Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Cycling Adventures

A bicycle  drawn by Rosalind Bliss
on the front of Ten Poems About Bicycles
Here, somewhat belatedly, is a blog about bicycles. It’s by way of being a thank you to Lynne, at Dove Grey Reader, who pulled my name from the hat in a draw for Ten Poems About Bicycles, published by Candlestick Press. It’s a beautifully produced little pamphlet, with a lovely illustration of a bike on the cover, drawn by Rosalind Bliss, and I was thrilled to receive it because I was feeling particularly down at the time, and it really cheered me up.

Bicycles have a special resonance for me as my parents met when my mother, cycling rapidly round a roundabout, ran into my father while he was crossing the road. Fortunately there was less traffic in those days, and neither was hurt, but the incident has acquired legendary status in the family history, along with the heroic exploits of my mother’s father. For almost 20 years he cycled around 20 miles to work, and around 20 miles back home (no M4 in : even during WW2 he continued to ride to work, undeterred by bombs or blackout. Then he moved to Ireland and spent the next decade or so defying all obstacles as he negotiated gravity-defying hills and boulder-strewn tracks.

The composer Edward Elgar w
as an enthusiastic cyclist.
As you can see, bicycles hold a special place in my affections, and I felt a book of poems about them deserves rather special treatment, so I settled down to read them, to the accompaniment of Elgar – including  Dorabella, from Enigma Variations, beacause Elgar was an enthusiastic cyclist (he must have been tough indeed to cope with the Malvern Hills) and Dora Penny often accompanied him on his excursions.

The booklet races into action with ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, in which the protagonist regrets turning away his good old horse in favour of a bicycle. His hair-raising ride on the machine (which made me laugh aloud) comes to an inglorious end when:

“It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then, as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek,
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.”

Wheel Fever, by Connie Bensley, where a cyclist’s mishaps prove expensive – and very painful – also made me smile. But there are sad poems, like James Roderick Burns’ Boy on a Bicycle, where the chain driving the wheels around is contrasted against the ‘snarl of barbed wire’ trapping the fallen body on a WWI battlefield.
A wooden cycle is mentioned in Wheel Fever.,
 but I doubt it looked like this  human-propelled
model made in Germany around 1820.
In A Lady Cyclist Learns to Cycle, Jonathan Davidson shows how bicycles helped women achieve a degree of independence, and I particularly liked Helena Nelson’s Bike with No Hands, which is also about independence, and love, and accepting your own individuality, even if you sometimes yearn to be different. It ends on a hopeful note, with two people balanced in their relationship, just as we balance on a bicycle:

“I wish – but then, we are what we are.
I drive with two hands, walk with both feet
Firmly planted on sensible ground. And
I’ve got you. You can ride with no hands.”

Women's  cycling bloomers were
considered outrageous in the
alte 19th and early 20th centuries.
I also loved A Spider Bought a Bicycle, by Phyllis Flowerdew, which for some reason reminded me of the Christy Moore song Reel in the Flickering Light:

“A spider bought a bicycle
And had it painted black
He started off along the road
With an earwig on his back.
He sent the pedals round so fast
He travelled all the day                  
Then he took the earwig off
And put the bike away.”

Nonsense? Yes, I suppose it is, but it seems to captures the joy of cycling, something which is also encapsulated in a haiku written by Coney and printed on the back page (reproduced from, although this final poem carries a warning:

 “The wind behind me
Water bottle is my friend
Watch that taxi door.”

By the way, if you've never come across Candlestick Press (I hadn't), it's a small independent company, based in Nottingham,  which operates on 'green' principles.  It produce a range of 'Instead of a Card' poetry pamphlets (including this one) on subjects as diverse as cats, dogs, gardens, tea, puddings and love. They each come with a matching envelope and bookmark and can be found at .


  1. I love your family stories! Amongst the many things I love about England, bicycle riding is high on the list. Just saw a Kingdom program set in Cambridge, and there were the bicycles. I have rarely ridden since a child, but I know I would if I lived there.
    This was a simply lovely posting. I so enjoyed it.

  2. Oh, thank you so much. I used to cycle everywhere when I was a very young reporter, with my notebook dangling from the handlebars in a protective plastic bag. These days I'm too old and too unfit to even think about it, and the roads in Tamworth are so busy, I think I would be scared, but there are towns which are much more cycle friendly - like Cambridge, and Oxford.