By Bread Alone by Ernie Old

I had a wonderful time at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last week with Emma Ayres, Tom Doig and Greg Foyster, notably all long distance touring aficionados. Coincidentally, so is the MWF’s director, Lisa Dempster, who rode across the Nullarbor on her Surly. Whilst I’ve done long rides, I’ve never done so without ending back at my house, with my shower, comfortable bed and fridge stocked with carbohydrates. I can’t imagine hammering through a full century with no consolation at the end, other than a sunburnt Tom Doig and a can of catfood.

Moron to Moron – Meat in a Can from Tom Doig on Vimeo.

If you’ve read Emma, Tom and Greg’s book, something to keep an eagle eye out for is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone. It’s been out of print for several decades now, but it’s worth the reward if you can track it down. Ernie OldIn his youth, Old had been a reasonably successful competitive cyclists, finishing fourth and eighth in Warrnambool-Melbourne. His autobiography, published in 1950, captured a rather different portion of his career.

After enlisting for both the Boer War and the First World War, he tried to sign up when World War Two broke out, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too old. To be fair, he was in his mid-Sixties. As a consolation, at the age of 71, he made a 1828km ride from Melbourne to Sydney in a mere nine days. The next year he did a round trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, followed by a 4025km trip from Melbourne to Brisbane. Next, he rode a 9650km circle from Melbourne to Darwin and back, via Adelaide, Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney. In 1948, aged seventy, he rode from Melbourne to Perth and back, unsupported and sleeping by the roadside each night.

His autobiography was published in 1950 when he was 76 and had just returned from Perth. He recalls being paced back in to Melbourne by Russell Mockridge:

In the morning it was arranged that Olympic cyclist Rus Mockridge, a fine Geelong boy, pilot me a few miles out of Geelong. I was then to ride to Werribee, where another escort would meet me to pilot me to the finish. Unfortunately, a cold, steady rain set in as we were leaving Geelong. So I sent Mockridge back, not wanting to see him take any risks on a severe cold before leaving for the Games.

He concludes the book by declaring, “I resolve to visit the wonderland of America (whilst still young and strong enough to ride from San Francisco to New York), as I cannot expect to cover the ground more than another 30 or 40 years.”

Unfortunately he never made it to the US. Instead, aged 85, he rode from Melbourne to Uluru, and then did a trip across Tasmania. He died in 1962, and was still riding up until 1960.

His autobiography is an interesting piece of Australian history unto itself, but also a rare first hand account of the development of the bike. He reminisces about 1896, “when pneumatic cycle tyres had come into general use”. My favourite part of the book is his first memory of seeing a bicycle, at the age of twelve in 1886:

One memorable day I was on the road in front of our house when I saw a bright flash of sunlight on something new and strange coming along the road. Soon a man appeared in the road about half a mile away, with no visible support under him. As he turned a little this way and that, there came the sudden bright flashes which I had first noticed. He came swiftly nearer and soon I was able to see that he was riding a tall, graceful wheel with a little one trailing behind. Soon the rider reached the house, swung down from his high seat and asked me for a drink of water, which I hastened to get.

He continues:

I saw at once its possibilities, the races we could have, the speeds we would attain. Boy-like I at once began to see visions and dream dreams…

It’s a wonderful book, albeit hard to track down. My copy, picked up in a secondhand store in Adelaide, is signed by Ernie Old himself, aged 83.Ernie Old Signature

A Quick Note on ‘Moron to Moron’.

I’ll be in Melbourne next week for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where I’m sitting on a panel on cycling at Footscray Community Arts Centre, along with Greg Foyster, Emma Ayres and Tom Doig.

We’ll be riding from the Henry Turner Memorial Reserve near Victoria University’s Footscray Park Campus (leaving about 1:30) to Footscray Community Arts Centre (where we’ll start the panel at about 2:30).

I saw Tom talk about his book, Moron to Moron, a bit last year. I’ve also seen him jelly wrestling under a bridge, albeit only via YouTube. He sent me an email with the YouTube link in it with the single phrase “Not safe for work” in it. I was at work when he sent it to me, but I watched it when I got home. I had to watch it a couple of times because I couldn’t really figure out what was going on. When I eventually figured it out I  could see that he was right. Later that video was taken off YouTube.

There’s a great review of the book here:

I particularly like the struggles the reviewer has with pronouncing ‘Doig’.

There’s a far more literate clip of Emma Ayres talking here:


Wonder Wheels by Eileen Sheridan

Wonder Wheels

Eileen Sheridan’s Wonder Wheels is one of my favourite books on cycling, originally published in 1956 when she was thirty-two. She’d turned professional a three years earlier with sponsorship from Hercules. In that time, she’d broken all of the twenty-one records kept by the Women’s Road Records Association. She still holds five of them. Now in her Nineties, she’s still the President of the Coventry Cycling Club. Sheridan seems like a bit of a feminist cycling icon awaiting rediscovery; she not only excelled in her sport and dealt with the usually bias, but came out of it happy.

She’s best known for her record breaking Land’s End to John o’Groates ride – 1407km covering the complete length of the British Isles. Cycling tours cite this as a nine or ten day ride. She did it in two days, eleven hours and seven minutes. She also set the record for the Thousand Miles, which wasn’t bested until Lynne Taylor took it in 2002.

Sheridan’s book was one of my first encounters with a particular sub-genre within cycling literature of personal, amateur autobiographies. It’s a form I love, evident in Burton’s Personal Best, as well as Vin Denson’s The Full Cycle and Alan Peiper’s A Peiper’s Tale. Closer to home, and nigh on impossible to find, is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone, written when he was in his late seventies and still riding across the Nullarbor for fun.

None of them were professional writers. Their prose is technically imperfect, oscillating between technical discussion of cycling and obscure races, and reminisce and memory. The tone is inevitably personal and earnest. You can see it filtering through into more established writers like Tim Hilton and Paul Kimmage. Underneath it all is a common experience of cycling in countries where the sport was relegated to the level of a hobby, obscure and almost subcultural. You get the impression the books were written to document something otherwise likely to fade away.

Certainly Sheridan’s accomplishments were at risk of being reduced to novelties. In his wonderful interview with her, written for Rouleur, Jack Thurston draws attention to this piece of film:

Like Burton, she was framed as a sort of comically athletic housewife. The commentator announces, “No wonder she wins races. She has to. To get back in time to catch up with the housework!” Her husband, Ken, was famously extremely supportive, as was her local club, yet their backing was far from universal. In her autobiography, she recalls being critiqued for neglecting her duties around the home. At a forum on sports in her native Coventry it was suggested to her that a women’s place was at the kitchen sink, not on the bike. On this, Thurston writes:

These attitudes go a long way to explaining why women’s cycling was so slow to develop on the world stage. The first UCI Women’s Road Race World Championship wasn’t held until 1958 and there was no women’s time trial event until 1994. Women’s cycling didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1984 and it still rarely features on television, denying it crucial sponsorship money.

Clearly, there was a drain to committing oneself to a sport simultaneously marginalised within the wider culture and riddled with its own internal biases. You see some of this in the bitterness of Burton’s biography. In her interview with Thurston, Sheridan cites the suicide of the war era champion Marguerite Wilson, reflecting:

A very powerful rider. I think if she’d have been riding when I was riding she’d have got everything. But she got depressed and then she suddenly committed suicide. A lovely, lovely girl. So very sad.

Information on Wilson is hard to find. There’s an article here and a short newsreel describing her as a ‘receptionist’ up on the British Pathé website.

Sheridan seems to have taken the disapproval and tokenism in her stride. Her writing is almost constantly cheerful. You can imagine a film of her life would be part Breaking Away and part The Good Life. When Thurston interviewed her, she told him, “I’ve had so many things I can do, I’ve never had time to feel down.” She’d taken to glass engraving, showing him a glass goblet she’d engraved with an image of Chris Boardman on his Lotus.

In both her book and the interviews I’ve read with her I get the sense of a wilful, stubborn goodwill. Where most cycling books will tend to dwell on the suffering, competition and the quest for overcoming, Sheridan writes of cycling:

No sport, no movement, no organisation of any kind can produce finer friends, or inspire greater understanding, loyalty, and unselfish enthusiasm than the great game of cycling.

Incidentally, there’s some great articles on her here and here.

And here’s the back cover image from her re-released autobiography, with her and Ken in their backyard in 2009:


Personal Best by Beryl Burton

Beryl BurtonWhen I was in London I picked up a copy of The Independent with this article on the ‘unknown’ cycling legend Beryl Burton.

Unknown is probably the wrong word. Within a particular subculture of British club cycling, Burton’s legend is on par with Eddy Merckx. The two are certainly quite comparable in that both won nearly everything they raced. Personality-wise, both shared the same neurotic inability to comprehend losing, which combined with their natural athleticism to create a phenomenon. Burton’s palamares includes two world champions, five world pursuit championships and a 20km time trial world record. She also broke the men’s record for the twelve hour time trial. Probably the most telling statistic of her career is her place as the Best British All Rounder, a title she held for a colossal twenty-five years running.

Like Merckx, Burton eclipsed her competition entirely. Unlike Merckx, her career lasted thirty years, she rode without pay, received little or no public recognition outside of the British club scene, and had to endure the patronising tokenism so common to elite women’s sport. Her autobiography, Personal Best, is out of print now, although you can still find copies floating around online.

Burton’s literary talents didn’t match her athletic prowess, but her unflinching personal analysis of her sporting life is superb. Like Merckx, her drive was vocational rather than merely competitive. Her book also covers a largely forgotten field of elite amateur competition; racing top tier Russian teams in Belgium, hammering through rainy weekend time trials, and mixing heavy training with long days working in market gardens.

Usually when you read a book on elite athletes there’s an element of fame and glory that underpins their experience. Key in most sporting books is the validation of public recognition or the pressures of superstardom. In Burton’s case, that’s markedly absent. Despite being one of the greatest athletes to emerge from the UK, she was largely ignored. There are points at which she obviously found this frustrating. After returning from winning another Pursuit World Championship in front of screaming Belgian crowds, her local paper, The Yorkshire Post, “managed all of three inches while giving twice as much space in the next column to a local athletics meeting in a Leeds park.”

With her phenomenal record, Burton did attract a certain degree of media, but it seemed intent on treating her as a novelty. Of the media coverage she had at the peak of her career, she recalled:

Many journalistic interviews I have given have highlighted the ‘housewife’ angle and, while I welcomed the publicity for my sport, it was difficult sometimes talking to people who had no concept of bike racing in the international sporting scene. […] I felt particularly annoyed when I could not recognise what I was supposed to have said when it appeared in print. It was almost as if they had interviewed somebody else.

With Pat McQuaid finally purged from the UCI, it’s worth tracking down Burton’s autobiography as part of the resurrection of elite women’s cycling. It’s also an antidote to the pessimism of the doping era. Burton is proof that people do engage in competition with a whole-hearted and life long passion even when the opportunities for reward or fame are virtually non-existent. She was utterly devoted to the bike, and drew something from it that transcends the usual glamour we associate with professional cycling.

Fittingly, Beryl Burton died on her bike, suffering a sudden and unexpected heart failure whilst out riding aged fifty-eight. Legend has it she was found on the side of the road, with her feet still in the straps. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it seems apt that such a poetic legend should emerge around her death, given she received less than legendary accolades during her extraordinary career.

Fear, Loathing and Community Engagement

On the plane from Paris back to Kuala Lumpur, I read Jacques Ranciere’s response to Gorgias, On The Shores of Politics. He raises a wonderful question: “…perhaps philosophy’s most intimate business: how to deal with hate and fear.” It reminded me of one of my favourite books, Graeme Gibson’s Beyond Fear and Loathing: Local Politics At Work. This is a must-read both for those working in local advocacy and for local government employees who want to see how things look from the other side.

It’d be easy to write Gibson off as a NIMBY but I don’t think that’s the case. He’s too articulate, not self-centred enough and his local council subsequently attracted the attention of ICAC. The book is a memoir of his attempts to work with his local government over development controls and local environment plans. It isn’t cheerful reading. Underneath the detail of LEP reviews and council meetings lies the grim realisation that democratic dialogue is easy prey to loud voices and easy answers. Gibson has an epiphany:

It seems any community, anywhere, that opposes what it sees as inappropriate development is likely to be quickly labelled anti-development, anti-jobs and, particularly in regional areas, anti-the future of young people […] As in most complex issues it is harder to refute a simple claim than to make it. “You’re anti-development” take just two words, while “We’re not anti-development we support appropriate development,” takes seven.

The rhetorical devices through which community advocacy is written off, sidelined or de-fanged are a topic of some interest to me. I’ve been reading Dallas Rogers 2010 paper, “Social Housing Renewal and the Private Sector: Tenant Participation as An Invited Space”, which is a study of the placemaking agenda. Specifically it looks at the use of ‘community engagement’ mechanisms within the redevelopment of an outer suburban housing estate. Rogers writes:

With housing authorities, developing strategies and policies aimed, in part, to reducing tenant ‘opposition’ to, by promoting tenant ‘participation’ in, public housing redevelopments… Activism is seen as an anachronistic response to addressing social problems and dealing with social change, and counter to the focus of moderate strategies and tactics such as community building, asset and capacity building, or consensus organising…

Like most academic work on the topic, Rogers article doesn’t really suggest any solutions, it just trails off into some truisms about “invited spaces might need to be theorised and created to accommodate these factors.” But the statement is apt.

I’ve seen a few community advocacy campaigns, and been inside a few others. There’s a common pattern, beginning when local advocates will rally around a cause for reform and establish a mandate. After that, the cause will be absorbed into the mechanisms of government, where it will usually be reduced in scope so as to limit its disruptive influence. I don’t think this is done with any necessarily vindictive intent. When you drop a rock into a lake, ripples roll outwards until they’re stilled by the passive resistance of the body of water they’re dropped in to. Much the same thing applies to dropping a new idea into the establish pool of governance systems.

Uniformly when I’ve seen this happen there’s been a single rhetorical device at the centre of it: the word ‘community’. The standard mechanism for stilling community activism, and the most effective, is to say, “We’ve heard your perspective, we care and we want to make change! But we need to listen to whole community!” This sounds rational, but it has the effect of siphoning those local advocates away from ‘The Community’ from which they emerged. This will usually happen at the point when the political power of the advocates begins to rival the authority governing over them. The device portrays advocates as represent a special interest group, and re-positions the local authority as the guardian of ‘The Community’ and it’s collective welfare. The advocates have just gone from voicing the concerns of their community, to being considered a potential threat to it.

Usually at this point, the power balance will shift back to which ever stakeholders hold the greatest weight and legitimacy within the status quo, and things will begin to re-balance themselves, returning to normal with whatever tweaks can be squeezed through whilst the ripples are still moving. Should the advocates attempt to resurrect the original mandate for reform, they will be either told there is no longer a mandate or written off as ‘difficult’ activists who are pushing their own agenda.

The paradox here is obviously that once a community begins to represent its own interests, it will cease to be a community and its voice will be seen as problematic. The argument I often hear in response to this is that ‘The Community’ needs to become more radical and should treat local authorities and government agencies as a hostile power. This seems like the same discursive device repackaged: it rests on the idea that one group of stakeholders illegitimately holds power over The Community and must be overthrown so that another, morally better qualified force can represent said ‘Community’ with greater authenticity.

I have a problem with both approaches to this problem in that it seems to assume power rests on a single, legitimate narrative and it’s impossible for any worthwhile dialogue to take place. Ranciere seems to have had the same problem, albeit looking at it with specific reference to the French working class. In On the Shores of Politics he writes:

The emancipation of the workers is not a matter of making labour the founding principle of the new society, but rather of the workers emerging form their minority status and proving that they truly belong to the society, that they truly communicate with all in a common space; that they are not merely creatures of need, of complaint and protest, but creatures of discourse and reason, that they are capable of opposing reason with reason and of giving their action a demonstrative form.

He finishes:

Self-emancipation is not succession, but self-affirmation as a joint-sharer in a common world, with the assumption, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that one can play the same game as the adversary.

This makes sense, although it rests on the delightfully old fashioned notion that all people could act on their rights as equal citizens. Moreover, it also relies on a discourse in which no-one cites their capacity to speak for The Community, because at that point power would re-centralise, and it’d be an argument about who speaks for the common good, which seems to be more about proving one’s legitimacy than producing reform.

A Book Review: Gorgias, by Plato, Penguin Classics, 2004.

Travelling by airliner is deeply emblematic of the modern age. All that steel and heat inexplicably hurtling through the atmosphere would be unthinkable in any age other than our own. Naturally, I find it a pretty gruelling affair. For the first few hours, I’m thrilled at the idea. Then I realise I’m stuck in a steel tube with hundreds of my fellow humans. In such an environment it seems inevitable that civilization will break down. Perhaps that’s why they strap you into those horrible little seats and feed you gruel every few hours.

Ironically, the upside of such an environment is it isolates you completely from the other modern horrors you’d have to deal with during every-day life. I usually get a lot of reading done on long flights, which is quite good. On my flight to Kuala Lumpur I read all of Plato’s Gorgias. This follows from a recent run on Plato; I read The Symposium and Protagorus and Meno a while back, and I’ve been working towards The Republic.

Plato is good reading for those with a day job, for the simple reason that a lot of his works are comparatively short, written as dialogues, easy to read and entirely comprehensible. The Penguin Classics versions have superb introductions for those, like myself, who went to state schools and were thus denied their education in the Classics.

A bit like Wodehouse, they all follow roughly the same plot and conventions. Instead of Jeeves, Plato substitutes Socrates, who invariably goes to someone’s house, asks them a bunch of questions and then they eventually say, “Geeze, Socrates. You sure are wise!” I find this regularity very comforting.

Plato was a student of Socrates, and wrote about him as a means of immortalising him. Moreover, it was a way of getting back at the Athenians who’d condemned Socrates to death for “not acknowledging the gods which the city acknowledges, but introducing new divinities and corrupting the youth’.

Plato obviously didn’t accept his tutor’s guilt and harboured a lot of discontent as to the way decisions were made in Athens; through a mixture of group consensus and elaborate public speaking. The dialogues are, in varying degrees, a critique of the language of power and examination on how language alters logic. There’s a great quote in Chris Emlyn-Jones’ introduction to Gorgias, supposedly taken from a letter Plato wrote shortly after Socrates’ execution:

…I, who began full of enthusiasm for a political career, ended by growing dizzy at the spectacle of universal confusion…

It’s a pretty adept summary of the discourse that permeates governance. There’s a perception that law, regulation and policy is the product of logic, research and democratic debate, whereas the more I rub up against it, the more I realise it’s in roughly the same class as pre-modern myth and fable.

Take the flurry of Richard Florida influenced urban planning, and the fetish for ‘place making’; these ideologies are wildly popular, instituted all over the world and provide a central pillar of much contemporary urban planning and regeneration policy. Yet even after Florida admitted his theories don’t work, they remain popular. The notion that installing some vibrant laneways will fundamentally alter the demographic and economic structure of a city makes about as much sense as sacrificing a lamb in an attempt to ward off a marauding army. From Plato, I take this simple lesson: whilst there’s a relationship between language, logic and power, it’s not a causal relationship.