THE PERFECT MACHINE
I awoke thinking of bicycles.
There’s nothing too extraordinary in that really. It’s how the mind operates isn’t it? In more ancient times people would invariably read some great prophesy into this. They’d call the soothsayer or hoke through the entrails of some dead animal for an abstract reason for this glowing image appearing and possibly set off to war with their neighbours or marry the girl next door on the result of their ruminations.
We all know today of course, just as we know the daily horoscope in the magazine is cobbled together by the same person who designs the crossword puzzles, possibly in the tiniest room , in the tiniest office of some little corner hutch, that dreams are simply the result of the brain sorting out the previous day’s business in some sort of understandable order. In much the same way as your computer defragments all the little blocks of information and lines them up in neat, easily understandable lines.In this case , I know that the phantom” bicycles “were the result of a passing conversation which included the phrase “snedding turnips” !!!…Yes , I know …My mind and its bloody rambles …but that’s the way the mind works. That’s the way my mind operates anyway. My wife and I encountered an old acquaintence from our childhood, while out walking, who had since grown more care-worn and rumpled than our memory of him in his pomp. He reminisced about a time and an event long -gone and the words tumbled out, unused for long years. Old fashioned words.
The “snedding turnips” was a phrase that I hadn’t heard used in many years . I suppose it may have even died out of usage in these more mechanised times when such work may now be done by machines.. Back some fifty or sixty years ago it was ,colloquially, to do with the necessary thinning out of the said rotund root vegetables in a farmer’s field. It was the kind of seasonal work undertaken, and paid-for in a piecemeal way, by farm labourers, or children and teenagers, trying to earn a few pence. I can’t say I ever had the dubious pleasure of this backbreaking toil, but I certainly rode on my bicycle out into the countryside to pick fruit in youthful summertimes. I did this each summer between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. It was almost like a rite of passage .A necessary introduction into the adult working world.
That’s where the bicycle came in. Nothing at all to do with the much trumpeted, just passed, pink Giro d’ Italia with its wind-sculpted skinny , almost-there , phantom machines, its bee-browed , helmeted wraiths ,legs pumping as one..This machine I had dreamed was not some sleek , skinny profiled, bent over fibbertygibbet of a cycle with curved handlebars and a multi- geared drive. . This was a veritable Clydesdale amongst bicycles. Like Harold Steptoe’s grand lumbering , cart-pulling cheval, this fine sturdy machine carried the same “Hercules” moniker. It was a very beast. A very sturdy beast. A very heavy, sturdy beast. Let’s drift back several years now….
I’d been dropping unrequited hints to my cash-strapped parents that I should really have a bike but I had no real notion of one actually appearing in the back yard . A bicycle wasn’t just some wee toy gun out of “Woolies” after all.It was something of a dream really. Money was for important things like clothing, food , heat, school uniforms and shoes for five children that were constantly wearing things out. Books and endless comics was one thing…but a bike? . A bicycle was a triviality. So I was quite surprised when my father arrived home with the frame of a cycle that he had found in an old outhouse where he had been doing one of his “building jobs”; possibly building a shed for some old farmer or repairing an ancient stone wall in some estate.. He got it ,probably because no one else wanted it, and it had lain idly in a dusty corner, cobwebbed thoroughly for some years or possibly decades, gradually being reclaimed and colonised by Nature.
This was a “Hercules” all right . The little badge insignia riveted to the front proudly proclaimed its pedigree. The badge was untouched by time and decrepitude and shone out like a blackbird’s eye through the dust.sometime in the 1950s Hercules bicycles had begun to gradually fall behind the fashion trends. Other firms began using ten-speed gears instead of five in their racing cycles . Not Hercules. they were a little more conservative and things moved a little more slowly. It was probably why the company never thrived in the end. When other manufacturers began using light alloy tubing in their cycles, the Hercules company stuck with the tried and tested steel. Their cycles remained seriously heavy affairs in comparison with their competitors but they really were built to last. This one was a more prosaic affair. it sported only a Sturmey -Archer three speed gearing which was enough for any novice. Who needs five gears anyway? With a Hercules, you needed leg muscles of steel ropes! It had survived the harshest treatment and abandonment and had come through undaunted….if a little careworn.
The little arachnids lost their home double-quick as minute spiderlings scuttled for pastures new and I had a new project to get my teeth into.The frame was a fairly shabby affair to begin with but I got to work rubbing it down with sandpaper until I had removed the worst of the rust. It seemed solid enough and there was no twist in it. Most of the chrome on the handlebars was pitted and dulling but generally this was a solid enough base to build a bicycle. The well-upholstered, comfortable, sprung- leather seat was in good shape too, if a little scuffed. I could bring that back to life with a little boot polish .I only needed two good wheels, tyres, tubes and a functioning chain and all would be ready. The original frame had been a lustrous black shiny thing but it now needed a facelift. I bought some lovely deep navy blue enamel hobby paint in the toyshop for the main part of the frame and finished the mudguards with some glossy white. I remember taking special pride and care in painting around the original gleaming badge. I couldn’t save the chrome though so I had to make do with some silver paint, which wasn’t nearly as glamorous but with some judiciously placed insulating tape it covered a multitude of blemishes. It was all hand-painted because cans of compressed paint or airbrushes didn’t exist and were totally alien in my thirteen-year-old world.With a judiciously applied squirt or two of the all -purpose “Three-in-One” oil, some new hard rubber brake blocks and a shiny ringing bell ,I had my bike.Complete.
That was my first bike. I only ever had two and that’s all I’ll ever own.That first bike took me on fruit-picking forays over four summers until schooldays ended. Strawberries and raspberries every July…fields of them stretching into the horizon, hunkered down with the sunshine blasting down. Strawberry jam sandwiches and huge tea-kettles full of stinging “tae” in the Big Shed. Shy love-alliances made in the fields.
My second and last bike was a more glamorous Raleigh Five-speed racer which I got purely to supplement our one and only little car, when first wed. I used it to go to work, some five miles away, back then. Downhill half the way there ….uphill half the way home. That lasted some four years until I was smashed off this fine machine while crossing at a roundabout. That kind of hit and run can make anyone change their habits. That machine hung in my garage as a twisted reminder for some twenty-odd years. A lying-in-state not unlike the old Hercules before I resurrected it.This was not to be the Raleigh’s fate. I never repaired it nor wanted to get back onto it. When I decided to turn the garage into a sunroom , the bicycle was taken down off the wall brackets and consigned to a skip with all the other detritus that a household can spend a lifetime gathering and keeping for “that rainy day”.
They say that the bicycle is really “the Perfect Machine”. I think that comes very close to the truth.It is an almost Zen statement of mechanical completeness . A self-powered extension of the human body, capable of carrying a human through space under his or her own power and volition .
That’s about right.
Unfortunately , it is a Perfect Machine in an increasingly less perfect world.