Some thoughts on watching hundreds of naked cyclists go by on a “World Naked Bike Ride” ;
I love bikes. I love people, mostly. I love bodies, mostly. Naked bodies on bikes. Tops. Mostly.
I’ve always thought of bikes being an extension of bodies. Those posters of apes evolving into humanoids and then humanoids evolving into bicycle riders aren’t just funny, they’re true. Those two wheels are the fifth and sixth limbs of man and woman and seeing hundreds of naked people cycle round a city centre on a hot saturday afternoon was fruity social biology. I love the way that the flab and cellulite flaps and bops and wobbles with an endless variety that is mimicked by the endless spectrum of fancy dress bicycles.
Humans used to be hairy apes, then they became less hairy cyclists, and soon all the hair and skin will go and we’ll just be skeletons riding around on bikes. And everyone will see that the bike frame is just the bones of the body elaborated. And soon enough the bike bones and body bones will mingle and we’ll all be wheeling along like Chorlton and the Wheelies (1970s “kids” programme about the surreal unicyclist creatures fight against a kettle witch.)
What I don’t like about naked bike rides are some of the fully clothed responses. The bald guy with a pint outside the roadside pub laughing and pointing at the genitalia rolling by.
Your bald head looks like genitalia. But I don’t point.
I’m stripping off my lycra.
I’m riding to the beach.
I’m cycling off the pier edge.
I’m cycling the sea bed.
To meet my starfish friends.
The bald headed guy can sit on his deck chair sinking cans of Tenants.
I know where the fun is.
With the seaweed and the bike bells and the bums.
Cycling back to the reptiles.
Revolving back through evolution.
To meet my naked friends.
Everytime I lean my heavy touring bicycle against the inverted “U” of a municipal bike stand it invariably topples over. The toppled bike then topples the bike on the other side of the bike stand. There then follows a very British internal monologue that runs along the lines of:
“OK Lets pick their bike up.”
“I hope they’re not watching. They’ll think I’ve deliberately knocked it over.”
“They’ll probably think I’m trying to nick it. To replace my ridiculously heavy touring bike.”
“They’ll probably come out now and hit me with a saucepan cos I’ve made a microscratch on their classy Italian spray job while I’m trying to nick it.”
The solution to all this neuroticism and to bicycles, toppled like drunks, is magnetic bike stands and magnetic bikes.
If we can magnetise fridge magnets and the bodies in MRI scanners why can’t we magnetise bikes; the bike stand one polarity, the bike frame the opposite flavour? That way we get a bit of tactile adhesion before the lock is applied. That way my ridiculously heavy tourer won’t slide over when bumped by a shopper with a weeks load of groceries or a bad boy doing a pimp roll too near to the urban cycleways.
But no. No one wants to magnetise bikes. No one wants to put them in an electromagnetic tunnel and connect it to the mains. No one wants to make bicycles stick to the railings and the lamposts like hungry clinging flies. Fools.
There is a sign for a motorway service station on the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester that reads “now fully open”. And this fills me with regret. Regret that I have never been to the motorway service station on the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester “now half fully open.” In fitful dreams, yanking back the linen of the dawn, I go to that place “now half fully open”, between junctions 13 and 14, junction 13.5, slipping down the sliproad like a rabbit down a hole. In this place, “now half fully open,” burger chefs are flipping patties of meat not yet cooked, UFOs of bloody mince, hang in the air, unsizzled. The cutlery is not yet stamped out from its blocks of industrial plastic. The carpet not yet laid, the lino untacked and undisguised. The plastic ketchup and brown sauce bottles are translucent, ungutpunched, unfingerprinted, like the hourglass waists of glamour models yet to be squeezed. And there is nothing in the gift shop. Nothing. Except a tea towel of Gloucester cathedral, a cathedral with no roof, just the timber struts of medieval labourers and a wide open sky.
There is a story about the band The Happy Mondays snorting ketamine off the exhaust pipe of their tour bus. Now, call me a prude but that’s not my kind of decongestant. I mean those buses run on diesel don’t they? This is my personal festival fantasy; once I’d finished my dirty low down folk set the band would watch me plug my travel kettle into the cigar socket of my electric car and we’d all have a bag of Yorkshire. Yep you heard me right. Yorkshire. That’s a strong brew. I’ve tried them all. Tetleys. Sainsburys Own. That organic one in the nice recycled cardboard with offset print. Man I’ve busted all those cuppas. But Yorkshire really hits the strainer. We are talking a heavy tea bag here. Think Heathcliff in a sodden flannel bodysuit, think Alan Bennett bungee jumping from a really high terraced house, think Michael Parkinson rollerblading against the traffic with quite heavy pebbles in his pockets and you’ve almost got it. And when me and my folk n roll pals hear the roil of that kettle boil we are rushin’ and I mean rushin’ to open the semi skimmed milk and splash it into our medium sized camping mugs. Sometimes I rev the accelerator on my fantasy electric car. Not because that boils the water any quicker but there’s something so thrilling about the barely audible whirr of an electric car that really makes me want to press the tea bag hard against the side of a tin cup. And when you’ve had a cup of Yorkshire tea rocked off the battery of an electric car then man, you are flying. I mean microlite gliding over the Moors in your long johns. A pair of maracas in one hand and toasted tea cake in the other, watching your shoes slip from your feet into freefall.
My toe nails are longer than they should be. From a societal perspective. From a personal perspective they’re not too bad. There they are at the end of my body, doing their thing, accumulating sock fluff, incrementally lengthening, building a bridge to the toe cap beyond the River Styx. It’s a myth that the toenails continue growing after death; the skin dehydrates and shrinks away from the nail, giving the ready illusion of growth, but in actuality the nail, like the corpse, is as dead as a pork scratching, as dead as, well, a door nail. And yet there is something about toenails that is definitely “other”. A curious adornment to the body, like an architrave or a skirting board in an otherwise functional room. And, like the Outer Hebrides, or the Northern Shetland islands, they’re far enough away to be foreign without being a foreigner, biding their time on the outer limits of the archipelago of British disinterestedness that is my body. And hell its such a voyage to get down there and spruce them up. I mean we’re talking the whole length of my torso and then some. There’s no finesse in toenail cutting, all gutso and noise and bravura, all crimping and cracking. Far better to let them grow and watch from a distance, like a judge gazes down at the gallery, like a Mafia king surveys his underlings, like an Indian chief sizes up the unknowing tribe in the valley. Their time will come. We all have to be cut short one day. But for now let them eak out their long summers in the dark cave of my shoe. Scratching at the toe cap like the entombed.
When I was eight the big deal about swimming in the local baths was not about swimming in the local baths it was about the vending machine. The Metal Emperor of chocolate. The Metal Mickey of salt.These push button vending machines were the pin ball machines of the future. Not the push and shove mechanisms of the early seventies and sixties. Oh no. We’re talking plastic keypads and corkscrew plastic. In the vague emotional places of childhood, mostly unreachable, there is one plastic button labelled “A10.” That button that leads to the “Wagonwheel,” the marshmellow and biscuit snack five times rounder and larger than a small boys mouth. “A10″ was a time when the mystery of letters and numbers had yet to be explained. When it was supernatural that ABC and 123 added up to the sweet and now. And if I want to conjure up the excitement of a humid lobby, the sting of chlorine, a five pence piece in a five pence hand and the anticipation of chocolate and wafer not yet coal tar on the tongue, I think “A10,” and slowly, inexorably, the memory unwinds from the dark reaches of the unknown past and lands with a satisfying “clunk” in the out-tray of my heart.
Now when I go swimming in the local swimming baths I never go to the vending machine. I tried it. They had a different numbering system, no letters, no Wagonwheels. Every single item was available to me. The whole machine could have been mine by extending my credit at the local cashpoint and topping up my rucksac. There was no single button labelled “A10″ there was just one large dumpertruck labelled “Everything”.
So I carry around “A10″ in the inside pocket of my life. At train station platforms, at hospital foyers, at ferry port terminals, the glowing maw of the “other” machines beckon. But I know there will be no button to the past. I know that “A10″ is best pressed with eyelids closed, best tasted in dreams unwoken, best thought of when sliding poetry books under unmarked doors.
Vending machine technology didn’t change that much. But they went and changed the goddam letters. And now everything can be bought with a language that makes far too much sense.
All those comics and sci-fi books were right. Machines did take over the world. And they just keep on selling. Selling. Selling.
I’m hanging on to my five pence piece. It’s mine. Mine you hear me. Burning hot silver in my ungrown hand.
Somewhere there is a bicycle graveyard. Where the bones of old bikes go. They say the elephant graveyard is the place where the old elephants go to die. They know it. Like they know the nearest watering hole. Like they know the man with the gun is not their friend. They know it deep in the back of their elephant bones. “This is where I go when I die.” They are borne with the knowledge of death in their calcium and cartilage. And they begin their slow trudge away from the herd to die alone.
Whenever I see an old bike, beyond repair, embraced by ivy, nustled by holly, chin bopped by bluebells I’m not sad for the old bike. There is nothing more peaceful or pretty than a rusting bike being slowly embraced by the nature that once lifted it up.
“Come home to mama,” the dandilions are saying. “Rust into the earth,” the slow raindrops say. The resprays, despray, to show the pastel colour of the frame underneath, back to the steel core
And like the aging elephants they know they need no compass, no Ordinance survey, no Garmin GPS. No brain on a stick. There is no rider steering them into the final descent. These bikes know when the game is up, when the air will no longer sustain their tyres, perished and unperfected, when the saddle seat post, rusted into the seat tube, will no longer trombone to meet its owner, when the gear cables, long since bled their oil, hang like wicker willow.
In the dark of the pre-dawn. Four am. When the straights are in deep sleep and the party heads are too pissed to notice, they creak through the streets, riderless. From their skips and ditches and unchained bike stands. To the bicycle graveyard. Come home to mama. To the deep dark earth. To the quiet stillness of the end of the road. I love the smell of their musty brakepads. Like mushrooms in the shade.