Books: A Point of View: Pedal Power |
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Pedal Power : on Prime Ministerial transport

(S03E04, broadcast 28th and 30th March 2008)

" Pedal power"

I’m glad I’ve had a whole week to consider the questions raised by an inspired tabloid sting that caught Conservative leader David Cameron, on his way to work, cycling the wrong way up a one-way street as well as ignoring at least one red light. There is so much involved in this case that an instantaneous response would have been useless. Personal morality versus official responsibility, credibility versus hypocrisy, physical fulfilment versus the duty to reduce carbon emissions: all these things were in play from the moment that the red-top reporter got on his bike and started trailing Mr Cameron in the direction of Westminster, with the impending-chase music from Bullitt playing ominously on the soundtrack.

For the reporter, it was no easy job. He had a video camera, so he had to ride one-handed. He had to follow Mr Cameron through a red light and along a one-way street, going the wrong way. At any moment Mr Cameron might have stood on the pedals, calves globular, and streaked out of sight like a sprinter in the last hundred metres of the Tour de France. The reporter also had to be careful not to get run over by the car that might be following Mr Cameron on these cycling expeditions because there is no provision on the leader of the opposition’s bicycle for his briefcase, official boxes, sandwiches and, apparently, shoes. Tory Central Office insists that no such car has followed the cycling Mr Cameron for some time now, but you never know when it might appear again.

I recognized the bit about the shoes. Though I myself am no longer a cyclist, at least once a week I walk all the way to my office from the railway station, cushioning my feet with an old pair of trainers. Behind me, at a respectful distance, comes a vintage straight-8 Daimler shovelling the white smoke of burning oil as my driver, a retired Gurkha who was mistakenly allowed into the country by immigration officials under the impression that he was a terrorist, struggles with the slipping clutch. Beside him, on the front passenger seat, are my shoes. I always suspected that there was something wrong with this picture and now that I’ve read all the documents pertaining to the Cameron cycling case I can finally see what it is. From the viewpoint of credibility, one is vulnerable if one pretends to be a self-sufficient cyclist when there are actually two of one, the other being the driver at the wheel of the car carrying one’s stuff.

But I can’t think of any other rules I break as I walk to work. I don’t even jaywalk, for fear of being knocked down by some high-echelon politician cycling the wrong way down the street after ignoring a red light. It’s the flagrant flouting of the rules of the road that has got Mr Cameron into trouble. His apologies have been touching, if not entirely convincing. ‘I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry.’ Notice how he leaves the way open for the inference that there have been countless other occasions on which he has not made mistakes. Obviously he realizes he has bared his flank to suggestions that his present behaviour on the road when in charge of a bicycle might throw doubts on his future behaviour in 10 Downing Street when in charge of the country.

Here, I think he and his advisers might take courage from historical precedent. One of the things that made Queen Elizabeth I so great a ruler was that she regularly cycled to work. Her skill at riding a bicycle was kept a secret from her adoring public by the fact that her voluminous crinoline concealed the bicycle. To the common people, she seemed to be skimming along the ground at remarkable speed with her hands in her pockets and almost no expenditure of effort, thereby enhancing her reputation for unearthly powers. Another great bike rider was Louis XIV, who regularly cycled between romantic assignations with Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon. At the peak of his cycling career he was able to get the time down to under ten minutes, so that either woman was able to convince herself that he had not been unduly detained by the other. His collection of bicycles was so extensive that he eventually built the Palace of Versailles to house them. When Cardinal Mazarin borrowed one of the king’s bicycles without permission, he would have incurred the monarch’s wrath even if he had not crashed making a tight turn into the Tuileries, his cassock riddled with broken spokes.

Mr Cameron’s advisers should also draw his attention to the evidence provided by the comparative failure of heads of state and prominent politicians who did not cycle to work. When it was suggested to Napoleon that he should ride a bicycle to the Battle of Waterloo, he proudly refused, with disastrous results. He travelled by heavy coach, turning up hot and bothered a crucial few minutes late to be faced with the spectacle of the Duke of Wellington already in position and fighting fit, the duke having arrived at forty miles an hour on a Raleigh lightweight aluminium racing bicycle with a fully aerodynamic wheel-set and low spoke count. In America, General Custer was proud of his seat on a horse but not at all pleased with his seat on a bicycle. He found it impossible to make a cross-cut swing of the cutlass without slicing through the bicycle’s front tyre. So at the Battle of the Little Big Horn he galloped rather than cycled into action, to be hopelessly outmanoeuvred by Chief Sitting Bull and half the Sioux nation all mounted on imported Suzuki trail bikes.

But back to reality, in which, we presume, Mr Cameron might want to go on riding his bike despite the dangers. I know I did. Among the many dedicated bike riders at Sydney Technical High School none had a bike to match mine. It had all the kit. It had the gear trigger positioned just under one of the brake handles so that I could change down in a flash when pounding my way up the hill on the far side of Kogarah Bay. It had the cheese-cutter saddle positioned high on its post so that I could steadily castrate myself while showing the maximum length of leg. There were no Lycra shorts in those days, civilization not yet having come to an end, but I rolled my ordinary shorts right up to give that bulging thigh effect that all true cyclists are convinced is so attractive, just as men whose heads rise from a purple lake of tattoos are convinced that their perfectly ordinary features have somehow been rendered more interesting.

Thus equipped and adorned, I cycled everywhere at blinding speed, my legs a blur as I wove in and out of traffic, diving dramatically past the driver’s cabin of the school bus as all aboard put their hands over their eyes. A crash under a truck almost killed me and the sight of me in the casualty ward almost killed my mother, but nothing could stop me cycling for years on end, until the day I realized what was missing. I couldn’t read while I rode. I tried it, but when the Kogarah police caught me reading a novel by Erle Stanley Gardner as I rode no-hands down Railway Parade I realized that the game was up, and ever since, for about half a century now, I have used public transport when I’m in the big city. For someone who does what I do for a living, public transport is even better than a car. You can’t legally read in a car unless somebody else is driving, and my Gurkha isn’t always available to drive the Daimler, because he’s down at the immigration office being told why having risked his life for Britain a few dozen times isn’t enough to earn him permanent residence or even a full pension.

So when I’m in London I ride the Tube and the bus, and I imagine that Mr Cameron, too, is under pressure to forget about the bike. He could answer that if he permanently nixed the car carrying his shoes and just rode the bike with his shoes on, he would be doing even less to damage the environment than if he rode on a bus, and far less than if he rode in a car. But he might find it hard to convince the Chinese of that. When and if Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister, he will be faced, as he travels by kayak across the globe from conference to conference, with platoons of Chinese gerontocrat Party bigwigs who all grew up riding bicycles but now wouldn’t be seen dead on a bicycle even though most of them, by our standards, should be dead already.

Of the more than a thousand million people in China, a high proportion rode bicycles until recently, but now they’d rather not. They would rather go by metro or by bus, or, better than that, by taxi, or even better than that, by car, preferably a car they own. Nobody in the West is going to persuade China to find a way of developing its economy without consuming energy. Even if we reduced our own emissions to zero, the saving wouldn’t amount to much beside whatever a few hundred million Chinese do next instead of riding bicycles. The reason for Mr Cameron to ditch the bike is that he has things to do. He’s been given a car so that he can work in it. Riding his bicycle to work, all he can do is think, and he’s already made it evident that in such circumstances he can’t think fast enough to figure out what a red light might mean if he goes through it with somebody taking pictures of him. Tony would have made Cherie sit backwards on the pillion, looking out for spies.


At that time, David Cameron was still forming his image. It was no easy task for a man whose puppy-fat features gave the impression that he was still forming his face. On the other side of the fence, Gordon Brown was all face and nothing but. British politics was never more clearly a case of a battle between images, with the points of substantial contention hard to detect. The public greeted this contest between cartoons with heart-warming indifference: reassuring evidence that in a modern democracy the Führerprinzip need barely flicker. But on each side, a little more definite personification of the governing principles might have been desirable. In my own house I was told that the Labour Party was marginally more generous with nursery care and therefore still to be preferred. Later on, in 2010, I was asked by several publications both in Britain and Australia to cover the British general election, but luckily I had become ill, and so could plausibly ask to be excused. I have no idea how I would have handled the job. Then as now, I couldn’t tell one Miliband from another. But even with the economy in difficulties, it held such abundance that you actually had to be one of the poor to notice any overt worsening of conditions. Members of the middle class who, for the first time in their lives, found themselves unable to meet their bills, suffered in silence, as the middle class is wont to do, and anyway they often had relatives to help them where the state could not. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, had a detectably less certain access to the fountain of plenty. One of the reasons that Joanna Lumley emerged as a political heroine was that she was fighting a clear-cut battle. Had she heeded the siren calls to move up into real politics, we might soon have loved her a lot less. There was a man called Clegg, for example, who was almost as glamorous as the divine Joanna. But he preached the renunciation of nuclear energy, an initiative which, if realized, would remove the only possibility of the country weaning itself off fossil fuels without going bankrupt. Luckily he would never be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, would he?

As to the bicycle of my glory days, it has been returning to me more often in my day-dreams as the chances of ever riding anything like it again grow less. But I go on watching the Tour de France on television every year, and recently I wrote a poem called ‘A Dream on Two Wheels’, which, in its entirety, I print here for the first time anywhere.

Contador should be the noun
For anyone who makes the mountains melt
And can still win sprints.
From start to finish in the Tour,
James was the Contador.

Schleck should be the adjective
For anyone who looks that cool
And handsome going that fast
For two weeks. James the Contador
Has once again been schleck, indeed the schleckest.

Wiggins is just a name.