For Christmas, I got a shoeshine kit and Rosemary Sutcliff’s sprawling rendition of the King Arthur’s myth, Sword at Sunset (1963). The latter is unique in that Sutcliff takes out Camelot and the Round Table, and presents Arthur as a stress riddled, impotent king trying to rally argumentative Celts and fend of Saxon barbarians. The book opens with him on his deathbed, having been mortally stabbed in the groin by his son.
Sutcliff was a best seller in the Fifties and Sixties, writing more than sixty books, including the best selling Eagle of the Ninth series. This was released as a film last year, which possibly explains why Sword at Sunset has been re-published.
Incidentally, there’s a delightfully camp interview with the director, Kevin MacDonald, here:
Most of Sutcliff’s fiction was aimed at children. The oddity is her work is devoid of cliché or fantasy, offering instead a grimly realistic image of the English prior to 1066. This doesn’t necessarily sound like it would be popular amongst Tweens, but I first read it when I was ten and loved it.
Mother gave me Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat when I was ten. I remember it well: the story of a crippled boy whose grandmother is declared a witch and lynched by the local villagers, setting off a chain of events whereby he becomes a monk.
I thought it was great and spent a year wanting to become a monk. I gave up because I couldn’t find religion, but retained my interest in Roman and Celtic Britain. In Year Six we had to play Celebrity Head and my contribution was Richard the Lion Heart, which the other kid didn’t guess.
You can imagine most of the cast of Time Team probably read Sutcliff’s books when they were young. Notably, that’s one of my favourite shows. They actually did an episode on King Arthur, which you can watch here:
Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?: No. Too grim, too long, a dog gets killed at one point.
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.
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. In 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.