T6 Brompton folding bicycle with Brookes saddle boughts from Mike at Phoenix Cycles in Battersea Bridge Road, London (UK) in 2004, and serviced by him since.
Still my main bicycle.
See the British novelist Will Self writing about the Brompton in September 08:
"…. if you feel tempted at this point to cast my piece aside, unread, on the quite reasonable grounds that not only do you not like bicycles, or cycling, but you especially revile the ghastly middle-aged-mannish gadget obsession that you already feel emanating from my prose in great waves, then I say: desist! Give me a chance! Read on, and if I can’t convince you by the end of these 2,000 words that a Brompton folding bicycle is not only a superior means of locomotion, and a perfect antidote to the stresses of the modern world, but also a means of achieving a deeper harmony with place and culture than you’ve hitherto achieved, then I personally guarantee to come round to your house and sort out your old Allen keys – or something like that. ….."
This is me writing in October 2007: An amicable divorce
I have just seen my car driven away by a friend who’s got it for free. I’ve been ‘deciding’ for 5 years – maybe longer. But the final decision to be rid of it came a week ago, since when it’s sat in our drive, insurance cancelled. It helped that the cost of repairing its transmission was assessed as more than its worth. I have not been without a car since the 1960s. This evening is a moment long anticipated, regularly postponed.
I recall having some of my happiest childhood times in cars, with my family. What I best remember (something written about and filmed at the time) is the accessibility to places all over Britain we got from having a car in the 1950s. I realise we drove – 50 years ago – on roads that most people now see in absurd advertisements – filmed on locations in Croatia or Albania.
My mother and step-father were writers and journalists through the late 1940s and ’50s. Cars were part of their salaries. We had the means to drive. We would arrive at places where there would be no cars for miles – or very few. We could park next to beaches, cliff tops, and high ridges with mighty views (see what I mean about advertising?). We reconnoitred long, lightly-paved rural lanes ending in cul-de-sacs where, after a word with a the farmer, we set up tent and fished in clear trout streams. We ate our catch fried in butter. I was often very happy – innocent of being in a vanguard of social change.
My step-father remarked once, when I was going on once about the ‘beauties of the countryside’ (I was a literary youth) that this sort of thing wouldn’t last. ‘We’re doing things the very rich could do. Now we are doing it. Soon everyone will be doing it! We’re part of the rot.’ In later years he observed that the central dilemma of socialism (quoting Bertrand Russell) was that ‘you can ruin anything by making it available to everybody.’
From the mid ’60s, life on the open road, new motorways notwithstanding, became increasingly closed. The freeway became unfree as more and more people, understandably, sought access to a possession we’d enjoyed more exclusively. The freedoms promised by the advertisers of cars became more and more conditional. Friends of friends were killed in them and by them.
I started travelling abroad to get away from the crowds in my own country – often walking and relying on trains and buses when going to lonelier places that were still places. Travelling with my wife, we seldom returned more than twice because we could always see material prosperity spreading – as it rightly should – but in the process blighting the quietness and slowness of more self-sufficient economies we’d visited as guests rather than an important part of the new local economy. We saw fishing boats laid up and replaced by marinas and yachts. We saw heritage signage spreading, as places became consumer items and we became harvest. We too had been consuming but we’d usually enjoyed the only table in the house.
In his old age, my father said ‘The only places left to live will be the cracks between the concrete. I advise you to to live in places already ruined. Maybe you will find the wisdom to make them better in some new way none of us understand.’
I did not revisit my childhood experiences of motor touring until 1995, when with my young children we toured the Peloponnese in a hired car. We had had help from the Greek half of my family identifying still isolated areas of the peninsula. The motorway southwest from Athens was under construction. We drove en famille from Athens via Corinth and Leonidi, Sparta, Kalamata and Messini to Pylos on almost empty roads, stopping when we wanted and having picnics, strolling together through ancient ruins. Stopping high in the Taygetos mountains in Lakonia (the point from where this summer’s conflagration spread) one Sunday evening and hearing silence under a black sky pierced by a million stars (normally hidden above the yellowing pall of light polluted England), with no sound except the cooling cracking of the car, hot from ascending a narrow zigzag road where we encountered no other vehicle for half-hours at a time.
I took joy seeing my little daughter and wife who, unlike me, had never been to Greece, walking among the remains of a civilisation I associate with my roots as well as my present family. The car took us to the edge of beaches and right up to tavernas where we could park and walk to a table. Only once an ill-judged detour ‘to see the sea’ at Koroni jammed us into the narrow walking streets of an ex-fishing village grid-locked by visiting motorists – foreign, and the new expanding Greek middle classes, and us.
Back in England I saw this holiday as an anachronistic replay of my motoring childhood and realised I could not keep trying to stay ahead of people with the same aspirations as myself but slightly further back in the rat race. I had to start thinking about my step-father’s old age advice. I kept my car but reduced my annual mileage below 3000. My favoured way of getting about became my feet, my bicycle, train or bus, while car ownership just went on increasing.
I have indeed found contentment and interest in the cracks in the concrete. I have watched wild fowl, inland seagulls, herons, urban rats, and foxes along canal towpaths, passing beneath the pillars of raised motorway junctions as I’ve cycled and walked the city, threading its congested roads and alleys free of worries about gridlock and parking. I have enjoyed picnics in the shadow of dilapidated industrial ruins. I’ve campaigned for more urban green space, for education for sustainable living. I’ve chatted across the rich world in cyberspace to like-minded people about ways to solve that central dilemma of making the riches of the world available to everyone without destroying it.
I’ve tried to imagine cities where more people will want to stay and make them into real places again instead of dismal, narrow economies where they can earn enough ‘to get away.’ I have found the roots of such cities in my own home town, as I walk and cycle about. Anyone hearing moralising in these reflections, should know that we fly to places still, that there’s still a car in the drive (my wife’s). My daughter has just bought her own. We are profligate with energy. This is more about about ending my long marriage to the car. It’s been a gentle separation, then an amicable divorce from a long and increasingly jaded marriage of convenience.
Issue 5 of Seoul based ‘B’ Brand Documentary Magazine, which gets no financial support from the brands it chooses to cover, focused on the Brompton. It contains several of my images of the Brompton and a picture of me with this model by the Birmingham photographer Dan Burwood issuu.com/magazineb/docs/magazineb_brompton_abridgment_eng
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