‘Hail the Bike’ by Peter Mortimer


Poet, playwright, journalist and cyclist Peter Mortimer was special
guest at the launch of the Active Travel Network, held during Cycle
City Active City in Newcastle last week. Here is Peter’s ode to the
bicycle, which he performed at Hancock Museum during the event.

Here is my master plan. Scrap Trident immediately – and with it all
that ridiculous posturing about being a world power. Just who
are we supposed to use these weapons against anyway – Isis?
Take a small percentage of the money saved – estimates as to
Trident’s cost vary between twenty billion and one hundred billion
depending who you talk to – and subsidise free bikes for as many
people as want them. Let’s say 20 million people, and let’s say at
£300 a bike that’s still less than six billion pounds.

For the greater encouragement of actually using the bikes, fit
special mileometers to them that allow the riders tax advantages –
the more you cycle, the more money you save.
Bikes are brilliant. Bikes are the most sane, most therapeutic, most
energy giving, most exhilarating item on the planet. Bikes are the
perfect combination of human and machine, each dependant on the
There is no noise, no pollution, no stress, no snarling traffic jams.
If all our computer systems failed, if iphones, tablets, pads and
laptops became suddenly dysfunctional, we could still jump on
our bikes.
Bikes make us better people. Bikes prevent car rage. If – and this
happens as little as humanly possible – I drive a car through a
congested town, I feel my arteries thickening by the second, my
stress levels rising.
To ride a bike through such a conurbation brings a remarkable
sense of freedom. I am not imprisoned in a metal box. I weave in
and out of traffic. I dismount and within a few seconds cut out an
entire one-way system that will gridlock the motorist for several
minutes. Occasionally a shop window or building may catch my
eye. I stop, prop up the bike and take my time studying it. In a car,
this is impossible.

Many people are surprised to even see me behind a car wheel, (a
rare sight, I confess). They are unaware that one of my first jobs
was as a travelling salesman and that for many years I was a petrol
head, given to such petrolhead madness as driving 400 yards to the
local shop or furiously trying to squeeze my motor into a small
parking space because it was ten yards nearer my destination than
a much bigger and easier one.
I am, I confess a bike convert (though of some 30 years), so much
so that my idea of hell is being on a desert island with only the full
box set of Top Gear for company or being forced to attend every
Formula One Grand Prix of the season.

And I love bike shops. To enter a bike shop brings the same
sense of the benign as entering a charity shop. It is the antidote to
that feeling of foreboding when entering a large garage workshop
to pick up the repaired vehicle, knowing you face a mechanic who
will slowly shake his head, suck in his breath and inform you in
sonorous tones that a number of unforeseen faults means the bill is
now twice the estimate of £2,000. Often this is accompanied by the
statement, (meant to reinforce justification for what were most
likely outrageous charges), “I don’t know how the car kept going
at all.”
The biggest bill I have ever paid for repairs in a bike shop is £80.
Which would be about my annual maintenance outlay for a cycle.
I have a suggestion on how to properly bond with your bike. In a
quiet moment, wheel it into the living room and lay down beside it.
Study every aspect of it from this new angle; its gear mechanisms,
braking system, the beautiful symmetry of its wheel spokes, its
system of nuts, the angles of its frame, its taut cables. Let
your eyes roam across its entirety knowing that to come
alive, this simultaneously complex yet simple combination of
metal, rubber chrome and leather needs you. Not fossil fuels whose
extraction plunges the world into eternal conflict, just small
amounts of your own human muscle which will miraculously be
transformed into an energy far in excess of the input. This
astonishing conveyer of human beings will carry you of up to
speeds of 20 miles per hour, totally fuelled by yourself, while
at the same time improving your health and fitness.

The culture of the bike cannot be considered without the culture of
the car. So consider for a moment the following; a football
ground which crammed in as many people as possible without any
top limit. Or a night club that did the same. Or a concert hall. Quite
reasonably we demand such institutions impose limits on numbers.
Yet as our roads town and cities become ever choked with traffic,
as every suburban street is lined every inch with parked cars, and
the authorities fight an increasingly losing battle to maintain roads
motorways, pollution levels soar, we churn out more and more
cars without limit. High production levels by Nissan and the like
are heralded on the national headlines as ‘good news’. A Nissan
chief executive was even knighted not long back. And no one, no
one thinks that flooding our roads with an ever-growing tsunami
of new cars could possibly be anything but good news.
Where are the headlines for bike production? Why is there no
similar monthly announcement of bike numbers rolling off the
production lines?

Why does it need the success of a sporting celebrity like Bradley
Wiggins before the UK awakes briefly to the huge benefits of bike
Why are there 100 bikes in most European cities to every one in
the UK?
To see several hundred bikes parked together in a European city
centre is a common sight. In Newcastle, to see more than six
gathered in one place causes people to point in curiosity.
Some people are put off by cyclists, especially cyclists clad in tight
bright lycra, sporting garish tortoiseshell helmets, heads down as
they power themselves through their own fantasy Tour de France
with not a flicker of enjoyment on their faces.
These are the fundamentalists and in the minority. Take a look at
Amsterdam or other cities and note how most cyclists are on sit-up
and-beg machines, wearing normal clothes and observing their
surroundings as they pass. They are not demi-gods, they are not
superfit and they are powered more by a sense of leisure and
pleasure than a messianic zeal to complete 100 miles in four hours.

At our recent literary festival in Cullercoats, one popular event was
Baiku, a 20-mile circular bike ride along the coastline and through
the country lanes of North Tyneside followed by a poetry
workshop to see what small poetic gems (haiku) could be extracted
from the journey.
As the programme notes said, the event combined two of the best
things going; riding a bike and writing poetry.
My own rough rule-of-thumb is that any journey within a few
miles, I do by bike, weather permitting. If not possible, I
use public transport. Only as a very last resort would I turn to a
motor car (borrowing my partner’s – I have not owned one for
those same 30 years). This is the exact opposite of many people’s
preferences; such people would slaughter their great aunt rather
than forsake the car.
Yet a car dangerously insulates us against the world, it seals us in.
It attempts to render the outside irrelevant. We close that car door,
switch on the radio or CD, engage gear and believe ourselves
somehow immune.

To ride a bike is to open ourselves to every smell, sound, sight
and sensation. We’re alive.
I often ride the five miles from Cullercoats to Silverlink for
meetings with council officials. Odd times severe weather forces
me into a car. On these latter occasions, I arrive more jaded, less
vibrant, my appetite for the world and everything in it reduced.
Today, with a population increasingly sedentary in front of
flickering computer screens, with waist lines ever expanding and
fat becoming the norm, with the prescription of anti-depressant
pills at an all-time high, we need the bike more than we ever did. It
can be our saviour, if only we let it. It makes no demands on us,
except that we get on and pedal. For that, it will always reward us.

Peter Mortimer is a poet, playwright, journalist, publisher
and keen cyclist. He has lived in the North East for more than
40 years, and many of his books and plays have been published
and performed there.

Active Travel

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