My Bicycle & I
A sparkling Sunday morning here in Sussex and how nice it is to see the sunrise once more when I am out on my early morning rides instead of going out by starlight and returning by it as well. I usually like to be on the road no later than 5am and in Britain, for a good many months of the year, that means riding in darkness. Not that I mind overly much. I’ve grown quite used to it in fact, and indeed enjoy it. I’ve an excellent German-made headlamp to see by and a gratifyingly bright multi-mode taillight to clip onto the rear rack, and the moon is a wonderful companion. But all the same there is something exhilarating about witnessing the sunrise from the saddle of your bicycle, when you’re already miles from home, spinning free and easy along a quiet country lane or across the marshes with the sunlit mist rising all around you. It’s a perfect fusion of the simple joy of a bicycle ride with the picaresque freedom of the open road and brimming with promise.
As I spin along on my bicycle this morning, exercising my imagination as well as my legs, I find myself bridling over an article I read the other day in The Observer. It was written by a fashion writer named Adrian Clark – a rather stern but distinguished looking man with a silver goatee – who decided to take his fellow fifty-somethings to task and tell us what we must no longer wear and telling us in rather peremptory tones, too. Having recently attained the age of two score and ten himself, he had a Damascene moment about what was and was not appropriate for men in the fifty-to-death age bracket and being a writer – gosh I know thatfeeling – he decided to share.
In his opening paragraph, after he establishes his bona fides as one who has – sigh – reached the sobering half-century milestone, he informs his younger readers, those who have yet to have this levelling experience, that despite what they may have heard to the contrary, age is most assuredly not just a number. Fifty, he implies, hurts. Nevertheless he has accepted the new realities with the sang froid of a French aristocrat stepping into the tumbrel, shot his cuffs and retreated from the hurly-burly of London to the coast of Kent in pursuit of a more rewarding and peaceful existence. “As we get older we all hanker for a slower pace of life, right?” he writes, before promptly answering his own question: “Correct.”
Clearly a man of strongly held opinion.
As part of this sea change, he cleaned out his wardrobe, with a stern eye to age appropriateness. “Men entering their 50s,” he writes with the conviction of a newly minted 50 year-old, “fall into one of two camps; those who have given up, and those who don’t know when to give up.” For those lost souls who would be guided, he says, look to tweed coats and roll-neck jumpers. As for trousers, ditch the youthful skinny jeans in favour of something with a smart-casual edge, a classic jean made in a luxury fabric, not denim, or ‘a chino that has a careworn vibe’. His tip: a washed cotton twill chino by Margaret Howell, a snip at £165. As for sneakers, he consoles us, they needn’t be abandoned entirely by a man in his 50s, not when he can pick up a quality leather non-branded pair from Harry’s of London. “You can’t go wrong with the Nimble at £295.”
I should ruddy well think not.
To his credit, he follows his own advice and carries off the style with aplomb, looking far more distinguished in the photographs accompanying the piece, more of an homme du monde than I could ever manage to do. The silver goatee helps, of course, as does the expression of hauteur with which he gazes into the camera lens. I could never pull that off, even if I cared to try. On me that expression would suggest a touch of gas rather than hauteur, while the recommended haberdashery and the eye-wateringly expensive sneakers would hint amusingly at costume.
But I would not care to try, neither the expression nor the styling, nor at the age of sixty do I feel I ought. Mr Clark may have impeccable fashion sense, and indeed he does, but he misses an important philosophical point. “Turning fifty was inevitable,” he writes loftily in conclusion, “but at least, wardrobe edit in the bag, I can control how stylishly I live it.” Of course he can, and to his own taste, but turning fifty was no means inevitable. Any more than turning sixty will be. Or seventy. Or eighty. Or fifty-one, for that matter. There are no guarantees in life, only the moment in which you are living, and the genuinely inevitable fact that when you have passed your two score and ten, the clock is necessarily ticking louder and more insistently than ever. Surely, if ever there was a time in your life to defy convention, not take yourself too seriously, and give short shrift to those who would tell you what you ought to wear and how you ought to wear it, it’s the back side of fifty.
And so with all due respect I think I shall quietly set aside his well-meant advice and instead take my fashion cues from that gleeful ode to non-conformity by Jenny Joseph: “When I am old, I shall wear purple… with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…”
I read the other morning, over my bacon and eggs, that Lord Winston feels it is high time something is done about all the “hoodlums in Lycra” that are gadding about London’s streets these days causing His Lordship no end of anxiousness when he crosses the street in front of the House of Parliament. In this, apparently, he found ready agreement from his fellow peer, Lord Sharkey who described the crossing of the street in front of Parliament House ‘an accident waiting to happen’ especially during the rush hour and all because of cyclists. One could be forgiven for thinking this rather quaint-sounding exchange came from an archived story from The Times,circa 1896, or perhaps something from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, but no, it was from the BBC’s news website, reporting on a discussion in the House of Lords this week.
I have often wondered where the Wodehousian world had crawled off to die, and now I know: it hasn’t. How very like an English Milord of popular myth to take matters thus in hand. In a city beset by a wave of knife crime, with stabbings and murders taking place routinely, and police resources stretched to breaking point – the wool-gathering Lordships feel that cyclists are the menace that must be tackled if London’s streets are to be made safe.
Their answer of course, as is their answer to most things, is regulation and plenty of it. They know just the stuff to give the troops – licenses and insurance, taxes and bureaucracy and vigorous enforcement of this vast new regulatory environment they envision. With three million new bicycles sold every year, that ought to give everybody plenty to do, what?
As Lord Wills noted, in chiming into this feast of reason and flow of soul, of the 38 police forces to hand out fines to irresponsible cyclists last year, 30 of them had issued fewer than five. Twelve had issued none. Surely, he argued, such a state of affairs can’t be allowed to stand.
Leaving aside all the knife crime, the stretched resources and the mountains of paperwork already burdening Britain’s beleaguered police forces, the detail that of the 1800 people killed on British roads each year, cyclists typically account for between zero and two (if it’s been a bad year) seems to have escaped their Lordships’ notice. As does the fact that according to the government’s own research 86 per cent of motorists exceed the speed limit in 20mph zones, 54 per cent exceed the 30mph limit, and more than a third admit to using a mobile phone while driving. To say nothing of the estimated one million uninsured drivers out there, and the estimated 10,000 motorists who are legally still driving on Britain’s roads despite having accumulated enough points on their licenses through speeding and drink driving to (theoretically) ban them from getting behind the wheel.
If one could but summon the nerve, one would like to doff one’s cap, touch one’s forelock, approach the bench and humbly suggest that perhaps there are more pressing matters of public safety and law enforcement out there in that great wide world beyond the Lords Chamber than the odd errant cyclist, and that if, when crossing the street in front of Parliament House their Lordships lowered their snoots a little, raised their lorgnettes to their eyes and remembered to look both ways, their difficulties with cyclists might just resolve themselves. Who knows? Be worth a try anyway.