Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Wind at My Back

“Cycling is about mapping the small worlds that are always around us.”

This 2018 literary cycling memoir by British writer Paul Maunder, a self-described “failed bike racer and failed novelist” (though since the publication of this book he has published a novel, The Atomics) who is best known for his non-fiction writing in magazines like Rouleur and Peloton, is right up my alley. 

It’s a deeply literary reflection on the interplay between the two crucial strands of Maunder’s identity: cyclist and writer. He makes the intriguing claim that cycling has been essential to his understanding of place, landscape, and nature, as well as his development as a writer. This elegantly written book is richly descriptive, both of English landscapes and of literary ones that have influenced his perception–of himself and the larger world. 

While tracing his youth and early adulthood, Maunder drops an eclectic array of allusions to fiction writers (John Cheever, John Updike, Bret Easton Ellis, Tim Krabbe, Michael Chabon) and poets (Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin), but it’s really non-fiction writers, particularly in the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British country-writing tradition of Edward Thomas (who actually wrote a very fine cycling book himself in 1913) and Richard Jefferies (Man of the Fields), that he most strongly aligns himself with. 

Maunder is at his best when describing a uniquely British cycling experience:

“We love lanes because they bring us closer to nature, and because they remind us of older journeys, those of footpaths and tracks between villages. Riding along a lane, the cyclist brushes the lively habitat of hedge and verge; indeed, the humble hedge is the thing a British cyclist spends most of his time looking at. One becomes used to peering into its honeycomb holes, searching out small animals, berries, flowers and jettisoned biscuit wrappers.”

But as that last line suggests, his is not an overly idealized or unspoiled natural world. Maunder describes various kinds of English landscapes, including some urban and even suburban ones, in all four seasons, but it’s mostly rural England that he recalls from his youth. And these landscapes are beautiful, lonely, and, in some cases, haunted by nostalgia, secrets, and shadows, captured most vividly in Maunder’s imagination by the nuclear bunker at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire that he rode by so often as a young man. 

Indeed, nostalgia runs deep through the early parts of the book especially, the soundtrack of Maunder’s emo-ish youth emerging in references to Kate Bush, Joy Division, and acid house music. His pop cultural resume includes cult-classic British tv shows like The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin

At the same time, though, the book is broadly concerned with more highbrow aesthetics, especially visual artists who depicted English landscapes, such as Eric Ravilious, whose 1930s watercolors of the South Downs were a revelation to me. Weaving his own story alongside these little backgrounders on the literature and art of the places Maunder grew up riding around, he seems to be shooting for a kind of Alain-de-Botton-on-wheels effect–a little bit lectury but also candidly personal and self-deprecating. And much of the time, Maunder succeeds. 

But not always. As much as I enjoyed reading about Maunder’s theories about how cycling enables a particular type of perception (“all cyclists, whether they admit it or not, are voyeurs”) and his evocative descriptions of landscapes, some things about the book bugged me.

For one, Maunder can be pretentious in his literariness, explaining a book or film for no apparent reason other than showing off that he’s read or watched it. It takes only the thinnest of pretenses for him to veer onto gratuitous literary sidepaths that don’t really add much to the journey. A sidebar on the Blair Witch Project? Is that really helpful? (de Botton can be guilty of the same offense, but somehow I mind it less.) 

The other thing that I found tiresome after a while is Maunder’s investment in the romantic loner cyclist/loner artist motif. The well-worn trope of lonely suffering exists in both realms, and can be traced back at least to Kron and Keats. Maunder says he prefers to ride alone, and even when racing and riding with a team, he always felt an outsider. The tinge of lonely sadness that runs through much of this book seems a badge of honour for Maunder. Writers and (serious) cyclists aren’t supposed to be happy, he implies. Phooey, I say.

In fact, one of my favorite chapters in the book details Maunder's memory of his father’s very different approach to riding. In contrast to the racing loner the son became, his dad and his dad’s friend John saw cycling as a recreational social activity that was more about friendship, taking all-day journeys, and seeing things, than about speed. (Maunder paints a wonderfully vivid portrait of his father’s dorky non-racing fashion too: crochet mitts, leather shoes, Carradice saddle bag.) Maunder explains how, as a teenager, he sometimes joined his father and John on these long rides, but that it was a kind of riding that constrained his young man’s racing impulses. Maunder admits he was jealous of the trips they would take without him, but, curiously, it wasn’t the social aspect that he felt he missed out on so much as the landscapes, the promise of new territory and adventure.

Maunder points to his obsession with landscape as one reason he struggled as a novelist. He says his wife told him that his early fiction relied too much on clichéd characters. Landscape was a snap, but people were a challenge. For this reason, Maunder comes to the conclusion that he’s probably better suited to writing non-fiction. But I’m not sure I entirely agree with this logic; non-fiction has characters too, and Maunder’s criticism of his own fiction (privileging landscape over people) could be seen as a problem with this memoir too, though he’s probably right that it’s more forgivable in nonfiction.

For me, Maunder’s father’s approach to riding sounds a lot more appealing than the son’s. I get that the fellowship model of cycling is just as romanticized as the loner one Maunder subscribes to, but the former is the myth I prefer.

In the end, the sadness lifts and Maunder comes to terms not just with his new role as nonfiction writer but also with a new way of thinking about cycling in his life, one that has evolved beyond the racing impulse and, although still solitary, is of a type that many middle-aged cyclists, not just his father and me, can relate to:

“[T]hese three-hour journeys around my own landscape have helped to make me a happy man.”

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