Friday, 17 June 2016

Re: Cycling (Part One)

Edinburgh is a great city for cycling. Actually, forget I said that: Edinburgh’s dreadful for cycling. It has difficult hills, cobbled streets, roads pocked with potholes and perilous tramlines. Then there are the trams themselves, which are almost as treacherous as general traffic… but not a patch on taxi-divers whose universal disdain for the cyclist makes sharing a road with them a dangerous and unpleasant pursuit.

As ‘professional’ road-users, taxi-drivers show the least aptitude (not to mention, courtesy) in their manoeuvring skills; they indicate their intentions simply by whacking on the hazards. No, Mr Taxi Driver: putting on your hazard lights and stopping dead in the road does not indicate that you are pulling in having checked your mirror. It simply means that you are a HAZARD.

We have a nod towards priority areas at junctions, although these are largely ignored (especially by drivers of BMWs, who I'll come onto later.) Cycle-lanes are shared with buses with ‘Don't pass on the left’ stickers on the back – a patronising instruction as pointless as ‘Baby on Board’ signs when it comes to drivers’ behaviour improving accordingly.

There is a pretty good network of cycle paths formed out of former railway lines, wittily named the Edinburgh Innertube. The down-side of these is sharing them with dog-walkers and blackberry-pickers, more perilous than toddlers whose parents are quick to yank them out of the way. Dogs, however, whether on the leash or not, are usually as daft as their owners.

I could get political about this and talk about various ‘BUGS’ (Bicycle User Groups) and lobbying parliament to improve the cycling infrastructure, but this 2-part post is about cycle-parking. Recently there has been an increase in ‘Sheffield stands’ and 'cycle-hoops' (some, cutely heart-shaped) around the city. Perhaps the most twee are the designer bike-racks by the Parliament building.

It riles me that supermarket cycle-racks are placed in the open air, while smoking-areas are under cover. At my local Morrisons, no-one uses the useless ‘toaster’ racks, but instead use the yellow handrails – one of which has recently been wrenched out of the concrete. But look at the smokers in their cosy doorway!

But my biggest bug-bear is these signs…

If railings are private property, this is fair enough; or where there are safety or access issues this makes sense. However, the attitude that bicycles make the place look scruffy is absurd. In Part 2 of this post, I will tell a story about someone who was sorely offended by the presence of bicycles.


But to end on a lighter note, here is a tale of two bicycles.


Three years ago I took part in a poetry slam run by Inky Fingers, in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling (EdFoC) which is currently running. I decided to take a story that I’d written (and been invited, by Edinburgh City of Literature to read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – my debut appearance!) and turn it into a three-part poem.



Part 1

Just like me, she was orange.
Brightest orange – not yellowy-red,
or the colour of leaves on the turn. 
Nor what those humans call ginger, copper, auburn,
or burnt sienna.  She was orange
the colour of, well, an orange! 
Though I’d seen others of similar sheen,
she dazzled with metallic luminosity. 
I figured it unlikely that I’d ever see
this gleaming creation again. 
Her chrome was grubby,
her chain a little rusty,
but she had a lovely frame,
just the right proportions. 
Sparsely adorned; no extraneous
markings, frivolous additions
or pointless accoutrements –
she was, you might say, quite au naturelle. 
If you don’t mind me saying,
she had a damn fine rack
of gears on her – front and back. 
She might have spotted me
as I free-wheeled round the corner,
but we were likely to be
ships that passed in the night –
or bikes that peddled by in daylight. 
Cycle-romance is only fleeting.
People think we’re chatting
when we’re chained in bike-sheds,
or touching tyres along the railings .
Do our owners suppose,
when they jam us up together
on the bike-rail outside Tescos,
we talk about our favourite cycle-paths,
or moan on about dog-walkers
on the Leith to Newhaven inner-tube?
Perhaps they fancy the idea
that we enjoy a little frottage, or
for all our revolutionary fervour,
we play ‘footsie’ with our pedals.
The idea that we talk is fantasy –
what humans call ‘projection.’ 
Even when we’re made to touch,
through careless application of a D-lock,
our sole communication
is when we clash together. 
It is, for some, the briefest spark;
a momentary silence, broken.
But for most of us, we leave whatever
could be spoke, unspoken.

Despite leaving a cliff-hanger, I wasn’t sure if I would make Round Two, as there were other, far more worthy poems about cycling. However, it seemed both audience and judges approved, and I was through. So my story continued…


Part 2

As I was saying, a bicycle tryst
is a fleeting thing; a momentary jar;
a clash of antlers some might say,
or for us, a clash of handlebars.
For some, a courteous ‘hello,’ suffices;
those with heavy chains mutter, Oi, watch out;
The rusty, trusty roadsters keep their silence,
While the angry mountain-bikers tend to shout!
I’ve had some clashes in my time, but only one
resulted in this love-at-first-kiss thing.
I saw her once again, my orange twin,
shining like a spangle in the autumn sun.
I was innocently drifting along a former railway line
that naively skirts the Seat of some archaic King;
How do I remember it was autumn?
because my owner kept on swerving
to avoid the brambles, prams and dogshit
and, in addition to ramblers, blackberry-pickers
who have a terrible habit
of walking backwards into the path
with their tupperware boxes and Tesco carrier bags.
There’d been no rain for three days,
but still the tunnel was dripping and dank
as Glasgow’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ subway.
The wind, if not the gradient, was in our favour;
He pushed against my pedals with some fervour;
And as my rider and I were about to emerge, 
the light was blinding, and that’s when I saw her;
Or at least, that’s when I felt a momentary surge.
My owner, being more careful with his money
than his cycling, hadn’t switched my front light on. 
As we drew closer to the exit, dazzled by the sun,
he didn’t see this woman enter the tunnel. 
She was negotiating her (my dreambike) through
the railing stopping us from hurtling into the abyss. 
We clashed – smash – with a cracking embrace. 
The gentle ‘ping’ of her bell said all
that needs to be said in a bicycle tryst.
Her basket impaled itself on my handle-bars. 
But like all such encounters, it was short-lived. 
I could feel us both saying, deep in our well-oiled
sprockets, to our respective owners:
come on, this is it!  But they blew it. 
Each said to the other: are you okay,
yes, I’m fine, are you, no really, I’m sorry,
oh no, it was my fault, no mine, you sure you’re okay,
yes, no really, I’m sorry – and so on.  Pathetic! 
Off we rode – or more accurately, were ridden –
in opposing directions of opportunity unbidden.

 As Harry Giles, the compere for the evening pointed out, this was a canny tactic for a poetry slam. “But will there be a Part 3,” said he. Only if I got through to Round Three would the audience find out! Luckily, I made it: I was up against the laconic Max Scratchman – and the audience vote…

Part 3

The shop-bell of the newsagents broke me
out of my reverie; I was back on Easter Road. 
There, on the other side of the street stood she,
my lookalike, dream bike, un-ignited flame. 
I wonder if my owner saw me looking. 
He unchained me, clearly teasing, pushed
me to where she rested waiting for her owner. 
He stopped an obvious while, looking her over. 
Who owned this splendid thing, this ‘his-and-hers,’
this other half of a matching pair? 
She may have been thinking the same. 
I hope she wasn’t disappointed. 
It was for me, in bicycle-terms,
the eternal question. 
But it wasn’t the end of the story. 
Believe it or not, we met once again! 
This time, my owner attached me to the same
post.  We had that moment when our frames
were jostled together, a brief conversation;
a touching of souls that spoke of our inner desires
(which, for bicycles, is all about the air in our tyres,
not our hollow hearts.)  Then I noticed something
that made my gear-cables quiver. 
My owner had inadvertently
(what humans would call, Freudian)
slipped the chain through her frame. 
We had a connection! 
What if her owner came back
and, unable to remove her bike
became frustrated, angry, or worse still, violent? 
Would he return before her and, disengaging us,
leave all they might have spoke unspoken? 
Could it be that our owners might
return to their bikes at the same time? 
If so, would it be a polite greeting,
a shared recognition, or (this was my fantasy)
a discovery of the self
for which each had been searching? 
A part of me (that over-active imagination
with which some bikes are saddled)
wondered if my owner was lurking
in the shop doorway until she returned. 
Then he would appear and unlock
far more than a combination. 
I couldn’t see him – my view was obscured
by my companion’s fulsome panniers. 
Instead, as time ticked on,
I started to form my freewheeling
fantasy of who she might be.
Was she a ‘Cycle-Chic’ type who, refusing to wear
travel-appropriate clothing preferred
to look trendy and seasonal as she pedalled
through The Meadows?  Would she be dolled
up with high-vis jacket and cycle-clips,
sporting one of those helmets
that look more like tin pots than head
-gear?  My owner wouldn’t be seen dead
in one of those.  By the look of her tread
and her mud-spattered saddle,
I figured this owner had ventured no
further up a mountain than a brief spin
around Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat. 
As time ticked on, I felt increasingly deflated. 
What did my conjoined friend think? 
Then, as slow as a puncture, my owner returned,
like an un-oiled chain with a missing link. 
And as we were untangled from that glint
of once-shared orange light,
we both might well have said, I love you. 
But in fact, the clash of conversation
amounted to no more than:
I’m sorry; no really.


Talk about ending on a downer: the sad conclusion of unrequited bicycle romance would surely leave the audience deflated? But no: I won the applause, the slam, and the tee-shirt!

Tune in next week for the second part of this bicycle-rant.

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