Monday, 14 January 2019

Why Europe? Peace. That's why

The Brexit debate in Britain has been bogged down in bad-tempered arguments about tariffs and the terms of trade. But Europe is a much bigger question than that

Ever since the Brexit referendum campaign began in early 2016, we’ve been bombarded with economic arguments from both sides. Neither has convinced the other. Leavers cling to their belief that Britain can simply trade on World Trade Organization terms, although they rarely understand what that really implies. Remain campaigners, meanwhile, have continued to hit voters with facts and figures that in the abstract mean little, and have failed to have impact. Remainers have needed to come up with a better story.

Arriving to sign the Treaty of Trianon, June 1920

We have one: the European Union has kept the peace in Europe. This is quite an achievement for a continent on which people have been butchering each other with grim enthusiasm ever since the first hairy hominids quarreled over who should have space to paint bison on the cave wall. I can remember, as a young volunteer in Sudan in the 1980s, a conversation with my field director about the ghastly war being waged in the south of the country. My director, who was Sudanese, had no doubt of its brutality. “But don’t forget,” he added, almost as an aside, “that Europeans were deporting people to death camps just 40 years ago.” It was a fair point, and one also made by a much-loved Israeli writer, the late Amos Oz, in his essay Between Right and Right. Don’t wag your fingers at us Israelis and Arabs for our cruelty and stupidity, he wrote; when we finally make peace, we’ll come together much faster than you did. “Our conflict in the Middle East is indeed painful and bloody and cruel and stupid, but it’s not going to take us a thousand years to produce our equivalent of the Euro,” he wrote. “Our bloody history is going to be shorter than your bloody history.”

The European Union was founded to stop this bloody history, and by and large it has. It’s an argument not much used by Remainers, who prefer to drone on about tariffs and the regulatory framework. When it does get raised, one is often told, “No, the EU has not kept the peace; NATO has done that.” But NATO is an organisation that has no sanction except a mutual agreement to use force, and such pacts did not keep the peace between the world wars; indeed they did not prevent the first one. The EU can, and the reason for that lies in the nature of the nation-state itself.

The concept of the nation-state is quite new. I suppose one could, if one wished, argue that the England of Elizabeth was the first. For the most part, though, the modern country based on ethnic or linguistic identity only really goes back to 1848, when those identities became a liberal rallying-cry for freedom from traditional power structures. Even then, there were few such countries until 1919. Then the break-up of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire meant there were, quite suddenly, a number of states that were ethnically defined. By reorganising the continent along these lines, the Paris peace conference profoundly altered its character in much the same way that decolonisation would affect Africa some 40 years later.

But ethnic and linguistic boundaries are rarely clear-cut. After the Paris conference, countries emerged whose territory did not always match their ethnic base, leaving their own people outside their frontiers and enfolding those of other states within their own. Few realise the scale on which this happened in 1919. Perhaps a third of Hungarians wound up living in Slovakia, Transylvania or Yugoslavia, plus a few in what became Austria. Meanwhile many thousands of Slovenians found themselves in Austria instead of the new Yugoslavia, which itself went to war with Italy over Trieste. Neither was this confined to continental Europe. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks fled from western Turkey. Millions of people suddenly found an international frontier between themselves and the local tobacconist. In some cases, family members even became different nationalities by accident of birth (the writer Stefan Zweig was Austrian, but his elder brother had been born in Bohemia so assumed Czechoslovak nationality). The legacy of Versailles, the Treaty of Trianon (which defined the borders of Hungary), and other decisions at Paris was that millions of people owed allegiance to countries other than those in which they lived, and almost no country fully accepted the borders it had been given.

All of these potential conflicts festered, and destabilised Europe. What could have helped, with more support, was the League of Nations, which did try to mediate disputes (in one case, the Åland Islands, very successfully). But the only real answer was some way of organising the continent so that people could just wander across frontiers if they wanted to, and there was some sort of overarching structure that protected everyone and prevented conflict – both of which had been the case under Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, for all their faults.



Portugal, 1976: Mário Soares takes over (Hans Peters/Anefo)

That was the idea behind the EU. It started with the Iron and Steel Community, the purpose of which was to bind together the Western European economies so that the countries could not fight each other, and provide an area of mutual prosperity that would be worth belonging to rather than fighting your neighbours. Although initially it was just north-west Europe and Italy, in my lifetime it has twice expanded to stabilise regions in a time of rapid change, and steer them towards democracy. When I was in my teens, Spain and Portugal still had their prewar fascist dictatorships, and Greece had a foul military government. When these collapsed, the prospect of EU membership was an incentive to replace them with something less nasty. Better to be part of a modern, prosperous, peaceful bloc than stay in isolation and move backwards.

This was also what happened in Eastern Europe after the Wall came down. In this latter case, political scientist Laurence Whitehead has written of “the wish for modernity”. In a 1996 essay, Three International Dimensions of Democratization, he put it thus: “An almost universal wish to imitate a way of life associated with the liberal capitalist democracies of the core regions (the wish for modernity) may undermine the social and institutional foundations of any regime perceived as incompatible with these aspirations. ...[This] will also serve to generate the consistent and broad-based support needed to bolster fragile new democracies.” This was important. It was absolutely not pre-ordained that these countries would become stable democracies; in fact in the late 1970s Spain seemed very unstable, while in the 1990s the Eastern European states looked as if they might fall into the hands of people like Slovakia's Vladimír Mečiar. The prospect of joining a prosperous, strong alliance was their incentive not to.

Better still, today tens of potential ethnic conflicts are defused because everyone is part of a larger polity that protects them, and if they want to visit relatives or work in the next village and it happens to be in another country, that's not a problem. Ireland is one of the best examples of this, but there are others. The region of Cieszyn Silesia or Těšín Silesia was formerly the Austro-Hungarian region of Teschen; in 1919 the border between the new states of Czechoslovakia and Poland went straight through it, separating communities and causing a shooting war between the two states. Today that border is a benign one between two democracies. Elsewhere, the accession of Slovenia to the EU means that a Slovene who happens to live in Klagenfurt can drive to Ljubljana in two or three hours and should not feel cut off from the “mother state”. That is not to say that s/he will have no grievances, or that an Irish Republican living in the Six Counties will not. But the cause of conflict – a border that separates one from one’s fellows – is substantially defused.



Ireland: Sinn Féin protest against a hard border

Conversely, the re-emergence of borders will revive such conflicts, not least because it would provide a fertile breeding-ground for populism. This is because of the nature of populism itself, and its inherent connection to identity politics. There is no agreed definition of populism, but in his 2016 book What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princetown University, says a populist is someone who claims to identify with “the people”. S/he rejects everyone else. How “the people” are defined is left conveniently vague, but it is made clear that everyone not fitting that description is an outlier, a deviant, or, worse of all, part of an unresponsive “elite” against which s/he is leading a popular rebellion. If someone says to you, “I represent you. You, the people,” you have come home. You have an identity, and have no need to share it with those with whom you do not identify, whether they be Slovenes, German speakers, Jews, Poles, Gypsies, perceived welfare scroungers, Goths or gays. Even more important in this context, you do not need to share your identity with those who speak another language or are ethnically related to the folks across the border. They are not “the people”. But you are. If someone lives (say) on the wrong side the Polish-Czech border, or the Irish border, you will find them a useful scapegoat. If that border has no real substance, and everyone crosses it daily to shop or to visit friends or relatives, it will be much harder to manipulate people in this way. If on the other hand we return to a world in which power-structures are defined solely by language or heritage, we will walk straight into the populists' trap. 

To weaken European unity is to go backwards towards the 1930s. It is to abandon multilateralism and go back to a fractured world of quarrelling, paranoid countries that can be manipulated by the strong, just as Hitler manipulated them in the 1930s – for example by promising Poland the disputed territory of Teschen in 1938 so it didn't oppose his plans for Czechoslovakia, telling Hungary he'd help get them Transylvania back from Romania, and encouraging Romania to join the Axis powers so that it would get Bessarabia (now mostly in Moldova) back from the USSR. It worked like a charm.

To be sure, leaving the EU would make us poorer, but that is only part of it, and it is not even the most important part. The real point is that Europe is an instrument of peace. NATO can only promise to revisit conflict on those who seek it. European unity, however, can remove its causes. It has achieved much in 60 years, but as the British philosopher John Gray has pointed out, history is not an automatic progression towards something better; it can go into reverse. That is why Brexit is an historic blunder. If it weakens the EU, as some on the right (and a few on the left) would like it to do, we will see a vicious lurch backwards through history.


Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from  
most online retailers, including Amazon (UK and US).
 


Saturday, 5 January 2019

It's all about the bike


We all have things that make life worthwhile, because it is for them that we love life. For me, it's the bike


It is November, and a cold morning in in New York. I walk two blocks down to Central Park North, where a line of blue CitiBikes wait in a stand. It’s just before eight and there are still plenty there, so I choose carefully; one of the latest ones, with the infinitely-variable gears, a lovely smooth twistgrip, and a seat post that is not so worn that one can’t see the seat-height markers. My bag goes in the basket at the front, then it’s time for some quick pre-flight routines. Check the brakes and tyres; you don’t want to take the bike out if it has a problem – you’ll only have to put it back and report the fault before the stand will let you take another. Adjust the seat-post; after much trial and error, I now put it between four and five. Then the key with the barcode goes in the slot; there’s a clicking and whirring, a flash of amber lights, then a green one, and the bike slides backwards onto the sidewalk. Time to go.

*

The bike’s been with us a while. Its ancestor was the Velocipede, a sort of weird wheeled hobby-horse that appeared in Germany in the 1810s. Pedals arrived much later, but there was, as yet, no way of gearing them; they had to be attached to the hub of the front wheel, and the only way to get gearing high enough for progress was to make that wheel enormous. The result was the lethal penny-farthing, with its huge front wheel and tiny rear one and its rider sitting some feet above the rocky roadway onto which he would, all too often, be ejected by some emergency, vagary of the surface, or his own lack of adroitness when mounting or dismounting. Nonetheless, as BikeSnobNYC (of whom more later) puts it: “for the first time people could move themselves quickly without the aid of steam, wind, or hairy, flatulent animals.”

And it wasn’t long before, for the first but not the last time, some idiot decided to ride round the world. His name was Thomas Stevens; born into a poor family England, he had moved to the US at 17. He made it round the world in less than two years, via Constantinople, Delhi and Hong Kong, arriving home at the end of 1886. The tradition of the eccentric cyclist had begun.

But by the time Stevens got home, the roller chain had been invented and in England J. K. Starley had invented the safety bicycle, which had (in general) two wheels of more or less equal size, a diamond frame and a saddle not far from the road so there was less far to fall. And it’s a safety bicycle that, in all essentials, I’m riding today. It’s a Bixi bike, first built for the Bixi bike-sharing scheme in Montreal. They’re now the mainstay of New York’s CitiBike scheme, while in London they’re painted red and called Boris bikes after the mayor who helped introduce them. They weigh 20 kg, about 43lb, and going up the Great Hill of Central Park, you can feel every ounce. I don’t care. Bikes are freedom. And it beats the rush-hour subway train on which you breathe in someone’s armpit.

The Central Park perimeter road is traffic-free and takes me up through the North Woods. The trees have shed their leaves now; it’s late in the month. (In New York City the trees retain their colour well into November.) Every morning ride through the wood marks the calendar. In winter the trees are bare but for the brownish remnants of the year’s foliage, and patches of snow linger on the verge. Then as February rolls into March the daffodils appear, buds poking through the remaining snow, and within a week or so that snow is gone and clumps of daffs line the road, which still bears a grey film from the salt of winter; the seasons are changing but your hands are still frozen as you sweep down the far side of the Great Hill, past the Pool and across the Glenn Span Arch, a masterpiece of fitted stone. Later, in April, a green fuzz appears on the branches and then spring takes you by surprise in a blaze of white, blue and green. You do not see this if you take the subway. I am sure Thomas Stevens felt a sense of wonder as he rode into Constantinople on his penny-farthing. I feel one crossing the North Hill on my way to work.

I felt that sense of wonder from the beginning. Some time in the early 1960s my parents removed my beloved dark-blue tricycle with the little luggage boot on the back; it went, I suppose, to a poorer family (or maybe ended up in the canal). I was taken to a shop to choose my first real bike. There was not much of a choice. I could have a red and white bike, or a light and dark blue one. I chose the blue. It was wheeled into the back garden and I was mounted on it and told to pedal. Of course I kept swaying in different directions. Then the day came when I rode down the garden for the first time without falling off. I was six; I am now over sixty, but nothing has entranced me the way that moment did. There was a sense of autonomy, of something achieved, of a barrier not so much broken as smashed to a thousand pieces.

My elder sister tried to knock me off my bike. We played a game called Nine Lives; we rode side by side and tried to steer each other into my father’s rose bushes. I can see us doing that now, some 55 years ago, and the lawn and the sky and the trees and the roses are as bright as a restored Kodachrome.

*

There’s some pedalling to do now. Once past the Pool, the ground rises and I twist the grip to get a lower gear. The North Meadow drifts past on the left; it’s quiet now but in the spring there’ll be basketball there, and brightly-coloured caps and vests. On my right looms the twin towers of 300 Central Park West, one of my favourite buildings in the city, and once home to Sinclair Lewis. More recent residents include Alec Baldwin, Faye Dunaway and Moby. Good luck to them; Irving Berlin once lived opposite me. New York’s like that. The building’s two huge Art Deco towers pass by framed by bare branches; in the spring they will be masked by vibrant white blossoms and in the fall by the flames of the dying year.

I know I’ll see traffic here. There’ll be the odd person who passes me in another CitiBike – of course they do, when you’re 61; once I would have raced them. And there’s a man on a tandem who sweeps along with his six or seven-year-old on the back, a trailer behind for the groceries. He’ll curve gracefully onto an exit somewhere on the Upper West Side near 96th Street and dump his son somewhere, and rejoin us on the Central Park circuit going south, overtaking me again somewhere near the Dakota Building. One or two Lycra louts also pass me by, heads down, ass-in-the-air, on custom-made road bikes built of the finest unobtainium.

When I see them, I think of my sister’s bike. That was red and white, with a single gear when they were not fashionable, just cheaper and simpler to maintain. It had rod brakes. The brown plastic saddle was surprisingly comfortable. One day when my sister was in her teens, my parents bought her a better bike, a maroon Elswick Hopper with three speeds. The red-and-white bike was relegated to a country cottage on the moors in the West of England. She still rode it sometimes, when we were on the moors in the spring or summer. One day when I was about 10, and she 15, she sat me on the saddle and I clung on behind her, legs spread wide to avoid the spokes, and we careered off down the narrow vertiginous country lanes on a late spring morning with the sun lancing through the fresh, bright new leaves. It was a Sunday and the church bells chimed as we shot through a village, and later we splashed through a ford near a chapel where people were preparing to worship, and they looked at us daggers drawn for our godlessness. Later, as I grew into my teens, I took over the red-and-white bike and darted through the lanes with their gravelled crowns and their high hedges that fell away now and then to reveal a valley of steep, bright-green fields and bracken-coated hills crowned with granite outcrops called tors, standing out against against blue skies lined with clean white clouds. Now and then one swept round a blind bend to find a car (the rod brakes worked surprisingly well, when one was frightened). More often one encountered the rumps of cattle on their way to milking, packed tight into the narrow lane, the sweet smell of their dung filling the air.

*

As I approach Columbus Circle the perimeter road sweeps round to the left, and just for a while there are cars with me in the park. I start paying attention, and prepare to cross the traffic stream for my exit into Seventh Avenue. The latter is wide and straight, and heads down to Times Square, which I can see in the distance. I’m headed for 46th St, which I will take across to Second Avenue. I go carefully here; three miles through Central Park has relaxed me but now I must remember than I am an infantryman in a tank battle. But I shan’t let that stop me trying to catch every light. Once, just once, I got every single set on green and sailed down to Times Square in three or four minutes. But I mustn’t forget the bitter lesson that every New York cyclist has learned at one time or another: Don’t run a red unless you are very, very sure.

There are more bikes now, and I’m enjoying spotting the two-wheeled tribes of the city. There are a few of these. For definitions, I recommend Bike Snob’s. Or, to give the official author’s name, BikeSnobNYC. (It’s his website. He does have a real name – it’s Eben Weiss – but Bike Snob will do fine.) His book’s title is Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling. Which he doesn’t really because he has too much sense of humour. Anyway, Bike Snob’s classification is a masterpiece of Linnaean taxonomy.

Let’s start with the Urban Cyclist. S/he (it’s usually a he) is a devotee of single-speed, fixed-wheel bikes, preferably with no brakes; large, impractical messenger bags; relentlessly casual clothing; and (though Bike Snob does not say this) a sort of sod-you mien which assures the rider that he is a rebel even if his destination is actually a merchant bank where he will shower, don a tie and defer to the senior analyst.

Am I an Urban Cyclist? I do worry about this.

“Urban Cyclists endlessly seek ‘authenticity,’ and are often fond of ‘vintage’ bicycle frames,” rasps Bike Snob. “However, since most Urban Cyclists are roughly half the age of their vintage bikes, they’re clearly not the original owners. So really, this means they’re actually less authentic and more contrived than the riders of off-the-rack bikes.” Hang on, Bike Snob, I ride a 45-year-old bike, and I’m authentic. Mind you, I actually am old enough to have ridden it new. One day an Urban Cyclist past me in Central Park, not far from Columbus Circle. “You’re doing all right on that old bike,” he said kindly. I explained that the combined age of bike and ride was 104.

Still, I’m not an Urban Cyclist, because I don’t ride a fixed-gear single-speed bike with narrow bars or carry a messenger bag. Neither do I have the ghastly road manners of the Urban Cyclist, who seems to consider all other traffic an excrescence and road rules an affront. Maybe I’m what he calls a Retro-Grouch (“the Retro-Grouch always dwells approximately fifteen to twenty years in the past. This is because the Retro-Grouch has a passionate respect for the tried and true...”.) This may fit me. I do prefer steel frames. I loathe integrated shifters and dislike indexed gears, both being a pain in the arse to repair and adjust. The absolute limit, for me, are electric dérailleurs. I mean, just get a bloody car.

*

Today my CitiBike is taking me to work. But once upon a time a bike was an escape from hell.

At 13 I was packed off to a boarding school in North Oxfordshire, in the heart of England. Built in the 1850s, the school was basically a cut-price Hogwarts, without the magic. The dormitories were cold and the food indifferent. One of the vilest things about the school was the cadet force. As a young elite, we were supposedly being trained to control and direct the less fortunate of the Empire (which even then had slipped away). So we were expected to emerge from school with a basic military training. Every Thursday we would parade in full uniform in a windy playground and learn drill, and in the summer months we would bump through country lanes in the back of army Land Rovers to a firing range where we would learn to shoot with .303 rifles that had been obsolete in 1939 and whose recoil smashed back into your shoulder. Meanwhile the parades were the occasion for near constant screeching as some empowered 16-year-old, made an “NCO”, would find fault with your webbing straps. I hated the place.

One memory is especially stark. On Sunday morning there were two chapel services. You could go at seven or you could go at nine. If you went at seven and had breakfast afterwards, you would get butter. If you went at nine and ate after that, you got margarine. A nasty, cheap value judgement on those who chose to get some sleep on a Sunday; God knew we got little of it for the rest of the week. But I went to early chapel, had my butter – and then slipped out of the school on my racing bike and hit the country lanes around the school.

In those years I acquired a love of the Middle English countryside; the gentle hills, hedgerows, woods and soft light, the hazy clouds drifting across the horizon, the winding roads and the sudden vistas, the ancient pre-Roman fort that rose above the fields near Banbury, the long quiet roads between sleepy country towns. Nearly 50 years on, random images are with me. Riding across the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border and feeling that the quality of the light had changed, that it was softer; an old man in a Mini on his way to market, with collarless shirt, watch-chain and pork-pie hat; Land Rovers so well-used that they seemed to have merged with the countryside.

I had an Ordnance Survey map that became crinkled and creased with use. I would search it for the strange diagrams that told of an abandoned airfield, for there were still many of them then, a legacy of a war that had really not ended that long before. Some turned out to be ploughed up; at others, a farmer’s gate lay across the entrance. But sometimes you could ride onto the main runway and feel the ghosts all around you. At other times I would sweep up and down the rolling South Midland hills, through stone-built villages, past abandoned quarries or huge churches whose bells tolled on Sundays and whose sound lingered from village to village. For a few hours, the bleak aggression of school was forgotten.

I learned then that the bike has a special purpose. You need no fuel, no-one’s permission; you are gone. It is a way of saying, fuck you.

*
I rattle south down Seventh Avenue. I’m quite lucky with the lights today, but there’s an Urban Cyclist who thinks I’m in his way. (I’m not. He seems to think I should ride into the back of a parked car rather than move to its side and make him do so too.) It’s the usual obstacle course of yellow cabs pulling in, yellow cabs pulling out, beer trucks, somnambulent pedestrians staring at their phones and people darting out between parked cars. (The beer trucks I do not mind. They do God’s work.)

Williamsburg Bridge (M.Robbins)
Bike Snob has plenty of other stereotypes for us besides Urban Cyclist and Retro-Grouch. I rather like what he calls the Beautiful Godzilla (“...who rides as though the rest of the world were created simply to yield to her. She’s generally young, good-looking, and clad in expensive clothes. ...She’s on her cell phone at all times...”.) I give her a wide berth. In fact, I give a few things a wide berth. As Bike Snob says, “It is sobering to think that, as a cyclist, all that’s between you and being run over by a Ford Explorer is the driver bending down for half a second to retrieve a dropped McNugget.”

I was reckless once. One day in the early 1980s a friend from Birmingham was staying with me in London and I spent the night drinking with him in the Ship and Shovel below Hungerford Bridge. Tossed out at closing time, we decided he should not take the Tube alone (my part of London was then dodgy at night). “Get on the saddle,” I told him. He did so, and it promptly tipped backwards (I kept the saddle loose so I could tip it forward when I stopped). Finally he got his balance and I drove us south across Waterloo Bridge and around the big roundabout at its base, along the South Bank, through the Vauxhall Cross and down South Lambeth Road without serious incident. I would not do it now.

Bike Snob reckons you’re safer if you obey the rules. Cross on a red, he says, and you’ll probably hit some other idiot cyclist doing the same thing. He’s right. In New York City the bike lanes have dedicated lights for bikes, designed to let you cross the junction when no-one’s turning across your path. Jump those lights and they might be. Neither do I approve of what New York cyclists call ‘salmoning’ - going the wrong way up a street or bike lane like a salmon going upstream to spawn.

Here the main offenders, apart from Urban Cyclists, are the takeout delivery riders. These are a menace. Many ride electric bikes – not power-assisted pedelecs, which are legal in New York, but actual powered bikes, which are not, but are widely tolerated. They weigh three times as much as an ordinary bike and are a lot faster. You do not want to meet them coming the other way. And yet I have a certain sympathy. The pizza delivery riders (a tribe Bike Snob doesn’t talk of much) are at the bottom of the city anthill, striving to make a living in the cold and the heat, often born somewhere else, maybe undocumented, almost certainly uninsured.

One day I am riding north along the bike lane on First Avenue. It’s a busy spring rush-hour and the lane is packed with Urban Cyclists, commuters on old road bikes, young women with full baskets and people like myself on CitiBikes. Ahead of me is a large young man on a very smart mountain-bike, dressed in the latest Lycra gear and brightly-coloured helmet. Suddenly a short, squat man of Asian appearance, with backward baseball cap and grimy anorak, appears around the corner ahead and charges towards us on an old mountain bike, not powered, the sort of old wreck the pizza guys use, with tape round its frame to guard against knocks. The two brake, feint to one side and another and nearly collide and then the large man blocks the Asian and screams at him “You’re going the wrong way! You… Are… Going… The… Wrong… Way!” as if he were a drill sergeant and the Asian guy was a raw recruit who just shat the bed. I rode past. Dude, I thought, I hope you order in a pizza tonight and it comes late and cold, with a roach in it.

*
One tribe that Bike Snob does not discuss much is the Righteous Cyclist, who rides because it’s a green thing to do, has a bike rescued from a dumpster and is convinced s/he are saving the world. Bike Snob does not seem to like them. He may be right. No-one loves the miasma of self-satisfaction that wafts around the righteous. And yet the fact is, they have a point. Journalist Peter Walker’s splendid 2017 book How Cycling Can Save the World is an informative and readable guide to how bikes can do just that.

Walker points out that the cyclist’s emissions, for a start, are lower. Of course cyclists do have emissions. Bikes are built of steel, or aluminium, or titanium, which takes energy to manufacture (unless you have a bamboo bike; still, that’s not a big business just yet). And of course cyclists use extra energy, so consume more food, which takes up more land, and if they’re on a healthy diet they’re probably emitting quite a lot of methane as well. Still, Walker cites a 2011 study by the European Cyclists’ Federation that factored in all of this (except perhaps the methane) and found that a cyclist emits 21g/Km of CO2, against 101 per bus passenger and 271 per car passenger. Interestingly, e-bikes emitted only 1g/km more than bikes (though it’s not clear what kind of e-bikes they’re talking about). But Walker also quotes a US study that found e-bikes can be more efficient than rail.

And of course cycling is good for you.

“Along with lower weight, cycling brings astonishing improvements to cardiovascular health,” says Walker, and reports a study in the north of England that found 32 regular cyclists had a “very significantly lower incidence of blocked arteries or other coronary obstructions.” Mind you, this survey was from post-mortems, and some of those cyclists had perhaps been killed in traffic, as cyclists far too often are. Walker acknowledges the dangers but again, he marshals evidence; the health benefits outweigh the danger of cycling. This time he quotes a Utrecht University study that found the health benefits of cycling exceeded the danger of accidental death by nine to one. This was in the bike-friendly Netherlands, where bikes are often separated from other traffic. Even in more dangerous Britain, however, “the life-extending benefits were greater by a factor of seven.” Walker does not say how the comparators were defined; after all, a non-cyclist need not be unfit. But it’s true there’s widespread evidence that the health benefits of regular cycling outweigh the dangers of accidents and pollution.

In fact, bikes can make you better. The exercise releases endorphins, gets your weight down, strengthens your heart and, maybe just as important, it makes you feel better about yourself. “In an age where there’s a pill for everything, exercise is the billion dollar drug that never gets prescribed,” says one cyclist, Phil Southerland, who took up cycling and found it greatly helped with Type 1 diabetes. He’s quoted in a rather nice book by Anna Hughes, called Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling (2017). Hughes teaches cycling, repairs bikes and writes for a living, and has cycled around the coast of Britain and down its length. She quotes a couple of stories like this – the most astonishing that of Dr Nan Little, who turned to cycling as a treatment for Parkinson’s and saw a very marked improvement in her condition. She took to bikes as part of a trial treatment programme for Parkinson’s run by a Dr Jay Alberts, who says that vigorous cycling increases brain function and this seems to ease the symptoms.

*

Of course, some of this is in your head. But it’s no less real for that.

Cycling really is inspirational. As we’ve seen, Hughes’s book tells us how bikes have made people better. But she has much else to tell, and this is a delightful book to dip into, or keep by your bed, or to read when the world seems dull. Hughes tells us (for example) of the Women’s Rescue League of America, which at the end of the 19th century warned that cycling was unladylike and unchristian and could cause both infertility and sexual satisfaction (they thought the latter evil). They had opposition. Hughes quotes one Ann Strong, writing in the Minneapolis Tribune in 1895: “Bicycles are just as good company as most husbands, and when they get shabby or old a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the whole community.” Meanwhile in Britain two years earlier, a 16-year-old called Tessie Reynolds had ridden from Brighton to London and back in just eight and a half hours. Moreover she did it in pantaloons, to the horror of some. But the die was cast. The new safety bicycle was a liberation, and women did not intend to be left out.

Annie Kopchovsky wasn’t, anyway. Hughes records that this mother-of-three set off from Boston in June 1894 to win a bet by cycling around the world. She left home, says Hughes, with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, riding a Columbia women’s bike weighing a stonking 42lb, very nearly as much as a CitiBike. Rechristening herself Annie Londonderry, she had a bit of a false start; the Columbia was too heavy and after riding it to Chicago, she swapped it for a 21lb Sterling and started back the other way. From then on she was in business. As Hughes recounts:

Bold, charismatic and beautiful, she captured the imagination of the world’s press … she proved to be an excellent speaker, enthralling audiences with her tales, and an excellent rider ...Posters and placards covered her and her bicycle, and she was often dressed head to toe in ribbons advertising anything from milk to perfume.

She won her bet.

Men have never had it their own way in the cycling world. Hughes talks too of Eileen Sheridan, who in 1954 smashed her way from Land’s End to John o’Groats in just two days, 11 hours and seven minutes. It is 870 miles. Sheridan kept riding to make it the round 1,000 miles, which she did in three days and an hour. Hughes inspired me to find out more about Sheridan; now 95, she was just 4ft 11in and famous for the gusto with which she rode – pictures show her wearing a big, cheerful grin on her bike. The 1,000-mile record stood until 2002. Sheridan’s London to Edinburgh record has, to this day, not been beaten. The 1,000-mile bike rests today in Coventry Transport Museum. One day I shall go there, and stand before it in awe.

Greatest ever? Eileen Sheridan
There is much more to inspire in Hughes’s likeable book. Not least the story of Rob Holden, who decided to ride up Mont Ventoux on a Boris bike. This is the London version of the CitiBike (it is, in fact, the same bike) and is named after the mayor who brought it about. Mont Ventoux is the 6,000ft+ peak in the South of France that has tortured many a rider on the Tour de France, and has killed at least one (the great British cyclist Tommy Simpson, who collapsed and died just below the summit on the 1967 Tour – an incident I can just remember). A Boris bike weighs about 43lb so Holden was clearly mad. In any case, he could only book it out for 24 hours. But he decided to get it there, make the climb and get it back in that time. “We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into,” one of Holden’s friends admits afterwards. Did they succeed? The answer’s in the book.
*

This November morning I’m on much the same bike as Holden was, but my more modest journey is nearly over. I’ve made it down Seventh Avenue nearly to Times Square, and it’s time for me to steer for the East Side. I swing into 46th Street, which crosses Park Avenue just where the latter vanishes under the buildings to make its bifurcated way past Grand Central Station. Today the junction’s busy and I pause for a while; it’s quite cold. Nowadays the cold affects my hands; even in mittens they become numb.

As a young man I had no fear of it. In 1985 I was a traffic broadcaster for the motoring organization, the RAC, and sometimes worked an early shift, with my first broadcast at 5.30 or so. The tube trains were not reliable enough at that hour, so I rode in the three or four miles from Stockwell on my bike. In summer this could be a wonderful journey, free of traffic, passing along the Lambeth Embankment and across Lambeth Bridge and seeing the Palace of Westminster mirrored perfectly in the Thames in the calm of the morning. But January 1985 was very bad. I borrowed bright-blue salopettes from my cousin and disinterred an old pair of high-heeled cowboy boots that had been fashionable some years before; I also wore a balaclava with a narrow space for the eyes. I looked like a Ruritanian paratrooper on his way to commit a burglary.

Here in New York I mostly find a leather jacket and jeans sufficient; only when it dips below 40 deg F will I need an outer coat. But sometimes when it is very cold, the ride has its rewards. One bitter day in mid-December 2016 I was a little late, and found myself the only person riding north through the darkness of Central Park. I breathed deeply as I struggle up the hill towards the reservoir. Then I came out on the long stretch past the Guggenheim; it was deserted, but a huge full moon has risen above the Upper East Side and was flooding the world with gold, and the frost on the surface, the snow and the ice glistened like jewels in the half-light.
*

When spring does come, I may ride both ways, using either of my two road bikes. One’s a Fuji that is light and well-made but has somehow never charmed me. And there is my Panasonic.


Fuji up on the roof (M.Robbins)
Bike maintenance has its nice side. In a warm garage on a chilly night, for instance, adjusting things while listening to the radio and dreaming of rides in the spring to come; or making things work when they didn’t before. Here in New York City, though, there’s no garage and I must get the bikes up on the roof of our brownstone, where there’s a hose to wash them. The Fuji’s indexed gears need careful adjustment, with the bike on a chainstay stand, and I’ll clean and oil the chain. (Not sure quite what to use for this, I once googled “chains and lubrication”, but what I found had little to do with bikes.)

The Panasonic Villager, with its friction gearchange, is easier, and after 10 years I still find it a delight. It weighs in at 34lb – not bad for 1973, when it was built, but heavy now. But it always feels faster, with its smooth steel frame and good-tempered gears. The freewheel, oddly, is in the bottom bracket, not on the rear wheel, so that one stops pedalling and the chain continues to move. It was meant to make slow-speed gearchanges easier and it does, but it never caught on.

My first proper road bike was a Carlton Corsa that I got when I was 15. That summer a friend and I rode across country from Banbury in the Midlands to the north-west tip of Wales. Snowdonia was steep and beautiful and yet it is not the mountains I remember, but a very long day’s right across the Marches, that great long stretch of Shropshire and other counties that most English people barely know, yet has a quiet beauty and remoteness. We crossed a series of hills and valleys, following a tangled skein of narrow lanes, through half-forgotten villages, past farmhouses where black-and-white collies lay in wait between the gateposts, seemingly asleep but springing up as we passed and barking and chasing off the wheeled invaders. It was a soft overcast day of deep greens and greys. Even now, 46 years later, that day is somehow England in my mind.

But the ride of my life was somewhere else, far away. In 1992 I went to Bhutan, the small kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas. I was to work as a development volunteer for the Department of Agriculture, setting up a communications unit. I stayed for two and a half years and was eventually very happy there, but the first few months were not so good; the other volunteers were clannish and withdrawn, the (English) head of the project did not seem pleased to see me there and the monsoon season was closing in, making me feel trapped in the narrow Thimphu Valley. Most of all, I wanted a bike. I have never felt right without one. A fellow-volunteer down on the Indian border heard about this and got a friend to bring one from the nearest large Indian city, Siliguri. It was a Hero Hawk, a five-speed racing bike built in the Punjab, and it looked very smart in its red and white paintwork. It also weighed a ton and, although of good quality, had not been assembled properly. The handlebars moved around, the gear cable was too short and the pedals started to fall apart. Bit by bit I dealt with all this.

That year, the monsoon lasted a month longer than usual. Then at the end of October, it was as if a tap had been turned off. Suddenly it was warm and bright, and pleasantly cool at night. One day I decided to ride up the road that led to Dochula, the pass into Central Bhutan. I did not plan to reach the pass itself, which was some 20 miles away and was at over 10,000ft (3,000m), a climb of some 3,000ft from Thimphu.

The road to the pass was the main East-West road that links the country together, but to an outsider it looked like a country lane; there was barely room for two cars to pass, and one of them would usually pull in. Yet the very presence of the lateral road, as it is called, was a triumph in such a landscape, rising and falling through immense elevations and clinging to steep, unstable terrain. It had been built by the Indian military. Until 1962 there had been no paved roads in Bhutan at all.

Hero Hawk. And monk (M.Robbins)
I began my climb slowly; there was little traffic; to my left the mountainside rose steeply, covered in pines and carpeted by pine-needles, and there was a fresh, heady scent. To my right the ground fell away increasingly suddenly as I climbed, until the isolated farmhouses in the valley below were dots in the variegated landscape, surrounded by poplar-like trees and intricate terraces of rice paddies, the latter bare now although some would soon be planted to winter wheat. Bit by bit I climbed until I realised suddenly that I was not so very far from the pass, and after two hours or so I came out on the clear patch of land on the summit, beside a long prayer-wall, surrounded by prayer-flags. Ahead of me lay a sight such that I had never seen before, and shan’t again; the whole of central Bhutan spread out before me in the clear afternoon sun, the Himalayas rising above it, and in the distance to the left the long line of snowpeaks that marked the border with Tibet. The eternal snows. A little nearer was a huge mountain with a strangely square shape; this was Masangang, at nearly 23,500ft (about 7,100m) one of the great peaks of the earth.

I stayed for two hours. Then it was getting dark. I had no lights that worked, and besides I should not have wanted to make the descent without daylight. Reluctantly I swung away back down towards Thimphu. I picked up speed as the light began to fade, pushing my luck on the sharp mountain bends, mindful of the weak pressed-steel brakes. A frantic journey brought me to the only decent straight stretch, some five miles from Thimphu; here I released the brakes and shot forward with the wind in my hair, and I was laughing.

After that I was happy in Bhutan.

*

Now there are only the concrete canyons of Manhattan. I bump and rumble over the broken road, mindful of manhole covers that are not flush with the road (and are lethal when wet), construction barriers, potholes with savage little lips to them, opening car doors, sleepwalkers in the cross walk, dogs on long leads, the elderly, the distracted and the plain rude. A dog-leg down Lexington, past the great marble post office at Grand Central and left into 44th Street, then down to First Avenue and prepare to dock in the long CitiBike stand between Tudor City and the United Nations. The UN itself looms all large and dull glass, the flags outside it flapping in the wind; in the summer they hang dispirited in the still, muggy air. The sky over the East River is light grey, variegated, with fast-moving clouds. I push the bike into one of the last empty stand; there is a click and a green LED tells me it is docked. Freedom, for now, is over. I will reclaim it in the evening, when I will put my key in the slot and sweep away up First Avenue.

Journey's end, winter (M.Robbins)
If I have the energy. I am quite old now, and maybe tonight I will go by subway. Those rides across Shropshire, or up a Himalayan pass, are a dream; in a few years, perhaps, I shan’t ride a bike at all. I wonder how I will deal with that. We all have things that make life worthwhile because we love them, in effect, more than we would care for life in itself. I suppose that for me, bikes have filled that role since that sense of wonder when I first realised, aged six, that I could stay upright.

I wonder what images will come to me as I come to the end. Drifting through Central Park on a spring morning, surrounded by flowers, or on a winter night bathed in moonlight. Flying through green lanes under a soft grey sky past farm gates with collies maybe, or zipping through a shallow ford between high hedges under a bright blue sky with high white clouds, the water droplets from the wheels catching the morning sun. Looking for a last time towards the ramparts of Tibet before climbing back aboard a red-and-white bike and sweeping back down round curve after curve in the gathering twilight, hauling back on the brakes, laughing. Or a Kodachrome vision in primary colours, of a six-year-old boy in an Aertex shirt and leather sandals, tottering through the garden on a small blue bike on a bright green lawn, past lines of vivid roses.


Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from 
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