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:

Sheridan

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.

The Tour in Ypres

The Tour de France is now over, so I’ve been reminiscing about my one, glorious day in Ypres, where I saw the start of Stage Five. This was the stage Froome dropped out and I guess things went a bit down hill from there. Still, I had a great time. Here’s a couple of pictures for my friends who haven’t had the good fortune to visit a Tour stage yet.

 

We’d arrived in sunny Brussels the day earlier. The Belgian summer left me parched. By the time we got to the hotel room I really needed a refreshing beverage. Fortunately, they had ice cold coke for free in the mini-bar! What a stroke of luck!

Di in BelgiumEarly the next morning we caught a regional train to Ypres, about an hour and a half away. Di was pretty excited. She really enjoyed the train ride through the picturesque sun drenched countryside. The carriage was mostly full of older Belgian men going to see the Tour. At one point an old man in Lycra got on with a Moser bike. People say old men shouldn’t wear brightly coloured, tightly fitting Lycra, but this guy was an exception. His Lycra was faded and greyish, and it was pretty stretched and saggy.

 

Crowds in YpresWhen we got in to Ypres, we followed the excited crowds through the charmingly cobbled streets, past all the parked team cars and associated vehicles. It was pretty exciting.

 

Historic Ypres turns on the charmThe sun was really beating down. I began to wish I had another ice cold coke. Fortunately, the stage start began in the town square, which was surrounded by impressive and historical buildings. I couldn’t wait to walk around aimlessly in the Belgian sun looking at them.

 

Me In Ypres

It was so hot I bought myself a little Garmin hat, both to protect myself from the sun and to show my support for my favourite team. It was very reasonably priced. Or at least I think it was – I was struggling with the dollar/euro conversion rates. Here I am waiting for the riders to sign on.

 

Arthur VichotWe were standing by the starting area, and all the riders would cruise past us on their way to sign on. The Belgian fans would then begin hollering and yelling with glee. Here’s French National Champion Arthur Vichot signing an autograph for an eager fan.

Johan VansummerenOf course, the big Belgian stars got the largest rounds of applause. The fans around us were very excited to see Paris Roubaix champion Johan Vansummeren.

 

Nibali1Then the Yellow Jersey, Nibali, went past and everyone got really excited. Unfortunately I had a bit of difficulty getting a clear shot of him. Here’s the front part of him, on his way to sign on.

Nibali2And here’s the back part of him, on his way back to the team cars.

 

Sunny Ypres After the stage start, the weather really picked up. I decided we should go and explore the town.

Waffles

Di decided she wanted a waffle before we set out to explore. This kept her in a pretty upbeat mood whilst we walked around enjoying the Belgian summer for the next couple of hours. We saw a lot of stuff, although I had some trouble reading the map and we took a few detours.

  Di Enjoys Ypres      Eventually the weather got too much for us, so we ducked into a cafe to enjoy some chips and beer. Di was getting pretty into cycling by this time, and even insisted on wearing my little Garmin hat. Shortly after this we had to head back to Brussels. I think Di would agree we had a pretty great day in Ypres!

 

 

Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley

Whilst in London, I stayed in James Hammet House, designed by Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin in the early Fifties as one of the wave of post-war, social housing projects. It was actually quite pleasant, but looked exactly like you’d expect a terrifying British Estate to look on The Bill: Brutalist architecture, lots of concrete and grim lines and unmistakably part of a public housing project. Tellingly, it’d been brought as an investment property and was being used exclusively for Airbnb, which is how we ended up in it. Here’s a picture of the view from our window:Shoreditch 2

I find British estates fascinating, partly because of things like Hulme Crescents, but moreover because they’re the pointy end of a history of affordable housing that’s directly impacted on my own family’s gradual transition out of poverty over the past three generations. My grandparents purchased cheaply re-zoned greenfield development in the early fifties and built a house, my mother made use of that classic New Deal invention, the mortgage, to buy the house I grew up in which was, oddly enough, a choice she made in part to keep us out of social housing and will probably fund her aged care bills. My grandparents were nineteen year olds with two kids. My mother was a single parent, working as a teacher. It’s hard to believe the same path would be open to either of them today, which says as much about the changed attitude to housing in Australia as renting a former council house out on Airbnb. Yet without that access to stable, quality housing, and the equity home ownership allows,  it’s difficult to see how we would have transitioned out of semi-skilled labour.

By coincidence, in London I also picked up Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An Intimate History, which is an attempt to document both the history of social housing in the UK, but also the cultural and personal impact. Hanley grew up in council housing in Birmingham and does a pretty good job of contextualizing how the personal was shaped by the political.

There were a couple of things I found particularity fascinating in her book. The first is the early history of social housing, which was (Hanley notes) influenced more by William Morris than the Le Corbusier. In the 1880s and 1890s architects like Owen Fleming, Rowland Plumb and T Blashill, were commissioned by the London City Council to build new, quality housing to replace slums. The resulting development, the Boundary Street Estate, is still there. I walked through it and it looks nothing like modern council or social housing.

Hanley makes the point that much early social housing was influenced by people like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. The idea wasn’t emergency housing or shitty houses to keep poor people in; there was a real ideological belief that working people deserved good places to live. This came to a head with Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities designs, first published in his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 (and re-titled Garden Cities of Tomorrow in 1902). Hanley describes his work as “a radical plan to dismantle capitalism through the creation of self governing, self sustaining cities in the country”, making him “more like a cross between Karl Marx and William Morris”. When a social stigma emerged around ‘council housing’, design principles were introduced to make the houses more unique and less recognizably ‘council’.

But then we get to the post-war era, which is when things get both interesting and depressing. At the end of the Second World War, Britain experienced a housing shortage so severe ex-servicemen began squatting abandoned army barracks to house their families. Clement Atlee’s Labour government began an ambitious project to increase the volume of social housing as a response to this. The attitude wasn’t one of welfare but more akin to public health care, education or civil services. She writes, “the 1945-51 government seriously considered nationalizing the entire stock of rented housing.” The idea was that affordable housing would be as standard as publicly subsidized health care, and just as vital to maintaining a healthy, equitable and functional society.

Hanley argues that this never happened because Labour’s housing minister Aneurin Bevan insisted on making the new housing of high standard, which took longer to build. When he was criticized for delays in providing houses, he told his colleagues “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build. We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build.”

Unfortunately, the judgement after two years won out. At the 1951 election, the Conservatives attacked the slow place of housing, promised they could build faster, and won office. In difference to their descendents, they continued building social housing with great zeal. Unfortunately, the design standards shifted radically. Gone were the Arts and Crafts units and in came places like James Hammet House; huge estates and the ‘slums in the sky’ we now equate with public housing. The grim style of such housing emerged partly because it was cheaper and much faster to build with concrete and steel than bricks and mortar, partly because towers housed fewer people in less space, and partly because Modernism was going through architecture, planning and urban design like a virus. 

One of the things I found most interesting about Hanley’s book was the stories of architects and planners in the UK who became utterly enamored by Le Corbusier’s theory that a house was a ‘machine for living in’. She writes:

A retired architect for Liverpool Council, who trained at the city’s school of architecture in the years immediately following the Second World War… recalls the impact of a visit by Le Corbusier on students who… believed that the devastation of the power-war cities offered a unique chance to build a New Jerusalem: ‘All of the students looked up to him as a kind of idol. We saw what he was doing as a way of changing society.’

It reminds me a lot of the fetish for people like Richard Florida today; a collective urban planning desire to believe in a simple answer to a complex problem, despite overwhelming evidence it won’t work.

And it didn’t work. The iconic, landmark Hulme Crescents estate was declared unsafe for families within two years, after serious design flaws led to the death of a toddler, and the buildings themselves were knocked down in 1991, less than twenty years after their construction. Even worse, Ronan Point, a twenty-two story tower in East London, lasted only a couple of months. A resident boiling her kettle caused faulty gas piping to explode, blasting out a load bearing wall and causing one side of the building to collapse, killing four people and injuring a further seventeen. These are extremities, but Hanely’s book is full of stories of buildings that swayed in the wind, reeked of mold, lacked noise and weather proofing and had design features that seemed to encourage decay.

Worse is the culture that arose with it; Hanley uses the example of Broadwater Farm, where poor designed combined with racial tensions, endemic poverty and drug use to create one of the highest crime rates in the UK. It was one of the estates focused on in Alice Coleman’s report Utopia on Trial, which blamed Le Corbusier style design for social malaise in the UK in the Eighties. That led directly to Margaret Thatcher instituting the sale of council housing. The principle makes sense within a particular logic; the idea was to allow tenants of council housing to buy their homes at a heavily discounted rate through the Right to Buy scheme, with the idea that this would create a ‘property owning democracy. As her housing minister put it, “Home ownership stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.”

That sounds lovely, but in practice many residents sold their houses off again, or rented them out and moved to nicer areas. Investors moved in. As long term residents left, so too did the social cohesion they’d created. One of the features of the Right to Buy scheme was that councils, having sold their housing stock, couldn’t use the profits to build or buy more housing. The end result was a lack of housing for those in need. Councils eventually had to rent back their former housing at commercial rates to provide homes for those at risk. Hanley argues that this turned social housing into emergency housing; instead of long term tenants creating a sense of community, estates became places for those too mentally ill, drug addicted or poor to find any alternative.

Beyond just a history, Hanley delves into the personal effects of growing up on an estate. It’s a story that’s probably familiar to most of us who grew up with a mixture of poor urban planning and socioeconomic adversity; she talks of the disapproval towards academic achievement, the latent homophobia and racism, and the weird policing of uniformity. Visiting an estate she finds a group of teenage boys all wearing matching Lacoste in the same way everyone at my old school used to wear Adidas; like a compulsory uniform. I particularly liked her descriptions of going into the university system, struggling with the lack of social capital, the sense of needing permission and approval to be there, and the phobia of appearing too smart for your own good. Whilst we avoided the ‘slums in the sky’ in Australia, the degree to which poor urban planning and poor housing policy has drained social capital out of particular areas seems just as relevant here. It’s a good book, and makes a nice change from reading more academic studies of the topic.

 

I’ve just returned from glamorous Paris, France. Oddly, I saw very little of the Tour de France whilst I was there. Moreover, the two stages I went to see were not in France at all; the Stage Three finish in London, and the Stage Five start in Ypres. After years of watching cycling late at night on Australian TV, I must say the experience was much as I expected it would be. By this I mean it was almost unbearably wonderful.

A couple of images.

1stlivetourstage

This is me on my way to see the Tour finish in London. I was told it would be a particularly prestigious stage, so I thought I should wear a nice jacket and tuck my shirt in properly. As it turned out, most people dressed substantially less formally. Also, I’ve never understand why people choose to wear their lycra racing outfits to watch a bike race. If you’re not racing, it seems unusual you’d choose to wear racing attire.

caravanLondonAfter waiting for about an hour outside Buckingham Palace, the promotional caravan went past. It was perhaps a little more unusual than I’d expected. I never figured out what this Miffy float was trying to sell, unless Miffy’s publishers see British cycling fans as an untapped market.

 

UmbrellasattheTourPredictably it began to rain. All the people at the front were the kind of people who’d come prepared and, accordingly, all had umbrellas. By this point the crowd was seven or eight people deep. Those at the back, who clearly lacked the capacity for preparation and foresight, now found themselves not only getting wet, but unable to see the road due to the barrage of umbrellas blocking their view. They began to shout out ‘Please put your brollies down!” I enjoyed how polite they were. It worked too – all the umbrellas were gone by the time the race appeared.

The race itself went past so quickly I didn’t really get any photos. But you can just about see us in this photo here.

 

Twenty-One Nights

I’ve been bouncing the final edits of Twenty-One Nights in July back and forth with John from Hunter Publishers all week. It’s now less than a fortnight away from being released, which will mark the end to a process far lengthier than the book’s merits may suggest.

When I wrote the very first version of Twenty-One Nights I was twenty-eight, trying to run an unfunded arts festival, start an artist run space, and working as a research assistant. I’d developed a fixation with writing a fanzine that ran to a full hundred pages long. I’d finished my PhD and lost the capacity to write short form essays. That first version of Twenty-One Nights was thirty thousand words, photocopied, and laid out with meticulously unreadable, non-digital, cut-and-paste aesthetics. I’d been putting out fanzines for close to a decade by that point, and this was to be my ‘masterpiece’. I was still surprised when people read it. Unlike most creative mediums, you don’t necessarily write zines to be read.

I’m now thirty-four and the revised version of Twenty-One Nights I’ve just revised for publication with Hunter is an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s almost entirely re-written, imbued with an additional six years of thinking, writing and cycling. I probably could have re-titled it as something different, but the motivation still seemed the same; I still love cycling, I still follow it as a sport, and I still find writing the best way to grapple with the unspeakable, profound and sublime spectacle that the Tour presents to those of us willing to sit up late in the Australian winter and watch it.

This will be the first year I get to see it for real. Just after the book comes out I’ll be flying to London to see the race there, and then heading over to see it in Ypres. Meanwhile, John from Hunter Publishers will be up in Queensland, plodding through final changes, design, layout and distribution. Sorry John. I’ll send you a postcard.

TILT Speech

A while back I got asked to talk at the Australian Institute for Music’s ‘Tomorrow’s Ideas Leading Today’. They’ve kindly put the speech up online. So here’s some footage of me talking about music.

Thanks to the guy who came up to me at the Carriageworks record fair and said he liked it. It’s always nice to know I haven’t disgraced myself.