal lobe disinhibition, but she welcomed me nicely, and I told her I had come to see the show, which pleased her, and I passed security and into a bright light hall with a side gallery, and serious, clever, animated people, and best of all (for there were more than 30k in my legs, and very little lunch in my stomach)... A BANQUET. My kind of show, definitely.
I weary (~0200h, 31/01/13). Coming up in Part II--paintings, sculpture, a show. Images thereof, and annotations.
Update (0122h: 01/02/13) Part II is on flickr, here The brevity of the images' comment boxes is in many ways a relief. (Getting late again, remember Balzac, whose death at 51 was surely not unconnected with his work habits).
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