I was pleasantly surprised by the memories your letter managed to conjure in my mind, ones which had slipped through the net completely but which now, after many years, bring back images of my youth. You write about the pleasures of riding your bicycle, and the lessons it taught you on relationships and work ethic: my experiences are very different to yours, mainly because I was brought up initially in a major city, in the middle of London, and bicycle riding, for a child in the city, was hardly an option. There were no dedicated bicycle lanes, no protected areas on the roads; you took your chance on the streets along with everyone else and that was it. I also did not have a bicycle at home, it was kept in the small apartment my grandmother occupied in Chelsea and my visits to her part of the city, although it was not too far distant, were rare. I was able to ride up and down the pavement for an hour or so on the days I did visit, but always alone, and certainly not any great distance away from the apartment.
Practically my whole life I have been a walker, managing to get from one place to another on foot – when I had the time to indulge this pleasure – but rarely using any form of manual transportation. The one exception was after my graduation from school, travelling down to London from North Yorkshire over three days just so I could get rid of the bad feelings left in me by the education system. I remember getting my grades and then being told by one teacher – where I had sailed through the examinations – that he didn’t consider my pass a real pass as he didn’t particularly like me and my attitude. The feeling was mutual, I must admit: I wasn’t exactly enamoured of his teaching methods and basically ignored all he had taught, took past examination papers as my examples, and researched the areas likely to be questioned on my own time. But I rode my bike back down to London to blow steam out, and also because I had no real plan for the future, for what I wanted to do in the Big City, where my life should be going. I guess it’s much the same for many people at that age, unless they’ve already signed themselves up for college or some form of training programme. A few weeks after I got back to London, working in a bar, my bike was stolen and I was back to walking again.
And then I had my last try at owning a bicycle once I settled down in Germany, using an old, rusty model I had been gifted to ride the twelve miles to and from a restaurant where I was working as chef. I wouldn’t have had any problem walking the distance, or even taking my car, but a bicycle is supposed to be a health benefit and I had this strange idea that I wasn’t doing enough sport each day, so the bike came back again. I still have it, rusted to a mere frame with shredded tyres, in a shed next to my house. Perhaps I should push it out for the scrap collectors one day, it has no other worth.
We have a bicycle rally here each year, a round trip for those wishing to find out something about our region and a chance for local businesses to open up and show people the backrooms and inner workings. Up to two thousand people turn up each year on their trusty steeds, collect a balloon to show they’re part of the whole, and ride the twenty or twenty-five miles between stations. A few years ago a friend of mine, who works on one of the local newspapers, caught me doing this bike ride and snapped a picture for the headline: a whole field full, of people on bicycles, and me walking the same distance and getting not only strange looks, but a lot of strange comments too. Or, perhaps, not so strange; more repetitive. The favourite is to ask me whether I’ve lost my bicycle along the way, or to point out that it is a bike rally and not a foot march; hardly things which stretch the imagination. The rally is always on Ascension Day, which is also Father’s Day in Germany and a public holiday, but this year I didn’t take part. I would have wanted to, but the injuries to my foot prevented me.
When it comes right down to it, I’ve had more cars than I’ve had bicycles, which probably makes more sense since my travelling tends to be greater distances than can easily be achieved on a two-wheeler and a car is considerably more convenient than trains and buses much of the time. I even had one car specially chosen because I could push down the back seats and sleep in the trunk, which was more comfortable than you might imagine, and saved a great deal in hotel costs. Not that I have anything against sleeping in hotels, I’ve had the pleasure countless times over the years, but it tends to dig into the pocketbook when you’re out on your own, and some of the prices hotels charge, just for sleeping there, are far more than I would wish to consider. I was in an hotel in Göttingen a few years ago, visiting for a ceremonial occasion which started early in the evening and went on late into the morning of the next day, and paid over thirty Euros for a bed that I slept in for about five hours. Breakfast was extra, and the wait staff gave me a bitter and demonstratively disparaging look when I paid the exact costs without a tip. That put me off, partially because the breakfast wasn’t worth the price they charged and partially because this idea of demanding a tip when no real service has been offered or taken doesn’t ring true with me. I’ll happily pay extra when the service is there, when the staff go that extra mile to ensure a stay is enjoyable and worthwhile, but not just because the wait staff, cleaners or whoever happen to be there and have done nothing to enhance my stay whatsoever.
My present car is too small to sleep in, so I’m back to staying in hotels whenever I travel: far too old for sleeping rough in a city, although the attraction is still there. I used to do it when I visited London during military service, take a sleeping bag with me and visit the city for a weekend or longer. I’d go to the concert halls and art galleries and do the rounds of all those places which fascinate everyone but those who live there, and then find an underground car park or a bridge over the river Thames where I could stretch out undisturbed and sleep through the night. It was considerably more comfortable and restful than you might imagine, but society has changed and the crackdowns on those sleeping rough make it almost impossible these days. During the longer vacations, or leave, I’d take it to extremes and travel across country on foot, looking for small villages to explore and then sleeping in the nearby woods. The idea of being able to just wander, to move from one place to another without feeling bound has always appealed to me, although I am now one of those people I promised myself, as a teenager, I would never be: settled down with a house and responsibilities. I guess I’ve learned a different sort of ethic over the years, and taken advantage of the experiences of life which I did not have back in the Seventies.
Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century I suppose you could have called my wanderings a form of Grand Tour, which was very much in vogue back then: travelling across Europe to all the artistic and intellectual centres of the continent and gathering experiences. There were some who would take this Grand Tour over several years, or even sign themselves up to one of the universities, especially in Germany to advance their knowledge, before returning home to England and embarking on a career as landowner or in politics. Trade, of course, was something that one simply did not do back then, a completely different class of person, and certainly not one which any decent family would countenance when it came to friendship or even marriage. I still have a few cities on this Grand Tour itinerary of yesteryear I haven’t visited, mainly in Italy, but they are all planned.
And, of course, any travelling today will be completely different to the times I often read about: no horse-drawn carriages forcing their way along rutted, bare roads in the middle of the night; no highwaymen waiting to rob the rich of their possessions; no stops at post-houses for a few hours sleep in a flea-infested, straw-based bed with countless others and hardly a breath of fresh air in the fire-warned rooms. I’ve nothing against an open hearth with a blazing fire, one of those romantic ideals so many people have, where I can sit in a comfortable chair dressed in a silk gown and reading my favourite book with a pipe and glass of whiskey readily to hand, just as long as it is well ventilated. A room without fresh air streaming gently into it, removing various odours of life – especially that odour of life some people generate when their thoughts turn less to the bathroom and more to strange excesses – is not something I suffer gladly. I enjoy all the smells of the world, as long as they are out in nature, and not being cultivated in the pits of some wretch who insists on sitting to close to me!
Although there is something special about the idea of travelling across country in a horse-drawn carriage, but only the idea. Having enjoyed the benefits of modern technology, especially when it comes to seats and the smoothness of a car ride, I don’t think I’d want to exchange such pleasures for the harsh and hard reality of leather-bound benches in a wooden contraption running on steel- or iron-lined wooden wheels without any form of suspension. And then sharing one carriage with six or seven other people – or more! – for hours on end. Romance has nothing to do with reality. At least with a bicycle the rider is able to see all the potholes in the roads and avoid then or, at the very least, brace his buttocks for the jolt. Although I’m not sure that travelling by train is any better: the passenger is still thrown from one side to another, even if it is in a far milder fashion, and travels at the whim of a conglomerate only interested in producing a good profit at the end of each year. Air travel is much the same: almost impossible to straighten out my legs in order to lower the small table on the seat in front of me and enjoy whatever the airline serves up under the very loose name of food.
Which is probably very unfair toward some airlines who do make some form of an effort. I flew over to Baltimore a few years ago for a weekend with friends and had an absolutely marvellous Indian-style meal on board – two portions, as it happens – and plenty of room to stretch out and move about. That wasn’t necessarily thanks to the airline, more to the workforce who, just on the weekend I needed to travel, staged flash strikes against Air France. Most people cancelled their travel bookings and moved to other airlines, taking several hours more flight time into account, but I decided to stay with them. The return journey was something else: again the good service and the extra food, and fewer passengers but not the flight I had wanted which was cancelled. Fortunately I found out about the cancellation by chance, although the company had sent me a mail to my German account, and was able to transfer to an earlier flight in time.
The squeezed legs and something masquerading as food came with a short flight to England a year earlier, with a flight time of less than an hour it was something I do not wish to experience again, and certainly wouldn’t like to have transferred to a longer flight anywhere. But it was cheap, and that’s what counts since I paid for it myself!
But, as I mentioned, my favourite means of transport, at least when it comes to shorter distances these days, is walking. I sometimes see people here who climb into their cars and drive a few hundred metres to buy Sunday rolls for breakfast, and wonder that they can afford it, both from a financial and a health point of view. I don’t know what I’d do without my daily walk or two, although I do not just go and collect fresh bread rolls for breakfast: sitting in the house or in my office for an entire day would be beyond me, especially with the wonderful weather – between thunderstorms – we are enjoying right now. Admittedly we don’t have any dust devils here – although I understand this is also the propriety name of a vacuum cleaner – but now and then a slightly stiffer breeze does turn into a strong wind, race across the river and whirl around my house and along the street. We haven’t even had a decent snowfall for several years – when I first arrived in Germany back in the Eighties we had over metre of snow in mid October. Now we’re lucky to have light snowflakes in January or February in my part of the country.
I seem to recall that this is roughly my seventh letter to you, so perhaps you might want to know what I look like, and thus an image to spark nightmares! It was taken back in 2014 when I presented a shield for the town May Tree celebration: our May Tree is adorned with emblems from local associations who are involved with the town and with improving it in some way or another, and this was my chance to highlight some work which is done, but hardly even seen in public.