Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, single shareholder in the late lamented Millennium Dome on Bugsby’s Marshes, talked confidentially to an unseen interrogator who appeared to be crouching on the floor of his chauffeured limousine as he drifted across London; and who remained, within earshot of an eavesdropped soliloquy, while the real PM perched in his office, alone with his compulsively agitated gizmos, grape-peelers, yoghurt spoon-removers, young men who read newspapers for him and blunt Irish fixers chewing on unrequired advice. Dripping with froideur, an imperious Mandelson nailed the upstart coalitionists for their absurd sense of entitlement. Hannah Rothschild’s vanity promo, unaccountably offered to the great unwashed by BBC4’s Storyville strand, sold itself on privileged (and clinically controlled) access to the ultimate political voice of the era, the oracle of tie-straightening and pantomimed sincerity. And how fascinating it was, after the fastidious documentation of eyebrow lifting, the heart-rending sighs over the shortcomings of colleagues and patrons, to be granted an unposed snapshot of the child behind the man, Mandelson’s short-trousered induction into political life. Boy Peter on a Hovis bicycle! That was the madeleine moment in an interminable chronicle of not-saying, arcane rituals of grazing and trouser-changing unmatched since Roberto Rossellini made The Taking by Power by Louis XIV for French television.
Triggered by an archive clip of his maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, another ennobled socialist cabinet minister, Mandelson launched into a memoir of cycling around Hendon, committee room to polling station, bearing leaflets, carrying messages as proudly as the freshly baked loaves in Ridley Scott’s celebrated commercial, shot in 1973, on the picturesque slopes of Shaftesbury. Carl Barlow, the youth who featured in the advertisement, underscored by the slow movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, arranged for brass, went on to become a fireman in East Ham. And, presumably, to find himself caught up in the aggravations of the Thatcher period, the climate of economic belt-tightening and union-bashing. Lord Tebbit’s helpful remarks, delivered to a sea of grey heads, at Blackpool in 1981, in the aftermath of the Handsworth and Brixton riots, will have carried a special charge for Barlow. ‘On yer bike!’
Hovis preceded Boris (Mayor Johnson) as sponsor of the cult of cycling, but the whole business, so attractive to ad men and lavishly rewarded imagineers, never moved far from Scott’s syrupy terrain. (Scott was a cycle obsessive. His first short film, made in 1965 in his student days at the Royal College of Art, and featuring his younger brother Tony schlepping around Hartlepool, was called Boy and Bicycle.) Every inch peddled, every tiptoeing carbon-footprint advance, is a political act. YouTube is blistered with competitive bicycle imagery: naked propaganda for anarcho-liberal bikes-for-all schemes funded by the generosity of corporate bankers. Cyberspace has been colonised by guerrilla footage of the real Boris Johnson jabbering on his cell phone and wobbling towards City Hall, as well as faked sequences of a clown with an unshorn flop of albino hair stunting around underpasses and concrete ramps. The Tebbit sound-bark has come back, to remind us how neatly bogus bicycle rhetoric chimes with agitation in the streets, with the slashing of social services, while tickling the belly of Leviathan, the corporate monster. Thatcher’s employment secretary, a former BOAC pilot, not yet parachuted into the House of Lords, summoned up the defining moment of his childhood, and as with Mandelson, it involved a bicycle. ‘I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father,’ Tebbit avowed. ‘He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work.’
Man and machine intermingle, molecules shaken by the cobbles, until the tragic paterfamilias, puffing from factory gate to factory gate, becomes a symbol of the decade, a centaur of integrity, half-man, half-bike, in the fashion of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. How far Father Tebbit actually travelled in his quest for employment is unclear. Norman was born in Ponders End and elected to Parliament as the member for Chingford, a distance of about three miles. Ponders End is more of a transport collision than a settlement and nobody needs much political arm-twisting to move on. Probably the best account of the place is found in a Gerald Kersh novel, Fowler’s End (1957). A character, setting out to locate this uncelebrated railway halt, navigates by revulsion. Starting on Tottenham Court Road, he heads north, always choosing the worst option when the path divides. ‘Who Ponder was and how he ended, the merciful God knows. Once upon a time it was a quagmire; now it is a swamp, biding its time … Here the city gives up the game.’
It wasn’t just Tebbit who used strategic Ridley Scott sentimentality to summon, with bicycle imagery, projections of an England that never was. John Major, a gap-year, work experience prime minister, sleepwalking through the job, as a profile-raising photo opportunity between serious employment in the banking and conference-addressing industries, blundered into a reprise of Orwell’s cycling spinster. He conjured up, without benefit of a brass section, life on a Midsomer Murders village green: it was a social prophylactic to curb the excesses of the time, sexual and fiscal, and to herald a return to family values. Neither of these conservative philosophers, Major or Tebbit, appreciated the inflammatory effect that bicycles have on the libido, the wild and romantic impulses unleashed by the potentialities of the open road, or the conceit promoted by the Surrealists: velocipede as sex aid. The intimate contact with a hard leather saddle. The steady pumping rhythms. The gasping for breath on a steep ascent. The ecstatic, effortless, downhill swoop, hair blowing free – aaahhhh! – as a streaming landscape rushes deliriously past. The pataphysician Alfred Jarry was so excited by the close-fitting kit that, before the First War, he took to dressing in the uniform of a cycle racer. He caused a scandal by following Mallarmé’s funeral cortège on his bicycle. Jarry’s provocative text ‘The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’ was the acknowledged inspiration for J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. The psychosexual derangement of Ballard’s Crash would have dissolved into low comedy if the humble Raleigh had replaced the Ford Cortina as the vehicle of choice for navigating the edgelands of suburban promiscuity. Jarry gazed into the window of a bicycle dealer to discover ‘a reproduction of a veritable crown of thorns as an ad for puncture-proof tyres’.
H.G. Wells, at the start of the cycling craze, was quick to recognise the liberating possibilities of this new technology. In The Wheels of Chance, a draper’s assistant uses his annual holiday to take to the roads of Surrey and Sussex, where he encounters a young lady whose head has been turned by romances featuring New Women, in rational costume, peddling towards independence by way of the revamped coaching inns of Haslemere, Midhurst and Bognor. Hoopdriver, the amateur excursionist, is encouraged, before he sets off, by advice from a non-cycling co-worker: ‘Don’t scorch, don’t ride on the footpath, keep your own side of the road.’ A reasonable code now being shredded as the urban middle classes, hammered by expensive political promotions, take the Tebbit prescription, in its sugar-coated Boris Johnson form, to heart, as they haul themselves, with the odd tumble, onto a flotilla of Bromptons and Marins. Hoopdriver’s informant makes the premature claim that cycling is fashionable: ‘Judges and stockbrokers and actresses, and, in fact, all the best people rode.’
By 2011, in East London, this century-old prediction was made visible along towpaths, pavements and in parks. Judges and stockbrokers and actresses, stand-up comedians, radio producers, script editors, architects, doctors, broadsheet journalists with portraits above their columns, predatory graffiti photographers, libel lawyers, website designers from Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout, all did their bit to complicate London’s clogged and chaotic traffic, by staying away from stuttering buses and packed viral torpedoes, where they would be brought into intimate contact with the sweating mass of humanity. The social status of cycling, thanks to propaganda campaigns spearheaded by Bullingdon Club toffs like Boris Johnson and David Cameron, underwent significant revision. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the horse path alongside the Regent’s Canal was mud, and forbidden to pedestrians and cyclists alike, I rode to my gardening job in Limehouse on a market wreck bought for £6. Gardeners and all-purpose open-air labourers were supposed to get around, between tea shack and workstation, on bicycles. Some students, anarchists and crusty food-for-free survivalists also chose to pedal. No backriver narrowboat was complete without a bicycle on deck. Now, with the surge of canalside development in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, I have noticed a curious feature of the emerging blocks: the higher the floor, the more bicycles on the balcony. These machines, with their fashionably slim wheels, so ill-suited to the yawning gaps between flagstones on the canal path, signal a new demographic, the Lycra-clad, peloton-inhabiting, short-haul commuter. The charge to work, Haggerston to Hoxton, Camden to Canary Wharf, as a yellow-tabard bicycle race, dedicated to the legend of Alfred Jarry.
Walking west towards Islington, on a bright October morning, I was swallowed up, rammed against the wall, by 67 bicycles – yes, I counted – on the stretch between the Mare Street and Kingsland Road bridges. Ting ting, they sound their bells. Some from a residual sense of courtesy. Some as a kamikaze warning. Some with Mandelsonian disdain. British Waterways found it necessary to issue a green pamphlet to instruct cyclists in towpath etiquette: ‘Two Tings. Ting your bell twice … pass slowly, be nice!’ And there followed a long list of rules for the peloton to ignore. Rules for bridges, for bends, for wildlife habitats. You might as well hand out copies of the Highway Code on the grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. Ting ting. ‘Earphones/headphones should not be worn.’ Among Silicon Roundabout professionals on the Tour of Hackney, earphones are obligatory, as much part of the uniform as the upper-case logos of merchant banks, the conspicuous marathon charities, on the tight T-shirts of self-punishing joggers.
I interviewed the painter Jock McFadyen, who has been, for many years, a haunter of the towpath, exercising his greyhound, or cycling to his studio beside London Fields. ‘Every time I hear that ting,’ he said, ‘I feel like kicking one of the bastards into the canal. Don’t ting me! You can’t walk. You’ve got to be constantly standing aside, standing aside. If you hear that tinging and you ignore it, then you get called a muppet, a fool. Every walk down the Regent’s Canal is an exercise in confrontation.’
The pine-clad, faux-Nordic blocks along the canal appear to be designed as Ikea pit stops, minimalist cubicles for absent cyclists, stepped racks for shivering plants and spare wheels. By the time you arrive, going west, at the courtyard development that has grown out of the demolished Gainsborough film studios, the slippage between interior and exterior has become acute. A convoy of paramilitary cyclists, nudging and tinging, slipstreaming, wheel-hugging on the towpath, is a sound installation in perpetual motion: rubber squeak, coot cough, rattle of paving slabs. And then, behind a picture window on the ground floor of the flats, more bicycles, heavy, cumbersome, arranged like an indoor docking station, waiting for sponsorship from Barclays. The gym, the programmed exercise environment, belongs to another era, when cyclists preferred to play safe, avoiding the hazards of the road and pumping away to piped music, without going anywhere, tranced eyes fixed on a screen. Virtual landscapes. Satellite sport. Up to the minute statistics from a tumbling market. The grander warehouses, maintaining some trace of their industrial heritage, have evolved into the open-plan offices of architects, the cubbyholes of production companies. In them, across the canal, silver bicycles are hung like art installations. One room has been set aside for all the bikes in the building. Security is a major consideration. The theft and redistribution of stray bicycles, liberated with bolt-cutters, is a substantial element in the black economy. It is rumoured that container-loads disappear, weekly, in the direction of the Balkans. When a utopian cycle scheme was launched in Cambridge in 1993, all 300 machines were stolen on the first day; broken down for spares, or shipped out by free-marketeers quick to spot an opportunity. Halfords attempted a similar programme in London, distributing ten bicycles around the city, in order to publicise the health-giving advantages of cycling. When the six-week scheme concluded, the bikes would be sent, as a charitable gesture, to Africa. Unfortunately, there was a zero return at the end of the experiment.
Urban cycle promotions, as Lord Mandelson would recognise, are about entitlement: entitlement to credit. Glory hogs thrust themselves at the cameras, gibbering of new initiatives, while demonstrating their sound ecological principles by recycling ideas that have bounced between their predecessors for generations. Kulveer Ranger, the dapper but unlucky transport adviser to Mayor Johnson, took the call to swipe his card on a docking station for the benefit of the early evening television news, the first man in London to release a Barclays bike without having to go through the tedious online application process. The card was refused. He tried the next slot: no go. By which time he was looking like one of those desperate characters who drift around the circuit of inner-city post offices playing the cash dispenser at the counter like a fruit machine. ‘Try again,’ the jaded counter clerk says. ‘You’ve got three shots before your card is swallowed.’ Ranger, a smooth operator, explained away the glitch as a technical flaw, soon to be ironed out, between incompatible systems. When he upgraded to a motorcycle, for a charity rally across Europe, he ran slap into a pedestrian on an unmarked road in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. ‘He came out of nowhere,’ Ranger said, before his passport was impounded.
The rise in the social status of the bicycle has much to do with the sense of entitlement of public school, Oxbridge-educated politicians. Prefects and scholars in Victorian, post-imperialist institutions were the only ones privileged enough to cycle: one-handed, flop-haired, gossiping in dog Latin, between house and dining hall, classroom and chapel. The bicycle being as much a symbol of caste as the ankh of an Egyptian priest. Ken Livingstone, for strategic reasons, supported the cult with Marxist rigour. His cadres in the boroughs were obliged to mount up: it was part of the job description. In Hackney, the propaganda office for the encouragement of cycling consisted of around 30 persons, who were instructed never to allow themselves to be photographed without a bicycle in the frame. Boris Johnson, like a character from the Beano, is airfixed to the saddle: fit for purpose, man of the people, blundering into scrapes, unsinkable, upbeat, in your face, a polar bear on a circus unicycle. David Cameron used to pedal too, shadowed by security, a bizarre parody of the industrial worker, as represented by Albert Finney in Karel Reisz’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The most exciting young actor of his generation tracked across the Nottingham cobbles, as Cameron was tracked through Notting Hill, by an unseen camera car. The liberation of moving through a city independently, no clogged pavements, no bus queues, weaving around pedestrians, doing the banter, in English weather.
Sleeves rolled, Finney turns out parts for Raleigh bicycles in the industrial heartlands: 1960. End of an era. End of regimented subservience. Foremen in dun coveralls. Cigarettes smoked in cupped fists. The bikes streaming from the factory gates are aspirational, bought at a discount, like the cars of workers on the Ford assembly line at Dagenham. The first episode of the initially realist soap opera Coronation Street, also screened in 1960, used a bicycle as a symbol of class division. Ken Barlow, a living at home student, paralysed by pretension, is outraged when his father and brother mend a puncture on the carpet, in front of the living-room fire. Cilla Black’s memory of watching the launch of Coronation Street involved peering at the screen, to witness the Barlow inner-tube wrestle, over the back of her father, who was carrying out the same operation in the parlour at Scotland Road, Liverpool.
The bike, that much desired instrument for giving the migrant poor a shot at city life, suffered a long period (c.1960-2000) of cultural invisibility, before re-emerging as a promotional pitch for New Labour. There is something heroic, in the grey years after the Second War, in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Heroic and sentimental. The simple machine, offering employment in a depressed Rome, is solicited like the thighbone of a saint. That model is so convincing that it was reprised in 2001 by Wang Xiaoshuai as Beijing Bicycle. In pre-Olympic China, possession of a bike guarantees employment as a messenger. The city, not yet in thrall to the devastating development between six orbital motorways, is blanketed with bicycles: factory labourers, schoolchildren, office workers, and street gangs pretending they are riding with Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Patrick Wright, in Passport to Peking, quotes the Labour politician Morgan Phillips, who visited China as part of a delegation in 1954. ‘As I saw the great mass of cycles on the road I was reminded of a day in Bedford during the last war … The workers were leaving the factory for the lunch-hour break. All at once I seemed to be submerged in cycles. Peking is just like that.’
In England, before the New Labour push (credit stolen by Tory swells), the bicycle belonged to treasured eccentrics: Oxbridge academics, scavengers festooned in scrap metal, youth hostellers with chapped knees and laminated maps. Cycling was an Iris Murdoch novel (as she herself batted around Oxford, gown flying). There is a bicycle silhouette by Charles Mozley on the spine of the dust jacket for The Sandcastle. English schoolmasters, in the sad twilight, disappointed and damply lustful, trundle over gravel to reach ‘the smooth tarmac surface of the arterial road’. Wicker basket. Tweed jacket. Bicycle clips. Camden Town, in Sickertian gloom, to Regent’s Park: Alan Bennett writing television plays about members of a cycling club soon to be obliterated in the First War. Poets cycling by default: according to Martin Amis the poet is defined as a person who is incapable of driving a car. Philip Larkin, the great Eeyore of English verse, pushing his bike through a Hull graveyard, white raincoat and clips, misted spectacles, for a John Betjeman documentary. David Gascoyne, after years of silence, came to Cambridge for a poetry festival in 1975. He was, almost on arrival, knocked down by a cyclist, and appeared on stage with his arm in a plaster cast. The first photograph of the poet J.H. Prynne, who operated privately, even hermetically, and as far from Larkin as could be imagined, was made public when a broadsheet responded to large claims made by Randall Stevenson in The Last of England. Prynne, in black corduroy jacket, orange tie, had his image snatched as he rode through Cambridge on his bicycle. Soon afterwards he began to make extended visits to China.
By 2000, thanks to new political imperatives, this modest and marginal eccentricity had been swept aside. London was a gridlocked mess, traffic spat and snarled, Underground trains panted (when they operated at all) in hot tunnels, buses lurched in convoys. It was time to take stock of Lord Tebbit’s advice and jump on our bikes. After the bombs in July 2005, the towpaths alongside the canal became cycle tracks. The shift in the cycling demographic was dramatic. The public transport system was left to the disadvantaged, to economic migrants and bendy-bus freeloaders who would be challenged, from time to time, by mob-handed raiding parties. You could categorise the new urban cyclists as belonging to three dominant classes: pod, posse, peloton. The peloton, wheel-to-wheel, sweeps between certain zones, Stoke Newington, Clerkenwell, Mile End. Coffee outlets, which double as repair shops, have mushroomed to cater to this tribe. At Lock 7, over the bridge from Broadway Market in Hackney, the pitch is: ‘Love Cycles, Love Food’. Handy women rip rubber, mending punctures, while clients sip machine coffee at monkish tables. The peloton gathers to exchange banter before heading off down the canal. They are in full kit, hard-shell helmets ribbed like condoms. Like acid-stripped, exposed brains. Ting ting. Blinking red eyes in the twilight. The peloton is organic, a single entity; a multi-wheeled centipede hogging a path no wider than a recumbent man.
The posse, who swaggered here long before the eco classes took to the saddle, ride the wide pavements: hooded, no hands, coming out of nowhere, like the account Thomas Berger gives, in Little Big Man, of the Pawnee appearing over a bluff to a west-rolling wagon train. The postcode posse favour sturdy, thick-wheeled mountain bikes. They patrol territory, making their reports on mobile phones. They do not use towpaths or sanctioned cycle tracks. They do not acknowledge the peloton. Or pedestrians (unless they are carrying interesting packages). They cut straight across busy boulevards. They know the secret ways through estates. And if by some accident they find themselves on a road, they take the centre of it, stately slow, oblivious to frustrated white vans and honking builders. When the posse meet, they circle, weave, in a kind of formal dance, at a momentum where it seems impossible for them to stay upright. The essence of their style is never to break sweat, never to acknowledge other life forms, never to sound, or even possess, a bell.
The most recent group is the pod: Cameron’s children, the babies of Boris. They lodge in the new territories, Hoxton, Shoreditch, so that they can roll from bed to work, in the spill zone around Silicon Roundabout, in five minutes. Barney Rowntree, a radio producer, told me how it goes. ‘We live on bikes, all my friends. So we can regulate time, we know exactly how long it takes to move between clubs, pubs, wherever we’re going to meet.’ The cycles, for security, are locked into a nest, a mound, an artwork from which it’s impossible to extract a single machine. Members use two sets of locks. Kryptonite devices cost from £75 to £100. The machines themselves are slender, neurotic, weighing less than the bondage chains required to protect them. Members of the pod approve of the Boris bike scheme: as back-up, when their own fixed-wheel bicycles are stolen. The limited territory available to Barclays Cycle Hire members doesn’t bother them. They don’t deal in suburbs. Clerkenwell, Soho, the mainline stations, that covers it. The only certainties in being a paid-up, day-by-day cyclist are theft and road accidents. Every podist I questioned agreed: they would have a bike stolen once or twice a year, and suffer a shunt of some kind within three years. Barney’s most recent loss came when his multi-locked machine was sawn in half. The noise of a bolt-cutter, whipped out from beneath a long coat, snapping through kryptonite, is like a gunshot. And the latest accident? A broken shoulderbone, courtesy of an unmarked pothole. Most bone-snapping, skull-bouncing tumbles are caused by the state of London roads, or the intoxication (booze, dope, fumes) of cyclists who believe that drink-driving regulations don’t apply to City Hall-approved, Big Society pedallers.
The elite of the pod world are the cycle couriers. I asked Matt Sherratt, an artist and former courier, how he survived. ‘Forty is the watershed,’ he said. ‘When you’re young, you are pretty sharp-witted.’ On a fixed-wheel bike you are ‘part of the experience, you dart through the traffic.’ The trick is to live by your own instincts and to break every rule of the road. ‘If there’s a whole row of traffic, you’re not going to stay in that row. You get out, to the opposite side of the road. You will absolutely rip down the other side, the wrong way. You’ve got clear visibility, it’s perfectly safe. It’s safer to just jump the lights. You create an open space.’ Being a courier for someone like Metro, the photographic agency, gives you the uniform, ‘beautifully branded kit’. You are a king of the city. In Australia, Matt went straight into the back of a station wagon at a zebra crossing, head first through the rear windscreen. Quality helmet. He made it back to London, where he hit a pothole and went to hospital with a rack of broken ribs.
The older, cannier Jock McFadyen agreed: you make your own rules. ‘I never wear a helmet. I ride on the pavement. I never go on the road, except out of frustration. And I always go through red lights, always. And never sound a bell. Traffic lights don’t have the intelligence to say there are no pedestrians. You do have confrontations with drivers. I’ve had to punch people’s mirrors off.’ What Jock admires most about the bicycle is the simplicity of design. ‘You can build a bike from scratch in an hour,’ he said. He owns 45 of them. Most of his crashes, he acknowledges, have been his own fault. Late returns from gallery openings, full pelt, Old Street, sudden application of front brakes, and he finds himself lying across the bonnet of a shocked motorist. He approves the Boris bike scheme, without knowing too much about it, but liking, with his painterly eye, the look of the blue Barclays logo on the gleaming silver ranks of docking stations. Nobody had told him, as I was soon to discover, that it was easier to dock a lunar transfer module in 2001: A Space Odyssey than a Boris bike in Shoreditch Park. There were more ghost bikes, white-painted memorials wired to the fence, than docking stations on Kingsland Road. The spectral machines, poignantly labelled and dressed with dead flowers, were not just monuments to cyclists crushed at the side of the road, but a memento mori for the days of the white bicycles, in their hundreds, in Amsterdam: free of access, free to travel across the whole city. Unsponsored by banks (and doomed to disappear with their historic moment).
Sign up, hop on, ride off: that was the Barclays pitch. But in practice it was not quite as simple as that. The scheme, much puffed in all forms of the media as a relatively cheap way to be seen to be doing something about the collapsing infrastructure of London transport, was effective PR. Even the hardcore cyclists bought it. If they had survived, damaged but not yet honoured with a white bicycle, they were prepared to patronise the new users, weaving away from a docking station in flip-flops, sandals, floaty dresses, imagining a return to the travelling-shot world of Jeanne Moreau in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Boris Johnson, an alpha male with a high-pumped sense of entitlement, demonstrated no false modesty about claiming credit for an idea that had very little to do with him. Ken Livingstone toyed with cycling ‘initiatives’ and despatched Lycra cadres with orders to stage pit-stop clinics. ‘A female or male instructor can train you or accompany you on your usual journey.’ Re-education in a couple of turns around the park. In August 2007, Livingstone directed Transport for London to examine the feasibility of a cycle hire scheme. By February 2008 he was ready to copy the Vélib’ idea from Paris. The Lib Dems, keen to divert attention from their complacent assumption of the privileges (and the shame) of a shared administration, now explain that this cycle hire business had always been their pet project, proposed by Lynne Featherstone in 2001, and stalled, for years, by Mayor Livingstone.
What they were stealing, in a modest way (6000 bicycles against 20,000 for Paris), was the pet project of J-C Decaux, a man with licence to stick posters over bus stops. Decaux, who was labelled by Libération as ‘le roi du mobilier urbain’, must have felt at home plastering a city with ranks of docking stations. Lyon, Decaux’s home city, trialled the scheme. It proved a sound investment. Paris followed, as did Vienna, Córdoba, Brussels. And, eventually, London.
But does it work? Sign up and you have the freedom of a segment of central London, an inclusion zone mirroring the exclusion zone which requires motorists to pay an entry toll. The scheme favours casuals tempted to explore Hyde Park and commuters coming from mainline stations. It does not favour journeys of exploration, drifts, day-long expeditions. The first 30 minutes, once you’ve joined, are free. A day’s outing costs £50. I sweated through the online application, bank details, credit checks, childhood nickname, and then, after several days, I was told that my membership had been approved. By the time the key arrived, a sliver of hard plastic with the Barclays brand like a pale blue thermometer, I knew that I had volunteered for electronic tagging. Would this slender fob work any better than those swipe cards that refuse to let you into generic hotel rooms? Move across the city, using the key, and your presence is logged. It was a nice conceit. I would be paying, by direct debit, for the privilege of trundling around Bloomsbury as a mobile sandwich-board for a group of investment bankers.
I don’t live in a remote suburb: it takes me 25 minutes to walk to Liverpool Street Station – and 15 minutes to reach the nearest Barclays bike. On my way to Falkirk Street in Hoxton, I pass two ghost bikes, one a Raleigh, very much like the model Albert Finney rode in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It’s a mild November morning and there are 26 slots across the road from Hackney Community College, all of them empty. Private Property, No Loitering. I don’t loiter, I push on to the next option, Shoreditch Park. Thirty bays, two bikes. I try my key and get a red light: refused. I try the other bike, no go. I return home and ring the Barclays help line, with which I will become very familiar in the succeeding weeks. We go through the usual holding pattern, muzak, apologies over weight of traffic, warnings that our conversation will be recorded for training purposes, and then I’m informed that my key is a dud. ‘We’re registering a fault. You’ve got an invalid filter.’ A new key is promised. By the time it arrives, I’m away from London. An email informs me that the week for which I have signed up is over, will I renew my membership? No point in complaining that I haven’t cycled one yard. From the instant the useless key went into the slot in Shoreditch Park, red light or no red light, I was burning up credit. Hanging around malfunctioning docking stations, I chatted to other clients. Their acceptance of the glitches in the system astonished me. Hypnotised into believing they were striking a blow for the planet, ecowarriors in hard hats were happy to suffer local inconvenience, to trot briskly away in quest of a rack with useable cycles, to take part in a cross-town treasure hunt. But one woman, now a determined pedestrian, told me she’d found herself being charged for rides she’d never made, in places she had never been. The non-return charge is £300. Barclays keep an entire department to argue over unfair deductions.
I didn’t give up: 29 November offered a break in the cold weather, a bright morning on which to revisit Hoxton. Cycles were available, my key was accepted. I pedalled away from Shoreditch Park. My idea was to test the system with a relay of short-haul journeys, always within the free half-hour, anticlockwise around the entire loop of the Barclays docking stations, from Hoxton to Regent’s Park, to Holland Park, to Vauxhall, to the Tower of London. A grand notion for a grand day.
In a few minutes I was back in Shoreditch Park. The only problem was a massive hole that entirely obstructed the roundabout at the top of Hoxton Market. They were improving the image of construction again. The crater, scattering cyclists and pedestrians alike on major detours, was part of Hackney’s £22 million investment in the streets, courtesy of Volker Highways. Detour completed, unscathed, my heavy bike slipped into its slot, the light showed green. I moved down the line to try one of the three fresh mounts available. Red light, key refused: the whole station was out. Potential cyclists jogged off, competitively, in all directions. I understood that Boris was doing his bit for the health of Londoners by encouraging this marathon trot between docking stations, keeping amateurs off roads where they faced almost certain injury: 34 accidents were reported for the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme between 30 July and 30 September 2010. A woman was knocked from her bike by a transporter used to restock empty docking stations. A man was crushed against the kerb by a lorry. And a seven-year-old boy narrowly escaped injury when a docking station, hit by a car, fell on him. David Ellis, a photographer from Stoke Newington, was dragged under the wheels of a Barclays bike trailer. Ellis said that the transporters constituted a hazard to other road-users, being wider than the electric vehicles that tow them.
Marching down the canal to the next station on my Barclays map, at Danbury Street, I passed one of the new refuelling facilities, a slot in the wall with a spread of outdoor tables, calling itself Towpath. The puncture repair operation, alongside, was shuttered and dead. The coffee here, as the counterman boasted, was the best in London. Photographers, having dropped off their infants, parked bikes for a caffeine hit. Breakfast meetings spread across tables where hunks of healthy toast were loaded with fruit-heavy jams. ‘I’m just about to set up my own publishing company.’ ‘Oh are you?’ Suits and stylish shoes which had never, before this, ventured east of Silicon Roundabout, congratulated themselves on the novelty, being where they were: a foot away from the raging peloton (with not a Boris bike in sight).
At Danbury Street, on the flank of comfortable Islington, my key is refused: three times. A passing Boris initiate explains that if there are cycles left among the empty slots, it means that they don’t work. They are waiting on the trailer. When I am spurned again at Macclesfield Road, I ring in. It seems that because Shoreditch Park is out of order the return of my bike hasn’t registered, and therefore no other docking station will accept my custom. Someone will be around to check my claim; meanwhile the clock is ticking on my tariff. I’ve signed up and paid for two weeks, managed five minutes on a Boris bike, and walked in the bracing air for several hours. Reluctant to give up the proposed Barclays circuit, I continue on foot, taking note of the docking stations as I pass them. Chadwell Avenue: 18 slots, 0 bikes. River Street: 11 slots, 1 bike. Percy Street: 23 slots, 2 bikes. Guildford Street: 23 slots, 7 bikes. Margery Street: 19 slots, 1 bike. St John Street: 17 slots, 1 bike. Finsbury Library: 29 slots, 5 bikes. West Smithfield Rotunda, outside St Bartholomew’s Hospital: 25 slots, 24 bikes. Suggesting, perhaps, some sort of strange equation, or sympathetic magic, between hospitals and bicycles. Is there a superstition about riding off from such close proximity to a casualty department? The ranks of untouched machines reminded me of grandiose churches in Malta where the miraculously cured sick hung their crutches and callipers on the wall.
Like everything else in the Alice in Wonderland world of pre-Olympic London, cycling has become the plaything of bankers and politicians. We have been persuaded to undergo an online process, like applying for a mortgage, or a loan we don’t need, in order to become a mobile advertisement for the benevolence of a financial institution. And by this application, we are registered, tagged, our movements logged and our conversations recorded. The entitled rich demonstrate their charitable instincts, their common touch, by making short commutes on expensive bicycles, thereby avoiding the foetid embrace of viral democracy on bus and tube train. City Hall politicians combine taxi miles (unphotographed) with cycle yards (accompanied by TV crews). Bobbin, a neighbourhood cave in St John Street, Islington, presents itself as ‘the most beautiful bicycle shop in Great Britain!’ Its moment has come, as it offers the pure John Major pedalling spinster experience: at a price. Pristine versions, in emerald green, of the high-handled cycles ridden by New Women in the novels of H.G. Wells. Along with capes and caps and corduroy jodhpurs. The middle classes, nostalgic for this village identity, stutter through the cycle inclusion zone on their heavy silver machines. Even New Labour’s bristling business adviser Lord Sugar, out in Tebbit territory in Chigwell, is on message, on his bike. A journalist, granted access to the stockade, reveals that his library is shelved with fake books chosen by an interior decorator. Lord Sugar doesn’t have time to read or listen to music. When the groin isn’t playing up, he cycles. He has a pilot’s licence and his own £20 million jet, but his pleasure is to take to the roads around Epping Forest, as children of Jewish immigrants settled in Hackney are recorded as doing, in release from the gravity of the city, in the proletarian novels of Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton. But Lord Sugar won’t try a Boris bike, not at any price. ‘Too big and heavy. I like carbon frames.’
Despite everything, all my petty prejudices, when I eventually found a station prepared to take my key, I enjoyed the solemnity and armchair ease of a Boris bike. I decided to combine, on a bitter day of snow-slicked roads, the song cycle and the bicycle. I made a meandering progress through the City of London, docking and redocking, as I searched out the sites for the Surround Me installations by Susan Philipsz. On a winter Saturday, with minimal traffic and few humans, the bike came into its own, with Philipsz’s unaccompanied voice as a melancholy confirmation of my mood. The labyrinthine alleys I could take on foot were now closed to me. I circumnavigated the usual sanctioned craters, the arbitrary one-way systems, the incident tape colour-coded to flatter vestigial bike lanes in Barclays blue. I found that Boris bikes were a hideous burden on icy steps. But the illusion of freedom, the way the machine could be dumped when you tired of it, the simplicity of the gears, the automatic flashing lights, seduced me. I went home and signed up for a year’s membership. I became a positive affirmation statistic. And then I forgot the whole business and walked as usual, without the troublesome machine and the requirement to navigate from Barclays oasis to oasis across a sanctioned reservation.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.