Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Joyous Wheel

Happy is the cyclist.

James Arnold’s The Joyous Wheel (1940) is pretty much the perfect embodiment of the literature of the cycling-rambler tradition which was popular in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. Two-wheeled ramblers like the great "Kuklos" (W. Fitzwater Wray) and Edward Thomas traveled the countryside at a modest but steady pace, seeking out experiences in nature, stopping at points of interest (historical, literary, architectural), partaking of food and beverage at inns and taverns en route, and generally savouring the pleasures of English country life.

These ramblers, almost all of them British, cultivated a very particular aesthetic in their writings about cycle travel. The goal was neither speed nor distance but rather “experiences,” as Arnold says. “Happy is the cyclist who rides throughout the year, taking what comes his way in weather, choosing only his itinerary.” Stalwart, unflappable, optimistic, the rambler pedals on, seeking subtle contact with the rustic world.

Arnold’s slim book (133 pages, including his own exquisite black and white illustrations) recounts his cycling adventures during the 1930s in and around the landscape of the Cotswolds, west of London. A “seasoned Woldsman,” as he refers to himself, he rattles off the names of the villages he passes through on his rides--Shrewston, Tilshead, Wantage, Stow, Burford--like a kind of geographical rosary. Some of these place names sound totally made up: Wooton Fitzpayne, Buttermere, Abden Burf, Uphusband. And my favorite: Lord Hereford’s Knob. The weird poetry of these names isn’t lost on Arnold; in fact, he says that sometimes he altered his routes just for them. “These names lured me and did not let me down.”

That’s probably because Arnold has a keen eye for detail and takes delight in the smallest discoveries of what he calls “country life”: a “trouty river,” the purple soil of Shropshire, a curious cloud formation, a particularly cold beer. He possesses an extraordinary ability to notice. After a long disquisition on the beauty of chalk formations, he says, simply, “I was taken with masses and patterns.” Indeed, and lucky for us he was. 

Arnold pays close attention to land formations and water. He describes trees, turf, and flowers, not to mention practical road conditions for cycling (“lumpy road to Overton”). Elevation is an obsession; he catalogues the feet above sea level for almost every hill. Rivers, too, get a lot of attention. He tends to talk about them as if they’re people: in his account of a ride through Wales in 1936, for instance, Arnold mentions how “All the way [down] from the summit I had the cheerful company of the Ithon [river].” A little later, he explains that “At Llangurig, I made my acquaintance with the Wye.” Rivers are the rambler’s boon companion.

Like many ramblers, Arnold pays heed to history and architecture, especially country churches and barns, whose styles and dates he recognizes at a glance. Human-made naves, chantries, transepts, and chancels make him almost as excited as nature’s own work. And while the rambler does often journey alone, he or she is not necessarily fleeing humanity and its creations. Arnold travels with friends on many of his trips and takes pleasure in conversation with strangers he encounters en route.    

Pipe smoking is a big part of the rambler aesthetic. Arnold makes frequent mention of stopping to take a break, surveying the surroundings, and smoking “a pipe of baccy,” as he calls it. He likes a pipe after dinner, during a stroll, or by lamplight. “Any theme, of course, shall be a pretext for a smoke.” In a lovely chapter called “On Doing Nothing,” Arnold proclaims: “What an unfortunate chap is he that does not smoke a pipe!” His idea of cycling involves a fair bit of non-cycling--sitting quietly, observing the world. And the act of smoking seems to allow Arnold to enter a kind of zen-zone of perception and near invisibility.

Now, if you are at ease, with a detailed prospect before you, take your pouch and fill, unhurriedly, so that the pipe draws smoothly . . . the tobacco gently teased if it’s curly, and then evenly lit. Comes the first exotic aroma to your nostrils, and all is to your liking.

While all this has passed, nature, disturbed at your alien approach, has adjusted herself to your presence. A thrush still protests from a new perch, now intermittently and less shrilly. Numerous rabbits come so near as to suggest an unawareness of you, only to scatter to a distance, on sensing you; some, even, to the greater security of their warren. The cheerful sawing notes of the great tit come from the near wood, finding strident competition in the chaffinch in the hedge. Rooks, their colony now no more, still wheel above the friendly lofty elms in the far corner of the field.

Arnold was 29 when he wrote this book; often, he sounds like he could be 79--there’s a gentle wisdom beyond his years in these pages.

Night-rides are another rambler favorite. Arnold recounts several memorable moonlit runs, which he enjoys because they offer a kind of defamiliarization of what might be taken as mundane in regular light. He relishes “that curious pleasure of riding through a countryside that is all tones of indigo, where everyday things lose their mundane aspect and become celestial, and all the while the inscrutable moon keeps you company.”

Arnold recalls a “Whitsun jaunt of 1936,” coming back from Chalk Hill one evening, pausing to take in his surroundings:

Now in the closing light of a Cotswold evening, when the remote character of the hinterland is best felt, and no sounds break the stillness, and there is the faint aroma of damp earth, good brown earth. I took myself to Hinchwick where there was a pleasant amber house amid shelving hills--bare on their tops--but their lower slopes in the foliage of beeches, oaks, firs, larches, rowan, and birch. Deep in a ravine was a narrow strip of water that I call a lake. It was a winding road, that finally zoomed up to the bare tops, whence I could look across to the rolling sea of colours quite velvety and dim, except where near Condicote the grass caught the faint light.

            A hearty supper, gentlemen, by the lamp-light. A jovial table too, with enough of Black Milk and just a little wine. A short walk in the dark before bed.

Some might find The Joyous Wheel a little too subtle, too joyous--or possibly just uneventful, boring even. And in a way it is. It’s a book almost devoid of tension (save occasional complaints about human misuse of the landscape), consisting entirely of small wonders (those “numerous rabbits” and cheerful birdcalls) that our jaded twenty-first-century souls may have trouble taking non-ironically. But that’s precisely what makes it lovely--it’s a mellow mood piece evoking another era, a simpler time that probably felt impossible just a few years later, never mind now. I can puff on a pipe as long as I want, but I doubt I’ll see the world the way Arnold did.

I think that's James Arnold in the centre, the tall, old guy.
Photo Credit: Beacon Roads Cycling Club, 1983.

James Arnold went on to write 6 other books in his long life (1909-1999), though none were about cycling, despite his life-long devotion to the pastime. (Decades after this book was published, he became a prominent member of Birmingham’s Beacon Roads Cycling Club.) According to David Viner’s lovely bio in Folk Life, Arnold mostly wrote about and sketched country crafts, especially Cotswold farm waggons and carts, chronicling quickly vanishing rural traditions.

Viner tells of how, in his old age, Arnold, deaf and blind, “clung to his lifetime’s passion for pipe-smoking and could be found sitting alone in his retirement home surrounded by huge whiffs of smoke.” I’d like to think that the aroma alone helped him recall his joyous younger days awheel amid the villages, hills, and rivers of his beloved Cotswolds.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, Jasper. I think I will read this one. Sounds like a perfect escapist literature to me!


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