Morally Self-elevated Bicycle Riders

The bar room conversation, concerning Serbian terrorists and the assassination of some Austro-Hungarian, had become tiresome. England’s problems were at home: militant suffragettes planting bombs all over the place, from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Bank of England and only a couple of weeks ago under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey; what a distressing state of affairs. Raising the pewter tankard to his lips, Neville Fifehead breathes in the piney perfume of hops. This malty ochre nectar will surely get the legs turning again. Glug-glug-glug, and down goes another pint of Badger Ale; time to go.

Exiting the pub, Neville mounts his dependable Rover safety bicycle and prepares to pedal away from Blandford, or as the writer Thomas Hardy called it, Shottesford. At that very same moment a young lady on a somewhat revolutionary-looking bicycle appears from the entrance of the Crown Inn across the road.

“Good day, sir. Are you crossing the Chase to Salisbury?” She sallies out confidently.

“Indeed, madam. I’m touring upon my trusty Rover Cob Byke with the purpose of visiting every town mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s fine novels. Next stop, Melchester.”

“Gosh! Another cyclist on a literary adventure! What a remarkable coincidence. I myself am tracing the route taken by Jessie Milton within H.G. Wells’ The Wheels of Chance. Let’s journey together; least ‘til my turn to Ringwood. We shall discuss our favourite novels along the way. I’m Bea by the way. Bea Minster.”

More than a little taken aback by the young lady’s forwardness, not to mention her comely figure beneath fuchsia bloomers and corset, Neville politely tips his hat and bashfully stammers, “Pleased to meet you, Bea.”

However the effects of copious quantities of beer soon loosen his tongue and a conversation starts. Neville, waxing lyrical about Hardy’s skill of characterisation, explains how, via metaphor, delicately rendered detail and perfectly observed diction, Hardy gradually builds intricate, true-to-life portraits of mind, body and soul. Yet, for all their melancholy reflection on a lost English Arcadia, his works also mirror changes in the modern world: industrialization and empire shown as uncontrollable global forces, overshadowing rural and urban worker alike, leaving ordinary folk abject and powerless. Monopolized capitalism and mechanisation permeating every tier of society, culminating ultimately in the degeneration of mankind.

“Not exactly the jovial sort, Mr. Hardy, is he?” Bea interrupts. “Perhaps if he didn’t fill umpteen pages with tedious depiction before getting down to action he’d cheer up some. Everybody knows what a horse looks like but Hardy requires twenty pages to describe its forelocks. If you ask me Hardy is the unparalleled master of unremittingly bleak melodrama, and much afeard of the New Woman. Take Obscure Jude, whose son kills his brothers and sisters before hanging himself. Jude’s true love Sue flees their godless life, and Jude, the delusional erotoleptic, dies broken-hearted and penniless, another casualty of female capriciousness.”

The debate progresses to H.G. Wells. A stylistic innovator, Bea suggests, effortlessly shifting between multiple narrators within a single story, or assuming the perspective of a future historian to provide overview and social commentary. “Take War of the Worlds: Martians invading with their superior weaponry,” Bea explains. “An allegorical reflection on man’s own annihilation of animal species, the dodo and bison, on convictions of moral superiority and, ultimately, on the extermination of entire human races; the Tasmanian Aborigines, shot by settlers like so many crows to make space for sheep, a few survivors enslaved in prison camps, abandoned to perish of disease and famine. Isn’t Wells asking readers to consider imperial aggression from the viewpoint of the oppressed? Wells’ chemical gas, the fighting machines with heat guns - what will Europe’s empires do once these technologies are realized, as they surely will be? Now is the time to reflect on this. The conceit that one race or empire is superior and hence has the right to exploit, maltreat and commodify others less powerful is a notion that should have ended with slavery. And what applies between Empires must first apply within, yet even in today’s England women are not free to vote...”

Bea, halting mid discourse, is suddenly aware that Neville, labouring against the gradient, feet all but grinding to a halt at the top of every pedal stroke, is turning a fairly shocking shade of purple. While Neville, gasping for every breath, is amazed to see Bea dancing uphill like a mountain goat. He looks down to her rear wheel and for the first time notices an amazing contraption of gears, tensioners, levers and cables.

“’Tis the latest French innovation, derailment à piston,” explains Bea, in response to Neville’s downward gaze. “The movement of a lever allows rapid gear change whilst pedalling, the twin pulleys maintain tension. The drive chain connects to a novel American invention, the gyroscopic compass set miniaturised to my own design. As I pedal, a friction drive rotates the compass set at tremendous speed, which, by reason of the force of gravity, aligns itself precisely with true North, a quality exploited to apply directional offsets to this lever as I turn, thus providing sine and cosine multipliers to a differential gearbox generating orthogonal velocity vectors which drive two cyclometers. Meaning, ultimately, independent measurements of distance travelled in latitude and longitude. Sadly gradients are a source of error, but, via a friction drive to the wheel, on the uphill I can apply inertia from the gyroscopic compass to the road and ... WHOOSH! Up I go! Self-elevation through a reservoir of my own energy. Technology is a wonder; one day engineers will develop a network of radio stations emitting at fixed frequencies, such that, by comparing the phase difference of signals, it will be possible to precisely determine your position in time and space. Imagine, never being lost again! Think what we could do with technology like that.”

Neville little comprehends Bea’s scientific mumbo jumbo; what’s wrong with a map and compass? Was any of what she had said even possible, or was her gabble more Wellsian scientific fiction? The price mankind pays for scientific advancement, the mills, factories and monstrous war machines, is too high. Yet as they arrive at the turn to Ringwood the unlikely couple reach a consensus of sorts. The humble bicycle, even Luddites would concede, is mankind’s greatest invention, the supreme product of the industrial age, unparalleled in sustaining ones vigour and mental wellbeing, empowering all with self-reliance and freedom. Indeed, as Mr. Wells asserts, when you see an adult on a bicycle, how can you despair for the future of the human race? On that Neville does agree.

Two-wheeled Luddite