2wheels: The Return
Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England
September 2005 - November 2006
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Horseman Stole My Bicycle!
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Three Men on a Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
Three Men on the Bummel really contains all you need to know about the planning and execution of a journey, be it on a bicycle or otherwise. Though first published in 1900, the few extracts that follow will serve to show that little has changed in the ensuing 1.05 centuries.
The narrative begins with George helping his friends in their search for a plausible story to sell to their wives – his friends being (wrongly, it turns out) of the opinion that their desire to get away for “a change” will cause great distress to their spouses unless handled with delicacy.
As the travel plans of the eponymous three men mature, Harris suggests taking bicycles. Today’s cyclist will be quick to notice that the cantankerous, nay wilful, nature of winds and hills has scarcely mellowed since the day this conversation took place:
I myself have not yet had the pleasure of riding a tandem, but if ever I do, and find myself riding in front, I shall be sure to stock my armoury of sarcastic abuse for the man behind with a selection of choice phrases from Three Men on the Bummel, including this one, my favourite:
“What’s the matter – lost your pedals?”
We hear a story from the days when Harris, younger and less wise, embarked on a tandeming holiday with his wife.
He was riding with his wife
through Holland. The roads were stony, and the machine jumped
a good deal.
The pair were at length reunited, but only after a convoluted adventure involving a Dutch policeman and a man sitting sideways on a horse, among others.
There are a couple of things, at least, that one should see to, before one so much as begins to think about the actual business of riding one’s bicycle. These fall approximately under the heading of ‘planning’.
In matters pertaining to planning, the narrator reveals that he learnt much from his Uncle Podger. (Whose name, incidentally, I must add to my list of names that are held by, and exclusively by, uncles and aunts – May, Fanny and Joff are others.)
"Always before beginning
to pack," my Uncle would say, "make a
Many cyclists of the present era take great delight in buffing up on, acquiring, and then going on at great length about, the latest gadgets, gizmos, widgets, and gazmos that combine to transform one’s bicycle into a Superior Machine. Gears, spokes, pedals, headsets and bottom brackets, nothing is immune from the seemingly unending desire, of some folk to design and build, and of others to buy, a better mousetrap. So to speak. Indeed, to speak of re-inventing the wheel scarcely begins to do credit to the endless powers of circular innovation possessed by our leading bicycle manufacturers.
To those for whom the delights of the very latest in velocipede technology seems hard to grasp, at best, or slippery, at worst, and indeed for those who once greeted each new engineering miracle with unbounded joy, but who now sense a weary cynicism beginning to edge out their formerly-wholehearted enthusiasm, it may be some consolation to know that there have been Latest Devices for Improving your Bicycle ever since, more or less, there have been bicycles. Certainly, novelties for your bike were by no means a novelty in 1900. Chapter three begins with a conversation between Harris, for whom no new-fangled contraption can come to soon, and the narrator, who sticks to the belief that any machine, bicycle included, having once been proved basically useful and sound, requires no further tinkering.
On Monday afternoon Harris
came round; he had a cycling paper in
Those wishing to know the full story of the patent gas lamp should probably try to get their hands on the book. Here, I shall pause to note only that it is no new trick of magazines, whose mission, we like fondly to believe, is to assist the citizen in his struggle to make sense of the ever-changing and ever-multiplying range of what-not proffered for sale by the manufacturers, not only of bicycles but equally of computers, kitchens, cameras and a hundred other things, to connive with their advertisers, on whose fees they largely subsist, in persuading us to part with our hard-earned in exchange for a great many things for which we have neither use nor need. And also that brakes can be obstinate creatures even to this day.
Few parts of a bicycle, ancient or modern, come into closer, more sustained, nor more intimate contact, with its rider than the saddle, and for this reason, perhaps, the subject of saddles is one that divides cyclists. There are those like who discuss them at great length at every opportunity, hoping thereby to share or discover a shred of information that might, even to some slight degree, allow them to enhance the comfort of that most delicate of rider-bicycle interfaces. And then, there are those who do not like to talk of them at all, as is perhaps only human nature when dealing with painful memories.
Here, the narrator exchanges views on the subject with George.
“…Then there are saddles,"
I went on--I wished to get this lesson home to
As saddles divide us (though not, we hope, literally), so too does the subject of fiddling – or ‘maintenance’, or ‘overhauling’, as you may please. Briefly: there are those who go in for it, and those who do not. This extended anecdote leaves us in little doubt regarding which camp the narrator belongs to.
"Is the thing all right?"
I confess to having, when new to the joys of cycling, briefly fancied myself as a bit of a tinkerer. Now, fractionally older and, on a good day, fractionally wiser, but indubitably lazier and (this is important) less gymnastically flexible, I am more inclined to the view that a bicycle performs best when its innards are interfered with as little and as seldom as possible. The narrator concludes his story by stating his opinion that the art of riding a bicycle, and the art of mending one, have little in common, and should, so far as possible, left in the hands of different specialists:
There are two ways you can
get exercise out of a bicycle: you can
You may on some past travels have packed a phrasebook in your luggage with an eye to improving conversational prospects with the natives; or you may be planning to do the same in the future. It is unlikely that you fall into both categories (unless you are unusually slow at learning from past mistakes). To those of you in the first: well, you have learnt your folly by bitter experience, and you may skip this paragraph without further ado. For those of you in the second, though, these few words may save your panniers a few ounces. Put briefly, though reading out from a phrasebook a phrase relevant in some way to given predicament is on occasion possible, you should put far from your mind any thought of actually being understood. The narrator has it thus:
I have noticed, myself, men
standing on railway platforms and at
Cycling is one thing – a fine thing, perhaps. But many of us cyclists feel we must see things too. Perhaps we think we are somehow indebted to the country along whose roads and paths we ride – and that by seeing, we will somehow repay that debt. Lance Armstrong, one must suppose, is not much afflicted by this sense of guilt, but for the rest of us, it is nearly always there, however much we may feel that we have seen this place, or at least some other place that in most respects more-or-less resembled it, before; and that having seen it, we are unsure how exactly we are expected to respond to what is, after all, the kind of place that, were it not seen from a bicycle, one would not feel particularly obliged to take any note of at all. Listen, then, and be comforted by the wise words of Mr Jerome:
One ant-hill is very much like another.
And he goes on to show that the same applies to cities, valleys, towns, forests, churches, hills, and the rest of the usual range of things that one usually feels obliged to stop at, and perhaps take a photograph of. We should not, says the sage, trouble ourselves unduly that, having seen one or two specimens of tree, or village, or farmer-in-his-field, or whatever it may be, our enthusiasm to see more of the same begins to lose its edge. This is natural and human and, he ventures to suggest, right.
So, I hope that, should you feel that guilty feeling stealing up upon you, you will remember the words, One ant-hill is very much like another, and recall that these words come from no-one less esteemed than Mr Jerome K. Jerome himself; and that, thereby, the burden may be lifted a little.
Do not feel obliged to see much, and do not feel obliged, either, to tell others what little you did see. Mr Jerome has written a full account of his journey in which he candidly admits that
There will be no description
of towns, no historical reminiscences,
Not only that; also –
…in this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness on my part; it is self-control. Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read.
And, to complete his hat-trick of avoidances –
nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages.
So there we have it: a complete travelogue, devoid, almost entirely, of scenic description, history, architecture and the usual stuff that fills the pages of these things. And no handy traveller’s hints, either.
You may ask, then: With what does the author contrive to fill two hundred and more pages of decently-dense type, having excluded on principle all that which most writers would allow to occupy a good two-thirds of every chapter?
The answer is: mainly, by expostulating on the subject of the Germans.
Any one of us can probably expostulate on the subject of the Germans. The passive role in the expostulation process is, perhaps, one which comes easily to your German. What is interesting in this particular case – that is, in Mr Jerome’s expostulation – is that it might have been written yesterday. And yet it was not – unless, by some unlikely miracle of time-travel, you are reading this review on approximately the eighteenth of March in the year 1900. Chapter seven of the book is almost entirely devoted to a lengthy essay on the German preference, as seen through English eyes, for tidiness and order, and on the extent to which this preference prevails over any desire to defend or promote individual liberty and initiative, and prevails even more strongly over any attempt on the part of nature to assert its wilder (the Germans might call it savage, or disorderly, or both) ways.
Ask your average Englishman today whether, in his opinion (to ask him about his experience might put him rather out of his depth) your average German leans toward the orderly way of things, and likes things to be just so, it will surprise me greatly if you do not receive an answer along the lines of ‘yes’; and if you tried to obtain the same answer without putting a leading question, you would have no great difficulty in doing so.
The German sense of humour, Mr Jerome does not refrain from noting on more than one occasion, is conspicuous in the main by its absence. Again, your Englishman today would concur.
There is undeniably a striking congruency between the prejudices vis-à-vis our German cousins of the Englishman today, and the opinions expressed by Mr Jerome in his book over one hundred years ago. Whether we should ascribe this to the rapidity and ease with which Mr Jerome’s notions were spread and accepted among his fellow-countrymen, or to some atavistic, folkloric belief common among Anglo-Saxons well before the author ever penned paper on the subject, or simply to the possibility that what Mr Jerome wrote about the Germans in 1900 was accurate and true then, and remains accurate and true today, I will not venture to guess. But it is in any case worthy of note that in 105 years, the course of which included two fairly comprehensive wars between the two nations at hand, the general notion held by one about the other should scarcely have changed one jot.
I may perhaps be permitted here to insert a short anecdote of my own, very much pertinent, I believe, to the topic here under discussion. Not many years ago, I with some friends, one of whom happened to be a German, were covering the usual ground concerning the differences between, say, a Hindu and a Moslem, an Englishman and a Welshman, a Navajo and an Eskimo, and so on. Inevitably, somebody, I forget who, brought up the question of the sense of humour, perhaps to illustrate one of the various ways in which a Patagonian, for example, would not always see eye to eye with a Muscovite, despite superficial similarities in the wintertime temperatures that both must endure. At which point, my German friend weighed in, a little too anxious, perhaps, to deflect the criticism which he felt would eventually be on its way, before it had actually arrived. And he said –
“In fact, ze Germans have a very vell-developed sense of humour and ve have a great many jokes. Ze only difference between a German joke and an English joke, is that a German joke does not have to be funny.”
Which is one of the funniest things I have ever heard a German say.
It is, I think, at this point, as well to move on.
And move on I will, once I have taken the opportunity to quote Mr Jerome on the subject of Germans and grass – the stuff of lawns, that is.
Nowhere, and under no circumstances,
may you at any time in Germany
The author might care to pay a visit to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge before he waxes too lyrical on that particular point of Teutonic eccentricity.
On balance, though, Mr Jerome is an acute observer, and, on occasion, unnervingly prophetic as well. This is not, on the whole, a political tome, and his comments on the Germans fall more into the category of friendly recognition of difference than of criticism or excoriation. That said, the Germans, and the rest of us with them, might have profited by paying a little more heed to the following remark (written, remember, in 1900):
The German idea of [duty] would appear to be: "blind obedience to everything in buttons." It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.
Mr Jerome is equally capable of turning his attention to the shortcomings of his own kind (though, admittedly, he puts this faculty to use less often). The Englishman abroad is on the receiving end of a fair quantity of rough stuff in the book, and here once again we see that either Mr Jerome set the stereotypical standard which we have since slavishly followed, or that things today are much as they ever were. The travelling Britisher is, says the author, constitutionally incapable of speaking anything other than his own mother tongue. The author is careful to let it be known, here and there throughout the text, that he himself has risen above this congenital deficiency and is able to parlay with the foreigner to the extent that some degree of communication is actually achieved between the two sides; but then, one would scarcely go to the trouble of lampooning and impugning one’s own tribe, as a class, without a special exemption for one’s self.
While on the subject of language, and deficiencies in its learning, the author allows at least a partial excuse for the Englishman’s shortcomings, by quoting from an imagined version of the sort of language-learner’s handbook that we have all seen.
“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost—but not quite--to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say 'Garoo.'”
His account lacks only the impenetrable diagrams which usually accompany such texts – the sort with cut-away representations of the innards of the skull and jaw from perspectives that one hopes and imagines would usually be available only during the very grizzliest of autopsies.
Perfect consistency is perhaps something to which we may aspire, though few would claim to achieve it, and so we can perhaps forgive Mr Jerome if, having some chapters previously vowed to eschew all historical anecdotes and asides, he allows himself a brief digression on the history of church and state in Prague, and in particular for the propensity of the folk of that city, at points in their past, to hurl one another from windows; ‘defenestration’ is the proper term. We may further pardon the author’s inconsistency on this occasion, because it allows him to slip in a comment with which many Prague-ites, past and present, might reasonably concur:
…half Prague's troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.
The question of mileage, though unrelated to windows in Prague, is a vexed one for cyclists, the more so now that on the continent, one is forced, unless one is unusually conversant with the 1.6 times table, to think in terms of kilometres if one wishes to tally with local maps and signposts. Mathematical difficulties aside, this is awkward because the graeco-metric terms kilometrage and kilometrepost lack the grace and elegance of their romano-imperial equivalents. All that said, you might argue that it makes little difference to the crow, whether it flies where it does in miles or in kilometres; it must get there all the same. Mr Jerome does not, as it happens, feel impelled to make this point, preferring instead to give space to the following observations that many cyclists, especially those of the weekend or occasional variety, will readily recognise.
"Ten miles an hour for
seven hours, seventy miles. A nice easy
I finished the book with a strange sense of dissatisfaction, as if it had, far from casting a little light upon my shady days, in fact taken some away. Only on flicking back through the pages did I discover why. What had left me feeling gloomy amounted not even a to a full sentence of the book; it was the following snippet, the context of which, though not important, involved a man from Somerset trying to make himself understood to a German railway porter:
… he himself had a ticket for Donaueschingen, and wanted to go to Donaueschingen, to see the source of the Danube, which is not there, though they tell you it is,…
And what was it in these few lines that left me feeling down? It was that, not long ago, I myself visited Donaueschingen, on my bicycle, for the very purpose of seeing the source of the Danube. I suppose I should admit that I did find the whole set-up there a little strange. The town of Donaueschingen is furnished with not just one, but in fact two perfectly serviceable rivers, the Breg and the Brigach, which to judge from their size, have both been flowing their merry ways for a good few dozen miles or more before they reach town. Just below the town, the two merge into one, larger river, that from there to the Black Sea is called the Danube (unless you happen to live in one of the countries through which it actually flows, in which case you certainly do not call it the Danube, but rather the Donau, or Dunai, or Dunav, or Dunarea). My knowledge of geography, admittedly slight though it is, goes far enough to tell me that a river’s source is not, conventionally at least, determined to be the point at which two of its tributaries merge. In logic, a river cannot have two tributaries if it does not itself extend upstream from the point where those two “tributaries” merge. Sure, two tributaries might join a third river at one point; in this were the case in Donaueschingen, I would have no argument. The trouble here is that two rivers merge, one with the other, and thenceforth they assume the new name of the Danube (or Donau, or Dunai, or Dunav, or Dunarea, depending on your perspective). But this is to look at things the wrong way round. When determining a river’s source, one must work from the bottom up, not the top down. And when, seen from the bottom up perspective, a river forks, one must determine which fork is to be the tributary, and which is to be the river itself continuing upstream. One cannot mark them both down as tributaries, and neither as the main river. To do so is an act of first-rate geographical cowardice stemming from a desire to hurt the feelings of neither fork. This, it seems to me, is what has happened at Donaueschingen. In determining such matters, one must be clear-headed and ruthless, and not allow the presumed sentiments of a stream to get in the way of the truth. The situation in Donaueschingen, frankly, calls the whole system of fluvial geography and nomenclature into question, and casts a shadow upon the otherwise good name(s) of the River Danube.
If all this were not enough, in Donaueschingen they attempt to muddy the waters by concocting an absurd additional tributary, with which they hope to answer rationalist criticisms of the sort I have attempted to outline above. In essence, they have built a little pond, a kind of over-ornamented goldfish pool, lined with rather gloomy decaying marble. This they have connected, by means of a kind of concrete sewer or drain, to the Breg (or it may be the Brigach, I forget which, but it matters not) as it flows by, a hundred yards or so to the south of the pond. And this, they now declare, is the true source of the Danube. This claim, is an insult to the intelligence of a goldfish, which may account for the fact that there are no goldfish to be found in the above-mentioned pool; they have all packed up and swum away for less intellectually-sullied waters.
The reality of the matter is now clear enough to me, as indeed it should have been when I visited the place with my bicycle not long ago. But on entering the town of Donaueschingen, one finds oneself in a realm where the ordinary laws of science seem not to obtain. Fortunately, from the point of view of Donaueschingeners, the most important ones are, by and large, still operational: gravity and so on still do their usual thing. But in matters of logic, a great leap has occurred and I am sorry to say that it is not by any means a leap in the general direction of enlightenment. In any ordinary town, the visitor might, having taken a moment or two to size up the situation, and perhaps to glance at a map of the area, pronounce that this is plainly not the source of the Danube; and the people would agree; and there would be an end of the matter.
But in Donaueschingen, no. To say such a thing there would be to undermine not just the town’s self-confidence, but really also its very raison d’être – you must excuse my ignorance of more appropriate home-grown German expression, if one exists.
“Of course Donaueschingen is the source of the Danube – hence the name.” Against this kind of argument this is little recourse in sound reasoning; the best one can do is to attempt a reductio ad absurdum, along the lines of “Were I to name my daughter Source du Nil, would that make her the true source of the Nile?”. But it would take a braver man than me to stand up and utter something like that in Donaueschingen – the consequences would be unpredictable. In the worse case, violence against the utterer might ensue, possibly with the intention of stemming forever the font of such heresy from this world. More likely, I suppose, would be an uncomprehending gasp from the assembled ranks of Donaueschingeners (as assembled in ranks they no doubt would be, very quickly, were someone so rash as to speak as I have suggested), following which they would I imagine break into little huddles, from which muttered sentiments of pity and disbelief for one so deluded, so ignorant, so bemuddled, or frankly insane, would emanate until long after dark.
This is the thing. In a city where everybody holds that Rome was built in a day, it is futile to get up and say that it wasn’t. Not only will nobody believe you, but quickly you will begin to doubt yourself, as the logical force of sheer weight of numbers is brought to bear. In no time at all, you will be telling yourself that yes, back at home people really did used to say, when one was idling or getting a little behind at one’s work: “Come on, hurry up, aren’t you done yet, what’s taking you so long? They built Rome in single day you know.”
And so it is in Donaueschingen. The framework of one’s own intellectual certainty is quickly crushed by the equal but opposite certainty, and, and this it what clinches it, the unanimous certainty, of so many of one’s fellow human-beings in one particular place.
And only now, on reading Three Men on the Bummel, have my eyes been re-opened to the truth.
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